“I don’t want to romanticize dying, but I do want to liberate it from the fears we foist upon it.”
Never tell your kids that dying is like going to sleep; it will only frighten them about going to sleep.
That said, I’m not writing for kids. I’m writing for adults, many of whom are old enough to begin thinking seriously about dying even as the grace of sleep becomes more and more elusive. And to these adults I suggest that dying is very much like going to sleep.
Most mornings I wake up well before dawn to meditate. By nine or 10 pm my body craves sleep, and when I do go to bed my body luxuriates in being surrendered to the cool sheets, and my lesser self (which calls itself “I” and “me”) sighs joyously as it effortlessly melts into the greater Self (which calls itself nothing at all).
Where am I during this time of surrender? Nowhere. I simply don’t exist. I have no fear of not existing because there is no self to experience fear. I have no certainty that I will wake again in the morning because there is no self to experience certainty. The only struggle I experience at night is on those occasions when sleep escapes me. Then my problem is too much striving to be somebody, rather than the grace of being nobody.
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This is dying at its best. Sadly—horribly—many if not most of us do not drift off to death as we drift off to sleep. We die “mid-day” in ways both violent and senseless. Or we die tied to machines whose only mission is to forestall death. Or we die surrounded by loved ones so deep in denial that they insist we stay awake when all we desire is to fall asleep. I don’t want to romanticize dying, but I do want to liberate it from the fears we foist upon it.
A good death is like much-desired sleep: An effortless and joyous act of being surrendered to something greater than yourself. Dying is the return of self to what it was before it became a self: nothing.
If you identify only with the waking “I,” then death is a tragedy. You were and now you aren’t, and for many that is the ultimate insult. But not for me.
Who was I before my parents conceived me? Nobody. Who was I before my parents named me and shaped me in their own image? Again, nobody. And what was true before “I” blossomed as a named self is true now and will be no less true later when that self returns to the source in which it lived and moved and had its being.
It took the universe 13.8 billion years to happen as me, and that happening happens for a minuscule moment of time before I am embraced by and returned to the nobody that birthed me. Knowing this makes “me” (and “you”) all the more fearless when it comes to death.
It is customary to wish one another “good day” and “good night.” I suggest we do something similar and wish one another “good life” and “good death” and in this way move beyond making peace with dying and welcome the peace of death instead.
Interested in reading more about death and grief? Read: “Ceremony at Death: Do Nothing.”