Meditation & Health #24 – Embracing and Celebrating Transition
Embracing and Celebrating Transition
By Xi Ti & Dan Shan
A Celebratory Occasion
Mexican writer Octavio Paz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, wrote, “To the residents of New York, Paris or London, the word Death is never pronounced because it burns the lips. Mexicans, on the other hand, frequent it, caress it, they sleep with it, they celebrate it; it is one of their favorite games and their most permanent love.” No doubt, many Mexicans do fear death, but they don’t shun it. Instead, they look death in the eyes, embracing it and even joking about it.
Mexicans believe it is through death that we have life. Death is a part of life; it is not an end but a new beginning. This belief is reflected in the Day of the Dead, which is a lively, lighthearted celebration. Food offerings are placed on altars for the departed, music is played at gravesides, and the living recall entertaining stories about the deceased.
Mexicans are raised with this openhearted view of death. Children are taught that the Day of the Dead is a festival in honor of those who are no longer living on the earthly plane. It is not meant to be a day of sadness. The Mexicans’ way of teaching their children to view death as neither frightening nor sad is an approach to this natural cycle worthy of deeper pondering.
Fear of the Unknown
However, before we teach our children about death, we must first understand what death is. It is a natural and inevitable part of life, so why do we fear it?
The fear of death stems from the fear of the unknown. Many people are very unsure as to whether there is life after death. Many who do believe the soul survives death are not convinced that post-death life is happy. It is also common to assume that death is always lonely and physically painful.
Losing loved ones to death causes intense grief. Not knowing where they go after their departure adds to one’s misery. Many people believe that the bond of love is lost throughdeath. In many cases, the focus is on the death, rather than the life of the individual. Death is viewed as a loss to be feared and grieved, not a transition to be embraced.
In many cases, the focus is on the death, rather than the life of the individual. Death is viewed as a loss to be feared and grieved, not a transition to be embraced.
A New Chapter
Dr. Eben Alexander III, a Harvard University professor, wrote the book Proof of Heaven in which he described in detail his own near-death experience when he fell into a coma due to meningitis.
He was in a place filled with white and pink clouds among which he saw transparent and shining beings. There were hymn-like sounds. He felt himself being embraced by the all-encompassing love of a beautiful woman. Near the end of his experience, he found himself in pitch-dark emptiness before he saw a light. He described feeling that he was beginning a new life in a vast new world. That new world, in his view, is Heaven. His conclusion: Death is not the end point but merely a chapter in an immense and infinite journey.
Most of those who have had near-death experiences have reported that death is not a frightening experience at all. The world in which such people found themselves varied only slightly based on their religion and background. For example, Buddhists have reported seeing Buddha or a bodhisattva, while Christians have seen Jesus Christ or angels. In general, what is common to the near-death experience includes bright light, tunnels, out-of-body experiences, and godly beings. The bright light brings with it a perfect sense of completeness.
Open Expression to Heal
In Buddhism, life is viewed as a continuous cycle. Death is deemed a “return to life,” meaning that after a life ends, there is a rebirth into another world. This view of death is not far from that of Mexicans, and it also fits the beliefs of Dr. Eben Alexander III about dying based on his near-death experience. Since death is part of life, it follows that embracing it from childhood onward is healthy and comforting. What is the best approach to teaching children to be at peace with this natural process?
There are parents who bar their children from seeing funeral services for fear of their kids being tainted by inauspicious energy. Some people, in an attempt to intimidate their children into good behavior, tell the kids that their bad behavior will drive their parents into an early grave. Others talk of “going to hell.” Children end up fearing death and mistrusting the rituals concerning it.
Children have many questions about death. It is important that they are in an environment where open expression about death is welcome. When a family member passes on, allow your children to pay their last respects and offer gratitude for the relationship, and encourage the sharing of stories about the departed. Simple picture books about death can be used to help young children get acquainted with this aspect of life’s journey. Reassure them that death is simply a change, the start of a new story.
Let children know that even as tears flow, the deceased person has begun a joyful new chapter, and honoring them means moving forward with life. Smiling and laughing over memories, looking at photos, and penning thoughts and tributes are integral to the healing process.
Participating in the Transition.
Children learn much about life and death through relationships with animals. When a pet dies, children should be encouraged to honor the life of the animal, perhaps in the form of creating a tangible tribute out of photos, cards, poems, and words of gratitude. A memorial service for a pet can be an important part of helping children to process their loss. Honoring animals promotes compassion and respect for life. The death of an animal is often a child’s first experience of death, and they should be encouraged to both express their sadness and celebrate the animal’s new journey.
Death is highly personal, and healing from the death of a loved one is an individualistic process. A person’s beliefs about death have a direct impact on whether they get mired in grief or open themselves to celebrating the transition. Focus on the positive and give thanks for the many wonderful years and memories shared. If death is not about a permanent loss but a temporary departure, and if death is just a spiritual exchange and not an eternal disappearance, why not accept and face it in an openhearted manner?
A large-scale carnival known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is held annually on November 1st and 2nd in Mexico. To associate death with a carnival may seem contradictory and disrespectful. How is it that Mexicans associate the death of loved ones with a celebratory occasion?