Die Well - photos and article by Simone Noble

Since moving  to Ojai I have found some beautiful and deep friendships. One of those is with THIS lady – Joslyn Lawrence. Besides her insane artistic abilities and all around grace, empathy and smarts, Joslyn is bravely opening up conversations around death and dying in our community, and on social media.

Joslyn started up a Death Café – a monthly discussion on death. I joined a group of about 20 people, of different ages, professions and socio-economic statuses. We sat in a circle, eating black moist chocolate cake and drinking tea. The conversation took several different directions. Some people wanted to share experiences they had had with loved ones dying. Some wanted to talk about their depression and their own thoughts around choosing death. Some talked about their fears or lack thereof. But everyone had something to contribute. What struck me was how rarely these conversations are had in my circles. There is so much conversation of living your best life, 10 things to do everyday, how to be vulnerable and improve your relationships, ect. But how about 10 things to do to ensure you have a good death? Obviously, this is a transition that we are all going to experience …. so why aren’t we talking about it?

Stephen Jenkinson, one of Joslyn’s mentors, writes that in order to live more fully, we have to embrace the fact that we are going to die. By walking everyday with the knowledge of how precious everything is on our lives, we are then able to come to terms with the fact that everything dies. 

Joslyn practices this daily by honoring her own death. She focuses on something that came up for her that day and  experiences it through the lense that it will change and die, just as her physical body will. It is purely a presence practice. A practice of being in a moment and then into the next and then into the next. And these are all mini deaths.

“I have started to realize that facing the subject of death isn’t necessarily about being with people in hospice who are actively  dying or in the last 6 months of their lives. The real work is to come back into middle life – at the time when our parents are starting to age and we are starting to feel age. There is room for work here because we have no roadmap for tuning into the next stages, and the fact that we will all die.”

 Joslyn’s work is  dedicated to normalizing that everything dies.  It doesn’t take long to shift how we think about things if there is enough ritual or consistent information around it. Just look at how normal it is to be on our phones much of the time!

But how do we introduce this taboo topic to the younger generation? Joslyn suggests that the best way is to talk about death to teenagers is to connect them to nature so that they consciously experience cycles and seasons.  Let them see that there is no water in the summer and then the water comes and things change, for example. She wants to create a sense of death in life. That is wisdom right there.

A large piece of what drives Joslyn’s work is her own fear of walking towards death. In particular, her advanced directives that she has, for a beautiful nature laden home funeral celebration, may not be held by those close to her.  Mainstream society doesn’t have a map on how to deal with death in this way so she wants to educate people about the possibility of different kind of death rituals – both for her own sake and for others. What she is talking about is really is going back to ancient practices that we have simply gotten away from.  For example, the practice of embalming in America grew out of the want to preserve bodies of young men who died in the Civil War and whose bodies were then transported back to their home. A process that sometimes took several weeks. That turned into a money making empire that we haven’t moved away from but for the most part, no longer makes sense.

 “We are completely polluting the earth with the chemicals we put in the bodies and then the lead boxes so bodies don’t decompose in the ground. It is death adverse all the way past the death . None of it makes any sense.  Yet my grandparents would never have considered anything else other than being buried in this traditional way.”

Another piece to the death and dying conversation is elderhood. Stephen Jenkinson teaches that whilst getting older is inevitable, becoming an elder is a skill. This is information for all of us, not just those in the later life stages. How does one become an elder in training and what does that mean? The first thing is to talk about the way everything changes and dies. Afterall, what gives one more wisdom than loss and grief and allowing yourself to be present with those feelings and the knowledge that they exist?

“Life is not about making yourself feel happy and good all of the time. It is about just being with everything as it is and that is part of life. If we embrace it we may have fuller and bigger lives.”

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