Why are we, as a society, so afraid of death? Why is even the word itself so hard to say out loud? Death is just as much a part of life as birth, and yet we celebrate one and shun the other. Shouldn’t death be just as openly received as its counterpart? And isn’t death just another birth?
I have stumbled upon these questions all my life, but their significance has never become as clear and apparent as it has in the past month. I gave birth to death exactly 31 days ago. But in the time since, I have come to notice just how much more was born out of this experience than just a still body. I gave birth to love, pain, wonder, depth, friendships, compassion, faith, hope, questions, and so much more. I, myself, have been reborn. I touched upon places within myself that I didn’t even know existed.
We held a “Wiping of the Tears” ceremony for Leif on Sunday, which was led by a local Lakota Indian community leader. The ceremony was beautiful and deeply moving, intended to cut emotional ties, and allow for the spirit to move on to “the better world.” Since the Natives believe in the connectivity of all beings, seeing everything in nature as a relation, this kind of ceremony serves as a soothing balm for the pain of the survivors. However, it is not about saying goodbye, but simply acknowledging the passing and understanding that souls always meet again in another time. The ceremony was followed by a purification sweat, in which we All prayed, regardless of race, sex, religion, or age, as a family and a community. The prayers extended from the micro world of myself, Nathan, and Leif, to the macro world of relatives, friends, strangers, animals, spirits, plants, and elements. We prayed for peace, health, and harmony throughout. As we cleansed our minds and bodies and purified our souls and intentions, I came to a still place of acceptance.
I am so blown away by the how the Lakota people regard death, and the way they honor the passage. There is a deep understanding and open reception of the internal pain that resides in our souls following a loss. There is also a strong sense of encouragement to move forward and feel gratitude for the lessons offered by the Creator, as well as everything that still remains in our lives. With death, comes the appreciation for life.
I was raised in a culture much different from that of the Natives. I’ve dreaded funerals in my life, finding them dark and depressing. I never understood why I had to wear black, even to funerals of those who led extraordinary and joyful lives. There have been times when I wanted to celebrate the life and not mourn the death, but my desire was not supported by the culture. Whenever I mentioned death around anyone sick, I would stun the room into silence. Even these days, certain people who know me try to look the other way when they see me approaching, avoiding the life-death connection at all cost, and escaping the discomfort that this taboo presents.
The only guarantee in life is death. We can plan on experiencing many things, but nothing is ever certain or secure, except for the reality that every living thing will eventually leave this plane and move on to another. And yet, I feel that we avoid talking about it, looking it in the face, in hopes of never experiencing it. What is it that scares us the most? Is it the pain? The separation? Or is it the journey into the unknown? Perhaps breaking through the taboo, and letting go of the fear and discomfort associated with death, can create room for more appreciation and freedom in life. Maybe with shedding the fear of loss, we can stop grasping and start loving. How can our society open to the reality of the only inevitable? How do we break through this taboo?