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  • Writer's pictureChristina Stiverson

Death class lessons for living in the present moment


Living in the present moment

What if you could live each day to the fullest, without fear of dying? Would you live differently if you felt truly free?


In our society, death often is viewed as tragic and unknown. However, since death is one of the only certainties in this world, then why do people avoid talking about what will happen after we die? Why is death so hard for most people to embrace?

 

Death is guaranteed, but meaning and purpose are not.


What if you knew you could pass on a legacy of life to your family after you die?  Would you feel at peace if the loved ones left behind were able to appreciate the time they had with you, rather than mourn the time they missed out on?  

 

When I die, whenever that may be, I want my family to embrace my life knowing I lived with as much passion and love as possible. I want people to find meaning in my death.

 

How can you free yourself from the fear of dying to live in the present moment?


***

 

My friend Rachael, a certified death doula, suggested that I participate in a death class. I thought…

 

What would happen in a death class anyway?

 

The purpose of this class was not to relive my young daughter’s death several years ago, but to contemplate my own. Rachael began the class with us by exploring answers to questions we might ask ourselves if we only had three months left to live. The premise of the course centered around the idea that we had been handed news of a terminal illness causing a death sentence.

 

The concept was hard for me to grasp, so I chose to embrace the experience slightly differently. As a military veteran, I thought about potentially dying suddenly at any moment and not having time to prepare. I felt the sense of urgency helped me to process through the questions she asked, capture my thoughts, and quickly file my plans away to start living the life I imagined.


Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. – Norman Cousins

***


For me, being a parent is the scariest, toughest, yet most rewarding endeavor of my life so far. Raising children has brought more fear than I ever envisioned. My fear was compounded after the loss of my daughter Addie to a rare pediatric cancer following a year of treatment. After that, we became helicopter parents with our other children. We battled irrational dread of heights, illness, and the fear of dying. 

 

When any child dies at a young age, those who remain struggle with facing life moving forward. The circle of life has been disrupted, and many people around you fear talking about death! Experiencing the illness and loss of my daughter forced me to suddenly contemplate my own mortality.


Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.  –George Addair

Guided by a death class, I looked closely at five life domains: mental, practical, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. Each gave me an essential insight.

 

This exercise became much more complex than simply having a legal will in place. Thinking about your own death can be painful and difficult, but walking through this milestone brought a FREEDOM even I could not see prior to my journey.


If death causes you no pain when you’re dead, it’s foolish to allow the fear of it to cause you pain now. – Epicurus

My husband and I drafted our first will together when Addie was born. We included all future children and listed multiple guardians, so we would not have to update it frequently. As veterans we had some insurance in place. What else is there? Well, there is a lot more to think about if you want to be able to fully live in the moment without the fear of dying.

 

Throughout the class, I worked on a document to accompany my will that detailed my preferences and wishes. Certain questions guided me. I called it my “Legacy of Life”. Once it was completed and filed away, I felt weightless, like I could conquer anything!  


***


Mental Domain

 

For this domain I focused on what aspects of my life provided meaning in death, and what I’m most proud of. Now some people might think this is an easy task, but I assure you it required deep thought. In addition, I wrote about how I want to be remembered, my values, career milestones, and important moments in my personal life.

 

I captured what would make my life complete, what I’m most grateful for, and noted things and people whom I truly loved. There was a very specific question about forgiveness, and I addressed that too. Surprisingly, I didn’t have any relationships I needed to mend at the time; many people in the class did.

 

What do you value? What do you want people to know about you? Who do you want to forgive to gain peace in your life?



Practical Domain

 

This domain started off simple for me since I already had a will in place. I also listed where all important data and documents were stored, and detailed my preferences for passing on sentimental items.

 

Another key component of this domain was to think about what I wanted for my body after I die. I described my desires to be an organ donor and to contribute to science if able.

 

Lastly, I contemplated my thoughts for a celebration of life following my death. I actually imagined what people celebrating my life would look like. I want people to honor the relationship I have with them. I hope there can be an overflowing amount of gratitude for the life I lived that outweighs any somber energy that people may have in the moment.

 

What do you envision happening to your body after you are gone? How would you like people to honor your memory? Is anyone aware of your wishes?

 

What if talking about death could bring freedom and comfort, rather than awkwardness and devastation?



Emotional Domain

 

In this domain I included Thank You messages to family and dear friends. It was the hardest part for me. I couldn’t yet bring myself to write full letters to our girls, even though I desperately wanted to do so. I will someday. If I do get a medical death sentence with time to prepare, that will happen. For now, I left them all my journals and short messages of love in my legacy of life document. This was what I could muster up the courage for at the time.  

 

Additionally, part of the emotional domain is evaluating any relationships that need healing. I had already done much of this in a previous workshop, so I felt content with my state of being. However, this was a tall order for the others taking a death class.

 

Do you have relationships that need reconciliation? Do you want to say something specific to someone while you are alive or after you die?



Physical Domain

 

This domain is exactly what it sounds like. How do you envision your last days on this earth? Do you want to travel somewhere epic, do something crazy, or just spend normal days with family and friends? What kind of support would you like, and where would you like to be when you die? All great questions that typically we don’t often discuss with the people we love most.

 

If you could choose, where would you want to be when you die? Have you told anyone your desires?


We are all going to die. We just don’t know when.



Spiritual Domain

 

The spiritual domain is where I put a tremendous amount of thought.  I don’t really know if there is an afterlife. But if there is, I really hope I see Addie there peaceful and pain free, alongside my grandparents, cousin, and military friends. I hope the landscape is more beautiful than I can imagine. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, but I believe what we do with what happens matters. We can create meaning in death and a legacy of life. Ultimately, I believe we are meant to fully embrace our experiences on earth, grow, leave our mark on the world, and become better human beings.

 

What do you believe?


***


Addie’s legacy lives in the depths of my soul every day. This class was not a class about dying; it was a death class about truly living!  It brought me a sense of peace, acceptance, and a new beginning. I don’t want to be the person who, on my death bed, sees an image of what I could have been. I want to be proud of my contribution to this world and know I lived each day with love, kindness, and gratitude. Exploring these domains is what gave me strength to live the life I imagined, without the fear of dying, even after my child passed away from cancer at 3 years old.


Through the lens of the five domains, you can let the people who have touched your life in a profound way be a beacon of light guiding you to meaning in death.


Helping people become more alive in the present moment has become part of my purpose.


To my dearest friend Rachael… your class was a priceless gift. Thank You.



*Christina Stiverson is a certified grief coach, retired Air Force veteran, and President of Foundation for Addie’s Research. She finds immense joy in her life as a wife and mother to her three beautiful girls. E-mail Christina@graduategrief.com or read more.


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