I grew up amongst sickness and death. My father was a veterinary surgeon and I would accompany him on farm visits and regularly visit his animal hospital. I got to see sick animals being put down. When he carried out inspections at the abattoir I got to see the wholesale slaughter of animals for food. I saw first hand how my father converted the carcass of a lamb hanging in our outside shower, a gift from a grateful farmer, into food on our dinner table. I learned to catch fish, gut them and cook them on the barbecue.
But I noticed that our relationship to death was different when it came to people. The adults didn’t talk much with us children about the passing of a family member. And when my sister was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 6 we were shunned by many former friends in the community. In the 70’s there was a lot of ignorance around cancer.
Death is taboo, an obsessive morbidity that cannot be healthy for us. Or so our culture seems to say. It’s ok to bring it up briefly when someone we know has died, and we recognise grieving, but not for too long. For a few weeks after having had a loved one die we are offered condolences. We respond with a polite “Thanks,” and then the topic of conversation quickly moves on.
But death is all around us: everything is dying; everything is impermanent; by denying death and impermanence we are avoiding a major part of the natural cycle of life; we are creating an imbalance and to so we envelope ourselves in denial, fear and a grasping for control and ownership. Accepting impermanence frees us from both fear and ignorance.
By denying aging, death, impermanence and sickness we set ourselves up for a life of fear, reactivity and a meanness of spirit. When we do break through the death barrier we find that we relax into our lives and our place in the universe: we pull back from the acquisitive, busy, controlling mentality that held death and our fear of it at bay; we feel a wave of relief wash over us and we shift into a more honest and real relationship to ourselves and the people around us, becoming more present, more aware and more compassionate.
We measure success by what we own and what we do in society. And so at a young age we start to acquire assets: watches, cars, jewellery, property. We also allow our workplace to define us. “So what do you do?” is the catch cry of the 20-30-something social set. In the technology space I've seen multiple examples of the scrappy entrepreneur who seemed so passionate and focused on changing the world transform into a driven narcissist trapped by the quarterly corporate profit treadmill with no time for others once her company grows beyond the billion dollar point.
And we struggle when all this stuff is taken away from us due to happenstance, ill health and ultimately, death. We grieve the loss and rue how impermanent life is, but this is often too little and too late to give us much comfort.
We would be far better off making impermanence our friend and death our mentor at a young age by creating a daily practice of recognising that nothing is forever: reflect on your health and remind yourself that it is in our nature to become sick; reflect on your life and remind yourself that it is in our nature to die; reflect on what you have and remind yourself that everything we have will become separated from us. This becomes a powerful tool that we can use when impermanence inevitably strikes our lives. Instead of being shocked when something departs our world, we can instead recognise this loss as natural and wish that person, relationship or thing well on its journey.
Let’s play a game of charades. I want you to act like an old person. What actions would you communicate to me that you are old? For most of us we would hunch over and mimic a fragile person walking slowly with a wobbly walking stick. Yet in cultures where death is more a part of everyday life, or amongst people who are regularly in contact with the dying, such as hospice workers, people would portray an old person as being more graceful, with an understated fullness of life and the power of wisdom.
There is a radiance that comes with aging and impermanence. People who have suffered a near death experience speak of the deeper regard they now have of their vulnerability, not so much as a measure of weakness, but of an end to the need to put up defences along with the discovery of a newfound sense of freedom and openness.
My father was always strongly independent. And yet as his cancer spread he became weaker and more reliant on others. One day I saw him break down and cry as he spoke with a pharmacist about his pain management. This took a lot more courage for him to do than to continue with the veneer of control and independence. In that moment I saw in him a little boy, lost and frightened. In that moment it was as if I was seeing him for the first time and while it was hard, it also gave me a deeper sense of connection to him, a realisation of the interdependence that exists between all of us. Through his realisation that he was not in control and perhaps never had been in his life, he was giving me the gift of increasing my perception of impermanence and the gift of being able to connect and care for him more intimately.
It has been harder for my mother. She is trying to hold onto her sense of reality as her Alzheimers untangles the synapse pathways in her brain. There are times when she lets go and accepts that change is inevitable and that her independence is ephemeral, but there are other times when she rails against the need to be cared for. She fuels her anxiety by letting her discursive mind get the better of her: “I’m so stupid”; “I don’t know how to cook”; “I can’t find anything.” An attitudinal shift brings her comfort: she quietens down the negative monkey chatter; she stops repeating ‘bad experience’ stories from her past; and she experiences life from the heart. By just being, she relaxes into herself and accepts the heightened impermanence of her situation.
**One of our greatest challenges as we age or deal with a life threatening illness is maintaining the veneer: our sense of who we are can shatter; our self-image no longer portrays stability to ourselves or others. This can be enormously confronting, yet it is a reality of our situation as we simply do not have the energy required to keep up the front.
When my father was in the final few weeks of his battle with cancer he turned to me one morning and asked, “What do other people do?”
“Do you mean other people in your situation?”
“Does it really matter what they do? You need to dance to your own tune and not worry about what is a socially acceptable way to die. It is your time, there is no right or wrong way.”
It was hard hearing myself say that. This was my father. This was the toughest man I’d ever met.
“All I ask is that you keep breathing. Relax into this part of your journey and breath. Don’t let social pressure or fear control your behaviour.”
While it is useful to create a practice for dealing with our own death, this is no guarantee of how we will face it. Nor will being prepared necessarily reduce the anguish for those around us or lead us to dying in a serene state. Life is a series of unknown moments, strung together by our minds to create a narrative. What is important to remember is that each and every moment is not only unknown, but unknowable. Our death is but one such moment. Contemplate that, explore the unknown, become comfortable with infinite unknowables and your fear of death and dying well will diminish. Replace your anxious mind with curious mind.
Building a strong practice of meditation is particularly helpful for creating a heightened level of comfort with the unknown. In meditation we release our biases and preconceptions and let every moment arrive abundantly unknown.
Embrace death, it can teach us so much about living life to its fullest without delay, without fear and without masks.