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My Dying Friend’s Woke Wake and Why We Need to Talk About Death

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My Dying Friend’s Woke Wake and Why We Need to Talk About Death


“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.” ~Marcus Aurelius

Recently, on a beautiful blue-sky Saturday, I attended my first “woke wake.”

My dear friend has received hospice care and I wanted to celebrate with her and her family.

The meaning of “woke” signals an awareness of social action, with a focus on racism and bias in our culture. She also wanted to be “awoke” to the experience of her wake. Her party was a candid admission that she would soon die. It was brave of her to acknowledge it.

We share so openly about birth, and yes, there is deep sorrow with death, but doesn’t it deserve as much open acknowledgement? Silence makes the journey more difficult. 

She moved about the party in her rose-rimmed glasses with grace and pride, and she did so while wearing her rose-rimmed glasses. Her heart is full, yet so fragile.

There were platters of delicious delicacies including brie decorating beets, fall fruits bowls decorated with persimmons or pomegranate, pumpkin brownies and breads as well as chips and dips.

She preferred we didn’t clink cups and share stories. Instead, it was both a “Bon Voyage” and “Welcome Home” celebration. All of us can experience the voyage. Home becomes the outstretched arms of loving community and, as Ram Dass wrote, “We are all just walking each other home.”

My father died at ninety-five. I called him while he was still in hospital. The last thing he said in his forever strong but raspy voice, before hanging up the phone, was “Well, gotta go honey.”

We all “gotta go,” but the privilege some of us have to plan for how we go is a gift. Due to cultural, economic, and social differences, many people do not have this luxury.

There are many concrete plans you can make to create your wills. You can designate your financial executor and DNR, as well as our medical power-of- attorney. We can choose who will inherit our heirlooms or wares. You have options for whether you want a traditional burial or cremation.

It’s easier to organize our affairs in concrete ways than it is to have a conversation about our deaths or those of our family members, friends, and elderly parents.

Melanie Klein, a well-known British psychologist believes that anxiety stems from fear of death. Whether one believes in this premise or not isn’t that important. The truth is that many people keep their feelings about death inside. Having a conversation can help ease anxiety when we confront the existential fears about our mortality.

I’m in an intimate group with six other women where we discuss aging, living, and dying. We discuss books, but we also share our hopes and dreams for the future. As our skin softens with age, our “thin skin” makes us more sensitive to issues around death.

There are often concerns about being dependent, and a desire to not burden those who care. Who will take care of us? What financial security will we have? How will our bodies and minds fare in the coming years? We also discuss worry about those we’ll leave behind. How will children deal with this?

These are difficult subjects. These are difficult topics. However, being together and expressing our feelings and asking questions can help us feel less isolated. It is important to have a conversation with your loved ones. We all hope that we’ll be better prepared when it comes to answering our questions.

People who have passed before us are often our teachers. We all have to remember that we will always say goodbye to loved ones, and eventually ourselves, as we attend wakes and memorials. The way others handled the farewells often teaches us about how we want to end our journey. However, this requires dialogue. This is something that too often gets overlooked.

My friend has taught me so many things, especially about her dedication to her children and her honesty with them. My children should know that they will be fine no matter what happens in their lives. That I promise, I will never let go.

Accepting the inevitable death of a loved one is a way to accept that we’re all only here for a brief time. This recognition helps us to be grateful for life and make it a pleasant experience.

I said goodbye to my friend and thanked her again for hosting such a wonderful celebration. It was a great visit, with plenty of food. That is what we can all aspire to as the party winds down and the lights go off.

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About Priscilla Dann-Courtney

Priscilla Dan-Courtney, a Boulder, CO. writer and psychologist, is the mother of their three children. For thirty years, she has been working in private practice treating adolescents and adults. Her areas of expertise include: eating disorders, mood disorders, life transitions, and relationship issues. Her columns appear in national newspapers and her book. There’s still room to grow, stories of life and family (Norlights Press (2009)) was her way of finding the wonder, light and darkness in life. priscilladanncourtney.com

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