Forging a relationship with death

To truly and sustainably face the climate crisis, we need hope – a belief in the possibility of solutions and our agency to realize them. We need courage, including the courage it takes to live vulnerable lives aligned with our deepest values and truths. We need inspiration to stay engaged, whether that comes from a strong connection to the natural world, robust, vibrant community, or elsewhere. And we need to rework how we engage, cultivating a more sustainable, lasting form of engagement.

We also need to address our relationship with the possibility that we may not succeed. 

To truly absorb the facts of the climate crisis is to understand that the challenge at-hand is massive. We must rework human society and we must do so quickly.

It’s a daunting task. I’m not saying we cannot do it, but the work required, both internally and externally, is no joke. And we must work very, very quickly. 

Therefore, to keep holding the climate crisis in our consciousness, we must find a way to also hold the possibility that we won’t turn this ship around. 

What does it mean to fail when it comes to addressing the climate crisis? When we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that this isn’t, after all, a question of saving the Earth. The Earth will continue. But life as we know it, including the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life and the lives of many other species, is at risk. This truth is already unfolding as species become extinct at an increasingly rapid pace. 

It’s really difficult to write this fact. It’s even more difficult to hold the truth, emotionally and mentally. And while it is difficult for me, I can only imagine how it feels for someone much younger than I am, someone who will face even more loss of life as a result of climate change.

This means that to stay present to this moment, to truly engage with the climate crisis without losing mental and emotional health, we must face our relationship with death – both our own death and the deaths of others. This process also asks us to develop capacity when it comes to grief, something we tend to lack as a society. 

Death and climate change

It is impossible to deny that the climate crisis is about death. Already, animals (including humans) are dying. Whether in the recent Australian fires, in drought-driven famines, or in migration attempts, casualties are mounting. It’s horrible to witness, whether close at hand or occurring on the other side of the globe.

Then there is the death of dreams and ways of understanding life. Many people are already recognizing that former plans either no longer hold meaning or no longer seem likely, whether it’s plans to start a family, get a degree or build a coastal home. Furthermore, our way of understanding the world and the goals of a meaningful life must die. While that death is necessary and will hopefully lead to a new, healthier, more fulfilling and joyful understanding of life, it is still a death and a process of letting go. 

And finally, there is the possibility of our own death or the premature death of young people we love. Even if we do not reach the worst-case scenario, we’ve already caused climate change. We’ve already changed this planet, our home. A big part of that change means that our home won’t be as hospitable anymore. Along with many other species, humans are already suffering those consequences.

Death from old age is complicated enough to wrap in our understanding. Premature death is harsher still, whatever the cause. It’s gut-wrenching to consider the fact that the climate crisis might compromise my children’s ability to live to old age. But if I don’t address my relationship with that possibility, if my gut stays clenched and my mind closed, I cannot possibly support my children in developing a healthy relationship with their own deaths, whenever they may come. Furthermore, I cannot truly face the climate crisis itself. A part of me remains in denial about a very important aspect of what we are facing. And I do not want to look at the climate crisis sideways, picking and choosing which aspects of it I’ll consider. I want to look at it fully and I want to empower my children to do the same. We are most free when we do not feel the need to hide from certain aspects of life, when we discover our capacity to be with the full spectrum of what it means to be a living, breathing, mortal being. 

Grief and climate change – a note

It is difficult to write about death without also exploring the accompanying world of grief. A post exploring grief, climate change and how we can both foster a healthier relationship with our own grief and support children in doing the same is forthcoming. I have separated the two topics in the interest of keeping posts to a manageable length while allowing ample space to give each topic its due attention. 

Building a healthy relationship with death

These facts are hard to take in. As I write, I fear that people will stop reading. I’ve often stopped reading. But I’ve realized that, if I try to shield myself through denial, I end up with an unaddressed ball of anxiety. I’m unable to be present to my life – both the wonderful and challenging moments. And, increasingly, the truth of this moment breaks through any defenses as more and more impacts of climate change are all too evident. 

The work, then, is not to try to shield myself or my children from the loss and death inherent in the world of life. Instead, we are all invited to build a healthier relationship with death, particularly in the face of climate change. 

Talking about death with young people

Supporting young people in their relationship with death starts early. The first thing we can do is not shy from the topic, demonstrating that curiosity and conversations about death are natural. If we are uncomfortable about the topic, young people will pick up on that energy and it will impact their own relationship with death. And if we shy away from discussions, young people may learn not to bring up the topic again. This means that our work begins with our relationship with death and then extends to our early conversations about the topic with children. 

At the same time, it is important that we do not force young people to talk about death. Doing so also adds a charge to the topic. We must walk an important balance, letting young people and their interest serve as our guide.

When talking about death, particularly with the very young, it is important to only relay facts as facts and to use simple, clear language. For example, phrases like “going to sleep” or “passing away” can lead to confusion and even fear. Young children may think that dying is like going to sleep and develop a fear of sleeping. Or they may associate dying with leaving and think that when we go away, we might not come back. The language we use is important and should be relayed clearly and calmly, based in fact. 

However, it is also appropriate to explore what different people believe about death and what happens after death in simple terms, especially if asked. In so doing, we both relay information about different ways of attempting to understand death and model acceptance of different beliefs. 

One of the greatest gifts we can give in these early conversations about death is modeling a sense of comfort with not having all the answers. A lot of our fear around death is wrapped up in fear of the unknown. We do not know exactly what happens after someone dies. When our children ask that inevitable question, consequently, we can do them a great service by answering truthfully and calmly – “We do not know what happens after someone dies.” This might be the moment to explore different beliefs, but, most importantly, it is a moment to model comfort holding an unknown. 

Early developmental phases in our relationship with death

When researching this topic, I stumbled across a thorough and valuable pamphlet developed by the National Institutes of Health.  Along with many other pieces of information, the pamphlet describes three key developmental phases in how young people conceptualize death. It is helpful to remember these general phases in approaching the subject with children while also recognizing that all children move through developmental phases with at least slight differences.

  • Preschool children typically see death as impermanent and impersonal. 
  • Between age five and nine, children start to realize that death is final and that all living things die. However, many young people between these ages will still view death as impersonal, as something they themselves will not experience. Children in this age group often personify death, associating death with skeletons or other frightening images.
  • Around age nine or ten and extending through adolescence, children begin to fully realize death’s finality and the fact that they, too, will die. Philosophical views of life and death begin to develop. Many teens start to consider topics like the meaning of life. And some adolescents take risks with their lives as they grapple with their fear of death, forcing confrontations with death in an attempt to gain control over their mortality. 

Wrapping death back into everyday life

Death has become taboo. Human death often occurs separately from the rest of the business of living, whether in hospitals, nursing homes or hospice homes. Practical reasons like need for medical care are partly the cause of this separation. But our discomfort with death is also surely part of the cause. 

This segregation of the dying from the living is fairly recent. Because death used to be much more common, with few people reaching an age above 50, deaths occurred in the home, with family providing care, comfort and ceremony. With the rise of medicine, lives have blessedly extended and human death has increasingly moved out of the home and into facilities providing medical or comfort-related care. 

Our work is to bring death back into everyday life, not shut it away in a lonely, scary place. By integrating it with acknowledgment, respect and even ceremony, we honor its irrefutable presence. 

Hospice is an important part of this effort and there are many other ways we can reintegrate death into everyday life. Death is, in fact, all around us as we move through the world. We can rush our children past the dead caterpillar on the sidewalk or allow their curiosity to draw them, as it so often does. We can avoid the fact that a beloved older relative or friend is dying, or we can talk about it and visit the loved one. The more we turn towards death, ideally even providing ceremony around the event, the more we embrace the work of integrating its truth into our lives. 

Our own relationship with death

Fundamentally, the process of supporting young people in developing a healthy relationship with death begins with our own relationship with dying. And, more often than not, our relationship with death is intimately tied to our relationship with the unknown. Death is the greatest unknown. 

I am always drawn back to a moment in a dharma talk with Adyashanti that I listened to on repeat in my late twenties. When asked what he believes happens after someone dies, Adyashanti chuckled and then replied: “Well, after you die, if you can get to a pay phone, call me.” He wasn’t being flippant and went on to dive directly into the unknowability of what might happen. 

More than his words, the manner in which he replied struck me. He was so calm, even joyful. This was a man who had made peace with that tremendous unknown. He wasn’t trying to figure out what happens. Nor was he trying to avoid the topic. Instead, he focused his energy on accepting the unknowability of death. It was not a burden in his life. It was a fact, and not one to run from. 

If we are to engage in the climate crisis with mental and emotional health – heck, if we are to truly engage in the fullness of life with mental and emotional health – then we would do well to pursue this same sense of peace with the unknown, and particularly with that most unknowable unknown that is death. And nothing could be more important as we aim to support young people in finding that peace for themselves.

Our work begins, then, with curiosity about our own feelings and beliefs about death. Do we see death as bad? If so, how might we change that? Death, after all, is part of life. Like birth, it is full of mystery. How can we make peace with the unknown? What practices can help us sit with the uncertainty of our own death (meditation, study of different traditions around death, counseling, talking with trusted loved ones about the subject, to name a few)? How can we build support as we allow ourselves to experience the full range of feelings related to the topic, so we can better integrate the inevitability into our lives?

Why we engage – meaning

Exploring our relationship with death is an invitation to also explore our relationship with meaning and purpose.  If we are all going to die, what is the point of life? And if others are going to die, what is the point of love?

Ultimately, we all find our own answers to these deeply existential questions. Growing from childhood to adulthood inherently involves this process, but it is also a process that never truly ends, showing up again and again in each new phase of our life. The questions involved are similar to the question of why we engage in changemaking if we are not certain of success. 

It is important that we support each other in asking these questions and  that we bring these questions into communal life. And we give young people a great gift by doing so, encouraging and supporting them in this most fundamental aspect of being alive.

In my own process, I still have many questions, but this much is clear: I act, I live, I love and I work for positive impact because it feels good. To do otherwise would feel incongruent with my experience of life. Whenever I go for a walk, watch my children explore the world or witness the many acts of kindness that unfold daily, the beauty of this complicated world is powerfully evident and inspiring. While I will one day die, and while I do not know exactly what my impact will be, that beauty orients me towards purpose like an ever-present compass. 

Furthermore, the echoing impact of the many good people no longer with us provides powerful lessons on life’s meaning in the face of death’s certainty. The choices made and actions taken over a lifetime shape the world long after death, in ways the deceased might never have imagined. 

We have an impact. Reflecting on this fact is an important part of exploring a relationship with death, for both adults and children. As we celebrate all those who have gone before us, whether people we have known intimately or heros we know from afar, we learn about what is possible and how the inevitability of death contains the invitation to give and celebrate in this moment, while we are alive.
In closing, I share these lines from Rilke, a powerful capture of living with both purpose and the acknowledgement of death and the encouragement to explore an important resource on death and dying developed by a dear friend, Amy Wright Glenn. I invite you to check out her Institute for the Study of Birth, Breath and Death.

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.

I may not complete this last one

but I give myself to it.

Categories: Tools for the Future

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