Mitsuo Aoki Lived His Own Dying Twice

by A-Badgero

Mitsuo Aoki walks in the garden of his home the year before he died.

Mitsuo Aoki died for the first time in 1960 when the car he was a passenger in hit a telephone pole and his body was thrown from the car. Aoki remembered with vivid detail looking down at his lifeless body and hearing the firefighter on the scene pronounce him dead. Hearing this he said, “No, I’m not dead!” and then miraculously found himself back in his body. From that day forward Aoki dedicated his life to helping people accept death. “I don’t work to cure an illness,” Aoki said, “but to change an attitude.”

In addition to founding the department of religious studies at the University of Hawaii and the Hospice Hawaii, Aoki became Hawaii’s volunteer counselor to the dying and helped many people suffering from illness, particularly cancer patients, to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and not their fear of death. Humor played a large part in his counselling because he believed that it made people comfortable with the subject of death. One of his favorite stories was that of a young student who asks his Zen master a question. The student asks, “What is death?”
“I don’t know,” the master replies.
The surprised student exclaims, “But you are a Zen master!”
“Yes,” the master says. “But I am not a dead Zen master.”

Many of his counselling methods are similarly uncomplicated. He would often simply whisper into the ear of a terminally ill person, “Let go my friend, let go, your body has done its work.” The man, said Aoki, had been suffering for a long time. He died 20 minutes later. It was a great relief for the family, who had been distressed for so long watching their loved one suffer, to see him peacefully let go and experience a beautiful type of death. Aoki asks why we can’t look at a death in a positive light, “Death is a part of life” he says, ” it’s just the last part.”

“Dying people know they are dying, to not let them talk about it and accept it is one of the greatest cruelties of the field.” Aoki also says we often tend to treat those who are dying as if they are already dead. The worst thing you can do is shut them off from the daily flow of life. You do not want to lose sight of the human being and see nothing in them but the illness, the dying. Aoki once received a letter from a 13 year old boy dying of leukemia and in it was this message, “All I want to know is that there will be someone there to hold my hand and touch me when I need it. I’m afraid, I’ve never died before.” One of the most important things a dying person needs is to be touched, to know that someone is there with them.

For his own death Aoki wished to die at the age of 100 in Manoa’s Andrews Ampitheater following a relaxing lecture. He made his feelings about dying in a hospital very clear, “We give so much of our power away in a hospital, dying people really want to die at home.” Though he did not pass away at the Ampitheater, he did spend his last days at his home in Pohai Nani. He passed away surrounded by family and friends at the age of 95 in August of 2010. A memorial service was held the following month at Church of Crossroads in Honolulu and it was recommended that visitors wear Aloha attire.

Aoki did not fear death, he had already experienced death once before. His work had taught him that the last days and hours of a human life are wondrous and a time when people must “Allow death to be death. We’re so fearful, we diminish death. So live your dying.” Akio also firmly believed that there is another force more powerful than death and that’s the power of love.

 

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