13 November

A Beautiful Talk With Maria About Death

by Jon Katz

The fear of death is one of the greatest fears people have. When we look directly into the seeds of this fear instead of trying to cover it up or run away, we begin to transform it.”  – Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Since almost all of our media culture and families hide from death, I decided when I started the blog and fell in love with Maria that I would not hide from it, and she agreed.

Every couple of months, we talk about the likelihood – not a guarantee – that I will die well ahead of her. These were the first conversations I ever had with another human about death. They are not gloomy talks; they are a testament to love and trust.

I am 17 years older than Maria, a lifetime in many places. It’s not an abstract discussion.

Before we talked about it, I often woke up at night with worry about what might happen to her when and if I died.

When we met, she seemed beaten up, fearful, and insecure about her gifts.

That is no longer true.

I no longer have much money, but I am working very hard to be as debt-free as possible for us and for her to be prepared to deal with the grief and loneliness that she might have to face.

After our bankruptcy, I told the bank I was negotiating with that I would only agree to sign a new mortgage agreement if the cost of the farm was low enough for her to stay on it if I died.

The bank put up a good fight but relented.

Our mortgage for a 17-acre farm is less than a one-bedroom rental in many cities. It was perhaps the best gift I could leave her. She will have a good chance of keeping the farm if she wants to. Her art is increasingly popular, and I’ve learned she can care for herself and others.

Our life together has evolved. She is strong and confident, brave, and resourceful. I don’t need to worry about her handling things. She can and she will.

Still, our willingness to talk about death gave her strength and helped to prepare both of us for it as it inevitably approached. Our talks have led us to much honesty and openness about life and death.

We know this is the story of all humanity and life – everything changes and dies. It is not, to me, a shock or total tragedy when it happens to a dog or a human.

It is where we all, red or blue, friend or foe, will go.

She is one reason I have worked so hard to be healthy and learn to take care of myself. I want to live with her for as long as I can. I won’t speak for her, but I imagine she feels the same way.

We had such a talk last night about dying.

I said I was coming to understand that we don’t just disappear when we die. Our spirit lives on through our writing, art, the people we know and love, and whose lives we touch.

I like the Buddhist idea – we are part of a much larger world. We are all one thing in many ways, one being we will all perish.

I remember my first Quaker meeting when one of the meeting members died – we didn’t weep for days or tear our garments. We celebrated the lives of people who died and gave thanks for knowing them. This changed my life and the way I looked at death.

I applied this teaching to the death of my beloved dogs and then to people. I didn’t mourn for them for long; I gave thanks for them and went out to find another one to love.

I told Maria that if she died first, I would be profoundly grateful for having known and loved her and been loved by her. She enriched my life and gave it meaning. The taboo became something we talked about accepting, not hiding from.

She said these talks have been good for her and helped prepare her for reality. When I collapsed on the kitchen floor a month ago, she thought I was dead. “I wasn’t stunned by it,” she said, “the first thing I thought was “here we go,” it’s happening. I was relieved to hear this.

In some way, she said, she was prepared.

Neither of us can know how we will feel if the other dies. We will be better prepared for it than many people I grew up with. In the Jewish culture I was raised in, grieving was intense and unending, and mourning in the open lasted at least a week. Women tore their garments and covered up the mirrors. People gorged on food for days.

The dead were praised and lionized, and there was no talk of gratitude or the inevitable resolution of life. There was endless weeping and hand-wringing as if death was beyond comprehension or imagination.

I thought the same thing I learned to think about animals: “Do we expect the things we love to never die?”

There will be awful pain for either of us if and when the other dies.

But I believe we have come to understand through talking and thinking that life for either of us will not end but be reborn differently. Maria was prepared for me to die when she found me on the kitchen floor. I am less prepared for her to pass, I suppose because I am older than she is, but I know it will be hard.

I also know it’s up to me to go on with my life and give it meaning.

Even the hate and anger-crazed politicians can do anything to stop that or change it. Woke people and the people who wish to persecute them are all going to the same place.

These conversations have helped us to come to terms with the reality of our love and wonderful life together. We supported one another every day of our marriage and will to the end. And we are coming to understand that people don’t vanish when they die.

They all live on in different ways. I have settled in my life; I am where I want to be and plan to stay. She is building her family – close and loving friends who deeply care for one another – and has been for some years.

She will not be alone, and I always tell her I will be haunting her daily. The marks of my life and our life together will never die and will be all over her life and memory and creativity, as she is all over mine.

The odd thing is that we look forward to these talks. They are not morbid. We laugh and exchange ideas and imagine what our lives would be like and what the farm and the animals would be like if one of the other of us died.

It would go too far to say these talks are simple and pleasant.

We talk about money, security, courage,  support, and reality. We talk about our friends who handle it well and those who can’t. We learn from them all and share what we are learning.

It feels good to do this; another thing for me to be grateful for.

In his writing about fear, Thich Nhat Hanh offers remembrances, of things to think about when faced with death. I especially like this one: “I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old.

I repeated it all the time. I read another of Hanh’s remembrances when I was in the hospital:

I am of the nature to have ill health” as I age, “I cannot escape having ill health.”

Maria and I both love our lives and cherish them. We aren’t hoping to survive. We are hoping to live.

In talking openly about death, I believe the correct answers for us will make themselves known when the time comes. We will be sad but not stunned or ill-prepared. We will make good use of our time and energy to do what’s needed and not drown in the senseless suffering that could overwhelm our bodies and minds.

I believe that what we need to do will become clear. That is all we can do and the best we can do.


  1. We are a death-denying, grief-illiterate culture and many shy away from any discussions about death. My husband and I are in our 70s and we have had frank, deep discussions about it. We are as prepared as we can be emotionally, psychologically and practically. We have a binder with our wills, powers of attorney, advance care plans, bank information, contacts for canceling pensions, passports, drivers’ licenses, etc. We understand how confusing everything can be after our partner dies so having this binder gives us both some comfort to know all that information is in one place.
    I love that you write about this as it is so important.

  2. I wish that death would be soon for my husband who has dementia. I don’t want him to linger where he knows no one and his brain is useless. I will not mourn his passing as it will be the best thing for him. I only regret that there is no humane way to insure that he dies before he is lost to his future and past.

  3. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. So important…..
    I still have not quite made peace with how lingering and hard the dying is sometimes…..didn’t understand my mother in law saying she just wanted a “ good old fashion quick heart attack “ . ( what a depressing thing to say my younger self thought ).
    Now I get it…..

  4. When my husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, we had a pretty good idea who would die first. However, you never know so I made him my beneficiary of everything I had and he did the same for me. Then we tried to live life to the fullest for the next three years, until he died. I have tried to do what you suggested and I was able to for the first year, by volunteering. Then the pandemic hit, my elderly mother began to fail, and my life changed again. We never know what life will bring.

  5. Jon, another thought-provoking post. I love that you and Maria have these conversations about what each of you believes, wants and needs. This is how emotionally mature people handle reality. I can’t imagine saddling myself with a helmet of grief, only to wander about the rest of my life as if I am dead as well. I used to think that I was cold, or broken because of the way that I grieve. I am a practical person, and it’s just the way my brain is wired, and I don’t think I am missing out on anything because I don’t tear my clothes or become paralyzed. Now, to get our shit together like Barbara who commented, that’s my next goal with my husband! It’s a gift to do that for each other.

  6. Beautifully put forward and achingly pertinent to my life right now. The things I was sent to your blog to hear. Thank you Jon.

  7. Jon, what wonderful, truthful conversation you and Maria have with each other. I want to share that when my 96 yo father passed in to the mysteries of death, November 4, 2022. He was able to do so on his own terms, largely encouraged by several conversations that we, his three children had had with him using the “Five Wishes Document”. The document was not my father’s final wishes exactly, but we were all clear on what hi wanted his end of life transition to look like and feel like. I am only 70 yo but I intend to have these conversations with my two children and my two brothers! Love and Light to you and Maria💕

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