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Death and Dying: How changing your relationship to death can improve your life

Last week I got a call from my neighbor. His father-in-law, who was 82 and in good health, fell down the stairs while attempting to change the battery in his smoke detector and died a few days later due to injuries sustained from the fall. If you watched the HBO series, Six Feet Under, this might remind you of the beginning scene of each episode of the show where someone dies in a freak accident and is just gone in an instant! My husband and I went to sit Shiva with the family, and they were nice enough to give us a tour of the home (including showing us where the accident occurred) and introducing us to the man they had lost through photos, his collections of WWII posters, and their anecdotes of his life.

My grandfather-in-law was also just recently put on hospice care, and given a prognosis of just a few weeks to live. In this case, we have the luxury of knowing that he is going to die soon, and to figure out how we want to spend the time we have remaining with him.

All of this has got me thinking about death. I am no stranger to dealing with death. Not only did I work as a hospice social worker early in my career, but it is a common topic with my clients in psychotherapy. Of course, people often come to psychotherapy to have a safe place to deal with a loss, but also, few things cause more anxiety in human beings than fears about our own death or the deaths of the people we love. Fear of death is so common that in our modern day society, it is completely normal to be creeped out by death, and to avoid the topic completely in polite company. But, does this really help us deal with something that will inevitably impact all of us at some point?

Serendipitously, I came across the website of Caitlin Doughty who is a mortician in California. She has a website called Order of the Good Death which is dedicated to “helping a death phobic culture prepare for their own mortality”. Her philosophy about confronting fears of death directly and “making friends with death” is really great advice that actually could extend to almost anything that freaks us out. If you have time, I highly recommend checking out her essay on Fear of Death and how to improve your life by taking control of your own death (as much as anyone can, of course!)

Her website is a wealth of information and even includes a video series called “Ask a Mortician”.

In addition to fears about death, there are also profound misconceptions about grief and bereavement in our culture and how we are impacted emotionally by loss. This might be a future post, but for now, I am including a link to an organization that I love called Willowhouse that provides grief support services in the Chicagoland area and has lots of helpful information and links on their site.

Thanks for reading!

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