How a Visit from Death Saved My Life - Part 1

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The mission of the Conscious Dying Institute is: To Restore Death to It's Sacred Place in the Beauty, Mystery and Celebration of Life, Create a new wisdom-based Culture of Care and Healing and Contribute to the Evolution of Human Consciousness.

One way we serve this mission is through our End of Life Doula Certificate programs. In our programs we offer teachings and practices around seeing birth and death as bookends of life.  As such, death can be embraced as a part of life.  It can bring great learning, strength, freedom, and more.  Walking with death can bring us to a deeper appreciation of life.  In today's blog, we share the first part of a 2-part article written by Dr. Matthew Wilburn King, a personal telling of his own walk with death (source: Elephant Journal).

How a Visit from Death Saved My Life - Part 1, by Dr. Matthew Wilburn King

I knew I was going to meet the angel of death prior to his visit.

At first I felt trepidation and angst. I didn’t know what to expect from such a powerful spirit, but I knew that he might be coming to collect me, even if I wasn’t ready to go.

I had been diagnosed with Stage IVB of a rare blood cancer, and although my oncologist couldn’t state if I was going to live or die, he made clear that I had a 15 percent chance of survival. In other words, 85 percent of the people diagnosed at the same time as me with this rare blood cancer are now dead.

I am not. Death saved my life.

Recently, after one of my Zen meditations, a fellow Buddhist practitioner approached me and asked: “You’re a survivor! You fought, death lost; how’d you do it?”

I didn’t fight, I said. I learned. I chose to be a student.

Cancer was my teacher and death my guru.

Opening myself to the teachings of both cancer and death led me to the realization that disease and death are not to be feared, and both provide eternal wisdom.

When we close ourselves off to the teachings of disease or death, we cannot learn their lessons.

When I was diagnosed, I made a couple of important choices.

Wisdom for anyone who is suffering or dying.

I chose not to be a victim.

I decided to keep my agency by remaining positive and learning from the experience. The paradox of nearly dying: it taught me how to live.

Rather than deny the angel of death’s arrival or hide in hope of eluding death, I decided to set the table and invite death into my life. And, like any good student, I prepared before the guru’s arrival.

As loved ones prepared a warm bone marrow broth, a plate of fruit, and some hot peppermint tea, my teacher—cancer, dressed me as nicely as she could in 160 pounds of flesh over my 6’3” boney frame. She was sorry that she had to strip me down to the bald, raw nature of my being before the guru arrived, and she cried with me as she quietly whispered, “To live, sometimes you must die.”

Death came to my house. Although weak, I lifted myself from the confines of the couch and did my best to crawl to the door. I was too frail to walk, but I could crawl. I opened the door, graciously inviting him in, “Come,” I said. Upon entering, he reached toward me, touched my shoulder, and spoke, “Whether or not you leave with me is up to you.”

I did my best to pull myself to my feet. I turned toward the mirror and looked. I saw a man who I could no longer recognize standing before me. I accepted it, but it was dark. I didn’t know if I would leave with the angel of death that night. But, I knew then that he was deeply compassionate and had an immense respect for life, despite his eternal commitment to death.

Teach me, I said.

In that moment, I lost everything, including my body, my heart and my mind, but not my spirit of respect for death or his wisdom. As we sat down at the table, his wisdom began to nourish my soul.

We spoke for hours, days and then months. As chemotherapy ensued, the teacher began to leave the room and the guru’s wisdom filled the empty spaces more and more each day. The lessons came continuously and death’s wisdom slowly taught me how to lose my mind, to begin living in my heart, while restoring my body so that I might also live in the spirit of truth.

The angel of death was committed, and so was I. He taught me that for most people, the wisdom that comes with death happens far too late in life, and sadly, often leads people to regret the life they never lived.

At the end of each day he would ask, “Are you living?”

“Not yet,” I would reply as my cheeks washed in tears.

...continue to Part 2....