We know, intellectually at least, that all life ends. Everyone dies. When we think about death, however, it's often from a distance — as if it's something that happens to other people, not to us. The thought of death is uniquely uncomfortable; why would we want to confront it before we're absolutely forced to?
Former Buddhist monk and seasoned hospice caregiver Rodney Smith answers this question in his paradigm-shifting book Lessons From The Dying, a radical exploration of death as it applies to us, the readers. Smith provides anecdotes about how his hospice patients face dying, alongside thought exercises that gently guide us toward contemplation of our own deaths. The idea is to help us accept that our lives will, in fact, end — and to help us live freer, less fearful, and more intentional lives because of that acceptance.
"Lessons From The Dying could also be called Lessons For The Living," Jeffrey Goldstein writes in his forward to the book, "because of the courageous honesty revealed in so many of the stories told here. These accounts reflect back to us our own attitudes toward death and love, and they prompt us to examine the way we are living right now." Comparing death to an unmovable mountain peak in the distance, Smith writes, "When we avoid the subject it works its terror below our awareness until we consciously begin our ascent. As we climb we begin to see life from a different perspective, and we eventually open up to a full view of freedom."
Smith's thesis: We don't have to wait until we are terminally ill or until death is imminent to see the world through the eyes of those who know they will die. He tells their stories: that of a nine-year-old with cystic fibrosis who, barely able to breathe, created a poster to tell her father she loved him; that of a woman whose two children had died, who faced her own passing with serenity because "death no longer scared her"; and that of a man able to face his fears of death by greeting it in his mind as a friend. These are everyday people whose grace at the end of their lives can inspire us to live our own more fully. Death is a journey we'll all take, and Lessons From The Dying is a beautiful place to begin.