The Values of Death. By Jen Davis from Exit Matters


Trying to talk to a teenage boy can be tough at the best of times. So what do you do if they lead into a conversation by saying that my generation and the ones before me are responsible for “the state of the world” today and the death of so much on our planet. And he is right! Guilt, a mother’s curse, is waiting to pounce on me just as the conversation is getting started.

But before I get too swamped, I have a few thoughts I want to process. They are about the value of death.

I remember hearing Stephen Jenkinson, author of “Die Wise” and more recently “Elderhood” talk about how In many Indigenous cultures, the teenage years often bring about a ceremonial “brush with death” that may involve a separation (or even wrenching away) from the family and significant time away in nature for contemplation and inner reflection. It is a very sacred recognition that the child that leaves is more about themselves and the returning adult has the response-ability for the collective, using the gifts and strengths they are born with to help the community stay strong. It is a turning point, a threshold that once crossed can not be un-crossed.  In the dominant North American culture, we have very little ceremony or recognition around that (driver’s ed doesn’t count as a brush with death). But maybe our own children and teens, through their school projects on climate change, endless you-tube videos, dystopian novels and movies and just engaging in any kind of social media brings them to look at death in a way we can’t protect them from. Is this their version of being separated from their parents (who at least in part have contributed to their future) and asking themselves “what can I do about it?” Growing up into a more mature version of ourselves can definitely be a value of death.


Dr. Zack Bush talks about another value of death. In a recent podcast, he ponders “what if we need a death moment to transform completely”? He has witnessed and heard from people who have gone through biological death and been resuscitated, and he says there is a universal message. Upon coming back to their senses after these kind of procedures, many described feeling true acceptance and love for the first time in their lives  – just for being who they are. Even with all the quirks and limitations and even harmful actions. Even for polluting the planet. Not that it excuses the actions, but forgiveness is a powerful tool for change and it always starts with acceptance He goes on to wonder – what would happen if we were to have this “transformative death moment” before we die? What if we could feel that love and acceptance now in our lives without having to wait for tragedy or endings. So embracing who we really are and even forgiveness can be another value of a brush with death.

Probably the summary of this direction in thinking is that death can bring us clarity. I say “can” because it doesn’t always – if we don’t see it for what it is – a natural part of life. “To see the end of something precious to you gives you the chance of loving it well” says Stephen Jenkinson. It’s only a chance, but it is perhaps one of our best chances for making dramatic changes to our ways of being and thinking and living.


So as my son opens up to his “brush with death”, if not his own life then to the possibilities that may not exist for him in his lifetime, I need to stay open to mine, as his much older and possibly closer to death parent. Is that grim? I don’t think so. I think it’s authentic and true and actually vital. Death has a natural place in all of our lives. The more I avoid death I deny even more from my children. To witness and be present to their grief and their loss, as I feel it lurking in my own life. We are all in this together. And as his parent, if not elder, then I have the response-ability to find the value in death and the share that truth and wisdom with him. Not to make it better, or to make it go away. But to make it natural, and find the ok-ness in that.


About the Author

Jen Davis is a death and dying coach and funeral celebrant. She is also an inventor and teacher and has a business called Exit Matters. It produces games and resources that help people talk about death and what matters most.

Learn more about the work she does here.

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