Generally, in our day-to-day lives, death and dying is not a common topic of conversation. In our fumblings and mumblings when we do try to talk about death and dying – or listen to someone else who wants to talk about it – we’re just not very good at it in our society. We’ll often say something about there’s always death in life… in fact, we have the expression “in the midst of life we are in death” which comes from the Funeral Service in the Book of Common Prayer.
But what about ‘in the midst of death, there is life’? By this I’m referring to the depth and richness of experiential learning we receive when we have a close encounter with death. Perhaps we might value – and use – our lives to better effect if we could fully embrace the notion that death is inevitable, death is around us all the time as we live our lives, and whatever else does or doesn’t happen to you in your life, you will experience death sooner or later. Your own death, obviously, but also – more than likely – the death of someone close to you.
There are two challenges (at least) which prevent us from fully embracing death and allowing ourselves to experience the life that’s in the midst of death. Firstly, our attitude to our own death: even though I just used the word ‘obviously’ in reference to awareness of that event, I think it’s only obvious on a superficial level. When we consider our own death – if we consider it at all – it’s simply an intellectual fact. Something we know only in our heads, and can quickly dismiss. Few of us, unless we have had a near death experience, or have a prognosis from a life-threatening condition (and sometimes not even then), can fully accept we are going to die. It’s understandable, after all. Most of us, most of the time, want to be alive rather than dead; and most of us, most of the time, have no idea what dying, or being dead, is going to be like. Human beings can often be ostriches, and never more so than in their approach to death.
Secondly – and in many ways more poignantly – difficulties lie in our attitude towards the death of those we love. Again, understandably: we love them, and want them to remain alive for both their sakes, and ours. How many times have you spoken, or heard, the sentence “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to my partner/child/ parent…” If the ‘happening’ here means their death, then there’s no ‘if’ about it: only ‘when’. And yet you rarely hear anyone start a sentence with “when my mother/father dies…” even though it is statistically very likely your parents will die before you do. And for me, even just writing here “when my children die… ” makes me feel slightly sick. Yes, I know intellectually that my son and my daughter – both currently, thankfully, thriving – will die at some point. But it can remain one of those ‘head only’ facts. I don’t have to feel it… few parents have that particular horror to face, as statistically parents die before children. As parents, we can only pray we are part of the normal statistical curve.
But nevertheless, distressingly painful as thoughts of death can be, I remain an advocate of raising awareness of death, and the dying process, and for it to be a more acceptable topic for discussion and exploration. I’m not just writing from a theoretical, academic position here. I have more than once in the past considered suicide, and whilst no longer suicidal, I frequently contemplate my own death. I have been affected by the deaths of many friends and family members, and particularly so by my grandmother’s death when I was a child. I had different, but equally challenging, lessons to learn from my mother’s death some years ago. My most recent experience was the death of my father early last year, when I was privileged to be with him for his last hours as he died, and for some time after his death, whilst we waited for funeral directors to come for him. I have written in depth about this special time elsewhere: here I’ll say simply that although the experience was emotionally painful, it was one I am so thankful to have had, and one that has brought me further into an exploration of how we might be more open around this issue.
To that end, as well as offering psychotherapeutic work with grief and loss, and exploring it in my writing, I am pleased to be co-hosting a Death Cafe at the Lemon Tree Cafe in Teignmouth on Saturday, February 23rd. You can find out more about the international Death Cafe movement on their website here.
All my blog posts allow for comments, though for this one I’d particularly like to read anyone’s response.
The banner image at the top of this post is West Kennett Long Barrow in Wiltshire: a Neolithic burial chamber, and one of the best preserved long barrows in the UK. Well worth a visit, especially when you can spend some time sitting quietly inside – it’s always ‘open’, and there are no charges, and no guides. It’s one of my favourite death-places to visit.