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Death in a Time of Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has brought our mortality into stark relief. Whether we are among those most vulnerable or not, death seems to be all around us. This is disturbing for even the most hearty among us.

I was reflecting today how death and birth have so many parallels. Both can be beautiful and Divine, but are also unpredictable, painful, and supremely human. Both come with change akin to alchemy and require an inordinate amount of administrativia.

Here in America, we don’t do either very well. We birth in notoriously inequitable hospitals, as if our pregnancies are an illness (not a judgement, I had both my babies in the hospital). The resulting outcomes for moms and babies are the worst among all developed nations. And the end of life? Well, we tuck away our elders in their final years, rather than build robust systems to age in place. We spend tens of thousands to prolong our lives by mere months at the cost of quality connections with loved ones and a peaceful exit.

Here at Ananda, the meditation and yoga community where I live, we do our best to exit with grace. We spend a lot of time practicing death through our daily practice of meditation, introspection, and right attitudes. A dear friend died this week after a many-year battle with terminal illness. And while the grief is as piercing as it ever is, he left with immense grace by his ability to surrender through the process. We’re all blessed by it and by his friendship.

Today, as thousands lie in hospital beds alone, my heart breaks. I wish we as a culture did death better. It wouldn’t fix this situation, but it might bring greater peace to those who are dying right now. If only we spoke of death more, honored the death process, prepared ourselves for what was in store. We may hold different beliefs about what happens after we die, but the process of death is universal.

First, there is the body. It is dying, which means that it is difficult, likely painful. If we spend more time learning to breathe acceptance into the painful parts, might this be less scary? If we experienced pain as a natural part of life, rather than avoiding it at all cost, might we be better prepared?

Next, there is the mind. Could we spend more time preparing the mind to be strong and able to remain calm, even under mortal threat? Neuroscience suggests yes. The brain retains plasticity for our entire lives. There is a sizable body of research that demonstrates that meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex of the brain, while it simultaneously reduces the activity of the limbic system. In other words, you can train your brain to maintain greater calm and reduce its reactive impulses.

Finally, there is the Soul. This is supremely personal and many Americans spend a great deal of time on this, while others dismiss it entirely. I love that about us, we are free to choose. And yet, I would argue that there is a common thread to pick this one up from: love.

Whatever your faith or none, there are few who would dispute the power of love. The more we spend our lives cultivating the universal love and compassion within us and among us, the more peace we will surely find in our own “final exam” from life.

So, as we walk through the coronavirus pandemic together, let us focus on our breath, on our compassion, and on our love. Let’s remember our common humanity. And if you pray, pray for those who are dying, pray that they may feel comfort in their hearts. Let’s also pray for their loved ones, whose pain is difficult to fathom. And if prayer is not for you, perhaps silence. A moment of silence is worth a thousand words.

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