Why wait til we are dying to grapple with death?

“Imagine this is the last day of your life. You won’t know which day it is but you will have a last day. Between now and then, carry yourself as if this is that last day.” So says Stephen Jenkinson, professor of theology at Harvard University and author of Die Wise and Come of Age.

In his five years working in palliative care – which he dubs “the death trade” – Jenkinson met hundreds of dying people and their families, and witnessed a ‘wretched anxiety’ around the end of life. He describes himself as a grief monger and exhorts us to die wise and well, unlike the masses in aged care institutions and hospitals all over the Western world.

Speaking at the School of Life this week, Jenkinson argues we need to bridge the gap between the young and the wise.  To illustrate why we must address death well before we get close to it, he paints the following scenario.

Canadian writer Stephen Jenkinson has described himself as a grief monger; a film about him is called Griefwalker.

"Imagine there’s an event that happens shortly after your demise. It doesn’t have to be at the pearly gates but it might be. What happens there is a life end review. Because it’s a busy place, with a lot of people coming through, they say ‘did you look at the fine print on your birth certificate?' ”

"'What fine print?' " you ask. Given the brevity of our opportunities, your last day is going to have to stand in for your whole life. If they’re going to come to get me tonight, and it turns out this is the last time I was going to be able to stand up in front of people and I caught wind of the fact that this was going to be my last day, I would carry myself with a sense of urgency. I’m going to try to leave nothing unsaid."

Jenkinson says we are bereft in western societies, that we are grief illiterate. We need to embrace the mystery of life and death, he says, and be grateful.

“You don’t have to say thank-you in order to be grateful – you just have to be mobilised that [life] is a time limited undertaking.

“We woke up today and we know that there are some in this very town who did not. And we know this, for all our problems during the day – people who didn’t wake would trade us in a second. So there’s your spiritual practice for you.”

He wonders why we wait until we or someone we love are dying to grapple with the idea of death. “If grown-ups know anything, they know it’s too late. Your give-a-shit is intact, your capacity to put one foot in front of another is not compromised.

“When do you think is a good time, when you’re addled with chemotherapy or you can’t stand up or you piss yourself? And you think God almighty, when is the opportune time? At whatever stage of life you are at, this is the call. There is no out clause.”

Jenkinson runs the Orphan Wisdom School on his farm in the Ottawa Valley in Canada, where he schools people in the art of elderhood, which he believes society has lost sight of. By embracing old age and the wisdom we gain through life, we can be more aware and more fulfilled.

Talking about death, even with those closest to us, can be difficult. We wait for the right moment to say what we want to say, only to find it has slipped away and the chance to articulate what we feel is gone.

Life has a whole lot more to do with death than we care to recognise. Embracing that can only be a good thing.

Stephen Jenkinson is at the School of Life in Melbourne on April 26 and Sydney on April 28; as well as the Blue Mountains, northern NSW and Queensland. See orphanwisdom.com/events. Come of Age is out now through Penguin.

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