A sure sign that you have an over-developed work ethic: one of your first thoughts upon receiving a terminal diagnosis is to wonder what special work is waiting for you on the other side. So much for resting in peace!
I really did immediately wonder that, even though I’ve never believed in that sort of afterlife. But it was somehow impossible for me to believe that there couldn’t be some reason for this loss—for me, the loss of everything; for my loved ones, the loss of mother, daughter, lover, sister. For society, the loss of any good work I had hoped to do. My very rational intellect knows that there cannot possibly be meaning in all the senseless suffering and loss of this world: war and genocide and starvation and violence are so horrible because they are so senseless—and avoidable, if only we could all learn to be decent. I know this. I know people who have faced the loss of innocent loved ones with no consolation that there was a purpose to their loss. One young grieving mother I know is rightly angered when people try to tell her that her baby’s recent death happened for a reason. And yet, the human compulsion to seek meaning is powerful. And that was my first thought: there has to be a reason for this.
Because I always have big projects on the go, that was the direction my thoughts took: there must be a really big project for me—a behind-the-scenes kind of project. Maybe even a special project to take down an evil president! Or help stop climate change! It had to be something pretty darned huge if I was to give up everything I love for it. But after a few weeks I realised that my new job wasn’t waiting until my death; it had already started. My new job is dying. A death project, if you like. It requires that I learn—and quickly, because I don’t know the deadline (how appropriate that term finally is!)—how to make my death worthwhile.
Realizing that dying is simply my new occupation has allowed me to go about it in the way I go about most of the work I undertake: with some research, writing, organising, some procrastination, lots of emailing, getting done what needs to get done, and lots of thinking about its deepest purpose. Because I have been blessed in recent years with work that I enjoyed and found deeply meaningful, work has been how I like to spend much of my time. It’s what I did/do (tenses get confusing when you’re dying!) with my life. Enjoying my work means I go about it cheerfully, with curiosity, with energy and interest. So taking death on as my new job means that I can, to a considerable degree, go about my life as usual, being myself, doing my work, all in good spirits (with occasional grumpiness) – though I do hope that deadline gets extended!
In a way, I see from this that dying really means living. This death project requires that I keep living in the way that I have always found meaningful until I simply run out of time. It does not mean rushing to get through that bucket list (a term I have always hated)! If you’re already living your right life, loving the people you are supposed to love, doing good work, being kind, having some fun, there’s not much to do in the face of death but keep on until the end. If you’re not living your right life, get to it!
While this job of dying entails all sorts of tasks (and here I again thank my dear sister Lorraine for taking on all the tedious ones), my death project is about sharing my own dying, mostly in writing. My goal is not simply to document the process, but to hopefully expand, even if only in a small way, the way we think about death. I hope that sharing my own approach to death as I discover it unfolding before me will help in some way—help us to stop avoiding and fearing death, help us to remember our great spiritual capacity to bring meaning to both life and death. I want you to know that death does not have to be the way you might imagine it, if you have imagined it with dread and fear. I want you to know that it can be beautiful and fulfilling and peaceful. Even joyous.
So many of you have, in great kindness, been asking if there’s anything you can do for me. I’ve expressed before how my consolation in death is the idea that more good might come with me dying than living another fifty years. I am so very grateful and comforted to have already heard about some good things that have come from my sharing about this process. But I had also ambitiously planned to work towards some profound social change and do an awful lot of good work in the next few decades. So there’s quite a bit of pressure on the rest of you! I know you will meet this challenge. You will use your compassion and intelligence and creative problem-solving and courage to make the world more just and safe and beautiful and healthy for all. I suppose it’s selfish, but I really need to know that the world will be filled with more goodness and love when I’m gone. That is what you can do for me.
In the next short while, I will also be posting about a special fund I am setting up. I hope, in addition to my appeals for more kindness and smiling and creativity and blood or organ donations, that you will consider generously donating to this cause as well as a few others my family is helping me develop. More on that soon!