Sharing the Secret of Death
by Cat Saunders
This is the second in a 13-part series of essays and interviews about death, written exclusively for The New Times.
"My goal in life is never to have a moment when I could not say, 'This is how I want to die.' "
I "came out" about my death in the January 1998 issue of The New Times. It's a long story. The punch line is that I've been informed of my death timing in advance. Apparently, I'm due to die at the age of 55, in the year 2009.
This information was given to me (at my request) by a Vedic scholar and former monk of twenty years, who was extensively trained in the ancient Hindu science of death prediction. Obviously, the Cosmic Trickster can run circles around any human's capacity to determine the course of fate. However, when I found out about my death timing, all my cells exploded in agreement, as if I'd been shot through with 20,000 volts of electricity. My body said "yes," and I trust my body above all.
Nearly three years have passed since I learned about my "date with destiny" through Rishi (not his real name). It's taken me this long to get up enough courage to come out in The New Times. The truth is, I'm tired of being secretive about my death. It wastes energy and it kowtows to fear. Besides, I want to get on with my passion, which is writing about death. Coming out is simply the first step. As a bonus, I'm hoping that people will use my intimate self-disclosures to stimulate their own thoughts and feelings about death.
To give you a few examples of how others are using my death work to go deeper in their own explorations, I'd like to share brief interviews with three special people: Leslie Heizer (my best friend), John Giovine (my partner), and Sally Giovine-Kerr (my "mother-in-spirit" and John's mom).
Cat: Tell me about your experience when I first told you about my death timing.
Leslie: I remember feeling honored that I was the first person you told, since John wasn't quite ready to know at that point. I remember being both scared and excited. I think there was a part of me that checked out. I felt awkward! How do you behave when your best friend tells you that she knows when she's going to die?
Cat: After I told you I'd probably die at 55, you said, "Oh, that's a relief!"
Leslie: I know that 55 is short by cultural standards, but it was a relief that you weren't dying next month. I guess I have abandonment issues!
Another thing I remember was feeling stunned by your experience of being told how the whole story evolved with Rishi, the eagle [referring to some verifying symbols, not discussed in these articles, that appeared in my life at that time], and the volts of electricity. It had that awesome, absolutely right sense about it whatever it means!
I'm absolutely convinced of the reality of it, but I sometimes think and I know you sometimes wonder is it a cosmic joke? Is it a way for you and others to work on death? Or is it a finite fact and date or both?
Cat: How has my death work affected you over time?
Leslie: I've gone through the same kind of death stages you've talked about. Sometimes I feel acceptance, and I'm grateful and happy to know about your death. Other times I feel angry. It's that cultural thing: 55 is relatively young.
There are also times when I'm really angry that your physical health is what it is. I wish you didn't have to suffer so much.
Cat: How has my death timing affected your relationship with me?
Leslie: Sometimes I get mad at you for leaving sooner. I feel sad, too. I also imagine that my experience around it may get more intense as time goes on.
I think about how long I've known you, and 11 years [until 2009] is less than the amount of time I've known you. I realize that connections go on after people die, but it's not the same. You and I have such a rare connection. I'll really miss you, because I think I'll be around longer than 11 years.
Cat: How has this news affected your relationship with death?
Leslie: It has increased my curiosity. If I could know, would I want to know when I will die? I see it's an option now, because of you.
It also makes me think more about my death and other people's deaths. It pushes me. I wasn't totally asleep about death, but I was more asleep than I knew. I think I somehow assumed I could live forever.
I think your death work has made me more awake and more conscious about valuing what we have. It cuts through the denial. Like, if I don't talk to you this week, then there's forever. There's not forever! It makes every communication more precious.
Cat: Will you tell me how my death timing has affected you?
John: At first, I didn't want to know. To me, there's a certain elegance involved in not knowing. I like the idea of dropping dead when you drop dead. There are mysteries in life that we'll never figure out, and I think death is one of the biggest mysteries. It's a huge threshold to say we can now figure out death.
Cat: I don't think that knowing my death timing takes away the mystery of death any more than knowing when I was born takes away the mystery of birth, but I respect your desire not to know.
I wonder if you'd talk about how you were mad at Rishi initially?
John: I was ready to punch him in the nose! I went through a similar process to what people experience when they're going to die: anger, fear, denial, withdrawal. I was mad because I didn't want to lose you.
You're very close to me; I love you. Even though it wasn't me being given a death sentence, I felt like Rishi was meddling in my life, because you're like an extension of my life. It affected me, and I was furious!
Cat: Later, you realized you were projecting your anger about losing me onto Rishi.
John: Yes. I came to that by talking with you about your process, because I saw that you were quite well grounded in your journey into death. Also, it helped that you said that you know there's option in the timing. You could die sooner. You could die later. You could die right on time.
I don't doubt that it's possible to know. I just have edges around knowing.
Cat: How was it for you the night you were ready to hear the actual punch line?
John: I remember you telling me the age, 55. At first I was cavalier about it; then I felt very sad. If you die at 55, I'll be 53. To think about your dying at a particular time was one of the saddest things I could imagine.
Cat: I remember we wept together. I can imagine how much I'd miss you if you died first, and it breaks my heart to know you will go through that when I die.
Would you talk about how this has affected your relationship with me?
John: I think it's brought us closer together. I've also learned to appreciate your process, even though I don't necessarily share it in total accord. I respect it, and I appreciate the way you're bringing death out of the closet.
Cat: How do you feel about my being public with the work?
John: I think it's important. It's definitely the ultimate edge in Western culture. Probably the hardest thing for me is when people hear about your death work and they come up to me and say, "What's this about Cat dying at 55?" I think, "Oh, damn! I have to try to explain this?"
Cat: Will you say a few words about how my death work has affected you over time?
John: It's given me a greater appreciation of life. I've changed in terms of what really bugs me. Little things may still bother me, but there aren't many things that get too far under my skin anymore.
Also, I've watched you work with death energy, and I play with it, too. I feel much friendlier with death now. I look at it as a healthy process.
Cat: What was it like for you to learn about my dying at 55?
Sally: I felt shock shock and all my other feelings about losing you and what would John do? As a mother, I didn't want him to have to go through what I went through with Peter [Sally's first husband and John's father], who died of a heart attack at forty.
When you told me, I think there was also denial, because you look so young and healthy!
Cat: Yes, we've talked about how scary it is for you to face that my health is debilitated.
Sally: I don't seem to have any obvious fears about my own death, but I have terrible fears about other people's deaths. I also know that I haven't finished with my daughters' deaths. I lost them both at birth, as you know.
When you lose infants, it's like losing this huge potential, and when you lose someone you love who's an adult, you lose someone you have history with. It's like taking a piece of your life and pinching it off.
With you, I think, "Hey Cat, you have all this stuff to do!" It's my old "save the world" business.
Cat: As if it's my job!
Sally: Right! It's your job to stay here and do the work you're doing: getting people to see what they're not willing to see. So hey, you have your nerve, going!
Cat: I know how you hate to lose a compatriot! How has this affected you over time?
Sally: I have to say that I hated it so much I went into denial. It's only recently that I've had to look again.
Your working with death means that I get to share your process. That makes me want to start crying, yet I can also understand that this is going to be a strange blessing not the kind of blessing I'd ask for, but if I can just hang in there, completely open to it, I'll learn a whole lot about dying.
Cat: How has this information affected your relationship with me?
Sally: I see you as totally alive, so I'm sure the denial's there. I'm still juggling with the information about your death. On one hand, I accept it, but then there's the other ball. I don't want it. Throw that one out!
Cat: There's so much in this culture about death being about loss and grief and suffering. There isn't much about how it's a constant gift to work with death. The joy, the incredible vision that comes with it!
Sally: I think you're going against a huge mountain of culture when you say that, and yet, that's where I want to get.
Cat: How has my work affected your own relationship with death?
Sally: The main thing is that I know you're pioneering it. I want to be part of it, even if at this point I'm saying, "no, no, no!" I realize that your death is going to be part of my spiritual path. You know, you're bushwhacking! Spiritual bushwhacking! I have no doubt how important that's going to be for me.
Many thanks to John Giovine, Leslie Heizer, and Sally Giovine-Kerr for their gifts of love and support.
For reprints of this or any other article in the death series, please send SASE to The New Times.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is the author of Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook (due out soon).