At the age of 70, I am not yet at peace with aging and dying.
Sometimes I gain a little foothold in thinking about the inevitable weaknesses that will come to my physical body, but truthfully I have my whole life identified with being strong and independent. The thought of being old and feeble – “cared for”, even in the comfort of my own home – is anathema. Similarly I sometimes accept that death will come, not just to others but also to me. But there is a lot of fear around that and at times I still need a little distance.
There are reasons why so many of us find this terrain so foreign and uncomfortable. We no longer live shoulder to shoulder with the elderly and the dying. Worse, we live in a death-denying, even death-phobic culture, which gives us few cues as to how to grapple with the unique challenges that come at this time of life. As if the basic premise were not bummer enough.
It is my observation that there are three fundamental reasons people find the end of life particularly trying:
They are not at peace with the past. They do not have skills to work with the physical, emotional, or spiritual pain that can come in the final weeks, months or years of life.
They have no idea what to do with whatever time they have before death comes.
Some people have a set of beliefs associated with a particular religion or philosophy that gives them a comfortable relationship to God and the afterlife and helps them to accept their decline and demise with a degree of grace. Even so, they may not have found closure with some of the more difficult times they have faced and these unresolved issues will at times weigh heavily upon their hearts. Further, they may experience unexpected physical pain or emotional distress in the last weeks, months or years of their lives. They trust in the love of family and friends, palliative care if needed and good pharmaceuticals, which the evidence suggests can work very well.
However, there are times when systems fall short. If you have ever had your pain “managed” you know that there can be highly unpleasant periods of break-through pain or medications with side effects worse than the pain itself. And if you have suffered from anxiety or depression you know that antidepressants have their place, but they do not necessarily completely assuage the sting of unresolved issues. It takes no leap of the imagination to appreciate that when one is old, fragile and in new and uncharted territory, the going can get very rough.
Those of us who left formal religion some decades ago may now find ourselves without a template for the final chapter of our lives. And we too might have limited resources for dealing with the emotional and physical pain that old age can deliver.
There are currently over 7 billion people on this planet and too many will never have the luxury of easing into retirement and enjoying their later years, much less bringing conscious awareness to what it has meant to have a human life. Many are living in poverty. Some are victims of war or climate change: injured, dying, fleeing the country they call home. Some have spent their entire lives dealing with the aftermath of an abusive or traumatic childhood, or suffering from chronic illness.
It would be wrong-headed – and arrogant – to suggest that they are not capable of dying without the aid of a self-help blog.
At the same time, I have been persuaded that if one is of a mind to do some “inner work” and learn some skills, a modicum of relief might be available. I practice Mindfulness, specifically the Unified Mindfulness approach developed by Shinzen Young. I am also a psychotherapist with training in expressive art, movement and mind body skills in healing. I have drawn on these and other modes as I seek to address those three fundamental problems: making peace with the past, finding peace in the present, and creating peace in the future.
If you have done psychotherapy you know it was only by mustering the courage to face your pain directly that you found insight and ultimately freedom. What if the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual discomforts that we feel as we age and see our death grow nearer were actually Nature’s way of leading us into a deep and profound engagement with what our lives have been and what they might yet become?
Mindfulness and other mindbody skills can provide ways to manage the inevitable challenges we all face as we get older. It can mitigate feelings of loss, loneliness, or physical discomfort, and invite a deeper appreciation of the good and pleasurable times that may otherwise be compromised or obscured by pain and regret. There is a place of refuge where the edges of pain begin to soften, the heart open, and peace become a tangible reality.
I hope you will join me in an exploration.