How to get ready for death

Embarking on a Journey

Whenever we embark on a long journey, there is a sense of death and rebirth. The experiences we go through have a transitional quality. The moment we step outside our house and close the door, we begin to leave our life behind. We say goodbye to family and friends and to the familiar rooms and routines that we inhabit. We might feel regret mixed with excitement as we climb into the taxi that will take us to the airport. As our vision of home recedes, we are both sadly parted and joyfully released from all that defines us. The further from home we go, the more focused we become on our next destination. We think less of home and more about where we are going. We begin to look at a new map; we start to think about where we will land, about the new people, new customs, and new environment—all the new sets of experiences to come.

Until we reach our destination, we are in transit, in between two points. One world has dissolved, like last night’s dream, and the next has not yet arisen. In this space, there is a sense of total freedom: we are free from the business of being our ordinary selves; we are not tied to the day-to-day world and its demands in quite the same way. There is a sense of freshness and appreciation of the present moment. At the same time, we may have moments of feeling fearful and groundless because we have entered unknown territory. We do not know with certainty what will arise in the next moment or where it will take us. The moment we relax, however, our insecurity dissolves and the environment becomes friendly and supportive. We are at ease in our world once again and can move forward naturally and with confidence.

Leaving this life is similar in many ways to going on a long trip. In this case, the trip we are making is a journey of mind. We are leaving behind this body, our loved ones, our possessions, and all our experiences of this life and moving on to the next. We are in transit, in between two points. We have left home but have not yet reached our next destination. We are neither in the past nor in the future. We are sandwiched between yesterday and tomorrow. Where we are now is the present, which is the only place we can be.

This experience of the present moment is known as bardo in Tibetan Buddhism. Bardo in a literal sense means “interval”; it can also be translated as an “intermediate” or “in-between” state. Thus, we can say that whenever we are in between two moments, we are in a bardo state. The past moment has ceased; the future moment has not yet arisen. There is a gap, a sense of nowness, of pure openness, before the appearance of the next thing, whether that is our next thought or our next lifetime.

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Review Your Life

One of the most important things you will do as you prepare for death is review your life. This is the step most people talk about when they discuss regrets, accomplishments, hopes, and dreams. Doing a life review is a way to bring closure to a dying individual. It can also serve as a legacy of life to the dying individual's loved ones. 

Whether you decide to do an internal life review or record your life story for loved ones, reviewing your life is an important and fulfilling step to take as you prepare for death.

Plan Your Own Funeral

This is another step that doesn't have to wait until you receive a terminal diagnosis. Planning your own funeral ensures that you get what you want for the price you want to pay. Your funeral or memorial celebration will reflect your personality and will be a truly memorable event. Planning ahead also saves your loved ones from having to plan something meaningful in the midst of their grief, which is a great gift to leave behind.

Emotional Aspects

The way you feel about death, whether someone else’s or your own, is unique to you and informed by your experiences and beliefs. Ultimately, there are some common feelings that people experience in the process of death and dying.

The established stages of grief are often referenced, though they needn’t be strictly followed. You might want to think of them as a nonlinear guide or roadmap.

When someone has reached old age, there are many years of life to reflect on when contemplating death. The process takes time and, as life generally is, will be full of ups and downs. 

While people will not necessarily experience the stages of grief in the same order or intensity, there are specific emotions that tend to be associated with death and dying. 

Denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are generally accepted to be the core emotional components of the grieving process. Some people experience these emotions in order, but it’s also possible for people to revisit stages or spend more time in one stage than another. 

Denial

The initial stage of grief is considered denial, wherein a person struggles or refuses to comprehend that your loved one is dying. They may go to great lengths to ignore the reality of the situation or even discuss it with their loved ones or doctors. The denial phase of grief is often an immediate reaction, and a person begins to move through it once they have had time to process the information.

Anger

When a person reaches the anger stage, they may experience and express these feelings inwardly, outwardly, or both. They may be angry because they feel they aren’t ready to die or that they don’t “deserve” it.

They may process these angry feelings inwardly and prefer to avoid interacting with others. A person may also take their anger out on the people around them including friends, family, and even doctors and nurses. 

Bargaining

Eventually, most people move into a stage of bargaining. If they are religious, a person may ask their higher power to save their life. They may pray and promise “to be good” or “better” if only God will spare them. 

Conversations with others during the bargaining stage of grief may feature a lot of statements that start with “If only…” These comments may be directed at what a person wishes they could undo about the past (“If only I hadn’t started smoking…”) or focus on the things they are realizing they will miss out on (“If only I could live to see my grandchildren grow up…”).

Depression

Most people experience depression at some point in the dying and grieving process, though it may take different forms. When someone is dealing with the death of a loved one, a period of mourning is an expected reaction to the loss. 

Alternatively, when a person is in the process of dying themselves, the mourning is preemptive. Anticipatory grief can involve more than just the loss of their life; as death gets closer and they become more dependent on others, a person may mourn the loss of their independence and their identity. 

How Do You Know If It's Grief or Depression?

Acceptance

The final stage of grief is acceptance. While it’s usually described as a person being “at peace” with death, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy stage to be in and that a person will feel relieved or unafraid once they reach it.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone in the last stage of grief to feel nothing at all, and the numbness may help people cope with death.

It can take a long time to reach a stage of acceptance and reaching acceptance doesn’t mean that a person won’t return to a previous stage if their situation changes. 

Having a support network of family and friends at each stage of the grieving process can provide guidance and comfort, but it’s also not uncommon to seek professional help when facing a loss. 

People commonly turn to grief counseling, support groups, and clergy to help them process and cope with their grief. 

Social Changes

Another emotional aspect of dying is the concept of “social death,” which can start long before a person experiences any physical signs of imminent death. When someone knows they are likely to die within a specific timeframe, such as after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, it inevitably affects their social life.

In some cases, a person withdraws from others. If they are very ill, they may be forced to leave work or school and may lose social connections as a result. They may also isolate themselves from friends and family as they try to “come to terms” with their imminent death and take time to reflect on their life.

Sometimes, a person who is dying may become isolated not because they are withdrawing, but because the people around them are not sure what to say or do. 

Friends and loved ones may find it difficult to acknowledge the reality of death (especially when it reminds them of their own mortality) and might avoid being in a situation that forces them to confront it. 

Whether or not a person has a wider network of community support also makes a difference. People living in rural areas or far from their families may not have many social resources and may not be well enough to travel elsewhere.

Similarly, older adults living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes may experience “social death” for years if they rarely have visitors. If you are caring for someone who is dying, social support is an important part of caring for yourself throughout the process. 

Caregiver Stress

If you have never been in a situation where you have had to consider death, you may be overwhelmed by the need to process your feelings about both the loss of your loved one as well as the reminder that you will die someday. 

If you have experienced the death of someone close to you in the past, caring for a loved one going through that process may bring back old memories and grief. While the needs of your loved one who is dying may feel demanding at times, remember that your own well-being is still your priority.

If you are emotionally and physically well, you will have the energy, strength, focus, and patience to be fully present with your dying loved one and attend to their needs. Still, it is not easy to deal with a loved one dying, and being their caregiver, so it's important to also care for yourself and get help.

"One inspirational sentiment about death I keep coming back to is a story about a little boy who passed away. The little boy's mother said a prayer that went: "Dear Sam, Thank you for the honor of being your mom. We had a lot of fun. I love you. Please pray for us." I return to this story because I appreciate this way of thinking about death. I hope that, when faced with the death of a loved one, I will be able to reach this level of peace and understanding. It just seems healthy to me." — Mark Stibich, PhD

Practical Aspects

Although it might not be foremost on someone's mind, addressing the practical aspects of death, dying, and grief is an important part of the process. It's also one that you can plan ahead for.

People often find it difficult to discuss end-of-life plans, living wills, and funeral arrangements, but these are elements of the dying process that you can discuss long before they are needed.

Once you and your loved ones have spoken openly about your preferences, you can involve professionals such as accountants, funeral directors, lawyers, doctors, and other healthcare professionals to ensure that your wishes will be honored.

While the conversation and documentation involved can be overwhelming, and the requirements will depend on where you live, there are many resources available to help you get started. Once the task is done, you'll hopefully feel reassured that you have what you need to make the process as easy as possible when the time comes.

Setting up a system of friends, neighbors, and community support ensures you are prepared for the time you have left with your loved one. Your mind will likely be far from thoughts of laundry and grocery shopping during this time, but these practical concerns still need to be addressed.

Having someone to help with cleaning and meal prep will allow you to focus your time and energy on being with your loved one in their final days.

One Last Chance for Enlightenment

All of our disturbing emotions cease with the dissolution of the subtle body and consciousness itself; therefore, they no longer manifest in us as they usually do. Since we are finally rid of our kleshas, we should be happy. We should make every effort to connect with that pure space and attain some profound realization. If we have failed to recognize the nature of mind beforehand, then at the time of death we have one last chance to recognize it and attain liberation on the spot.

That is why each time you practice meditation, it is important to sit with confidence and to arouse the intention to achieve enlightenment in that very session. If you become accustomed to generating such confidence now, then at the time of death you can manifest the same level of confidence and trust in your practice. You have one last chance—for this lifetime, at any rate. It is not your last chance ultimately; there is no sense of being doomed forever. However, the time of death is our last opportunity to achieve enlightenment now. Thus, your attitude toward your practice makes a great difference. If you do it halfheartedly, thinking to yourself, “These are the instructions, so I will try them. Who knows, maybe this will work and maybe it won’t,” it is still better than not practicing at all. At least there is a faint sense of trust and hope. However, it is not very strong and it will not be very effective.

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