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“Denial and the Big ‘D’” by Patricia Cavanaugh


Lately I have been just living my life moment to moment…not in the Zen sense or the “Be Here Now” kind of way that Ram Dass wrote about many years ago.  For me, at this time of life, it seems a bit more like floating down my own river in an inner tube.  I know this river, I trust it.  There may be some unseen rocks and logs, twists and turns but I am not so fearful of what the next turn will bring.  I find that I am even curious about the creatures that appear on the banks.

Sounds good right?  But I think I may have been keeping myself in the moment as a way of telling lies about my finiteness, my own future death.   Earlier this month on Father’s Day I was taking a walk in Mountain View Cemetery with my dog thinking about my Dad and friends who have recently become sick, are dying or have passed away.  I have been lucky.  I haven’t known much death in my life, particularly the death of peers and so I have been able to pretend that I will just continue to float on but as I looked around at the very real grave stones I realized that that was just not true and I needed to follow through with my final plans and write about my process in this blog as a commitment to myself and my family.

I started this whole process two years ago when my church held a daylong workshop to help people prepare for death.  The day included work on living trust documents, The Five Wishes, various hymns and readings from favorite memorial services.  I attended and began to collect readings and music for the next several months.   I even filed them in a special binder but I didn’t go much further.  I also began to think about what kind of burial I wanted.  Most people I know want to be cremated but I have been considering a green burial.  There is a place in Marin Co that offers this option but I haven’t really followed through with this either.

Part of my denial is simply that despite my parents’ death, my own is unfathomable to me.  It is not that I dread it as much as I would like to continue living.  It is just impossible for me to imagine that I won’t be here.  I love the people in my life, my sweetheart, my children, my friends and their children.  I am curious about their future stories.  How will they respond to life, how will they grow…what choices will they make?

Planning for this part of my life…my end is something I just avoid.  Yes that’s the word; I avoid it so I can keep denying that my end is closer than my beginning.

I was able to break through more of my denial when I realized at Life Planning Network meeting that I, as a member of this group, hadn’t followed through with my own end of life planning I had started the year before at church. I had just “forgotten” about it.   So I made a public commitment to the group that I would talk to my children the very next time I saw them. I just couldn’t go back on my word. It was scary.  I was literally shaking as I spoke to my kids.  They were moved and grateful that I had brought up the subject. When I spoke to them about my “passing”, I used the Five Wishes document to help me begin the conversation.  Now folks in the field recommend the 2011 California POLST form.

Whatever step you decide to take make sure you take that step.  Don’t put it off.  Set a date, write it in stone, make a commitment to someone out loud.  Don’t take years to give this gift to your family as I did, do it now! Those who have their end wishes well thought out and written down, report a level of ease and comfort that reduces their anxiety and allows them to live fully now.

Here are 8 resources to help you begin, continue or complete your end of life planning.  Remember birth and death are two of the great mysteries of life we all share as human beings:

1) Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland

2) Green Burials FAQ

2) Five Wishes

4) 2011 California POLST form

5) Advanced Health Care Directive

6) And for a step-by-step process go to Compassion and Choices website

7 ) If you want someone in person to help you begin the process of stepping out of denial and into the truth that “Yes, you too will die”, there are professionals who can support you in beginning to embrace this final step:  For a nationwide list check out the Life Planning Network website.

8 ) And be sure to read David Gill’s guest blog about preparing yourself to leave this life in a thoughtful and caring way.

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2 comments to “Denial and the Big ‘D’” by Patricia Cavanaugh

  • Marilyn B

    Great mailing about DEATH!

    I have wondered if you tow cover that topic in your classes. Likely so.

    Love, Marilyn

  • Hi Marilyn,

    Good to hear from you. And thanks for your question. We cover this topic in our workshops and provide resources to participants, particularly through an exercise about the Fears of Getting Old. It is a sensitive but important topic.
    Love, Bev

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