Make Peace with Death

Do you remember the first time you drove 100 miles per hour? I was 18 years old. Somewhere between Boston and New York, at about 3:00 AM on an empty stretch of highway, I floored my mom’s Mitsubishi Galant, broke 100, and held it for a half a minute or so, my heart pounding. (She’s just finding out about this now. Hi, Mom!)

During those thirty seconds, my mind decided to present me with a new thought: “It would be really easy to die right now.” Just the slightest twitch of the steering wheel was all it would take. And the weird part was, the thought didn’t come with fear so much as curiosity.

Later, as a psychology major, I reflected that perhaps this was a glimpse of the “death drive” that Freud identified – sometimes referred to by the name of the Greek angel of death: Thanatos. Over the coming years, I had more experiences of the proximity of death – and the hint of an urge to take the leap.

As I got older and acquired older friends and older patients, I began to witness humans’ fear of death. I saw people so consumed by the avoidance of death that it corrupted their experience of life. It occurred to me that getting a life is a bit like having someone hand you a lit sparkler. You can dance around with it, make patterns in the darkness, marvel at its beauty and the way it illuminates the night; or you can stand there frozen, saying, “Oh no, the sparkler is going to burn out. The sparkler is going to burn out. The sparkler is going to burn out. The sparkler is going to burn out…” until it does.

Unfortunately, I realized one day that I had joined the ranks of those who are preoccupied with sparkler burnout (i.e., death), and I saw that, for me, it began when I had children. Sure, I didn’t want the Peter game to end and I didn’t want to get dragged through some painful terminal illness, but more importantly, I didn’t want to leave my children fatherless.

At first, I thought, “So, this is the opposite of Thanatos. There is the death-drive and then there’s the fear of death.” But when I explored it further, I realized that these two drives often have the same origins: fear of the unknown, fear of loss (of oneself and the people and things one loves), fear of pain (having it and inflicting it), an unsettled relationship with life, etc.

Around that time, I participated in a course with author and speaker Hale Dwoskin, in which he directed students to bring to mind something that they fear. The first thing that came to me was cancer – dying of cancer. Then he asked gently, “Now, could you let go of wanting that to happen?

I felt a distinct lurch in my mind as I protested, “Wanting it to happen?!” And then I noticed it – hiding the shadows – a part of me that wanted to have it and get it over with, so the fear would end. Here was the potential for both a fear of death and an attraction to it.

As I started to work through this, asking myself how I had come to be so focused on the demise of my sparkler rather than enjoying it, I realized that I already had part of my answer. Playing with the sparkler is an expression of life drive. Where had my life drive gone?!

Luckily it was still there. It was just buried under a bunch of crap. Decades of immersion in human drama had caused me, like so many others, to lose sight of the truth: The truth that a choice of perspective (a lighthearted perspective even) is always available to us. The truth that life is rich with opportunities for connection. The truth that life – regardless of the course it takes – is a gift. If I could sum up my revelation in a word, it would be remembering.

If you’re at a similar place, or just like to know yourself and “clean house” of beliefs that aren’t serving you, I recommend two strategies – making peace with death and revving up your life drive.

First, of course, some fear of death is healthy. It’s built into our nervous system, which uses fear to trigger alertness and activate survival mechanisms. It has probably saved your life multiple times, as it has mine. What I’m concerned with is not this momentary fear, but chronic fear than infringes on our experience of the present in an ongoing way.

There’s a lot to be said about death – much more than I can sum up here – so let me just offer a few of the tools that I’ve found most useful for myself and my patients.

Write about death. When you write freely about it, you become clearer on what, specifically, you’re averse to, and what triggers it. At the same time, you begin to process it. If you write repeatedly, you’ll often find a softening of strong emotions and a broadening of your perspective.

Accept the inevitable. Aside from the 7 billion humans who currently inhabit Earth, every human to come before us has died. It’s an exceedingly popular way to end life. Old people die and tiny babies die. Brave people die and scaredy cats die. You will someday join the ranks of the most impressive historical figures you can think of. It’s part of what makes life special. And it’s the way of the natural world. All things move through cycles, and one day your body will be reintegrated into the planet that birthed and sustained it.

Plan how you would like to die. You can’t usually control when or from what cause, but you can at least have a plan in place about who you’d like to have near you and what kind of environment you’d like to be in for that transition. It may not be possible to implement this plan in the end, but in the meantime, it will put your mind at ease to imagine it happening in a loving way.

Plan for what will happen after you die. Sometimes our anxiety about death comes from feeling that things won’t be taken care of properly. Making a will isn’t exactly fun, but it can be relieving. What will happen with your kids? Your assets? Your legacy? Figure it out now.

Practice mental discipline. If you find yourself often thinking purposelessly about death, catch yourself, pick up your attention, and put it on something else. Break yourself of the habit. Ask yourself whether it serves any useful purpose or just degrades your state of mind.

Watch people get old gracefully and die gracefully. There are lots of videos and books about people having good elder years and good deaths, and there are likely many people in your community who would be happy to speak to you about their dying process. Another good resource is people who work in hospice settings.

If possible, die before you die. People use this expression – die before you die – in a few different ways. One meaning is to let “die” everything that you cling to – your ego, your identities, your attachments – so they no longer represent all that you stand to lose when death occurs. Another meaning is to let die the part of you that doesn’t want to die. A third meaning is to have an experience of your death before your actual death, such as occurs in near death experiences (NDEs) and in certain shamanic ceremonies.

Read about near death experiences. Doctors Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring, often regarded as the experts on this topic, have interviewed hundreds of people who have had NDEs and they have discovered some common themes in their stories: feelings of deep peace and being surrounded by love, a reunion with deceased loved ones, a reluctance to return to life, and, after regaining consciousness, a lasting sense of gratitude and the loss of any fear of death. One of the best newer books on the subject is Proof of Heaven by a neurosurgeon named Dr. Eben Alexander. In a different genre, another acclaimed book that seeks to illuminate the death experience is Home With God in a Life that Never Ends by Neale Donald Walsh, author of the Conversations with God books.

Use EFT or other acupoint tapping methods to reduce the emotional charge you feel about death. EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is free and easy to learn – there are countless videos online about it – and it’s often an effective way to liberate yourself from negative emotions and phobias. I have seen remarkable and rapid transformations, especially around fears, with these techniques.

Learn about philosophies that assert that what we really are never dies. This concept is present in many spiritual traditions, including Native American spirituality, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even in the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I like Advaita Vedanta, but I recommend finding a path that uses language and imagery that works for you. One teacher in this tradition, Nisargadatta Maharaj, said: “The real does not die, the unreal never lived . . . . Once you know that death happens to the body and not to you, you just watch your body falling off like a discarded garment. The real you is timeless and beyond birth and death. The body will survive as long as it is needed. It is not important that it should live long.”

Maximize your life drive. Love life. Be grateful. Focus on the good. Rather than watching some depressing movie about meth and murder, watch something that inspires and uplifts you. Smile at people and look them in the eye. Hug people. Get your hands and bare feet in the earth. Swim in a natural body of water. Stretch. Push your limits. Pay attention to the seasons. Paint. Dance. Sculpt. Write. Sing. Learn. Be fascinated. Find the things that are easiest to love and fill your life with them; then take that love and stretch it, applying it to things that are more challenging to love. And, remember who you really are and what you already know.

See you on the other side,

Dr. Peter Borten

47 thoughts on “Make Peace with Death

  1. Thank you. Beautifully put. I’ve learned that, through my near death experiences, I’ve come to appreciate how temporary our existence is on this place and how much I want to enjoy my time here. So I do. This was a nice reminder of why I live how I do and I thank you for that! I hope it’ll help others to see how important it is to live their lives as well.

    1. Thank you, Amanda. Glad to hear you’re enjoying life!

  2. Very powerful read and timely. Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, Anne.

  3. You have touched my soul this morning in ways I cannot describe. As I sit her still reeling from the aftermath of the Northbay fires, I have felt so much loss along with a sense that we have no control. Lately, I have cried for my mother who passed away when I was six. I am sixty years old yet it feels so raw. I am sad yet I am also filled with joy and silliness. At times, I lose all faith yet I work tireselly to instill faith and hope in the clients I see in my practice. The fire happened and I am still her. My mother died but her daughter lives on.

    Thank you Dr. Borten

    1. Hi Gayle. I think those fires had a tremendous impact on so many of us – even those who don’t live or have loved ones in Northern California (or Burbank, or Oregon, or Montana, or Idaho, or any of the other places with major wildfires). It’s so easy to get fixated on the destructive aspect without seeing it in the broader cycle it’s part of – and the peace and renewal that follow. We forget and we remember.
      Be well,

  4. Wow! Thank you!!!!

    1. You’re welcome, Tasha

  5. As I approach 80 I don’t think about death as much as remember the life I’ve lived.

    1. Good, Ed. May we all do the same.

  6. Why does a person bring themselves to the point of “I could just do this or that and I’d be dead”? Like you described your own “to the point” . Is it that we have a death wish or is it a way to come to terms with the fact that death really will happen? Just curious as to your opinion. Thank you, Debby

    1. Probably all sorts of reasons.
      – Noticing the proximity of death reminds us of the gift of this life and maybe wakes us out of our slumber in the mundane daily grind – perhaps it’s provoked by a higher part of our consciousness to snap us out of it.
      – I think we have tremendous curiosity about it – for all we’ve been able to figure out through science, we’ll never be able to figure out what happens after the body dies.
      – There’s a sense of relief – the end of all the struggle of life.
      – There may be a self-pity element for some people – like, “I could die so easily, and who cares?”
      And so on…

  7. Thank you – thank you so very much.

    1. You’re welcome, John

  8. Great article! In the past two years or so, I find myself thinking more about death…mine to be exact. Perhaps it’s because so many loved ones have died in those same two years. I started attending a local Death Cafe, which I found to be very helpful and insightful. Sadly, the individual facilitating left the area and Death Cafe comes up very seldom. Perhaps, it’s time for me to reach out to others in that way and open up the discussion once again. Thank you!

    1. Death Cafes are a great idea. I wish they were more prevalent. But we prefer not to think about death, and I think the prospect of immersing ourselves in conversation about it strikes us as something that would make us feel bad. Yes, Cheryl, it sounds like you’re called to instigate an openness about it & people will benefit.

  9. I am a hospice volunteer, an aging senior, an assistant minister and often contemplate the idea of dying. I find your article inspiring, touching on the fear of dying as well as on continuing to live. I often say I want to live until I die so your comment “die before you die” gives me something to think about.

    1. Thanks, Tricia. It’s great to hear from people who work with death and dying on a regular basis (my mother in law has been in hospice work for decades) as it makes for a very different perspective on the subject. There’s no avoidance – it’s mostly a matter of how can we optimize this process.

  10. I was really hoping for a book/journal on this topic. Maybe in the future? <3

    1. Thanks, Sandy. Perhaps. I have a lot to learn before I’d feel competent to author anything much longer than this article on the subject, but we’ll see what happens.

  11. Wow! How awesome!!! Mine is the same as yours!!! The cancer thing…I lost my Mom at 57 to cancer, my Dad at 54 of liver disease from alcoholism…….wait, just an awareness!!! I was recently told I had non- alcoholic fatty liver…..I was so pissed because I have worked so hard in breaking the cycle of alcoholism in my family and the next thing I know I was being hit with the liver thing! It is the fear of the fatty liver!!!! Wow, your the bomb!!!!
    Rev Janet Ellis

    1. Thanks, Janet. I’m guessing we’re not alone. Cancer is a really scary idea for people – much more than its main rival, cardiovascular disease – because of the notion of something “taking over” the body, the fact that the treatment is often uncomfortable, dangerous, and protracted, and the fact that it often comes back years later. And yet, I’ve treated some cancer survivors who wouldn’t change the past if they could. Sorry to hear about the NAFLD. Two supplements you might look into which have shown some promise in its treatment – pantethine (a form of vitamin B-5) and extracts of milk thistle.
      Be well.

  12. Such a timely article, as I was exploring the fear of death in a course I am taking earlier today. Very interesting, and I appreciate the many ways to approach working with it. “Now, could you let go of wanting that to happen?” That really stood out to me. Fascinating. I applied that to my fear of loss of a loved one, and could almost feel the juice my ego was getting out of it, and the relief of acknowledging it. Asking that question seemed to allow that fear to exist within me for a moment, and I realized how much I had been trying to push it away. Already I can feel how it allows me to access life more fully. So many other good reminders in here as well. A very juicy article. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Sarah. Yes, that question was asked maybe 15 years ago, and it’s been a powerful tool for inquiry ever since. Be well.

  13. Thank you, this is so lovely, as I find all of your writing to be. Moments of grace, wisdom, and insight. Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, Moe. And thanks for the kind words.

  14. Thank you. My father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly this year, and while I have been processing it as healthily as I believe I can, it definitely brought me into a place where I think of death and dying far more than I ever did before. Reading helped me put into terms some of the things that I’ve been working through this year.

    1. You’re welcome, Chris. Sorry to hear about your father’s passing, but glad that you are working through it – and that you’ve made it into a growing/learning process.

  15. Thank you .

    1. You’re welcome, Elizabeth

  16. Wheres is God in all this !! If you have a relationship with your lord and savior toy would not fear the death of your body. no one brought up god here !! So sad that’s why you dwell on death you really don’t understand what it is and what happens after. Even the one with the NDE didn’t mention god in their comment.Shame.
    I pray that if you seek Him who gave you life toy will no longer fear death and be joyful for what He had accomplished for toy here on earth. Go meet Jesus here and now so yippy will not fear death for it is the end of original sins grip on humanity and the beginning of God’s promise…. peace

    1. Shaming others is not gracious or kind. As a matter of fact it makes me feel bullied.

    2. Where is God in all of this? Everywhere.
      As I see it, there is no un-God. Just because the G word wasn’t explicitly mentioned (though it was, if you look closely) – which is a touchy subject and loaded term for many – doesn’t mean God was absent from the discussion. “God” is just one of many names (all of which fail to truly convey what we’re getting at), and directing people with frustration is just one of many ways to help them.
      If you endeavor to guide people to God, it’s important to know your audience & to be clever in how you approach it.

  17. Thanks

    1. You’re welcome, Kathleen

  18. Love your article. Have always loved talking about Death. It intrigued ne. Had the honor of btinging my Mom into Paradise. I am never afraid of this. Now I need to get things ready for when thst day happens

  19. I feel as if you wrote this just for me ~ Perfectly timed and much needed! Thank you, Peter.

    1. You’re welcome, Jan. I’m glad to have timed it well for you!

  20. Thank you. I recently lost my parents, my best friend, and two others who were important in my life. It’s that time of life. Even though I’m young (only 55 years old) I can feel the weight of anticipated grief coming toward me. Your blog reminded me that we all ride this wave; we all navigate good and bad when it comes to letting go of anything or any person.

    1. Thanks, for sharing, Dee. I’m sorry for your loss. Grief is much easier when you don’t fight it, when you don’t cling to what/whom has been lost. Be well.

  21. I have recently been widowed. My husband was the my heart’s
    best, dearest, precious friend and loving companion. I will always be grateful to have known this beautiful man and our gift of happiness and deep love. I have made many pots of Tear Soup. Every fiber in my being knows that he is cheering me on as I learn
    to navigate my life alone and look for ways to go celebrate all
    the amazing little and big things in life! Your article spoke to
    my heart. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Ona. It sounds like you have worked through this in the healthiest way possible.

  22. Reading your article made me realize that I too need to further educate myself on the fear of dying versus my own curiosity of it. This article is very relevant to me and I appreciate you having shared it. Due to the recent death of a relative, her 13 year old children are struggling with why death has to occur regardless of why or how it takes place. This is a difficult topic to address with this age group. Do you have any ideas on how to do so under these circumstances to where it is more insightful and enlightening for this age group?

    1. Hi Veronica. By 13, I would think those kids could handle a conversation at this level, though I would guess that they need something more, as well, since they’re right at that transition between wanting to remain a child and be taken care of, and wanting to assert their independence and autonomy. I don’t know of specific resources for this age group, but I’m sure they exist. I’d see if you can locate a well-regarded teen psychotherapist & ask them for direction. Be well.

  23. In this post, you mention further reading on the experience of death and I’d like to recommend another book, This one is by Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thank you, Kiri

  24. Peter, thank you so much for this article! I have read it over and over, and it has been a tremendous comfort to me. Entering midlife (I’m 52 right now), and recently both my husband and I having health scares, the fear of death has started to consume my thinking lately. I am going to start working on both strategies you suggest. The visual image of the sparkler and worrying about when it will burn out hits “the nail right on the head” as to how I have been thinking lately. My “sparkler of a life” is amazing and wonderful right now, but I tend to worry more about losing it all, than appreciating it. I am going to start visualizing that sparkler to remind me to enjoy the beauty and fun and richness of life.

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