Last week, yet another beautiful story about death came across my newsfeed. There are a lot of things I can avoid clicking on (kitten videos, I’m looking at you), but tell me a story about dying and I’m all ears. While the inclination might have something to do with my time spent working in hospital chaplaincy, I don’t think that’s all. We are all intrigued and moved by dying. Otherwise, these stories would not always find a place in our social media cycle. But this one was different. Paul Kalanithi was a doctor, new father, husband, and writer. He was also the same age as my husband and had a baby girl, just like we have. So of course I clicked.

As many of these stories as I’ve read, nothing could have prepared me for this one, an essay called “Before I Go,” that Kalanithi wrote for the Stanford Medicine. In closing he address his infant daughter:

image.img.780.high“When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

Dr. Kalanithi didn’t leave his daughter with a note about his brilliance or encourage her to “be brave.” Instead he reminded her that her very presence as an infant offered him rest, satisfied rest. The gift he left her was to tell her that she had already been a gift to him. What a remarkable father.

We tend to read the reflections of the dying because they remind us of the precious and swift passing of our lives. They bring the word “death” back into our purview, and we seldom see people die anymore. The dying are tucked away into Intensive Care Units and hospices. I’d by no means be the first to point out that we are a culture of death-deniers. In my work in the hospital I learned all of the more comfortable synonyms for someone who has died: passed away, no longer with us, gone. “Died” is one of those rare 4 letter words, that while not a curse word, we often feel the need to spell in front of small children.

I wish that we could read stories like the one about Dr. Kalanithi and hold fast to the feelings they invoke. I wish I could remember to listen to my son more closely, giggle with my daughter more often, and never, ever argue with my husband. But, that is not how life works. Because we are not dying. At least, not at this precise moment. And so we walk through our lives mostly forgetting about their inevitable end.

Perhaps we love these stories because they give us a moment to practice dying. To think about the people we love more than we can bear and to consider what we hope they will remember about us. And so these stories momentarily remind us to slow down and to hold babies more or to worry about money less. And they open up that normally forbidden place in ourselves. That place that reminds us that death is often unfair and entirely unavoidable.

It seemed no coincidence that the same week this piece came to my attention I also read a prayer from The Valley of Vision called “Sleep”:

May my frequent lying down make me familiar with death,
the bed I approach remind me of the grave,
the eyes I now close picture me to their final closing.
Keep me always ready, waiting for admittance to thy presence.
Weaken my attachment to earthly things.

Dr. Kalanithi was given the kind of clarity about death that we all long for. And so we read these stories, and we practice. Because when you begin the process of staring death down, you realize how quickly life’s feeble anxieties dissipate. At least, that is what the dying tell us. Them, and Philip Seymour Hoffman: