July 02, 2014

How Do We Talk About Death?

In her final days, a writer reflects on the divine art of dying.

Karen Speerstra

Writer Karen Speerstra was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003 and entered hospice care in 2013. What follows is a selection from her hospice journal, which appears in her final work, The Divine Art of Dying, out from Divine Arts in September. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about caterpillars. And how they become butterflies. I chuckle at the New Yorker cartoon of two caterpillars looking up at an airborne butterfly and one says, “They’ll never get me up in one of those!” There’s a mystery about this fuzzy worm inside a chrysalis that holds the potential of flying. What a paradox! I’ve read that the caterpillar completely disappears, except for a few cells that are called imaginal cells. Imagine!

A paradox refers to two statements that apparently contradict each other but are ultimately true. I’m living on such a teeter-totter now. Sometimes I go up, sometimes I go down. Back and forth. I remember how G. K. Chesterton painted paradox: a truth standing on its head waving its legs to attract attention. I’m living now in layers of multiple meanings. Time is everything; time is nothing. Sometimes I feel as if I’m connected to everyone on this planet. At other times I feel all alone. I know that para means “beside” and dox means “opinion.” I am of the opinion that things are right next to me, yet far away. Paradox knows every side of my story. All those waving feet make me dizzy.

Death/birth. Ending/beginning. Alone/together. Strength/weakness. Powerless/empowered. Active/passive. Tears/laughter. Anger/acceptance. Blindness/insight. Sweet/sour. Both/and. Or what if I’m suspended in threeness? Black, white, and gray? Or fourness? Denial, acceptance, avoidance, assent?

I echo Alice in Through the Looking Glass. “I can’t believe that,” she said to the Queen. In a pitying tone, the Queen replied, “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” Alice replied. “One can scarcely believe impossible things.” “I daresay, you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.

I daresay I haven’t had much practice at any of this!


On New Year’s Eve after I had already made my decision to stop chemotherapy, we had dinner with friends. After dessert, one of them said, “So, what does this coming year look like for you?”

I felt the question deserved a direct, transparent, and real answer. Taking a sip of water, I replied, “Well, since I decided to stop taking further treatment, I’ll be entering hospice care soon. So I think it’s likely I may not see this year through to the end.” Silence. I’ve experienced such thundering silence with others since that New Year’s Eve conversation when I tell people I’m now in hospice care. You can see their eyes click up into their heads as they begin to calculate the weeks and months I might have left. Some actually ask me, “How long will you have?” Language leaves them, just as language leaves me, too, with only a wide swath of confusion behind.

Word sounds come from our breath and the vibrations we create. Regardless of where they’re born, babies blow milky breath-bubbles, and they all begin by saying “ahhh.” Soon, like little buddhas, they add mystical consonants: “Ohmmmm” and, of course, “Mamamamama.” Words carry ours stories and key up our songs. Old words, such as logos, scratched onto parchments tell of creation, the first and most sacred utterance. Words can be wonderful tools, as are symbols, to express and clarify what we’re thinking. They can also be thin, weak, and useless. Like the question: “How long do you have?” Which words shall I use now to talk about what’s happening to me?

When I say “death” it’s harder to come up with a concrete image than if I say “car,” for instance. With “car,” my mind immediately goes to “red Subaru.” But “death”? What’s that color? What form does it take? When I check my Roget’s Thesaurus for help, I find words such as: Decrease. Terminal. Deterioration. Extinguishing. Unhealthy. Receding. I want to spend what time I have left writing a new Hospice Thesaurus filled with words for dying that sound more like: Hope. Joy. Increase. Vitality. Fulfilling. Ongoing. Paradoxical. Powerful. Eager. Energetic. Whole. All feelings are true.

In talking to my husband, now I find myself using “you” more than “we” in conversations about our future. “You’ll enjoy visiting Herbert and Phyllis in Sonoma.” “You should think about getting a lawn service and help with the gardening.” “You might take another cruise.” I leave “me” out of those plans. I continue to search for the “right” words, the most “helpful” words. Sometimes I hit a wall.

As long as I can remember, I’ve wrapped myself in the flesh of language. Now I wallow in an alphabet of ambiguity. I don’t know what I’m thinking until I speak it. And even then, I’m not sure. Language is just too finite to describe the infinite, and that’s what death seems like to me now. Infinitely indescribable.

Karen Speerstra (1940–2013) wrote many books, including Color: The Language of Light and Sophia: The Feminine Face of God. Previously, she worked as a newspaper columnist and publishing executive. 

From The Divine Art of Dying—How to Live Well While Dying (2014) by Karen Speerstra and Herbert Anderson. With permission of Divine Arts, Studio City, California. www.divineartsmedia.com

Image: Thomas Jackson/Gallery Stock

More at Tricycle:


In this new video teaching, Mingyur Rinpoche explains the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind, a foundational teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Part one of the four part retreat is open for all to enjoy—become a Supporting or Sustaining Member to view all four teachings.


Part of the Tricycle | BuddhaFest Online Film Festival, Free the Mind follows brain scientist Richard Davidson as he researches meditation and mindfulness techniques for the treatment of ADHD and PTSD. For discounted passes, become a Supporting or Sustaining Member.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
myers_lloyd's picture

No withering, no death, no end of them.

The Prajnaparamita Sutra

wsking's picture

We all admire her courage and boldness in sharing the uncomfortable timeless quality of her life right now. Im sure we all send her love and strength and wish we were friends so that we could be there and add humor and thoughtfulness to her days.

I'll tell you a funny story: Once Baba Ram Dass was sitting with a friend who was on the way out. Baba asked him why he didn't do this and that. The guy said, "because, duh, I'm dying." Baba asked him, "Cant you just die between 1 and 2PM and live the rest of the time?" ......I thought that was really funny, when I was dying I couldn't organize anything much less the process!

There are many great stories like that in Sushila Blackman's wonderful book: Graceful Exits: How Great Masters Die. I highly recommend it. Its very....amazing.

wsking's picture

" In the midst of living, there is just living. In the midst of dying, there is just dying."
Dogen Zenji's last breath.

When you are dying, the world of concerns of wordly living people seems so far away, so exhausting to deal with, so far from a deepening sense of peace that feels as if you are floating on a supporting ocean.
Then they call to you from far away, and you have to swim up, up, up to answer them for some silly thing that has nothing to do with a great NOWness that seems invisible to them and their concerns. They want to give you an injection of something, to feed you something, to ask you something.....its so exhausting.

Their loving care is happening all around you, but you seem to slip right away from it, just like falling asleep. You feel so trusting and relaxed that all is well, it seems like a great Ahhhhhh breath that goes deep deep into your heart. You just float into it in between this breath and the next. You feel that the space between becomes wider and greater, until you know you are just completely floating on this Ahhhhh.

Until you float away into lightness. A feather on a breeze.

jackelope65's picture

Having been treated for two different cancers, I can only feel Karen's words but there comes forth no wise or clever answers, and end up with loving kindness and compassion.