“When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
“Die before you die”…this is a phrase from the Zen and Sufi spiritual traditions, and I recently got to see the meaning of it up close. For a month, I watched my 97-year-old father decline, leading to a peaceful death last week.
He felt good about his life, and was initially accepting once he realized that his body was starting to change. He said he was ready…my sisters and I had heartfelt conversations with him. But as the decline progressed further and he faced the depth of letting go that death involves, he became intensely agitated. Frankly, it was hard to witness.
He was angry and demanding with almost everyone. Although he wasn’t in pain, he couldn’t get into a comfortable position. And he cried out for help many times even though he couldn’t say what he needed help with.
At one point, he yelled with shock and disbelief, “I think I’m going to die!”
I can’t say what was going on inside him, but it looked like the closer he got, the more he was faced with what he would need to let go of…and he was angry and terrified.
The daily routines he relied on were taken from him, as he no longer had the strength for them. He had to let go of showers, food, and sitting in his favorite chair. He couldn’t reach out for someone’s hand. And ultimately, I think he was scared to realize that he couldn’t stay in the body and that life as he knew it was coming to an end.
He didn’t know what was coming next.
A hospice organization was involved, and the nurses gave him calming medication once he stopped refusing it. So in the last hours, he appeared to be at peace.
“Die Before You Die”
The phrase that kept coming to my mind as I was watching this process unfold was, “Die before you die.” And I was taken over by a flood of gratitude for the spiritual path that has been my home for a long time.
Because I absolutely know for sure that peace comes with letting go of attachments and accepting everything as it is. Peace is right here and available when we stop relying on the mind to control what we can’t control and go with life as it is actually unfolding.
What do we die to before we take our last breath?
- All our expectations,
- Our needs and preferences,
- Our ideas about ourselves and others,
- The entirety of our personal identities,
- Attachment to our appearance, habits, and anything that makes us feel separate from others, and
- The familiarity of what it’s like to live this human life.
We have what we have and enjoy it thoroughly, but know that none of it lasts forever. In fact, nothing in form lasts forever—no thought, no feeling, no relationship, the world as we know it—nothing. And if we’re busy worrying about what we might lose, we can’t fully appreciate what’s here.
Celebrating What’s Here
My experience is that letting go of these attachments is not sad and it’s not about loss. Because when we’re liberated from clinging to what we have, we’re free to celebrate with no limitation. What we have when we have it becomes so fresh! We get to play in the world of form, living this human life, as long as it lasts.
And when it goes, it goes. That’s the nature of all things in form. In a sense, they’re not real because they’re temporary. And clinging doesn’t make them more real—it only feeds our suffering.
Feel into what it might be like to surrender control over everything. Then see what remains, as this is the essence of the profound spiritual life. Here is consciousness, a stable sense of ease and peace that just is. This is the boundless ever-present field of being aware that receives everything with no preference and no attachment.
It’s what is always here when all forms fall away. And experiencing this makes me not fear death at all.
This is not to say I’m not mourning the loss of my father. I honor his memory every day as a ritual right now, and tears come sometimes. But if I look at it very closely, empty of any story about what happened, the deepest peace that I know to be the truth about reality is always present.