"Three different diers"
In its simplest sense, this project set out to have one dying person talk to someone who's already died. Which is, obviously, a rather unique opportunity. And we did do that. Yet pretty quickly, we also aimed to disabuse ourselves of the notion that any of us were less "dying" than the others. Doug pointed this out in one of our conversations when he described us as "three different diers."
Doug, with his known short timeline left, was our central dier. As you'll see, he often refers to himself as a "novice" dier. Rob, having died once already and come close more often than that, was deemed by Doug to be the "master dier," (though this was also Doug's intentionally tongue-in-cheek way of resisting the temptation to place Rob's experience of dying on a pedestal). I (Lauren), having not yet died nor possessing a terminal diagnosis at this time, was often tempted to place myself in the role of the non-dying / not-yet-died one. The innocent inquirer.
While these roles are in one sense a true description of how close each of us is or has been to our own deaths, the conversational space we pushed ourselves into was one where the temptation to deny death was not operating so seductively in the background. In other words, Rob and I didn't get to objectify Doug as the dying one while remaining safely in the fantasy that death wasn't immediately present for either of us (even if probabilistically it didn't appear imminent).
This tendency to "bring death closer," as Rob describes, is a stance woven through our conversations. You'll see it in our willingness to talk openly about how Doug would be dying soon, and not find ways to talk around that fact. If I painted myself as the innocent one, Doug would energetically reminded me death wasn't far off for me, either. We talked directly about how the denial of death played out for each of us. And when we said goodbye at the end of our calls, we usually acknowledged that while it would likely be Doug who left us first, it just as easily could be Rob or Lauren.
The interest in bringing death closer is a different approach from how death is often discussed or related with in our western culture today. Others have written more eloquently about this, but in short, the tendency that our project aims to move against is one where death is only spoken of in hushed tones, or not at all—as if the utterance itself bears some power to bring the event closer, or undermine the power of life itself to continue being beautifully alive.
In this context and for we three people, the commitment to get closer and more intimate with dying is a core value that animates and coheres this entire project. It unites us as friends and voyagers through these conversations. It increased our honesty, intimacy, and the energy of our discussions. And it is as much a value as it is a goal for our whole lives.
Did we do it? In some moments I believe yes, and in others, not so much. The "point" of course is not so much whether we were always as courageously close to the reality of death as we could be, but instead how willing we were to honestly and continuously look at our desire to push it away.
Some of you may be dying, and you may feel the most akin to Doug's type of "dier." Others of you may be more intimate with dying such that Rob's perspective is familiar to you. And many of you may identify with my place; people who have not died and are not apparently about to die, yet who are drawn by some inner compass, curiosity, or sense of incompleteness to re-shape your relationship with death, and therefore, with life.
Wherever you find yourself as a visitor here, know that you are welcome, and invited to participate with us. And what are you participating in exactly? Doug called it an inquiry, and a crucible, which it certainly is. I think we also share the desire that this be a touchstone. A reference point. An open space where death and life can be held together, rather than apart. And maybe, the start of something new.
Our first Conversation — May 15, 2018
The video below is the first full and "official" conversation between Doug, Rob and Lauren (after some preliminary back and forths and one prior technologically impaired attempt). As our starting point, it makes an excellent starting point for you as a visitor—but is by no means the only one.
What's interesting about this conversation is that it will orient you to how we got started with this project; how we talked about it, approached it, and what we were interested in. It also includes a straightforward introduction from both Rob and Doug about their relationship with death and dying. And, compared to how we were together by the end, it has a sort of charming formality (in retrospect).
0:00 - intro from Doug,
5:50 - Rob shares his backstory as it relates to dying, including his death / NDE
11:35 - “Just this” - the link between asthma and meditation practice in Rob’s life
15:30 - Doug on how he got here and who he is
21:40 - Doug’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis and his reaction
26:15 - The value of talking and teaching about cancer and dying
28:55 - How long do you have?
34:55 - How do we invite ourselves into vulnerability with life and death?
37:37 - How deeply can I love?
39:50 - Doug’s blog and it’s role in his process of cancer, dying, and completion
41:24 - The ingenious denial of death
44:23 - On dark humor and despair