Wednesday, April 27

Living an Exquisite Life in the Face of Death

Earlier this week, J and I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural in-person event for the project called Exquisite. Fifty of us gathered together to recognize and explore the question: What is Exquisite?

The evening began with a meditation, followed by an eye-gazing experience and the tasting of appetizers while blind-folded, so as to heighten the taste sense. Then about a dozen of us shared brief talks on what we experience as Exquisite.

I was nervous (always am when putting my thoughts and feelings out to others publicly) but was touched and humbled to be approached afterward by one man who told me it really touch him because he'd just lost his dad, a holocaust survivor whom he'd never really been able to be close to. Another shared that he was dealing with issues around death with his 12 year old daughter and said he was grateful to hear my talk.

Here's a transcript:

I’m afraid of death. And if you’re like most people, you might be too. It may not be as real or as raw for you as it is for my 6-year old daughter; if she’s afraid she’s likely to yell-cry “I’m going to DIE!!!!” You might be more like her dad, who practices calorie restriction for his personal longevity and who spends his days working to improve gene-sequencing technology in order to end disease and aging. A noble endeavor to be sure!

Recently though I’ve been reminded that much of what is exquisite about life – and by exquisite, tonight I’m thinking of the definition that references synonyms like “flawless”, “beautiful”, “intense”, “keen” -- much of what makes life something we want to prolong, we can learn about by facing, accepting --even embracing, death.

Take my friend Loni for example. Loni has been fighting small cell lung cancer since December. A few days after her diagnosis she wrote to friends and family about feeling hopeful, optimistic and beyond grateful for the outpouring of love, light and support she had been receiving from friends and her communities. But I don’t think she was referring simply to the hope of getting better, about beating the cancer (although that’s a hope I’m sure she holds, along with so many of us who know her). Rather, I think she was referring to a larger hope and optimism of living an exquisite life with whatever hand was dealt to her. In that same message she wrote, "…Never at any point in your life ignore the possibility of something extraordinary coming along." Flawless, intense, beautiful!

A few months later she wrote about the gift it was to her that people were sharing with her ways they generally don’t. She wrote that there’s something about a cancer diagnosis that allows others to open up and share their lives and their thoughts and themselves in ways that doesn’t happen every day.

But I don’t believe it was the cancer diagnosis as much as Loni’s open-hearted attitude towards her diagnosis and her battle; her willingness to honestly share the journey, which made it possible for people around her to connect with her, to join her in her journey and in doing so, to take a quick glimpse at their own mortality. I said that Loni has been fighting cancer but I think it’s really more accurate to say that she has been accepting cancer in a beautiful way, and in doing so, accepting and celebrating life.

A few weeks ago, the World oldest man, Walter Breuning died at the age of 114. Among the advice he left for living a long life – like “embrace change, work as long as you can, and help others” – was this: “Accept Death”. He said, “Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die.”
Therein lies the irony: to live an exquisite life we must accept death…

Then there is Jen. We are distant relatives and for the past years we were in touch occasionally and talked about meeting and introducing our families. In January Jen sent me an email but I hesitated in my response frankly because I was uncertain about how to be and how to meet her given her late stage gastric cancer. When I finally got the gumption and the courage to get back in touch earlier this month, I learned that she had passed away a few weeks after her last email to me. So I spent a long time reading her Caring Bridge pages and crying and feeling inspired and alive and sad…and in awe of her life and her death.

You see, on Feb 6th she hosted a party she’d spent the weeks before organizing. It was an early birthday party for her son. Early because she wanted the whole family to be together to celebrate Life, Love and her son’s 7th birthday. She invited all of her friends and family to the event, which was held at her house and people flew in from various parts of North America to celebrate and to connect with Jen. At one point that afternoon she went outside to enjoy the sunshine –if you remember the early months of the year were gorgeous and sunny here in California-- and to see the kids playing on the trampoline. She had written a moving speech thanking everyone for their support and her cousin read it to the guests. After the party her husband tucked the kids (who are 7 and 9) into bed and explained to them that their mom would not be around much longer. He said they seemed to understand because Jen had been preparing them for it. A few hours later Jen died. Living and sharing her life to the fullest right up until the final hours.

Most of the time it’s easy to get caught up in the small details of life but I hope that when I come close to death, either my own or that of someone I love, that I’ll be able to be present to it with the courage I’ve seen in Loni and Jen. And I hope that I’ll be willing to share it with those I love and help them come to terms with it, too so we can, at some point say farewell to the life we shared, in appreciation of it.

And in the meantime, if I can find moments of living exquisitely, intensely, flawlessly…if I can find ways to feel the realness of life, in all it’s colors, even in the small moments and
quiet days…If we all can be willing to share a smile, a kind act, a beautiful film, a difficult moment, an impassioned poem, a painful truth and be willing to give to those we love and be given to as well, in life and in death then to some extent we have Jen and Loni and Walter to thank for it.

To the exquisite delicacy and beauty of Life!


  1. Lisa, Lisa! Such a beautiful topic as are your thoughts on it. We are born to die and in between live exquisitely. Thank you for helping me to remember how flawlessly my grandmother lived and died. She did both with such dignity. In the end, she requested to be seated--upright in a chair, all tubes keeping her alive removed, and she blew kisses and waved at each of us saying, "Good-bye, darling." (Love from Jackie)

    1. Postscript: This comment from my friend Jackie continues to touch me as I think about death and the way it impacts how we live. Jackie died from cancer two years ago and in the year before her death lived a life that fully embraced the concept of living an exquisite death in the face of death.