Why We Struggle to Talk About Death

It wasn’t until I almost died that I began to understand death. After surviving a massive pulmonary embolism that the E.R. physician described as “a miracle I’ll be talking about for the rest of my medical career”, an inexplicable switch flipped in my consciousness. I didn’t cross to the other side, but I did get a glimpse of something over that fence that rendered me unafraid of “the end”.

What I experienced when I almost died was just the opposite of “the end”. I’m neither religious nor righteous, but almost dying felt like a continuity of my truest self where the only physical force, the only energy, was love. It’s unimaginable to nearly everyone but those who‘ve had near-death experiences to know what it is to feel only love and nothing else. I am certain of very little, but I am unquestionably sure that death is transcendent of anything we know here in life.

It’s unimaginable to nearly everyone but those who’ve had near-death experiences to know what it is to feel only love and nothing else.

We struggle as a modern society to talk about death. It is a “let’s change the subject” kind of topic. But what most do not realize is that our inability to discuss death holds us back from a greater understanding of life. We are spending $1.2 billion annually on “mindfulness & meditation” consumerism, from yoga retreats to self-help books to guru-led seminars. And yet one of the most useful tools to a deeper truth is exactly where we are not looking. Though it’s not something I would wish for anyone, nearly dying taught me more than anything about fully living.

We are spending $1.2 billion annually on “mindfulness & meditation” consumerism, from yoga retreats to self-help books to guru-led seminars. And yet one of the most useful tools to a deeper truth is exactly where we are not looking.

When a swarm of influential people die like we’ve seen in 2020 with Kobe Bryant, Leila Janah, and Clayton Christensen, you tend to see the national discourse bifurcate into two camps. The first camp feels shock and despair about the deaths, whether or not they knew the departed. The second camp doesn’t understand why society focuses on these individuals whom they didn’t even know, when roughly 150,000 people die every single day.

It’s important to realize what’s actually happening here. We aren’t struggling to understand the death of Kobe Bryant or the justification for mourning someone we never knew. We are actually struggling to acknowledge and understand our greatest, most terrifying, most human of fears, up-close and personal. To the naked eye, it is death that we fear. But our greatest fear is underpinned by death.

Our greatest fear is loss. And death, in human terms, is the ultimate loss.

Our greatest fear is loss. And death, in human terms, is the ultimate loss.

Loss is the source of every negative feeling we experience in life, expressed as sadness, fear, guilt, and shame.

We feel sad because we’ve lost something.
We feel fear that we will lose something.
We feel guilt that we caused loss to someone else.
We feel shame that we’ve lost ourselves.

Loss is precisely the human condition we are each burdened with, from childhood on. As we move through life, we move through various hues and intensities of sadness, fear, guilt, and shame without realizing the unifying source is loss. Our natural instinct is to constrict, to control. But it is only when we let go of control and learn to rest in the uncomfortable places of loss that we find meaning beyond life as we understand it, no matter where you stand on religion or spirituality, or none at all.

The more we can talk about death, the more we can explore its most useful meaning in life: how to live with loss. And the better we get at losing, the richer our lives will be.

That we are unable to grasp what underscores death has been long studied, most notably called Terror Management Theory (TEM). Developed in 1986 by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon based upon Ernest Becker’s ideas, TEM states:

The awareness of death engenders potentially debilitating terror that is “managed” by the development and maintenance of cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals that minimize existential dread by conferring meaning and value. All cultures provide a sense that life is meaningful by offering an account of the origin of the universe, prescriptions for appropriate behavior, and assurance of immortality for those who behave in accordance with cultural dictates. Literal immortality is afforded by souls, heavens, afterlives, and reincarnations associated with all major religions. Symbolic immortality is obtained by being part of a great nation, amassing great fortunes, noteworthy accomplishments, and having children. Psychological equanimity also requires that individuals perceive themselves as persons of value in a world of meaning. This is accomplished through social roles with associated standards. Self-esteem is the sense of personal significance that results from meeting or exceeding such standards.

Becker’s central claim, supported by vast research, was that the fear of death is “the mainspring of human activity.”

When the world loses notable people, it lays bare that the very things we hold onto so tightly in life — our cultural views, our nationality, our financial success, our social status, our physical selves, and our personal significance — do not survive us.

When the world loses notable people, it lays bare that the very things we hold onto so tightly in life — our cultural views, our nationality, our financial success, our social status, our physical selves, and our personal significance — do not survive us.

Death lays bare all the ways we avert our eyes from the ultimate and inevitable loss of our life.

But if we look carefully, we can find that in loss is the only thing that survives life, the only thing we can take with us when we go…

It should be curious that despite variances across time, geography, and circumstance, nearly everyone who had a near-death experience reports the same overwhelming feeling: Love.

To live is to love and to lose.
But nothing is ever really lost.
For love is what remains.

The time has come for us as a society to explore not just what it means to die, but further, what it means to lose.

Only then will we truly understand that love is all there is.

Dedicated to Leila Janah, Kobe Bryant, Clayton Christensen, and the many, many others who have lost their lives in 2020. May we find that the truest meaning of their lives was not what they did, but how they loved.

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