Narratives about Death: Shaping Our Own Stories

(With deep gratitude to Michael Bischoff, Mary Nations, and Sam Grant, and others, whose narratives of death have helped me step into this self-reflection.)

In the HSD Institute, we host a group on FaceBook where we invite you to join us in exploring Patterns with Death. People come there to share their own perspectives about patterns with death; they share others’ words they have found meaningful; they share questions. As I began to create this blog post, I was drawn to explore the creation of my own narrative of death. I share these thoughts with you as a suggestion and an invitation to create your own narrative around death. My hope is such a narrative might ease, inform, and comfort you and others as you, too, step into this unknown, complex transition of life.

For me, the most important learning was the power of standing in inquiry as I move along my unique journey. Using this lens may open opportunities to frame the legacy I want to leave, to identify comfort and hope I believe my loved ones will need, and to invite the companionship and support that might comfort me in my final days. Please join me in exploring the four “instructions” that we use in HSD to define inquiry. Then sit with me a bit as I contemplate what those instructions mean to me in light of my own narrative of death. 

Turn judgment into curiosity – I cannot know enough about my own mortality—it’s just not possible. I have questions about my physical and emotional well-being. Socio-cultural norms tell me what I should and should not be doing, relative to my own mortality.  What is ok to talk about? What topics are forbidden? At the same time, I have opinions about what it means to move toward the end of my life and consider a world where I am no longer active on this planet.  

I just cannot know the answer to every question. My life is unique; my death will be unique. I recognize that the best I can do is to start today to build a deep curiosity about the process of dying—even before I have any inkling that it’s imminent. Even while I am still relatively healthy, I can ask questions that can feed my soul and strengthen my connections to others. I can embrace the unknown, as an observer and participant. I can be open to changes and challenges, rather than judging the limitations I know I face.

I can be curious about the legacy I want to leave and the legacy I am leaving. What are the patterns of being and interacting that I want my loves ones to remember, cherish, and maybe even emulate? How can I shape patterns today that will live after me in the actions and interactions of those I have known and loved? How can I hold onto and stand in curiosity, even as my days grow shorter?

Turn disagreement into shared exploration – Disagreement is an interesting way to think about my relationship with death. I might disagree with whatever diagnosis finally names my end, or with the set of circumstances that shape my moment of death. I might disagree with the idea that it’s worth talking about something that is, actually, so very certain. Why talk about it? Why think about it? Why write about it, when no one of us will avoid it?

On the other hand, if I turn disagreement or denial into a shared exploration, I can begin to understand more about what this means to me and to those I love and who love me. I can turn, in wonder, toward the exploration of my mortality. I can begin to ask the questions that come up for me: Why can’t we talk about death? What will be the nature and manner of my own demise? What do I really believe when say I will “pass” into another realm of being? What do you believe about that? What do others believe?

Of course, many of the questions in this exploration are unknown at this time; many of them are unknowable, ever. But I do believe that the power of exploration and asking will serve me more powerfully than the frustration, anger, and pain of living in disagreement and denial.

Turn defensiveness into self-reflection – When we feel attacked, it’s natural that we look for ways to defend ourselves. And what can be more frightening or threatening than the reality of death? It is the ultimate attack on the day-to-day reality we know.

So, naturally, I will probably jump into looking for ways to defend—deny—that this too will come to me. I may turn to all kinds of medical and spiritual healing. I may turn away from what I currently know and seek an entirely new path. I may do none of these. But it occurs to me that whatever I do, if it is done without deep self-reflection, then it becomes a reaction, rather than a response.

I don’t want to react to death. What I want is a considered and informed response. What I want is to be able to make choices and decisions that are coherent with the life I am learning to live today. I want to step into the complexity of this transition, considering the care and love that I want to express to those around me. That response, I don’t believe, will be possible unless I am diligent in self-reflection and celebration of the life I am building.

Turn assumptions into questions Like most everyone I know, I hold my assumptions close, and look to them to give me direction, instruction, reliability, and certainty. Death, however, offers none of those. In fact, the reality of death blows away most of my basic assumptions about life and living and love. As I step each day toward death, how do I turn those assumptions into questions? 

Rather than assuming that I will be hale and healthy forever, what is the question that will help me prepare for unpredictable and unknowable changes that may come to my body or to my mind? Rather than assuming that I will know exactly what to do in the instant of my death, how will questions help prepare me for such an unknown?

Rather than denying the assumptions that I unwittingly allow to drive my life, what are my options? What questions will help me tease them out, come to terms with them, and make informed and powerful choices about living my life?

I guess that turning 63 may have triggered some of this thinking. Maybe it’s knowing that some of the people I respect and honor most are facing a more immediate reality of mortality and death—either for themselves or for a loved one. These are the questions I believe will help me continue the exploration. They are the framework for exploring my own narrative of death. I invite you into the conversation, using these or other HSD principles to explore the depth and complexity that is inherent in the life we each lead and the death we each face.

Please join us on Facebook, bring your observations and questions. Create your own narrative of death and share it with us there. We welcome you with openness and listening.


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