Staying in touch with our own mortality

Working in serious illness care brings us in frequent contact with dying and death. This contact has the potential to open us up and inspire us to live more fully. It also has the potential to numb or even harden us to the reality that all lives end, even ours. 

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This excerpt from Frank Ostaseski's book The Five Invitations tells the story of Sono and her attempt to be present to her own mortality: 

One day, we were sitting at the kitchen table together. Sono was writing in her journal, and I was reading the book Japanese Death Poems. There’s an old tradition in Japan of Zen monks and others writing short verses in preparation for death. Myth suggests that these poems, composed on the day of one’s death, express an essential truth discovered in one’s life. In general, they are short, intense poems, sometimes profound, sometimes satirical, often expressing an immediate beauty and natural simplicity. They remind us that we are most alive when we are present at the edge of the unknown. Sono asked me to read her a few. I chose some of my favorites.

This powerful one is attributed to the founder of the Soto Zen School in Japan, Dogen Zenji, who died in 1253. Four and fifty years I’ve hung the sky with stars. Now I leap through—What shattering!

Another entertaining poem, by Moriya Sen’an, who died in 1838, speculates on the afterlife. Bury me when I die beneath a wine barrel in a tavern. With luck the cask will leak.

An unflinching poem by Sunao, who died in 1926, expresses the sometimes harsh reality of dying. Spitting blood clears up reality and dream alike.

And Kozan Ichikyo, who died in 1360, offered this poem of elegant simplicity. Empty-handed I entered the world Barefoot I leave it. My coming, my going—Two simple happenings That got entangled.

After hearing these death poems read to her aloud, Sono became inspired to write her own. She asked me about form and length. I suggested that she not concern herself with such matters. I invited her to simply write what she believed to be true. Sometime later, Sono called me to her room. “I’ve written my death poem,” she announced. “I would love to hear it,” I responded. “I want you to learn it by heart,” she instructed. And then she went on to say, “When I die, I want you to pin it to my clothes. I want to be cremated with my poem.” “I promise, Sono,” I said, my tears expressing the honor I felt in being given this gift.

Sono’s poem was an invitation to be open-minded and openhearted, even in relationship to the great unknown of death. She read it to me several times. Then she had me recite it over and over, to be certain I had learned every word. That is where it has lived ever since, in my heart. I’ve never written it down until today. I share it as a beautiful reminder of what is possible when we live fully in the light of death. Sono found her way. It is up to each of us to find ours.

SONO’S DEATH POEM Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray, soon enough the seas will sink your little island. So while there is still the illusion of time, set out for another shore. No sense packing a bag. You won’t be able to lift it into your boat. Give away all your collections. Take only new seeds and an old stick. Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail. Don’t be afraid. Someone knows you’re coming. An extra fish has been salted. —MONA (SONO) SANTACROCE (1928–1995)


For reflection alone or together: 

Take some time to reflect on and eventually write your own death poem. 

Next week: Organizational commitments to well-being