Learning How to Sit In the Unknown
“No matter when I die, I’m going to leave something unfinished.” – Margaret Meloni
You’re going to die someday. I’m going to die someday. We know this — and yet, we’re afraid to talk about death.
Margaret Meloni has confronted death multiple times and, by turning to her Buddhist faith, she learned to make peace with the unknown. And as she studied and learned more about death, she found herself inspired to help others cope with it, too.
On this week’s episode of “Authors Who Lead,” I talk with Margaret about her newest book, “Sitting With Death: Buddhist Insights to Help You Face Your Fears and Live a Peaceful Life,” and how she feels that death can actually bring joy.
Why Talk About Death?
There was once a period of time when Margaret was dealing with the death of several family members. She remembers thinking, even in her own grief, that she wished she could tell people around her to calm down — that while it was hard, it would be okay.
This need to reach out to others, to try to make them feel better, marked the start of her journey.
But she realized that she didn’t have enough energy to help everyone she met in need, and so she wrote her first book, “Carpooling with Death: How Living with Death Will Make You Stronger, Wiser and Fearless,” in an effort to encourage people to be open to conversations about death, rather than run away from them.
Some people haven’t experienced the death of someone close to them, Margaret said, or if they have, it might have been a beloved family pet. She says that we “shouldn’t disregard the power of those experiences” — that they, too, contribute to the discussion.
Margaret likens conversations about death to the power of water. If you let the water out fully, it will go rushing out, but if you let it out a little at a time, then it will be more manageable to control. This preparation and readiness for death is important. By deliberately talking about it now, we won’t be as caught off guard, or as afraid, when it enters our lives.
Showing Up with as Much Life as Death Will Allow
The first step in showing up every day is to be open to the idea of the finality of death, Margaret said — because that will allow you to be more open to other elements of life, including “the little deaths.” These are the endings and transitions in life that can be disappointing, she said, and when we practice working through them, we are better prepared to face death itself.
Margaret’s books have empowered me to feel competent to think and talk about both death and my own mortality — and to not constantly hang onto what I thought should be. This leaves room to appreciate what I do have, while also keeping this in mind:
“No matter when I die, I’m going to leave something unfinished,” Margaret told me.
This could be the next book you’re writing, or even your breakfast that morning. But as long as you’re taking steps each day toward being that person who finishes that project, or lives your life to the fullest, then it’s no tragedy.
Understanding and Coming to Terms with Death
We want to value everyone where they are, but some deaths affect us differently — such as when a young person dies.
It feels tragic that a child or teenager should have lived longer. But as Margaret tells us, “We’re not owed anything.” There is no promise in life that we will all live to an old age, no matter what our belief system or spiritual path says.
Ultimately, death is a natural process that you can prepare for, and not fear, even though it will be difficult. It is possible to find peace with death, Margaret says.
Where Does the Joy Come From in Death?
In Western culture, we like to protect ourselves from death. We don’t allow dead bodies to be seen, so we remove them quietly and hide them away — whereas other cultures sit with their dead, or have other practices that respect the body of the deceased.
When we think of death, Margaret teaches us to have an appreciation of time as a limited resource. This is where the joy comes into our lives. We appreciate more of what we have now and the time we have with our friends and families.
When we appreciate this time, we learn to use it well. And when we lose someone we love, it reminds us of the special relationship we had. We had some time together. We had that person in our lives to enjoy and love.
There is also joy in the surprises that life brings. Often, you don’t know what gift or experience will come your way until it’s happening.
“When we think we can’t go on, but when we are open to going on, the joy is in what happens next,” she said.
Lessons from Buddhists
Since Margaret’s book is geared toward Buddhists, she interviewed many experts and learned that much of the religion centers on death.
Even so, she said she was surprised by their willingness to not only participate, but to also be so open and vulnerable about their own challenges. She found that the more experienced the practitioners, the more they were willing to share how hard it is to deal with death and what has helped them.
As Margaret was conducting her interviews, she was also mentoring someone who had experienced a recent loss — and found herself judging them, all because their loss was similar to what she had gone through herself.
But as she learned more from the Buddhist experts, and their humble vulnerability, she realized she needed to sit with them in their experience, instead of thinking that she knew how it should be for them. While it’s okay to give advice when asked, Margaret said she was telling instead of listening, just as others had done in her own period of grief.
About two years ago, Margaret completed all of her interviews and sat at her dining room table, covered in notecards. At first, she thought she would sort the lessons she learned into big and small messages, but when themes started to emerge, she pulled out relevant topics and created categories for her book.
During this time, Margaret was part of our mastermind group here at Authors Who Lead, and she remembers a piece of advice I gave her: While using comments from others in your book, be careful that you don’t give away your own voice — and she ended up beautifully weaving these experts’ messages around her own conversation.
How to Prepare for Death — and Talk About It
We never know when we will be faced with the death of a loved one — but some degree of readiness will always help.
Learn what kind of resources you may need and be open to asking for help during the grieving process. Some people won’t know how to support you, so it’s important to reach out for what you need. Also, speaking from her own experiences and through helping others, Margaret said to anticipate unexpected responses to death, some that may differ from yours.
The topic of death is uncomfortable for most people to deal with, let alone talk about and help others through. With both of her books, Margaret has owned her expertise — first by dipping her toe into the waters of death as a subject and, now, by fully submerging, immersing herself as a guide to help others feel more comfortable with death.
This work can often be very grim, but Margaret has learned to make peace with it, as well as several lessons along the way:
- You can find joy in death as a part of our lives. It is not something to fear.
- We need to stop having an attachment to the outcome of when death might come. Death will come when it’s meant to.
- Having an awareness of death can help you lead a happier life.
As I reflect on this, I’ve taken a lot from both of Margaret’s books. And what I’ve learned is that death isn’t scary if you start to practice it now. It’s about enjoying and appreciating what you have in life so that when death comes, you feel fully alive.
What was your biggest takeaway from this episode? Have you ever bumped up against death in your life? Share in the comments below!
That’s all for this week. Let the process guide you to write the book you were meant to write!
Buy “Sitting With Death” on Amazon here
Buy “Carpooling With Death” on Amazon here