On Death and Dying
Yesterday I opened a book I was given in the spring by a friend-it’s called An Almanac for the Soul and it sits by my desk. Opening it on today’s date, June 7th I read as follows:
True experience always comes about in withdrawal ‘from the crowd’. The original, true and proper attitude of the mind is- as Heraclites says-that of ‘listening to the truth of things’, the avoidance of the pressure of falsehoods, half-measures, mediocrity and gossip. Our journey into the territory of being should be made in silence, with wondering, open eyes.
This is an extract from a book by Ladislaus Boros entitled, God is With Us.
For the last week I have been living ‘far from the crowd’, walking in the hills of Northumberland, without any technologies often in silence, often in wonder. I live far from the crowd quite a bit these days and have a lot of sympathy with Boros’ reflections. The rhythm that carried me through last week-something that brings me readily to wonder-something that needs time and silence was death and dying and what that actually means for me.
It was prompted by different things. A friend’s illness, my ageing step-father, several difficult diagnoses for other people, neighbours, colleagues I work with. Also too, my recent immersion in the work and writing of a man called Steven Jenkinson. Jenkinson spent twenty years working with dying people and now has a farm that he tends with his wife in Ottowa-a place and a school where people go to engage with his teaching there, to talk as I understand it, about matters of life and death in a serious and meaningful way. In the film made about Jenkinson’s work a few years ago-Griefwalker– there is a moment when he puts the following question forward:
If you have your feet firmly planted in the centre of your dying who has to tell you you’re alive?
That’s an important question and one I am ‘coming to terms’ with in the deeper sense of the term. I’ve been working with it for some time now- It fell on me hard when I first heard it a few years ago It’s a question with gravity and it’s a challenge to the pervasive way of seeing life that we have in western society as something altogether separate and distinct from the strange and mostly hidden event of dying. It’s a deep question and it needs ‘far from the crowd’ time to be met well.
To Live forever
Much of my life I have lived as though I would live forever. There’s not much unusual about that even though it’s absurd. That’s the power of the ego and the power of our culture of individualism. I knew that other people could die- I have experienced that close up but it’s only very recently-largely through the prolonged process of suffering and torment we call midlife- that I have come to understand more deeply the reality that I will die one day, that my wife will die one day, that my kids will die one day.
That is a big thing to get to grips with-to allow in, to admit, and it takes time to think on, time to digest. What I’m finding very slowly-and last week I was with this thing a good deal-is that if we listen carefully for the sound of our own death-if we obey that sound and if we let it in enough we discover, in the actual sorrow and suffering it entails that it has really big implications for how we may be able to inhabit our lives, for how alive we feel, how we attend to the life of others people and all life. It gets to the difficult work of how we prepare ourselves in the present to take on the hard work of dying itself when our dying time comes. It proposes a grief based way of looking at the world.
Keeping our death in front of us
It’s a fact that pretty much every religion urges us to live our lives with our deaths in front of us. Its true for the Benedictines-for them the work of contemplating death is called the memento mori-the remembrance of death. In the Quaker tradition we are invited to be able to contemplate our own deaths and the deaths of those closest to us; we are encouraged that in
‘Accepting the fact of death-we are freed to live more fully’. (Advices and Queries 30).
The Buddhists talk about impermanence and the right relationship we must cultivate with our tendencies for attachment and aversion to the things of this life. To my mind this is not just about having a more peaceful life today but beyond that it’s about preparation, about having less to get snagged and snarled up with when we get into our dying. It recognises that dying is real work. It’s a practice forged out of Gautama’s own horror and astonishment in the face of sickness, old age and death. Death changes everything it seems. As Steven Levine puts it:
“If you made a list of everything you own, everything you think of as you, everything that you prefer that list would be the distance between you and the living truth. Because these are the places where you’ll cling. You’ll focus there instead of looking beyond.”
A Peruvian Shaman will spend their entire life preparing for the ordeal of death. Without preparation death is a profound and likely dangerous shock to the consciousness, to the spirit. The Peruvians speak of a relationship with dying and death that seems to me to have striking similarities with the tremendous work of death described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Here are written detailed cosmologies and practices that describe the dying process and the landscape of death. It’s not a place to head un-prepared. In the Upanishads, the voice of death does all it can to discourage Nachiketas to ask about the nature of death itself. Ask anything but that, death says.
In the west we have little to help us to make sense of the dying part of our living, nothing much to guide us preferring it seems to hide dying away altogether along with mental illness and anything else that disturbs our current obsession with endless youth and the good life to which we are entitled. As Jenkinson says, death becomes just a rumour, our inability to imagine our own death is simply a reflection of the much wider paucity of imagination and mytho-poetic thinking that besets and continually undermines any sense of depth that we might find in our culture today. As a consequence we are un-housed, un-homed-coming from no place going to no place. We are sorely unprepared for our own dying-we lack stories to help us to die well-we have no idea what that might even mean.
To die well-if I’m one of the majority of people- I’m probably going to have to engage in my own dying which will take some time- I’m going to need to participate, to get into the work of my own dying quite probably through the stormy haze of my clingings and fears, other people’s fears, through whatever medication I get given and through the mantra of our society that is always persuading us to ‘not give up’. Good dying won’t just happen to me-to die well I must be in it-it’s an active thing-it’s a verb. To die well one day I see that I need to include my dying now in my life story-invite it in -in my living time. As I do that I find that I don’t need anyone else to tell me I’m alive and that’s how it feels.
A conversation with my wife
Here’s a thing. I was lying in bed with my wife and we were a couple of days into the holiday last week. It was early morning and somehow the conversation got around to talking about death. We had been struggling through a tough conversation anyhow, trying to feel the edges of our own wants and needs for the time away, trying to disentangle our lives enough to feel and allow the wind to blow between us in respectful ways. At one point she said to me that-whatever we did- we should remember to allow ourselves to appreciate and enjoy this holiday we had taken in the hills. She made the point that we may not come back here for some time-maybe never-she said after a pause. As she said it I remember I was looking at her face, looking at her lying there, leaning on her pillow
We have been together 25 years and we have seen a lot and been through many heavens and hells together in that time. We have earned our right to be together, to call ourselves partners and if there is such a thing as a soul mate-then she is it for me. In that moment, I caught a glimpse of something I had never seen and it was a real gift.
She was right about our enjoying the week but I was seeing her words in a wholly different way. It dawned on me that one day what she said would become painfully true- for one of us. As Jenkinson points out, all of us in committed relationships will either separate through divorce or through death. Well for us, If not divorce-and I hope that will not be the case- then one day what she said that morning will be true in another way.
When that terminal diagnosis comes into our lives which it will-we will have to look into each other’s eyes. We will have to find it in ourselves to say to one another that we will not see this place together again, one of us will not see out another year or another winter, another month, another week, another day. One of us will die and one of us will be left to grieve. We will have to part and go on our way alone.This is how it will be and how it must be. What I know is that knowing it changes the way I look at her-not in a sentimental way at all, but in a real, solid and earthy way. This moment is a rare moment. This time of being well-it’s a rare and precious gift-immeasurable wealth. In the light of that truth lies the core of our life and our work- to live well we must do what we can do to learn, we must commit to learning about what it means to die well, what it means to grieve well and not just for ourselves.
The grief in that, the sorrow in that moment was intense and it’s still with me now; It’s not that it’s unfair or wrong- that’s a hopeless and tragic western misinterpretation of death-built out of the cruel limitations of certain kinds of thinking; an obsession with the heroism, with scientific materialism, with comfort and youthfulness, crazy ways of seeing things that diminish and reduce death to the narrowest definition we can give it. Death is part of the immense gift of being gifted a life, an honourable end, All-Right and Awe-Full, De-vast-ating, Dread-Filled and Wonderous. No wonder Christ was sore amazed in the face of his own death. So will we be.
Death and children
Here’s another thing I got that morning. My kids will most likely walk past my death on route to their own dying. In the western world today, that’s how it goes most of the time. It wasn’t true for my mother or father when my sister died, that’s another story, but mostly it’s true.
I remember when my daughter was born. Back then we lived very simply in an old converted truck on our smallholding in West Cork in Southern Ireland. After the birth which- along with the birth of my son remains the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen and witnessed- I carried her outside. It was a dark and starry night and I remember lifting her up and showing her to the cosmos, to the stars. It was not a planned thing-it just happened that way. I told the stars her name, I asked the earth and the spirit world to look after her to guide and protect her and I was met in response I suppose-with the strangest experience.
What was birthed with my daughter as I experienced it then were two great qualities of energy coursing through me at once-they were Joy and Grief. It was the same strange energy I felt when I heard my wife speak last week. I got that these were qualities of what I call today the ultimate mystery since I still cannot contain their gravity in my rational mind. They were forces that flowed or shook like tremors in the deep fabric of things and I felt them big that night. I was at the same moment filled with a deep and profound joy at this, my child’s birth but it was true too that I was filled with a tremendous grief-a lamentation maybe-because I knew then-in that instant- that one of us must walk past the others death-that this moment would include all moments-that one and this one, I had life and death walk in to my world in a different way that night. It has taken nearly 25 years to better understand the implications.
What I see today when I think of my daughter’s birth is that two things will happen if I die first and they bring with them certain obligations. If I die first then the first thing is that I have a duty to die well for her. It’s a gift I can give that she can trust when her own time comes because she can trust me. Maybe I can help somewhat with the road map. To do that means I need to take up my work on this now. The strange thing is how alive that acknowledgment makes me feel-what a gift that would be for her, or my son. Its one of those acts that speaks directly to the fire-the ‘fierceness with reality’ that Florida Maxwell speaks of. That fierceness comes when we reclaim all that we have been and done in our lives and it comes when we gather ourselves up in the face of our own death with our eyes open.
Second- when my daughter comes to die and I’m not there to hold her hand, when her mother is not there to hold her hand-alongside whatever clues she has with her from my dying I want to be hopeful that someone-maybe a bunch of people who know about dying well will be there to hold her hand and walk with her into her death. So the obligation here is not so much personal as societal- we need to change our understanding of death and that seems like valuable work to get into because it means too that we must look at our collective understanding of life.
What does our living ask of us?
To die well we must know also what it is our living asks of us. To that end poems are amazing things-they point out the territory of living in powerful ways. There is a poem by Yehuda Amichai.
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
In the first adventure of my life I couldn’t ever grasp the first stanza of this poem-I wanted a world of reassurances and of comfort-I wanted flowers in the spring. Now I have lived in enough doubt and love to know a little bit about that sense of being dug up-of being harrowed. To meet that place where we are right requires that we get stripped back- that much has to fall off or away-whatever it takes that will lead us out; a radical re-imagining of what our life and death is all about, a re-visioning that invites both living and dying to the table as two faces of the mystery of life. The place where we are right is surely hard and trampled-it’s not pretty, its rough ground, hard terrain, but it’s real.
None of us is born human
‘None of us is born human- each of us is what we learn to become’. The English educationalist Michael Oakeshott said that and there’s a lot of sense in that sentence. That we have a pulse does not mean in any way that we are alive or that we are ‘human.’ We make ourselves human through the endeavour of our lives over a life time and in the company of others. Becoming human is our life work. Mostly, in our society we are anaesthetised against the project of being human, preferring today a kind of bland homogeneity to our innate wildness, measuring our humanity against sad notions of comfort and entitlement. It is certain that we don’t want to talk about or think about death in any meaningful way so we routinely cut our dying, our sorrow or grief off as the means to better understand our living. That is a mistake only realised too late in nearly every case.
Jenkinson puts forward the idea of life as a grief driven enquiry rather than a knowledge driven or solution driven enquiry. I like that distinction because it underlines the gap that we currently have in our understanding of life’s purpose and the way we have embraced to better explore such things.
To be human, to walk the earth as a human being, both temporal and temporary is a rare and wonderful thing. To know our own boniness, our own fleshiness, our muscled, sinewed, nerved selves-is a rare thing-we are so caught up in our minds in our heads, in our book knowledge or I pad knowledge-in novelty, fascination and fantasy that we forget the wonder of our own bodies and of our direct experience of the world. I heard recently on the radio that words like bluebell and conker no longer exist in the Children’s Oxford Dictionary. It’s a travesty.
Oakeshott does not press us to accumulate endless facts in pursuit of becoming human-he asks us to learn and learning takes time and effort. The Benedictines differentiate between knowledge learning and insight learning and I suspect that Oakeshott means the latter- the deep and private work of coming to our unique selves, embracing both our ordinariness and extraordinariness, our light and shadow is a work of insight-literally- looking inwards; a work that requires us to wonder about ourselves, each other and the world, a work that requires and supports the art of obedience and pausing. In the necessary silence that these acts require-we can indeed come closer to the truth of things.
To feel alive
When I listen deeply, sitting here today, I hear the sound of my heart in my chest. I notice that my whole body is alive with movement, with the processes of dying, birthing, exchange, synaptic snappings, electrical impulses, fluids flowing. When I move, my body comes alive and I feel it acutely-how my joints move. I sense the bones that are in the fingers which I use to type these words. It’s wonderful.
Today I feel my aliveness and know that it is mixed with the first few symptoms of my inevitable passage of ageing. This body does feel and show its age. My eyes are not as sharp as they were- I have reading glasses, my vison blurs sometimes in strange ways. I ache a little when I get out of bed and I ache a lot more after I go for a run these days. I watch what I eat and some things don’t agree with me like they used to. I go to bed earlier and get up earlier-maybe I need a little less sleep. My face has lines and they are deepening slowly. Its minor stuff-for now but it is helping to define a renewed place in the world and it deepens my sense of kinship with the mysterious movements of life I see all around me.
To stand heart broken in the world
Mary Oliver has it perfectly when I think of what it means to live honestly and what it means to do so in the daily presence of our own death and the work of our own dying.
Dying is what breaks open the heart-as Hemingway said-life shatters us all in the end-but here there is a difference between the sharp broken shard type of shattering that comes out of the unexamined life and a heart breaking open again and again towards a deeper understanding of the full nature of the torrent of life that we are in and part of and that surrounds and fills everything around us. To be heartbroken is not less than human flowering.
The work of making meaning of our dying is our work-the work of living our dying is our work- each of us must do that work and do it as well as we can-and its tough in a culture that has lost all its bearings around what it actually means to do the work of dying, that hides death away as some dreadful mistake- but we must try and we must do so honestly and by example in and through the act of our own living and dying. Let us live well, and when it comes to death, let us go on readied. I pray it will be so.
To live in this world
You must be able
To do three things;
To love what is mortal
To hold it
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it
And, when the time comes to let it go,
To let it go.
Amen to that.