For those of you who are just joining us here, just so you know, I have a mild phobia of death.

I often blog about it.

Mostly, I am afraid of what I don’t know. Like, will death hurt? (if so, a little or a lot and where and for how long – more detail would be great here).

Also, will I like where I go after I die? What if I don’t? Are there other options?

Being somewhat of a perfectionist, I’d also like to be as prepared as possible for the big moment.

This extends not just to paperwork and last wishes, but also to the exact mechanics of the process itself.

As in, when I was little, I liked to color-code the clothing in my closet. With time and some practice, I got quite adept at it.

I’d like to be able to say the same when it is my turn to die.

Recently, I tracked down and began reading a small book called “On Living” by Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain with a penchant for storytelling.

Her book is chock-full of stories, some of which her patients permitted her to share, and some of which her patients begged her to share.

The latter group did so in hopes others – specifically, those of us still among the living – might learn from the mistakes they had begun to correct only to late in their own lives.

I, for one, will be forever grateful for their generosity.

The last chapter in the book is called “Dying is Just a Verb.” In this chapter, Egan likens learning how to die to learning how to have sex. 

In other words, there is a period of time in our life where we don’t know how to have sex. Then we learn. At first it is highly awkward and perhaps fearful. There is what we’ve heard (which is a lot) and what we actually know (which is practically nothing).

After that it gets better, and we get better at it, and it gets added to the skill set – not as a part of who we are, but as something else we know how to do.

She says dying is the same way.

We just don’t get to practice in advance. So when we start to die, it can feel really awkward.

This is because we are trying our best to learn to do something new, right on the spot. It is also because, in most cases, there are all these other people (some we may know and some we may not know) standing around watching us learn how to do it.

To make matters more awkward still, sometimes the living folks want to give us advice.

They want to tell us how to die, or at least how to prepare to die, like the worst kind of backseat driver who has never held an actual steering wheel a day in their life but maybe watched a show about driving once.

Those who aren’t trying to “help” us die are busy trying to avoid us until we’re dead (and maybe even after that).

To them, we are “the dying,” as in “that dead person,” someone who no longer has any identity other than being dead….soon, if not already.

If they get too close to us or visit too often, they might catch it (death, that is). Or they might become identified with it. Or something else even more awful might occur.

Then again, there are those who are fascinated or motivated by death, but not necessarily in the “good” kind of way, like maybe in anticipation of an inheritance-to-come or at least an apology for wrongs left uncorrected too late.

Here, Egan says, who we are in life will most likely be who we are in death.

Ergo, while there is always a chance of some big revelation or reconciliation quite close to the moment of passing, in most cases the dying person will already have their hands quite full learning how to die and won’t have any time left over for other grand sweeping (or even small meaningful) gestures.

What still-living me got from reading this is:

Death isn’t who we are. It is just something we do, like being born or having sex or color-coding your closet.

The perfectionist in me got that:

Except for the near-death-experience folks, no one really gets to practice dying in advance, so it’s okay if it feels or looks a bit awkward when we finally do it.

And the relational me got that:

Some people in my life (and here, I can probably figure out which ones they are way in advance on account of how they do this already) will try to tell me how to do something they don’t know how to do, like dying. 

For the record, all of me finds all of this new information strangely reassuring.

For instance, I will still be “me” while I am learning to die.

I will also not be expected to “do death” perfectly or even very well, since I will be doing it for the very first time.

Finally, there will most likely be some people who will think I didn’t do it right. To them, all I have to say is, “Wait til it’s your turn (oh, and good luck).”

In the meantime, Egan’s book has become yet another essential piece in the mentoring “death puzzle” I am so keen to put together before it’s finally my turn.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever found yourself worrying about what death will be like, or whether you will know how to do it when that time comes, or whether you might get a menu of options and if so, which one you will choose? 

Photo by sumaryanto bronto