The Magic and Mystery of Death

September 9, 2009

In the past week and a half, two important people in my life have suddenly passed away – my friend Kevin Carlberg (the brother of my girlfriend from college) and Gail Cohen (my dad’s first wife and my half-sister Rachel’s mom). These deaths have been shocking, sad, and painful for me. And, in the midst of my sadness I’ve once again been reminded of the mystery and magic that I often experience when someone close to me dies.

I find death so mysterious because it doesn’t make much rational sense and often seems so random and unfair. I also find it frustrating that we don’t do a very good job in our culture of talking about, dealing with, or embracing death. It’s seen by most of us as a universally “bad” thing – awful, tragic, painful, hard, and negative in most cases. While all of these things can be and often are true for us about death, especially when the person who dies is someone we love and care about and/or happens to be someone we consider “too young to die” (Kevin was just 32 years old), there is so much more to it than just this.

As I’ve also experienced this past week and a half and at many other times in my life, there can be a great deal of magic, beauty, and joy that comes from death. Due to the fact that we often avoid it, don’t want to talk about it, or would rather not deal with it (unless we are forced to do so) – we miss out on the magical and positive aspects of death and in doing so we aren’t able to live our lives as deeply and with as much freedom as we could if we embraced death more fully.

Why we avoid dealing with death

There are many reasons we avoid dealing with or even talking about death. From what I’ve seen and experienced, here are some of the main reasons:

  • It can be very painful, sad, and scary
  • We often aren’t taught or encouraged to really deal with it – just to simply follow the “rules” and rituals of our family, religion, or community in order to get through it
  • We don’t know what to say, how to react, and don’t want to upset people
  • It can be overwhelming for many of us to consider our own death, or the deaths of those close to us
  • We aren’t comfortable experiencing or expressing some of the intense emotions that show up for us around death
  • Our culture is so obsessed with youth, beauty, and production (in a superficial sense), death is seen as the ultimate “failure” – the complete absence of beauty, health, and productivity
  • It challenges us to question life, reality, and our core beliefs at the deepest level

For these and many other reasons, death is one of the biggest “taboo” subjects in our culture and remains in the “darkness” of our own lives on a personal level. Sadly, not dealing with, talking about, or facing death in a real way creates a deep level of disconnection, fear, and a lack of authenticity in our lives and relationships.

The magic of death

What if we embraced death, talked about it, or shared our thoughts, feelings, questions, concerns, and more about it with the people around us? While for some of us this may seem uncomfortable, undesirable, or even a little weird – think how liberating it would be and is when we’re willing to face death directly.

One of the highlights of my life was being in the room with my father and holding his hand when he took his last breath. It was incredibly sad, but at the same time deeply intimate, personal, and beautiful. He was there when I came into the world and I got to be there when he left. And, by facing death in a direct way – we can learn so much about life and ourselves, as I did when my dad died when I was twenty seven years old. As one of my mentors said to me years ago, “Mike, if you live your life each day more aware of your own death, you will live very differently.” This is true for all of us.

There are so many beautiful lessons that death teaches us, even in the midst of the pain, loss, confusion, anger, fear and more. When we’re willing to embrace death and remember that everyone and everything in physical form will eventually die, we’re reminded to:

  • Appreciate ourselves, each other, and life – RIGHT NOW
  • Let go of our attachment to other people’s opinions, our obsession with appearances, and our self consciousness about many aspects of our lives
  • Connect to others in a deep, profound, intimate, and vulnerable way
  • Speak up, go for what we truly want, and live in the present moment
  • Be grateful for what we have and for life as it is, not “someday” when things work out perfectly (which never happens anyway)

Death can be one of the greatest teachers for us in life – but not if we spend most of our time avoiding it because it can be painful, scary and uncomfortable. Take a moment right now to think about some of the important people who have died in your life. What did you learn from them both through their life and their death? What gifts have you been given in the form of tragedy in your life? How could embracing death more fully impact your life in a positive and important way?

As we consider these and other questions about death, it’s obvious that the answers aren’t simple and easy…neither is life. However, when we’re willing to engage, embrace, and deal with death (and life) with a true sense of empathy, passion, and authenticity – we’re able to not only “make it,” but to actually learn, grow, and thrive – regardless of the circumstances and even in the face of death.

How do you feel about death and relate to it in your own life? Share your thoughts, action ideas, insights, and more below.

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  1. Hi Mike – I lost my 25 yr old son December 2006 in a head on collision. Through the tremendous pain and heartache I have never felt weak. My tears give me strength to go on. I used to be afraid of death, but he took away that fear. Now, I know he will be there on the other side to meet me when I cross over. I have learned so much. Yes, I am more compassionate, but also stronger. I am more conscious of my daily life instead of always living for the future or the past. The whole experience of losing my child and friend has also given me tremendous insight into my spiritual side. Pure unconditional love is truly stronger than death and is what will last forever. Sometimes I feel the only thing that separates me from my son is my breath. He is living, just in a different realm.

    Thank you, Mike, for allowing me this opportunity to share. – K

  2. Mike,

    Great message today.

    If we embrace our Eternal, infinite nature as sheer conscious energy that transcends our physical body, then we need not fear death.

    More importantly, we are then freer to love and enjoy the greatest gift of all – being conscious and incarnate.

    Easier said than done, right? Especially with bills to pay and all kinds of social/religious mores that impose on us a sense of right and wrong that may have no connection to what each of us know in our heart’s to be true.

    Keep up the great work!


  3. This year my mother passed away and it has made me really think about her life.

    The last eight months her body fought on but she was ready to move on. She was able to do less and less and depended on others for even the simpliest of things. I know she was not a person to always have to ask for help and so was not happy having to ask.

    The sad thing was at the time I didn’t realize how much she had to adjust her living I was too tied up in all the additional work I needed to do for her.

    I love you Mom – you were a great woman.

  4. My dad had a small stroke in August, and as I drove to visit him in ICU at the hospital (an hour’s drive away) I listened to NPR’s Liane Hansen, who was interviewing British comedy writers John Lloyd and John Mitchinson about a book of quotations that they recently wrote/published. This quotation struck me:

    From Kabir, the Indian poet: “I came into the world and everyone was laughing as I was crying. I leave the world and everyone is crying and I’m laughing.”

    My dad is recovering nicely from the stroke at this point, thank goodness, but due to other health problems (diabetes, kidney failure, heart and circulatory problems, etc.), I think he is getting towards the end of his life. When the end does come, I will try to keep that quotation in my heart.

  5. I’m sorry to hear about the losses you have recently experienced. I really appreciate what you shared with your subscribers in your weekly newsletter. Your thoughts on how we can look at death and life differently and positively were a real eye opener. God Bless.

  6. Dear Mike,
    You may remember that we met before. I am Lara Fernandez’s father. I just want to thank you and let you know how much I appreciated your article on Death. I have had the same kind of thoughts of how the subject is just not confronted and therefore so negative. Even though we all know that we’re going to die someday, we don’t want to talk about it or even think about it too much. You brought the subject out in the open in a way that was easy to have. You are right about the way we can get so obsessed with youth and beauty that anything else seems bad. Hopefully people on your mailing list will get the same good feeling about your message that I did. I would enjoy meeting you again and talking to you. Bill Baeza

  7. I have been concerned with the idea of cataclsymic death and the dire prophecies for 2012.

    I realized that the root of all fears is the fear of death and I was being run by it.

    I researched online the subject of how to die and came across several sites. The best was and from there I ordered her CD on how to die. I listend to it at bedtime every night for over a month before I was at peace. I know parts of me are still afraid of death, but enough of my psyche has embraced its okness sufficiently that I would choose euthenesia rather than live in a survivalistic future society with temperatures normally beyond human comfort levels.

  8. Hi Mike,

    Your article addresses an absolute reality among many people – understandable, yet sad and so true. I personally experienced my Father passing away a few years ago and it was something I could never have imagined being part of. From taking him to his chemo treatments, to his temporary recovery, to his final days spent planning and waiting to pass away at home… And, my husband has been a Hospice Volunteer for two years now and he clearly explains that all of these individuals/patients he has met and spent time with have taught him how to live and not how to die. There is a lesson to be learned in everything that goes on around us, if we pay attention to it.

    Make it a wonderful day, everyday!

  9. Hi Mike, Your article is so true since I just lost my 68 yr. old brother to cancer. It is incredibly painful when people can’t make a connection with you. I find that e mails, even cards, don’t replace the caring of someone who can speak to you, listen to you, and give you a chance to tell your story about the person you lost. I wish more people would realize how important it is to actually call or drop by and speak to the mourner. Thanks.

  10. What I learned from the death of my sons father is I don’t need all the “stuff”.
    Spending money and working all the time for the money to buy all the “stuff” we think we have to have is a waste. Time spent with family is not a waste. Also, holding grudges or talking bad about someone is also a waste of time that could be better spent building up your relationships.

  11. Hi Mike,

    First, let me say I’m sorry to hear about the recent losses in your family. Please accept my deepest condolences to you and your entire family. You are and will continue to be in my prayers.

    I know from personal experience how hard it is to deal with and process this thing called death. I don’t know if you remember me. But I attended your book signing in San Diego on April 21, 2009 at Barnes & Noble. I brought my sister Sachi and my niece Natasha with me. At that meeting I shared a lot of my thoughts about my husband who passed away in April 2008. I told you and everyone there how big of an influence my husband had in my life in a positive way and how much he taught me to be myself. The sole reason for me going to your booksigning was to meet you after Fox 6 News introduced you as the author of “Be Yourself.” For so many years before I met my husband, I was driven by the opinion of others and tried to live up to their expectations. And it was taking away from who I was without me even knowing it. My husband taught me in the 10 years we were together that being true to myself was being true to God and that was the only way to “fly.” I believe that because no matter what we do in life, someone is not going to like it. So, we may as well do what makes us happy!

    Shortly after meeting you, I met a wonderful man who shares those same positive values. He loves life and loves hard like my husband did. And he’s very aware of getting older and doing things while he still has breath in his body. I don’t want to go through this new relationship worrying about other people and their opinions. Especially now that I realize how short life can really be, I do embrace it more. I want to enjoy every minute of my life because we don’t live forever – at least not here on earth. And when love comes, I don’t want it to pass me by.

    I apologize for rambling on and on. But I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your thoughts on the magic and mystery of death. It never became so real to me until I lost someone near and dear to my heart. My husband’s death was a mystery to me and my questions to God seemed endless. But as time went on, it did become magic when I was finally able to grasp the lessons that my husband’s life was trying to teach me and to really cherish the memories we had together. I also had the privilege of being at my mother’s bedside when she passed away in October 2008. Thank you for sharing your revelational thoughts of your father being there when you took your first breath and you being there when he took his last. That, to me, was profound! It made me think about my mother in a very special way.

    My husband, your book, and of course God, have taught me that it’s okay to be myself, that my opinion does count, and I don’t have to be afraid of everyone else’s opinions. May God bless you and your family in a very special way everyday of your lives!

  12. Wow, what a powerful article. The piece about our culture seeing death as failure especially stood out to me. I look at nature as a model for life and the cycles happen so naturally. Life uses death and decay to fertilize the next cycle of life. Articles like yours help us touch a collective awareness of a deeper value system than our mainstream culture.
    Jen Aly,

  13. Thank you Mike. I’m reading “A Path With Heart” by Jack Kornfield. He asks us to ” understand more deeply what evokes this sense of preciousness and how it gives meaning to a path with heart” by reflecting on our own death. The magic of being with death you’re referring to is the magic of a path with heart.

  14. Mike, thank you for this wonderful article about death. I am so sorry to hear about your recent losses, our prayers are with you.
    As you know, my dad passed away 14 years ago, my mother, 10 years ago, my sister, 2 years ago, and my mother-in-law, 5 months ago. With each one I was given the wonderful privilege of being with them in their last days. The big lesson I learned especially from my dad, was if I wanted to know how to live, I had to learn how to die and not fear death. By this I mean that your life needs to be full. Full of God, love, family, friends, laughter, saddness, emotions, happiness and most of all full of gratitude. The most important is full of God. I belive God when he tells us that because of Him, we will see our loved ones again. Live is eternal.
    I now savor and cherish every moment I have with people. Making the most of everyting, throwing out the whining and complaining that life isn’t going the way I want it and thrilled with every moment God has given me.
    May God bless you and comfort you in your time of sorrow and may your memories of your loved ones bring you smiles.

  15. Dear Mike,
    I am sorry for the loss of those close to you in the sense that you won’t be able to hear their voices and see their faces or hold them close as you once did. Your article is so enlightening and speaks true to how we view death in our culture. In April of this year, the man I love dearly was killed in Iraq, he too was “too young” at 25yrs old. Though he chose the life he led and sacrificed himself to ensure the safety of others, the anger and sadness comes. He lived every minute of his life to the fullest and had friends and loved ones whom he touched around the world. Some of the magic his death brought is the way those of us who never met are connected in our love for him and our experiences we shared with him. His gifts to those he met were joy and enthusiasm and the positive difference, much like you share every week with your newsletters and books. Tony also shared his appreciation for others in his daily life with small tokens or comments or just in the way he treated people in all situations. Thank you for the reminder of how an adjustment of the way we look at death can ease the pain of losing someone dear to us.
    God Bless you and your family, and thank you for sharing your daughters journeys with us as well.

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