From the chapter “Knowing Not Knowing” in Don’t Take Your Life Personally by Ajahn Sumedho:
We tend to want to believe an authority and people ask me ‘What do Buddhists believe happens to them when they die?’ …Well, I can give the various theories that Buddhists have — and I don’t deny them; I am not saying they’re wrong — but at this moment, at this time, they are theories, just speculation, ideas. ‘Death’ right now is an idea, isn’t it? It is a perception of the end when this body stops functioning, when it is no longer a conscious form. So this helps me to recognize that I don’t have to know what happens after physical death, because I can’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.
What I am pointing to is that in awareness death for me right now is — don’t know!
Perhaps this is why we fear death, because we can’t know what comes afterwards. There is no expert who can tell us, no one who’s been there and come back (near-death experience is something else). It’s the same mystery as where we were before we were born.
One reason I love hospice volunteering is that the clients, staff, and volunteers all inhabit the world of “don’t know”. It offers a sense of being alive that is immediate, real, consequential, and open-ended. It takes some practice to get comfortable with not-knowing, but it can be very freeing. We know that we don’t know, can’t know, what will happen next, but we do know that it’s important to be fully present for whatever comes.
This is what Ajahn Sumedho is pointing out. If we face the question of death honestly, our own or someone else’s, we have to accept not-knowing. At the same time, when someone we care about dies, the grief is something we can know fully. We can know grief, with all its ups and downs, sadness and comforts, awkwardness and surprises, intensity and (even) dullness. Grief is for the living; it’s one of the many mindstates that we experience sometime during our lives.
Here’s an interesting question to ask ourselves: Which do we fear more, our own death or the death of a loved one? How do our feelings about these two certainties differ? Can we accept that we don’t know who will die next? Just sitting with these questions, whether there are answers (today) or not, can lead us deep into the present.
When facing or considering death or grief, the most important guideline is to NOT look away, not suppress or deny either the facts or our feelings about them. As with all dukkha, our duty is to acknowledge and understand it. We can do this.