I’ve been thinking about death all week and wondering why we don’t find it easy to talk about. I don’t think it’s because we’re not interested, it’s the one thing that affects everyone, no matter who they are, how much they have or what they do. I also can’t imagine that it’s because we don’t have anything to say. Most people I know have encountered death in some form and even if that’s not the case I’d be surprised if they’ve never thought about it. So why don’t we talk about it more?
I guess partly because it’s painful, the grief can be overwhelming and when you know you’re not going to hold it together it’s easier not to talk. I’ve been there, I get that. Yet even when that raw, seemingly relentless, suffocating kind of grief begins to ease a little we’re still reluctant to talk. It’s awkward, maybe we’re worried we’ll scare someone with our story or our thoughts, maybe we’re fearful of offending someone, of saying the wrong thing, of making it worse. Maybe were sacred that what we feel or think isn’t ‘normal’ and we’ll sound a little crazy! But what if what we’re actually most afraid of is death itself?
Part of the problem with death (other than the glaringly obvious finality of it) is that we don’t really know much about it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know when it will happen, we don’t know how it will happen and we don’t know where it will happen and we don’t really know what happens other than the physical symptoms?! One thing we do know is that it will happen! It will happen, despite the wrinkle cream, the hair colourants or any of our other attempts to stay looking young. It will happen despite the over indulgence in wine or work or retail therapy or social media, despite any of our attempts to keep busy, any of our attempts to distract ourselves from reality, to not to have to think too deeply about life…despite all that, death will still happen! We can choose to keep ignoring it or we can start to embrace thoughts and conversations about it…because there’s something about facing our fears, something about sharing our thoughts with others that helps. It helps us realise we’re not alone, helps it’s realise what is ‘normal’ and helps us form more of an understanding about what we believe might happen when we die.
Now, I am not dead (as far as I know) and having never died I simply don’t have the answer to the ‘what happens’ question. I know there are a plethera of opinions and postulations about what happens next. Some people, go for a belief in oblivion, nihilism, the understanding that there is nothing more. Somehow for me that falls short, I guess I’ve sensed something more in my encounters with death.
The night my dad died, after seeing the sheet covering his head, I didn’t go back into the room. The funeral directors took him away. I went to visit him, his body, in the funeral home a couple of days later with a family friend. She stood at a distance as I walked to the table he lay on. I stared at him, he looked as though he was sleeping. I touched his cheek really gently, more out of intrigue than anything else. I remember just watching him, hoping he’d wake up. He didn’t. I’ve no idea how long I stood there for, no tears, just a kind of awe and confusion and wonder and lostness….an eleven year old encountering something there just weren’t the words for.
The reality is that words are limiting. We can’t really describe what happens when we witness death, all of our words fall short, they don’t fully capture what we experience or how we feel.
I remember looking at his body, touching him, bemused by the familiarity and yet the unrecognizable, the memories that his face had shared and the emptiness staring out. What made him “him” had gone. Gone where? I don’t know, but there was a strong sense that something bigger than physical death had occurred. There was something about spirit, essence, aura, soul, something more, something deeper that I didn’t have words for, something I couldn’t fully comprehend, something had changed.
I don’t know if all of that’s just a desperate attempt to convince myself that there’s something more than this life, stirred by my cultural and religious beliefs and fuelled by not wanting to accept that some of those I’ve loved are no longer here. Or if there really is something more. I’ve never met anyone who’s encountered death so closely and written it off as a matter of fact with a ”that’s that done then”.
I know not everyone’s encounter with death is as straightforward as I’ve described but often when we do find ourselves able to talk about those final moments, when the initial shock and pain have subsided, we use words like beauty, stillness, mystery, as though the moment of passing is something deeply spiritual. We talk of it being a privilege to have shared in that moment, to be part of something so much bigger than the now.
One thing I have realised as I’ve thought more about death is that those with a strong shared cultural or religious certainty seem more able to talk about death. Those who have a framework for what happens next seem more able to hold it, deal with it, interact with it.
So I guess the next question to wrestle with is ‘what do I believe happens next’? If I don’t believe in oblivion, if I do believe there’s something more then what might that look like? Is there something beyond this life? An afterlife? Eternal life? Are we reincarnated into something our someone else? Is any of the next life dependant on this life? Is this life part of a bigger story told by the universe and does love have anything to do with it? I think there needs to be a part three!