Death Education: Befriending Death, Embracing Life
By Dr. Ong Tien Kwan
"When one does not understand death,
life can be very confusing."
- Ajahn Chah
Why is there a need for Death Education?
1. To allay fear - Give accurate information
Death is as natural as birth, yet it is feared by many due to misinformation about death that is a direct result of the taboos surrounding death. By sweeping death under the carpet, we are only helping to perpetuate this misinformation and unnecessary fear. Instead of not talking about death, we should be making discussion about death as common and natural a topic as discussion about birth is now.
Dignified discussion about death helps to improve our knowledge about the dying process. It helps to clear up false beliefs and misinformation about what happens when we die. Accurate information can alleviate the fear of death, and may even make death an extra-ordinary experience for everyone concerned. Once we have familiarised ourselves with the dying process, we will be surprised how amazing the death experience can be.
2. To change attitude - Death is not a failure
Since death is a natural process, we should not have to see it as a failure of our life or our medical ability, yet many people and doctors do just that. As a result, our attitude towards death is one of defeat, failure and fear. It does not have to be this way. Death comes to everyone as a natural effect of having been born, so the sooner we accept this fact, the easier it is for us to manage it.
Someone once shared with me this idea that what we experience as dying over this side, other spiritual beings are experiencing it as a birthing process on their side. Reflecting on this could change our perspective and attitude about death.
3. To transform experience - Death can be a beautiful experience
Death does not have to be feared. It can actually be a beautiful experience. Our present knowledge and understanding of the natural process of birth allows us to face birth with confidence and joy, knowing that we are most likely to be able to handle any situation that may arise successfully. In the same way, when we know and understand the dying process, we are in a better position to face death with calm confidence and peaceful acceptance.
4. To live well - Learn to die well
In fact, it can be said that we cannot know how to live fully until we know how to die well. The truth is that we do not just die once. We die every single day - every single moment. We die each time we do not get what we want, or we get what we do not want. There are a lot of similarities between our death at the end of our life and the death that we experience daily. Managing both requires the same skill-set - the ability to see things clearly, to accept what is and to let go of our desire for things to be other than what is. If we can manage our daily death well, then we would have enough practice to handle our final death just as well.
Befriending death, therefore, helps us not only to allay our fear of death but also to embrace life fully.
5. To prepare for death
Death education is not just for the dying. It is also for the living. There is a saying - "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time to plant a tree is now." Death education is like that. The best time to familiarise ourselves with death is now, not only when we are about to die. In fact, for most people, the fear and anxiety at the end-of-life actually makes it almost impossible for them to absorb any new and comforting information about death then. Just when they needed the information most, they are unable to benefit from it. It is such a tragedy when this occurs. That is why we should embark on our own death education now, and not later.
6. To know our spirituality
Death is a great way to familiarise ourselves with spirituality. Even the most skeptical atheist finds it necessary to re-examine his or her belief in spirituality when death is approaching. Whatever one believes in may be right or wrong, but it is difficult to continue arguing when one experiences it oneself. At the end-of-life, there are ample opportunities to experience spirituality.