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  • Karl Thunemann

Slowly Making Friends with Death

When did I start “making friends with death”? The process extends far into my misty past, when the phrase itself would have caused me distress. Death had my fascinated attention but calling it a friend would have been too great a leap.

Death certainly had my attention when I was 26, and my best friend from college died of melanoma—his second life-threatening disease in less than ten years. I was unemployed at the time of his diagnosis—in 1969—and sought a job near Seattle to be close by. We had intense times, but they were short. He died three months after my wife, daughter and I moved. His family wanted a funeral service at the Catholic church in Port Orchard. I was prepared to do battle with Catholic orthodoxy, but the young priest said we could organize the service however we wished. But there was a hitch after the service. My friend’s family invited us to supper afterward, but they wanted to exclude another of his college friends who had been very helpful because—get this, the year was 1970—he had a beard. We declined the invitation and went out for dinner with the other college friend and wis wife.

A few months later I had the opportunity as a reporter to write a story about a young boy who was dying of cancer and his warm, empathetic family. I became attached to the family and wrote a couple of follow-up stories. At his funeral in a very different Catholic church, the priest spoke at length about guilt and darkness—not a word about this boy’s plucky qualities and the loving devotion of his family. Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to write a story about the funeral.

Now I am not about to use this occasion to catalogue all my encounters with death, a few quite personal, the others more of the nodding variety. But consider this failure. The widow of another friend who had died of cancer asked me if I would take a minor role in her plan to commit suicide. We spent an afternoon wandering around Seattle on a beautiful spring day, treating ourselves to fresh cherries at a roadside stand. She did not have a terminal illness. She did have severe chronic pain, plus grief for her late husband and the sorrows of a lifetime which included wandering in Europe for several years with her mother and brother after World War II. They were displaced persons. She asked for something simple: That I call her on the morning after she intended to take the lethal draught and—when she did not answer—call 911.But I could not say yes. I thought it would be technically illegal, and it seemed clear that she still found some pleasure in life.

In the meantime my meditation program was evolving, and I was finding myself more absorbed in the writings of followers of Tibetan Buddhism. To them, death should not be a cataclysmic occasion.

She carried out her plan and emergency services (called by another friend) found her unconscious, but still alive. She hung on in the hospital for three or four days before dying. This was several years before my stint as a hospice volunteer. The law has changed, but not enough to accommodate my friend’s wishes. I hope I would behave differently now, with less judgment.

As I grew older and moved into a residential cooperative for seniors, death became more commonplace. Friends and neighbors have died. Within an 18-month period I suffered three falls—none resulting in serious injuries, but in each sheer luck enabled me to narrowly escape loss of vision or mental capacity. How long could I be so fortunate? In the same period my mechanic died of an undisclosed brain injury. His family had been taking care of our cars for forty years. He was about the same age as my children. Care—and consideration of the inevitable—had a sobering effect. I began weighing a question at bedtime. If I died before morning, could I go gracefully? Over a period of time, I marked three or four days when my answer was yes. I did not make a record of these dates, and it was not much of a batting average.

In the meantime my meditation program was evolving, and I was finding myself more absorbed in the writings of followers of Tibetan Buddhism. To them, death should not be a cataclysmic occasion. They do not even agree with the West on exactly when death occurs. (They believe we hang around for a while after our vital signs have ceased.) Life is full of little deaths—transitions. Graduations, marriage, divorce, getting new jobs, getting fired, the opening and end of friendships, natural disasters—all of these can help us get used to change and transition. Death itself becomes another transition.

I recently discovered the book, Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, by Judith L. Lief, while cruising online in search of commentary on the lojong slogans, another branch of Tibetan practice. I immediately felt at home with the book. It accommodates a distinction that I had applied fairly recently: between mortality and impermanence. Everything is impermanent. Mortality is a particularly upper-case form of impermanence, but in a shape that exquisitely demands our attention. I am still not a Buddhist, but may I learn to think and act as if I were.


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