How to face mortality when it’s time? Some thoughts from one who has met with death before
By Annie Katz
When I was 3 years old, I met death. My baby sister and I were supposed to be napping because our mother was pregnant and couldn’t function without her afternoon nap. Instead of napping, my sister (who was a toddler in diapers) and I were out on the back porch playing in the old refrigerator and paint cans. My sister would climb inside the refrigerator, I’d close the door, she’d knock on the door, and I’d open it so she could climb out. When it was my turn, I got inside, she pushed the door closed, I knocked, but she was too little to open the door.
I remember being trapped in the dark metal box, pounding my fists on the door, screaming until I used up all the air, screaming until I drowned in terror. I knew I was dying, but the odd thing was, I had an adult’s knowledge of death, as if I had a clear memory of dying and knew death was coming for me again.
I didn’t die, though.
My sister managed to wake up our mother, who searched for me and found me in a lifeless purple heap in the bottom of the old refrigerator. Years later, when I was an adult, she told me that my sister and I had painted each other with turpentine-soaked brushes from a bucket beside the old refrigerator. She was desperate to wash the turpentine off my skin, so she put my body in the kitchen sink and ran cold water on me, which kick-started my heart and lungs.
My grandfather died when I was 11. By then, I had blocked all the memories of my early childhood, and I was doing my best to be a good girl and believe what adults told me about God. My grandfather had been sick for a few years, and when he died my mother said that we should be happy for him because he was in heaven. At his funeral, I sat with an older cousin who was weeping. I was clinging to my mother’s happy-in-heaven story, but the people around me were sad, which confused me.
When I was 19, a beloved teacher died suddenly. I was sitting in his office on Friday morning, feeling inspired and hopeful, and the next day he died in a plane crash on the way to a conference. At his funeral, I ran out of the church sobbing. I no longer believed in God or heaven. This teacher had counseled me; I had trusted him, and with his help I had been emerging from a deep depression. His sudden death plunged me back into darkness and nothing made sense anymore.
That all happened more than 50 years ago, and since then I’ve been coming to terms with death. Many cultures and religions have elaborate death traditions, beliefs, teachings, rites and rituals. Some have elaborate descriptions of afterlife realms. Monastics sometimes meditate in charnel grounds or contemplate the decay of the body.
I’ve read about many of these cultural and religious practices, and I’ve contemplated my own death. Everything that is born, dies. Everything that begins, ends. Impermanence is a natural law. We all know this. Nothing lasts. And no one knows for sure what happens after death.
Some wisdom teachers say that we die the same way we live. If we are habitually relaxed, peaceful and curious about what comes next, then when death comes, we are relaxed, peaceful and curious. If we are habitually angry, blaming and fearful, then we are angry and afraid when death comes.
If this is true, I want to be peaceful, warm and generous, so I practice peace, warmth and generosity every day. That way, I’ll be in the habit, and the next time death comes for me, I’ll say, “Hello, old friend. I won’t make a fuss this time.”
Annie Katz is a retired educator living in Ashland. She has studied philosophy and spiritual practices all her life and now writes novels for fun. Readers may contact Annie at email@example.com.
Want to contribute? Send 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Richard Carey (firstname.lastname@example.org).