Nothing Behind – a Personal Encounter with Death

(death and dying, 10)

I got there late, but I was determined to see her if I could. I hadn’t been there in four or five days and I felt guilty. She didn’t have much family and so the days were long, the nights even longer. She had fallen and broken her hip about ten days ago and the doctors didn’t have much hope for her recovery. She was really old – she had outlived her husband by several years and nearly all of her friends. She was toothless and the shrunken gums, pinched cheeks and pointed chin made her look even older. Only the eyes remained bright and young. All of the vigor and fire which had once emanated from her entire body danced in concentrated form in her eyes – but not tonight.

It was dark in the room when I entered; I feared she was asleep. I could barely make out the form on the bed. I stood, just inside the door, not wanting to wake her, and thought I’d just pray for a moment and leave. “Who is it?” The voice was soft but she never moved. “It’s me.” I said and stepped over, close to the bed. She reached out and grasped my hand. Her grip was amazingly strong at first.

“How are you feeling tonight?” “Not too good.” “Are you in any pain?” “No, not really, I’m just tired, but I can’t sleep.” “Is there anything I can do?” “No, I think not, I don’t think I have much time left. I’ve made my peace and there’s not a lot to look forward to, and almost nothing behind. I wanted to stay as here as long as I was of some use, but I’m not anymore.”

“I’m sure it’s a better place than this,” she said. “It’s bound to be,” I replied.

I wanted to make some inane comments about how she might be useful yet, how she might recover – go home – start again – I just couldn’t do it – it wasn’t true – she was finished here. We held hands and talked for almost an hour there in the dark. She talked of her youth, her children, the moves they had made, good times – bad times – I had heard the story a hundred times – a thousand times – it is my own story – everybody’s story with a change of names, dates, places. It’s a good story – a true one – one I never tire of hearing and the end of the story was near. Or perhaps the beginning.

“I’ve had a good life,” she said, but the best part was when I became a Christian. I’ve always thought that was the best day of my life.”

We prayed – holding hands in the dark. I never did see her but we touched and our hearts were one. As I left her I heard her say, “I love you,” and I said, “I love you too.” And I did, you know.

After all the hassle, how marvelously simple it all becomes at the last.

Life's Persistent "Why?"

(death and dying, 9)

One evening, Josephine Butler, the great social benefactress, was attending a party. At home, Evangeline, her only daughter, eagerly awaited her return. Upon hearing the crunching of her mother’s carriage wheels on the gravel drive before their home, the little girl ran to the balustrade, leaned over it to wave to her mother, lost her balance, fell, and in a second lay dead with a broken neck at her mother’s feet. Josephine Butler could not speak. She was unable to cry. She stood there stunned, paralyzed with grief, muttering: “My God, why?”

Suffering like death and dying, of which it is a part, is as old as human history. It has haunted the hearts and minds of men and women down through the centuries, and we have clamored for an explanation. Throughout the length and breadth of the world, men and women who have suffered, who have experienced something of what John Keats called “the giant agony of the world,” have turned their face toward heaven and hurled the cry: “My God, why?” A mother stands at the bedside of an only child stricken with disease and asks: “Why?” A husband watches his wife grow weaker day by day from the ravages of cancer and asks: “Why?” A young father dies of a heart attack, leaving behind two small children, and the widow asks: “Why?” Storms like Katrina hit our shores, and we ask, “Why?” Wars bring unmeasured suffering, and humanity asks: “Why?”

We will never be completely free of suffering. “Why?” will remain for the time being “an ultimate question.”

When there is no longer a cyclone, there is no

longer an eye. So the storms, crises and sufferings

of life is a way of finding the eye. When

everything is going against us, then we find

the eye.       

-       Bernadette Roberts

 

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CRISIS AND TRAGEDY

(Death, dying, grief 8)

“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (Viktor Frankl).

Perhaps given the way we are, crisis and tragedy serve an important function in our lives. They bring us back to the recognition of our limits, our mortality, of our need for something beyond ourselves. They remind us of who we really are. Joseph Campbell saw it this way:

“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”

Some people, realizing this, reflect with fondness on the times when trouble made life and God more real to them. Michael J. Fox said his illness was a blessing to him. When I was a young man visiting London, a man said to me, “You know, sometimes I miss those nights we spent in the Underground during the war, with the firebombs falling on the city. Things mattered then in a way they haven’t seemed to matter since. You knew God was around. You knew what life was about.”

There is a growing cultural support for thinking of traumatic experiences as passages of rebirth that might lead to a deeper healing. The tremendous success of the public television series in which Bill Moyers interviewed mythologist Joseph
Campbell was based on our hunger for new meaning, particularly for a way to understand crisis, tragedy and suffering. Campbell was adept in his ability to tell archetypal First Stories from different cultures in which the heroes and heroines faced seemingly endless and insurmountable terrors and trials on their way to attaining gifts of wisdom.

In some European cultures there is an old custom of burying the umbilical cord with the seed of a fruit. If all goes well, the little seed swells with water in the dark womb of the earth, splits and dies. The dying seed gives birth to a growing shoot which, in five or six seasons, will mature into a tree that bears fruit in its turn. The tree and its fruit are the exclusive property of the child on whose umbilicus the growing seed has fed. In watching the tree die back in winter and reawaken in spring, the child is brought close to the mystery of the seasons and their metaphor for the births, deaths and transformations that are equally a part of human life. What child has not looked on with wonder as a seed sprouts, a plant or flower forms, and life is reborn anew?

While the metaphor is poetic and easy to appreciate, it is hard to apply to our own lives, which are a series of little deaths, a letting go of the old to make room for something new to be born. Each of these letting-goes entrails a transition – a passage – from the way things were to the way things will be. While we know what was and can often dream of what the future might hold, the period of passage is a kind of no-man’s land, a limbo, a space that cannot always be defined.

Some of these passages are short, like the transition phase of labor. Others are long, like adolescence. Birth, puberty, childhood’s end, marriage, old age, death – these are commonplace, expected, sometimes joyful and sometimes painful transitions. Illness, madness, loss, war, addiction – these are also commonplace but dreaded transitions that issue compelling invitations to become something new, something other than the self we were. The birth and characteristics of the new self are determined in large part by the stories we tell ourselves about why the time of darkness has come.

When I read the 23 Psalm, a song by the psalmist, David, about God preparing a table in the presence of his enemies I have always wondered if it was an actual table. Was David dining sumptuously at the time when his enemies had nothing comparable to eat? Or was it only a metaphor, a figure of speech that David used, because he felt so very, very good about life?

I confess I’m inclined to think the latter, because even a real table filled with delicious and succulent foods is no match for David’s experiences with God. The greatest blessing of life, by far, is a spirit or an attitude, not a tangible gift. It is the capacity to feel good about things, to know that life is rich and wonderful, to enjoy the presence of the Creator regardless of how things are going in the real world.

It is natural not think very much about death when things are going smoothly and easily for us. But when we think about death, when we realize that our days are numbered, that the curtains are about to close, that is another matter, isn’t it?

A friend told me his experience about going to a dermatologist to have some little blemishes removed from his face. When he was there, he said he had a little mole on his chest taken off. A few days later, the dermatologist said to him on the telephone, “The report came back on that mole we removed. It was a malignant melanoma. I want you to come back and have some more surgery.” Click. That was all.

I knew about melanoma. One of the most dreaded forms of cancer, it eats through bone and tissue and all. He said the doctor didn’t tell him that his was only a superficial melanoma and he didn’t expect to have any trouble removing it all. He only said it was a melanoma and he would need more surgery.

He went to bed that night. He went to sleep at first. Then he woke up in the stillness of the house and thought about dying. He was going to leave it all – his wife, his children, his home, his work, everything. Leave it. Just like that. Maybe within a few months’ time, if he was lucky.

It had a clarifying effect on his mind. There was only one answer for my friend: God. Whatever happened, whether he lived or died, it was God that mattered to him. He would die one day anyway, he said. It didn’t really matter whether it was now or fifty years from now. He would still leave it all.

He told me he thought about how silly he had been, getting so upset over the possibility of dying. He said think of how I have always loved adventure, loved to travel. Death is the greatest adventure there is. It’s like going off to another country where no one you know has ever gone and come back to tell about it.” He added, “I thought how exciting that will be. Just trust God and enjoy it.”

However, he is not sorry it didn’t work out for him to die and have that adventure now! I felt good knowing he had faced the incident with this spirit and attitude. He knew as he told me the story that I would understand it. We all live with death as we grow older. We feel it when it is harder to get out of an easy chair. We see it when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning. Death is drawing nearer and nearer.

 

 

 

CONSTRUCTING CONDITIONS TO ACCEPT DEATH

Death, dying, and grief (7)

In this blog we continue our thoughts about constructing those conditions in which we are able to accept the inevitability of death as a joyful conclusion to the experience of life. This follows number 1 of approaching life with a creative delight of change.

2. Another way is to live in awe: I remember seeing a forest of giant redwoods for the first time. There were some small children nearby, giggling and chattering and pushing each other around. Nobody had to tell them to quiet down as we entered. They quieted down all by themselves. Everybody did. You couldn’t hear a sound of any kind. It was like coming into a vast, empty room.

Two or three hundred feet high the redwoods stood. You had to crane your neck as far back as it would go to see the leaves at the top. They made their own twilight out of the bright California day. There was a stillness and stateliness about them that seemed to become part of you as you stood there stunned by the sight of them. They had been growing in that place for going on two thousand years. With infinite care they were growing even now. You could feel them doing it. They made you realize that all your life you had been mistaken. Oaks, maples and chestnuts and elms you had seen as long as you could remember, but never until this moment had you so much as dreamed what a Tree really was.

You may not experience the giant redwood but you can probably at some time experience the drooping willow, the square-shoulder oak, the graceful elm, the murmuring pine, the shimmering beech, the shady maple, or the motherly apple tree. In each you can experience your own sense of awe. I like to sense the word tang. Tang is hard to define apart from the name of an orange drink – but it suggests some real pictures – the crisp air of a spring morning, the blue smoke of burning wood, the tiny violet blooming in the spring, the taste of a russet apple, and what Browning calls, “The cool silver shock of a plunge in the pool’s living water” – all of these things have tang – they are to be sensed with awe. It is a way to be truly alive!

3.  Embracing change (number 1), in and of itself is not sufficient to help one come to terms with death. The change produced by the fully alive person is guided by that person’s “reason for living,” but not just any reason will do. It is not legitimate, for example, to seek to change the world or the people in it, in order to avoid changing one’s self.

However, there are some reasons for living that do have the power to encourage the growth of humanness. What, for example, does it mean to live for “justice,” “peace,” or “love”? The words look nice on paper, sound nice from pulpits, but they are so abstract one hardly knows what do with them. We must have specific reasons for living that will evoke our devotion and if need be, our death.

What are your reasons for living? Though your death is certain, it may be distant. What do you live for? Would your reasons for living be different if you knew your death were near? It is almost impossible to say with precision what we are actually doing with our lives. But an effort to examine our “ultimate concerns” is a most useful preparation for the experience of dying.

Thinking About Death

There are three times when you particularly think about death.

·      First, when someone you love very much dies – a child, a grandparent, a husband, a wife, or a close friend.

·      Second, when there is a real possibility that you, yourself, may die, and you know it. And

·      Third, when someone, whom you have never known personally but who presented something important in the life of the world dies and leaves a vast emptiness. For example in my own life it may be an old man, like Sir Winston Churchill, who dies in the natural course of events after a long, triumphant life. It may be a young man, like John Kennedy, who dies unnaturally, still on the brink of promise. It may be still a younger man, like Jonathan Daniels, who was shot when he went to Alabama to help prepare African Americans for voter registration.

I am not suggesting you or I think of death at no other time, but at these particular times we are bound to think about it; we are shocked into thinking about it. You know the person who has died will never come back. You also wonder whether death is the end of the person, whether there is anything beyond for her, whether she is extinct, or whether she may still be. You accept the finality of death as a fact, but you keep wondering about the future – theirs as well as your own.

Some people can accept the obvious and easy answer. That answer is that death is the end of a person just as birth is the beginning of him. A person is like a flower, they think; it begins with a tiny seed buried in the ground, it buds, blooms, fades, and then dies. Other flowers, to be sure, take its place, but that flower is gone, gone forever.

But you still wonder. A person is not exactly like a flower, or even like a redwood in its more magnificent dimensions. So you still wonder, still think about the future. What lies beyond death? This is one of the questions you will contemplate as you read this material.

 

 

WE FEAR DEATH

Death, Dying and Grief (#6)

If there exists one experience that, throughout history and around the world, binds humankind together, it is death. Death is something we must all face – no exercise or diet regimen, no meditation techniques, no amount of money can avoid it. It is the great equalizer.

Fear of death is no simple response with simple causes. It has many components and has a different reaction for each one of us. The fear of death is shaped by:

·      Age, Family, Psychological maturity, State of physical health, Social and religious backgrounds

Events of the day may also influence the degree of our fear. There is, however, one basic fear I choose to focus upon because I do not believe it is death for which we have greatest fear.

Based on my observation and analysis I believe greater than the fear of death is actually our fear of life. The finality of death, coupled with the uncertainty of an afterlife, results in fear, for many. We see it all around us as we try to stop the aging process. We hope that the next pill, the next surgery, or the next genetic discovery will be the key to extending our lives.

Think about it.
If we are alive, then death does not exist and we have no reason to be concerned about it. When we are dead, then we no longer exist and are unable to be concerned.

Death is the ultimate mystery. Death makes an excellent screen on which to project all our concern about life. I am contending that our fear of death is a projection of our most basic fear. Fear of death is really our fear of life. If our fears of death were rational, they would not prevent us from looking at the inevitability of our own deaths and learning about ourselves and our lives. But our fears of death are – for the most part – irrational. We run away from death but what we flee is our own life. Death is a problem because daily living is a problem.

I believe it is as simple as that. If it is not that simple, at least it is clear-cut. In recognizing those who flee death will also flee life, we have an opportunity to recognize the face of hope. For those who fully welcome life will welcome death as well. Norman O. Brown says only a person with an unlived life is afraid to die. A person who feels he has lived his life the way that he or she wanted – is not afraid. The fear of dying is tied to reach the goals of who you believe you have to be rather than who you are (Keleman, Living Your Dying, p. 102).

The truth is that those who are not fulfilling life are those who fear death and do not want to die. So, part of working out this conflict is to begin to construct those conditions in which we are able to accept the inevitability of death as a joyful conclusion to the experience of life.

1.    Let me point to some suggestions about how those conditions might be created; that is to say, how we can take our basic response to the crisis of death, which is a resounding NO, and transform that into a YES to death. Such a YES is a YES to life. All this is done with the recognition of what can be so easily said cannot be so easily accomplished.

One way to approach death creatively is to cultivate a delight in change. There is a line in the Old Testament that promises life to us new every morning. That sounds fine. But in reality who wants to deal with anything new in the morning? We want the security of our routine: orange juice, toast, cup of coffee, and the morning paper. Careening around the curves of this treacherous era, fearful of what accidents might happen or what new things might be around the corner, we clutch nostalgia as our savior. Novelty or surprise frightens us and we have developed all sorts of methods for ignoring or modifying an event so that we can maintain the status quo (which is Latin for “the mess we are in”). Unfamiliar events make us anxious. Consequently, you can understand what death – our own or someone else’s – does to us. Since death is the biggest change we have to deal with, (although many events in life have aspects of un-knowableness and mystery about them), we fear death most of all. We die and we face death in much the same way we live, with the fear we will, because of the change, suffer an irreplaceable loss. Since life is in process, we should be participating in life as it is. In such a way we shall be more fully alive.

[continued in blog #7]

HOLY SATURDAY – SITTING BY THE GRAVE

Good Friday, and then Easter.

But a day is missing in that story. To move from Friday to Sunday we must walk through Saturday.

Saturday, however, is a lonely day. Death has won. Hope is lost. Jesus of Nazareth in a tomb. His disciples are afraid, hiding, and deeply depressed. Everything they had invested in for the past three years seems pointless now. They forsook their Master; they lost faith in that moment. They are leaderless, hopeless, and aimless.

On Holy Saturday we sit by the grave to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself. It is a day to weep, fast, and mourn. The late second century church (e.g. Irenaeus) fasted from all food on this day because it was a day of mourning. They did not break the fast until Easter morning.

Those of us who have spent time at graves - in my case the graves of parents, numerous dear friends and relatives – understand this grief, the despair of the grave. I have spent much of my life running away from graves, and I have rarely spent much time thinking about Holy Saturday.

It is much easier to skip from Friday to Easter than to dwell on Holy Saturday. As what happened in my life, we skip grief as much as possible. It is easier to run from grief. We prefer to escape it rather than face it or endure it.

Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament. It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity. It reminds me to protest death and renew my hatred for it. It reminds me to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.

Indeed, to sit with the disciples is to sit with humanity in the face of death. When we sit at the grave we recognize our powerlessness. We cannot reverse death; we cannot defeat this enemy. Holy Saturday creates a yearning for Easter. We need Easter for without if we are dead.

But Easter is a faint victory if we do not fully recognize the horror of death. Death threatens us with non-being and it dismantles life so that there is no meaning, purpose, or joy that lasts. Easter is God’s gift; it is God’s “Yes” to Death’s “No.”

Yesterday we remembered the death of Jesus on Good Friday, today we sit at the grave, but tomorrow, Sunday, we are renewed by the hope of the resurrection.

Jesus walked that path, and we follow him. We, too, will have our Friday; one day we will be entombed and loved ones will mourn at our graves. However – by the grace and mercy of God – on that great day we will rise again to walk with Jesus upon the new heaven and new earth.

That is the meaning of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

WE FEAR DEATH

[Death, dying and grief, 5]

Aye, but to die, and go we know not where,

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot.

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clot and the delightful spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice-

To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world, or to be worse than worst

Of those that lawless and uncertain thought

Imagine howling – ‘tis too horrible!

The weariest and the most loathed worldly life

That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment

Can lay on nature is a paradise

To what we fear of death – William Shakespeare

The Great Fear. The fear of death. All living things must die, but humans know it, must live with that knowledge daily, and must bear its mystery, its unacceptability, and its certainty. Is it any wonder that the subject of death is taboo in polite company that copious human energy goes into “schemes of amnesia,” which strive to push The Great Fear into the Siberias of consciousness – only to have some poet-playwright, imitating life, spoil the party?

Aristotle, writing in his Ethics about courage, shows us why Shakespeare has “spoiled the party:”

With what sort of terrible things, then, is

the brave man concerned? Surely with the

greatest; for no one is more likely than he

to stand his ground against what is awe-inspiring.

Now death is the most terrible of things; for

it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any

longer either good or bad for the dead.

Yet why blame Shakespeare or anyone else for ruining things for us? Such writers only tell us the truth about life. If the Bard of Avon is a great dramatist, it is because life itself presented him with its own Great Drama, something which he only partly captured, despite his genius. He is great, but the Natural Spectacle of Life and Death is immeasurably greater.

Such a natural spectacle strikes the undistracted human consciousness with enormous force. On what he supposes is his last night on earth Claudio gives vent to his fear: “…to die, and go we know not where … to rot … this sensible warm notion to become a kneaded clot … ‘tis too horrible!” Almost cruelly, Shakespeare here gives us a taste of what our real death will be like when, like poor Claudio, we must finally live it: it has at last come for us (or someone we love). True it is a mere taste of death, vicariously served up in Shakespeare’s theater, but if we are closely attending, it rips away our euphemisms and makes us say in our deepest soul, “Yes. This is what it will be like!”

The fear of death is the Great Fear not only because death is “the most terrible of all things,” but because every other fear, whether of failure or of rejection or of illness or of going crazy or of disgrace or of old age or of heights and of flying, or whatever, is a species or variant of it. This means that if we succeed in understanding the fear of death, we will know much about other fears and perhaps something about life itself.

Fear is natural, Necessary and Functional

Being afraid is natural to living creatures: without it there would be no drawing away from danger, no flight from the fatal consequences of some foolhardy action and therefore no survival. What is natural may also be necessary. Thus the creature – whether human or brute – which is afraid of water is protecting itself from death by drowning. The absolutely fearless person – Aristotle calls him “rash” – is a very poor insurance risk, someone who will surely in time, given the hazards even of ordinary life, get himself killed. Living beings keep themselves alive by responding by responding with fear to threats against their lives in ways that prevent mortal trauma. Fear is functional. It serves a truly vital function – for what is more vital than preserving one’s life? Such fear may be called healthy fear: it is simple, spontaneous, useful, and necessary, and it vanishes with the removal of the threat.

[This look at “fear” continues next in  #6]

 

HUMANIZING OUR LIFE -Part 2

DEATH, DYING, AND GRIEF (4)

We can hardly take death in any form. Not just death in its final shape when the body dies. We protest it in its disguised forms too. Everything that puts limits around us, or takes opportunities from us, or handicaps our search for self-realization, is a manifestation of what we call death. From how many directions then does death loom upon us! From our heredity! Our environment! Fate! The age in which we live! Everything designed to tell us that we are bound by flesh and blood, mind and emotion. No matter what we do to ward it off, ultimately we are bound. Bound by our humanness! And we don’t like that. So we reject what it means to be human. The fear of death kills us and causes us to reject our humanness. I believe that if we can accept our essential humanness, which includes death, we will be able to live as free, loving, responsible, growing human beings.

Let me give a disclaimer clause. Since death is somewhat final?? – no one can talk about it from the standpoint of personal experience. In many ways death is beyond knowing. This seems obvious. I want to say it because I might give the impression that I know what I’m talking about when I talk about death. The plain fact is that I have not been there. No matter how sensitively I observe what the person seems to be experiencing, I myself do no not know what it is like. In writing, speaking, and teaching about death I am trying to educate myself and you about the unknowable. (There are some Thanatologists who argue that one cannot even experience his or her own death since one can never be certain that it is the process of dying that one is experiencing).

Nevertheless we still need to get in touch with the whole issue of death and dying. I particularly like the lyrics of George Harrison, written before his diagnosis:

          There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading.

          When things that seemed so very plain become an awful pain.

          Searching for the truth among the dying.

          And answered when you have learned the art of dying.

When do we be begin learning the “art of dying”? We begin by acknowledging that we do not want to do what we are doing now – Dealing with the subject of death.

Most of us are not familiar with the dying process. The dying usually reside in hospitals, not visited at all by casual acquaintances, and only rarely by friends. The final moments of life are seldom observed by the family. The body quickly disappears to be handled by a funeral director. It usually appears, not in a church for the whole community, but in a funeral home for family and selected friends. All of this has separated us from the dying and the dead.

And yet, we are more aware of death today. Maybe more than ever. Our newspapers are one large obituary column containing reports of death on every conceivable scale by every possible means. Books, articles, television, and radio programs inundate us with the reality, as well as sanitized versions, of death.

And yet, we are caught up by our culture in systems that deny we are going to die. Indeed, we have gone to great lengths and devised elaborate means convincing ourselves this is so. Generally, our first question when someone dies is, “What killed him?” What did he die of?” We purchase “life” insurance in case of “premature” death. We seem to think that by naming the specific cause or somehow reducing death from the inevitable lot of all humans to the accidental or the unfortunate few we can avoid dying at any moment in time by any possible means. In spite of the fact that we know that all people are mortals, most of us have not internalized: “I’m going to die!”

Some of the Ways we deny Death

One of the ways we deny death is that we shroud death in euphemisms like “passed on,” “left us,” or “went to their eternal reward.” Another is our society relegates the dying to somber and often emotionally careless hospital wards with code words like “oncology, carcinoma, and myocardial infarction.” Here are some more ways we deny death.

1.    We ignore it. Most insurance salesmen don’t say, “How will your family be taken care of should you die tomorrow?” That raises too many fears. They say, “How would your family be taken care of if you had died yesterday?” They offer a comfortable impossibility.

2.    Another way we deny death is we use a lot of euphemisms to smooth death’s harshness. We don’t die: we expire, we depart, we pass on. We don’t “fill in a death certificate”; we complete a “vital statistics form.” We don’t “buy a grave” – we invest in a “pre-need memorial estate.” We attempt to prettify the corpse and then observe that it looks “very natural.” Then we put it into the ground in a hermetically sealed box so that nothing will happen to it. I once had a salesmen trying to sell me a hermetically sealed vault he guaranteed would not leak for fifty years. Being one-half Scots I wanted to be sure of how I was spending my money, so I inquired, “Who’s going to check?!”

3.    Another way we deny death doesn’t look like denial at all. But it is. It is the bizarreness, fantastic preoccupation we have with death. The newspapers and non-fiction books are full of numerous and detailed presentations of violent death. Geoffrey Gorer, a social anthropologist, says our fascination with death is pornographic (Death, Grief, and Mourning, 1967). Pornography is something offensive to the taste. Usually, it refers to those pictures or writings that excite us sexually and give rise to private sexual fantasies. With pornography the thing viewed is not responded to as a person. When we say that sex is disgusting and not to be talked about, the sexual need is not destroyed but only forced into non-human paths. Death is pornographic in the same sense that sex was in the 19th century. Just as women covered their bodies with voluminous skirts, so today we cover the reality of death with unrealistic funeral practices in accouterments and words to deny the reality that each one of us is going to die. The pornography of death follows the same pattern. Too often the way we confront dying and death does not call forth our normal feelings of sorrow, guilt, and love. We emphasize death’s harshness and deny our tenderness. If we are prudish about death – that is, see it as disgusting, obscene, not to be talked about – we have not come to terms with all the elements of real and authentic life, and the end result is pornographic diversion.

4.    We ridicule the elderly and costume ourselves in garish hair dyes, make-up, and expensive surgical procedures, all in hopes we might fool death into passing us by.

5.    When we discuss death, it is usually in sympathy cards which dare not even use the words death or dying.

6.    Death is romanticized in literature and the media by deathbed scenes where good-looking actors say good and sweet things and die nobly, emotionally stable, and articulate moments before their death, still looking good. They are not portrayed coughing up blood, gasping for breath, and causing the rest of us to feel imposed upon, awkward or inconvenienced.

 

*Discover GriefShare if you are experiencing death in your life of a significant other. Meetings at Norway Avenue weekly, call for further information.

 

THE ART OF DYING

DEATH, DYING, AND GRIEF (3)

[This is the third in a series of blogs on death, dying, and grief. These blogs are presented with a focus on our GriefShare ministry for those suffering death and loss. The blogs in general are educational for those who face life and death - that is all of us.]

          “There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading

When things that seemed so very plain become an awful pain

          Searching for the truth among the dying

          And answered when you have learned the art of dying.” 

                                                   -George Harrison

The last I heard there were about six billion people living on Mother Earth. About one hundred million of these die every year. That’s about 275,000 deaths a day. Some succumb at home, some in accidents, some in war. And tomorrow another 275,000 will meet their fate. Over 75%, however, will be processed out of existence through the crowded corridors of our busy institutions.

Wherever, however death comes, we try to handle it with calm, efficient dispatch. Death in America is no longer a metaphysical mystery of summons from the Divine. Rather, it is an engineering problem for death’s managers – the physicians, morticians, statisticians, charged in supervising nature’s planned obsolescence. For the nation that designed the disposable diaper and the no-deposit beer bottle, the dead are only a bit more troublesome than other forms of human waste.

Such a description as that above may be so for those who are in daily proximity with death. But, for the most of us, NOT SO. Death is not a routine event to be followed through in the proper sequence with mimeographed form in hand. Death is tremendously significant for us. It is amazing how our lives are literally focused on the death of our physical bodies.

To live is to wonder about life. And life includes death and dying. What does death mean to you? and why even raise such a question?

·      Why deal with our experience/awareness (or lack of it) of death and dying?

·      What is the value in brushing shoulders with the Grim Reaper, and hearing the swish of his scythe, feeling the chill of his breath?

As I write, I realize I am on the back side of a pilgrimage that began back in 1967. That’s when I really started to encounter the reality of finitude. I had pneumonia and was confined to bed for a month. The first week of that was great. I slept. The second week was – super: I read a lot. The third week was – eh? The fourth week – really bad! But during the last two weeks I had one of the first original theological insights I had ever had. (This insight had already been realized by Soren Kierkegaard, the Apostle Paul and others, but I only thought of them later). What can I say? Great minds think alike! My insight that focuses on death is as follows:

We are meant to enjoy life. This is not selfish – to want to live a happier, fuller life. In fact, when we embrace ourselves in a loving manner there is the possibility of lovingly embracing others in our lives and in our society. It has been rightly said that a world of peace, love, and harmony begins first within each of us. We are meant to be individuals who are involved in the process of becoming creators of freedom, love, and acceptance. When we are not involved in this process, we are rejecting our humanity. Psychologically we may speak of that rejection as avoidance. Rudolf Bultmann, a famous theologian, said that the things that people have the most problem in the New Testament Scriptures is the call to “Authentic Existence” – being genuinely human. What is that tends to make us reject our humanness – our authenticity? The answer: DEATH.

 

Discover GriefShare if you are experiencing a death in your life of a significant other.

Humanizing our Life

DEATH, DYING, AND GRIEF  (2)

Humanizing our Life

We are created in God’s image. This tells us that God has a purpose for all of humankind. To be fully human is really to discover who I am. And who am I? I'm a member of the huge human family where we're all brothers and sisters wherever we come from, whatever our culture or color, whatever our religion. We were born in weakness. We will grow. And we will die. So the story of each one of us is a story of accepting that we are fragile.

Our last blog ended “could not a healthy wrestling with our own mortality lead us along to road to a more human understanding of life and death?” By humanizing our attitudes toward death and dying we can also humanize our approaches to life and living. Perhaps our culture’s dehumanization of death is the result of our subhuman level of life. The one thing that impresses me most in the writings of those who have been able to humanly share their journey to death is their awareness of life. They know the meaning and preciousness of life. Nothing is any longer taken for granted – not family, friends, not flowers or the sky or poetry. There is in the awareness of death the awareness of life. False values begin to fade, illusions are discarded, pretensions are abandoned, and life is accepted and joined.

To humanize our attitudes toward death, therefore, is not to deny it, or reduce it to pornography, or glorify it, or hide it. It is somehow to wrestle with it, to come to human terms as best as we can with it with all our human emotions. The acceptance that there is a conclusion to life can become the commencement to living. We often speak of death as being universal – we all die- but that must not cloud the fact that it is really individual. The words of John Donne, English poet and cleric, seem apropos:

No man is an island, entire of itself: every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main: if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind: and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

How we first learn about death follows us through life. So any study and exploration of death and dying should begin with us. To enjoy life, to live a fuller more meaningful life, requires that we accept our mortality.

So, what were your first encounters with death? What are your fears, doubts, concerns, anxieties, hopes, questions about death? How did you first learn to have these thoughts, values, beliefs, and attitudes about death?

The challenge to examine issues surrounding death are:

·      You will seriously examine your relationship with God.

·      You will have a more effective life.

·      You will better be able to plan your future.

·      You will be able to complete a will.

·      You will be able to make a decision about being an organ donor.

·      You will discuss with your significant other issues of your funeral.

In other words you will become better able to engage in the business of living. Carpe diem.

 

*Discover GriefShare if you are experiencing a death in your life of a significant other.