How do you deal with death?

“In many ways, women are death’s natural companions. Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but also a death. Samuel Beckett wrote that women ‘give birth astride of a grave.’ Mother Nature is indeed a real mother, creating and destroying in a constant loop.
– Caitlin Doughty

My baby was inside the tiniest white casket I had ever seen.

Beautiful flowers were around the little box and some baby pink roses were on top, chosen by our mothers from Jeff, Morgan, and me.

After the funeral remarks by Jeff’s Uncle Ellis and a prayer by my brother Lane, we stood around for awhile, hugged, cried. Jeff’s granny worried I wasn’t wearing a coat on this windy November day. I didn’t notice.

I couldn’t leave. Not yet. I didn’t want to drive away and return later with Kali’s grave looking different than I had left it.

I needed to see the cemetery workers lower the box with Kali’s tiny body into the ground.

So we lingered a few more minutes. I watched the first shovels of dirt cover up our baby.

My greatest fear had come true. We had officially buried our sweet baby girl.

Does death still have a sting? It did that day. And many days (weeks, months, years) afterward.

But even though I believe in life after death through faith in Jesus, physical death still has to be dealt with here.

That’s what I loved about Caitlin Doughty’s book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: & Other Lessons from the Crematory. She invites us to meaningfully face death head-on instead of hiding it in the corners, defaulting to a death-phobic culture.


So in her book, she artfully mixes in her personal journey with death as a mortician and the historical journey of death from our and other cultures.

She points out that until relatively recently (as late as the beginning of the 20th century), more than 85% of Americans died at home. But around the 1930s we began to “medicalize” death. Instead of family members and religious leaders being with the dying person, we shifted to doctors and nurses getting those final moments.

And we (attempted to) push death further and further away from our awareness. At what cost?

Caitlin shares a story (one of many in the book) about an adult woman and her dead mother.

“Because of superstition, unquestioned even among those who should know better, this woman wasn’t given the opportunity to sit with her mother until, as a friend of mine put it, her grieving ‘felt . . . done, somehow.’ She missed her chance for closure. A corpse doesn’t need you to remember it. In fact, it doesn’t need anything anymore—it’s more than happy to lie there and rot away. It is you who needs the corpse. Looking at the body you understand the person is gone, no longer an active player in the game of life. Looking at the body you see yourself, and you know that you, too, will die. The visual is a call to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.”

Caitlin isn’t pushing for a single right way to handle death—there isn’t one!—but she’d like to see more thoughtful options available.

When my dad grew sick with lung cancer, he told us he wanted his body donated to UAB for medical research.

But first he wanted to be at home when he died. So with the help of hospice, my siblings and I (and our Alzheimer’s-labored mother) were able to let him go the way he wanted.

It wasn’t easy. But it was satisfying knowing that it was how he wanted it.

After his final breath in his bedroom, we each could spend time with him. I didn’t want much. Once his soul flew out, I didn’t feel as connected with his body.

But one of my sisters, Sandy, did want more time with the body for closure. She was able to sit by his bed with him in his room for as long as she wanted.

Only when we were ready did we call for his body to be taken out of our family home.

I think Caitlin might have approved of how that part went down.

She mentions this mid-fifteenth-century German woodcut in her book.


It a man on his deathbed, entitled Triumph over Temptation.

“The little smirk on his face tells the viewer what he is thinking: ‘Ah yes, death. I’ve got this.’
The question is: how do we get to be that guy? The one who is facing his own death with complete calm, ready to get on with the moving-on.”

Most of us won’t get much of a choice on how we’ll die. But by confronting our fears of death, we improve our lives now and perhaps make the death process a little less harrowing later for ourselves and for others.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes isn’t meant to be a religious book, but if you’re like me and you read everything from a spiritual worldview anyway, you’ll find all kinds of religious meaning in it.

And also like me, you may come away from it rethinking some of your thoughts on death and your own mortality.

* * *


* If you don’t already know Andrew, I highly recommend you tune into the series he’s writing from his own experience with dying—“Your Dying Spouse“—on his blog, Blessed Are the Pure of Heart. It will move you as well as educate you.

* Another book on death and dying I strongly encourage everyone to read:
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.


* Not for the faint of heart, here is Caitlin’s website, “The Order of the Good Death,” on staring down your death fears.

* Caitlin includes in the book these 7 reasons humans fear dying (from a 1961 paper in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology). Which ones do you relate to?

  1. My death would cause grief to my relatives and friends.
  2. All my plans and projects would come to an end.
  3. The process of dying might be painful.
  4. I could no longer have any experiences.
  5. I would no longer be able to care for my dependents.
  6. I am afraid of what might happen to me if there is a life after death.
  7. I am afraid of what might happen to my body after death.

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

29 thoughts on “How do you deal with death?

  1. Linda Stoll

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    I’m grateful for blogging right about now as I walk through the grief over my dad’s sudden death. The writing is hugely cathartic. And the support I’ve been receiving has been a sweet blanket of love.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Grief can be a beast, yes? I’m so sorry for the loss you’re feeling over your dad, Linda. It’s never easy, regardless of how old they were or how old we are. 🙁 I’m glad you’re feeling the love coming your way through it all. You definitely are loved.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I don’t know how funerals are usually done in your neck of the woods, Bill, but here in the deep South we usually still have burials and very few cremations. Although this book touched more on cremations, it still reaches deep into our death rituals in general.

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    My wife says that fear of death was not included in my onboard subroutines when I was brought online.

    While amusing, it’s not exactly true – having seen enough of Death in the Machine Age very close at hand, it’s ceased to be a big deal, but that transition for me has allowed, I think, a greater sensitivity for how others feel – perhaps by contrast?

    I also had to face the utter illogic of the atheistic point of view, that death was the end of all for the individual involved. Balanced against what I see of Creation, and what I know of how the physical world works, the idea that there is no controlling intellect, no God, and no ultimate purpose raises silliness to monumental proportions. I mean, humans developed through beneficial mutations, caused by cosmic rays> In the first place, mutations almost always result in sterility. Ask any mule.

    In the second place, the power required in cosmic rays sufficient to rewrite DNA would also destroy a lot of information, and humanity would look more like the products of Chik-Fil-A than the masters of their own universe.

    Armed with that, death isn’t a worry, and that incidentally makes it possible to write “Your Dying Spouse” (and thank you for the mention!). Otherwise I’d be WAY too depressed by the process, and would have quit long ago. It’s no wonder that Randy Pausch worked with Jeffrey Zaslow to produce “The Last Lecture”; to concentrate on it alone would have been tough.

    I don’t care what happens to my body, or my projects. I do care what happens to my dogs, and I have and do urge my wife to remarry when I’m gone. For their sake, for their continued care, and for herself. She does not realize how lonely she will be.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I do wonder how seeing so much death (or not) affects how we view our own dying. And how that changes with the types of deaths we see. I assume that the more we see, the more aware we are of our own deaths.

      Believing in a wonderful afterlife takes away much of my death fears too. I still don’t look forward to any pain associated with it (and I’m so sorry that you have to live with so much!), and I feel bad about the grief that the dying always leaves behind for the survivors. I admire you for encouraging your wife to continue forward with new things when you’re gone. Not everyone is so brave or selfless to volunteer that blessing to their spouses. Then again, you’re not like everyone. 🙂 Thank you for being the one and only you, Andrew.

  3. Trudy

    Such deep thoughts here, Lisa. Thank you for sharing them. I just can’t imagine losing a child. That must be so devastating and grief must still be so fresh at times. I’m so sorry you suffered this loss. Also your dad. Praying Jesus will hold you close and give you peace! Hugs!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Thank you, Trudy. Even though it’s been quite a few years since Kali died, and already 5 years since my dad died, those moments can still be fresh, yes. Thankfully time (and actually grieving) does help it get easier to live with. And knowing I’ll see them all again!

  4. Barbara H.

    I w as thinking as I read the first few paragraphs that this did sound like it would go hand in hand with Being Mortal.

    I was thinking, too, that death used to be much more commonplace – higher mortality rates, agricultural economies where animals died often, people dying at home, etc., but now we’re fairly well removed from it. Even though we might see a lot of it on TV, we know that’s not “real.” (though when a dear friend’s mother died, for a long time I couldn’t take watching cop or detective shows or others where somebody died every week. It was too close and seemed to take death too lightly). I’m glad for lower mortality rates and the fact that death isn’t as commonplace, but on the other extreme it makes it too easy to ignore until we absolutely have to.

    I’ve never been in the presence of someone who has died, and both my parents lived 1,000 miles away when they passed away, so I didn’t get to sit by them when it happened. I don’t know how I would react but I think with my husband or any of my kids or grandkids, I’d want that time to just be with them and hold their hand before they’re taken away.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      You’re right on target with what the author says: people used to “see” death a lot more than we do now because of the way life was structured. But now even death has been modernized in how it’s been cleaned up and hidden out of sight in American culture (speaking in general terms anyway). Is that better or worse? The author thinks worse. Obviously some people might think better. I think the book suggests that it’s something we should at least think about instead of naturally adopting the cultural norms (although those are in flux as well).

      I wasn’t in the room when my dad died. I had left my shift to get some sleep at home. My siblings said he died very peacefully. On the other hand, I was present when my mom died and it was more like a woman giving birth. 🙁 Difficult. Everything is so individual.

  5. Pamela

    My Sarah died in November, too. I’m eager to read Caitlin’s book. My mother died unexpectedly eight months ago and I’m still reeling. Thank you for this resource review.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Unexpected deaths bring their own kind of difficulty. 🙁 I’m sorry for the loss of both your Sarah and your mom. It’s a strange thing having experienced death in that sandwiching of generations. Thankful for our hope for reunions!

  6. Dianna

    Lisa, thank you for sharing about this subject of death. I totally agree that the final moments of a person’s life should be with his loved ones and not with medical staff. That is the way I would want it for myself.

    Thank you for sharing about this book…and about Ann’s book also. I’ve read a number of reviews on it and I have put it on my must read list.

    Love you!

  7. June

    Thank you for sharing this, Lisa. Maybe in 5 years I’ll be ready to read Caitlyn’s book. Things are much too fresh right now. To answer your question, number 3 is the one I relate to most. Always enjoy your reviews!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Definitely give yourself space before you read this, June. And it’s not necessarily a book for everybody at ANY time actually. It just happened across my path in a good season. # 3 hits home with me too: Given the option, I wish we all could die with zero pain.

  8. Cindy

    Lisa, my heart broke for you during those days again and again. I saw a glimpse of the pain you speak of and I see the beautiful way you’ve ministered to others since then. I appreciate this blog on dealing with death and grief. i love you sister!!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Thank you, Cindy. You’ve been so sweet and compassionate through the years with my grief and with others as well. You’re a special sister. I love you, too!

  9. Natalie

    In answer to your questions, it’s both the process of dying and the leaving of my still-young children that trouble me the most. Death does indeed sting, for a whole lot of reasons. A challenging read, Lisa. I’ll be looking into your recommendations.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I understand what you’re saying, Natalie. When my kids were little, I would always ask God to let me stay here long enough to help them grow up. And I’m thankful that he did. Now my daughters are both in their 20s and although I think they still need their mom :), I know they’d make their way in the world independently now with or without me.

  10. Michele Morin

    Lisa, I didn’t realize that losing a daughter was part of your story, and I’m so sorry. What a hard path that must have been — and still must be as well.
    Thank you for your thoughts on what sounds like a very important book — and for your suggestions for further resources.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, carrying Kali in my body for part of a year, and then in my heart forever, definitely changed who I am. Thanks for your compassion, Michele. Sometimes it’s the hardest parts of our stories that have the most effects on us….

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, Jean. Death is not a subject that many are comfortable with, especially the more distant we become with it. Yet death is something we know we all will face on day. Oh, the ironies.

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  12. Candace

    I’m so sorry for your incredible losses, Lisa. Caitlin’s book will certainly help many. I’m so glad you found some comfort in it. I too have lost many loved ones and the grief seemed to go on forever at times. I’ll definitely have to add her book to my list to read. Thanks so much for the recommendation.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’m sorry you’ve had so many losses too, Candace. I know that the longer we live–and the more people we love–the more losses we’ll all have. It hurts, but thank God we learn to keep living and loving anyway.

  13. Beverley

    I have seen many people die in my job as a nurse, but did not understand death until it became personal, with the death of my niece. Although the writer may have had many experiences with death, she does not yet understand it, but some day she will, because at some point we all do.
    As for dying, i worry about how i will die, but not what will happen afterwards. I haven’t really thought about where i would like to die, i guess it will be taken care of when the time comes.
    Thank you for sharing your story, Lisa x

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      That’s a wealth of experiences that you’ve had in seeing lots of people die, Beverley. I have not, so it’s still kind of a strange thing to me. It does make me appreciate more the nurses and doctors and pastors and caregivers who do it on a routine basis, yet never let it become routine. After watching my mother die, it brought home the realization that being present at a birth and being present at a death are similar in some ways, each one ushering a life into another world.

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