The one about…it meaning something!

“I can’t do this anymore”. I lay down, closed my eyes and stared intensely at the back of my own eyelids hoping for inspiration; a picture, an image, an idea…nothing, just darkness. I sighed and rolled over. It was going to be a long night.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt trapped like this, don’t get me wrong, it’s not an awful place to be trapped, we’re ok, we’re living life. We can’t stay where we are though and we still can’t see a way forward. It feels a little like I’m in one of those horror movies where there’s no way out and the space is slowly filling with water; something has to make sense soon or I am going to drown.

There are occasional glimmers of hope, possibilities that might come to something but nothing ever seems to be straightforward. Yet in the midst of all the job applications, interviews and conversations about our future, the ‘everyday’ takes place; the real demands, joys and sorrows of raising children, seeing friends and sharing life with each other happens; life happens.

It’s easy just to sit and write about love and hope and adventure; to be passionate about the divine, soul and mystery; it’s at this point though that it has to mean something. It has to mean something when life is hard, when there isn’t a plan, when you can see those around you hurting and you can’t fix it. That’s when all the whimsical theological theorising actually has to be true.

This is where I have to believe that this story, the one I find myself living in, makes sense in a bigger story.

This is where I have to decide to love; to be kind and patient with those around me even though other feelings overwhelm me. This is where I also have to choose to love and forgive myself when I don’t love others as I would like to.

This is where, when fear taunts me, I acknowledge it’s existence but I don’t let it take the steering wheel. It’s where, when grief engulfs me, I allow it to do it’s work but I also take a deep breath and dare to keep hoping.

This is where I have to acknowledge that I can’t meet all the expectations placed on me by myself and others, where I admit I don’t even want to meet some of those expectations. This I where I accept that I don’t always cope and that it’s OK not to.

This is also where the tension between science and soul exists, where the logical reasoned approach to life meets the mysterious whisper of what could be and leaves me torn, not really knowing which route to take. This is where I’m left clinging to the belief that it will all make sense despite the fact that sometimes all I really want to do is hide under the duvet and stare at the inside of my eyelids!

So, this is where I choose to believe in the Divine; in a force that holds all things and where I admit that I believe that same force will renew, restore, refresh and resurrect all things, even my story.

This is where what I write means something. Right here, right now!

The one about…expectation!

Life was spiralling out of control. It had been a year since she’d left home but her understanding of who she was and where her life was headed was not becoming any clearer. Her eating habits were becoming more erratic as she desperately tried to have control over something. She’d failed to gain a place at university for the second year in a row and she had sixteen rejection letters to prove it. As she neared the end of her ‘year out’ she was very aware that life wasn’t going as she’d expected, not only had she failed to meet her own expectations she knew she’d pretty much failed to meet everyone else’s. That’s when the cutting began.

Maybe no ones actually got it together, despite appearances. Maybe we’re all living with expectation in some form or another. We don’t expect relationships to require so much work, we’ve been brought up with the fairy tales full of “happy ever afters.” We expect that we’ll find a job we’ll succeed at and enjoy, after all we’ve spent so many years in the education system surely that’s what we’re entitled to. We don’t even expect our loved ones to die when they do, even though we know it will happen to us all eventually, we never really expect death. We’re not really prepared for what life expects of us and sometimes we don’t cope with that!

Maybe we should be taught to manage our expectations; maybe then we’d cope with those feelings of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear a little better. I imagine though, if we did learn to manage our expectations, that we’d also manage out the joy, laughter, hope and excitement and life would become incredibly monotone or mundane. So we’re left living with the challenge of expectation! Maybe if we could understand expectation our understanding of what it means to cope, or not, would make more sense.

Often in the ordinariness of the everyday we deal with a whole range of emotions because that what life invites. What if intertwined somewhere in those ordinary emotions that we all experience we also juggle that set of expectations placed on us either by ourselves or by others? What if just below the surface of our lives, we’re constantly managing those expectations? Like the pressure from the media to look a certain way, eat certain food or shop in a certain place? Or the pressure from our own family, friends or belief system to live up to a particular way of being in the world. We expect, or are expected, to cope and when we don’t we’re left somewhere between bewildered and depressed.

I know many people grow up with a strongly ingrained set of beliefs and a fierce loyalty to family. When we break away from that and find ourselves “free” of parental control or tribal constraints we take on the challenge of living those expectations. There’s a whole new world to explore. Many of us carry with us throughout life the expectations of the family that raised us, it acts as our moral compass, our marker for how to be in the world! For some that’s intertwined with “religious” belief, for others it’s simply family values. The expectation we get a job, earn money, buy a house, find a partner maybe even have children. Even if we feel our family don’t expect much from us there’s still social expectations that we’ll supposedly conform to. Somehow we learn to cope with those expectations but sometimes we find the demands of them stifling.

Here’s the thing, what if there’s some value in not coping, in not conforming, at least for a while? What if mental or emotional lapses, where we “don’t cope” actually are moments where we discover more about ourselves? What if some breakdowns in stability, some rebellion against societal expectation, or some failure to meet familial goals, are opportunities to reconnect with ourselves, to actually discover who we really are?

It seems that some of the greatest musicians, lyricists, writers and artists often struggled with depression or other issues which compromised their mental health. Some of the most beautful, creative and inspiring work is borne out of that place of pain. What if not coping provides opportunity for creativity to flourish? What if in those moments there is a deeper connection with soul, with meaning and purpose?

What if to some extent we need to celebrate our inability to cope rather than rush to find a quick fix? What if, when the temptation to meet all those expectations takes hold along with the stark reality that we either can’t or simply don’t want to, instead of adopting our usual coping strategies we take time out, to listen to ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and learn from what we’re experiencing because it is actually teaching us something! What if that’s really the role of religion in the world; not to place more expectation on us but to provide spaces and places to reconnect with ourselves and others, to encounter something more and share in the story we find ourselves in. What if then we find we’re better placed to navigate all that life asks of us? What if there’s something about being more honest with ourselves and others that allows us all to realise everyone’s just figuring it out, no one is completely sorted and everyone else is doing today for the first time too?

The one about…coping

Alone, she sat, the silver blade pressed against her arm. Slowly and deliberately she moved the metal across her skin, the gaping flesh making way for the trickle of the thick crimson blood.

She tried hard to work out how she felt as she watched the blood ooze from the wound. There was no anger or fear, she didn’t feel any pain, it was something else….relief, she felt relief.

Relief that she was still alive, the blood was proof of that much. Relief that she finally had something that was hers, something secret and special, her own way of retreating from the world. Relief that she could still feel, the tears had long since run out and she wasn’t sure she was capable of feeling anymore but for that moment she felt peaceful, content and alive.

The warm blood ran down the inside of her arm and for a while she watched in awe of the beauty, the colour, the warmth, the pattern it made as she traced the lines and then, very calmly she picked up a tissue and pressed it over the gaping skin, she lay back in the bed and for the first time in a long time she genuinely smiled.

She wasn’t sure how long she lay there for, or if she slept but when she did finally move she very carefully tended to her wound. It never crossed her mind that it might heal better with stitches, or that it could get infected….all that made sense was that now she had something to care for, a reason to look after herself and probably for the first time, something about herself that she loved.

The cutting continued for months, not every day and rarely as a result of anger. It was her secret, her moment of punishment and protection, penance and passion, revulsion and tenderness, a tangible expression of self loathing and yet also a reason to love herself. A living articulation of the great paradox of life; a way she could express, hold, contain and release some of those emotions she struggled to otherwise give language to.

She knew people judged her for it, labelled her as mentally ill, maybe she was but maybe most people were! Maybe they just chose the more socially acceptable methods of processing their emotions.

Those days, months, years were not my finest, not moments I’m proud of but I equally don’t regret living life that way. I guess I do regret the pain I caused to those who loved me, the worry and the disappointment they felt but I hold to the belief that those years shaped me. I also know that still, when life is overwhelming and the myriad of emotions that confuse any given experience seem to take over I think about finding a blade. I never have. I stopped cutting over fifteen years ago when I realised that it had become a habit rather than a release. I guess I’ve found other ways to understand, hold and express how I feel.

What I’ve also come to realise is that when those emotions dominate and all I want to do is hide away or distract myself from the intensity of feeling they demand, instead of employing yet another coping mechanism I’m now more able to name that emotion and mark it as holy! I know! Sounds a little crazy right!

Here’s how I now understand all of this: we all face times in life where emotions surface. Sometimes stirred by a song or a film, sometimes evoked by a smell or a sound. Sometimes storming to the forefront of who we are because of words spoken or words left unsaid; a response to our own or others actions. There are occasions of immense sadness and grief, others that cause us to fear or to doubt, some that just make us angry. Yet there are also times where a deep sense of joy and connection to something more releases feelings were not sure what to do with. I know now that there are many ways of releasing, burying or ignoring emotions; that extra glass of wine, an intoxicatingly wrong relationship, another evening spent watching pointless television or indulging in that extra piece of cake. Some of those ways we use to cope aren’t healthy, aren’t the best for us and others are deemed more acceptable, like an addiction to exercise or work. We all find ways of coping. Other times we don’t “cope” and we find ourselves reeling from the shock, embarrassment or disappointment of another outburst.

Yet what if we choose to name those emotions that hold us so violently. Fear. Doubt. Loneliness. Anger. Anxiety. Confusion. Grief. Hope. Joy. What if we draw a circle around whatever it is we’re feeling and allow it just to be. Not good or bad, just holy.

What if it sits in that holy circle either until the intensity passes or until we’re ready to deal with it, or more fully enjoy it? What if we listen carefully and calmly to what it’s telling us about where our life is at but we don’t allow it to push us into unhealthy behaviours or dependencies. What if we dare to stay awake, fully present in our own lives, in tune with who we are and where our lives are headed? What if some moments are simply holy, set apart as unexplainable, and uncontrollably beautiful? What if we have the courage to embrace that! What if that’s what it means to be fully human, fully alive? What if it all belongs? What if in that place we can truly know what love is?

The one about…poverty.

Have you ever experienced being poor? The dictionary defines poor as:

lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.

Yet poverty isn’t just financial or material hardship. Poverty can take many forms. We can be physically or mentally disadvantaged, not capable of doing or processing life as we once could or the way others do.

We can be emotionally poor, those days or seasons where we go through the motions but emotionally we’re quite numb and disconnected. There are other times where we’ve been overwhelmed by emotion and we then feel drained, exhausted by what life demands of us. There are times where we lack the resources to function coherently in the world and we’re simply not able to relate to those around us in a life giving way. We might also describe this as spiritually poor, when we’re low in spirit, those times where we feel void of sparkle or vitality, somewhat bereft of energy and purpose.

Often it seems poverty is a comparable state. Maybe we compare our financial, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual wealth to what we perceive others to have or maybe we compare our wealth or lack of, to what we’ve previously experienced. Sometimes we simply measure our wealth against what we believe we’re entitled to and believe that it comes up short! That said, when we’re in a place of need the knowledge that there are people in the world with less might put things in perspective but often isn’t a huge comfort! Yet there must be something we can learn from the poverty we experience.

One thing all types of poverty seem to have in common is that those who are impoverished find themselves at the end of their own resources. Poverty, of whatever kind, can leave us helpless, at the mercy of others; be it the system, individuals or the universe.

There’s a book called “The End of Me” by Kyle Idleman, it’s a great read, I bought it because I liked the title. For me, the concept of “the end of me” sums up poverty quite well. That experience of being at the end of our own financial, emotional, mental, physical or spiritual resources. Have you ever felt like you’ve got to “the end” of yourself, as though if one more bad or difficult or trying event occurs you might actually fall apart? Do you ever dread checking your emails, or hearing the phone ring or waiting for the post to arrive because you’re so spent that if you’re required to do something else, pay one more bill, or sort one more disagreement you might just break down?

What if that’s a good place to be? What if experiencing poverty, requires us on some level to surrender control, to recognise we can’t hold it all, that we can’t keep going at that pace? To recognise that some “fixes” take time and we simply have to surrender to the moment, to the universe or to our need to dominate?

What if finding ourselves at the end of our own reserves means we’re in a place where we’re instead ready to receive? Maybe running out of our own resources means we have to look to others or other sources?

What if in that place of poverty there is more room for “otherness” (if you need a word, make it up!), more space for something or someone else? Maybe in a place of poverty there’s more space for creativity, for new ideas to be birthed? What if in that place we’re more willing to try new methods or adopt a different outlook and then those occasions, where we feel we’re at the mercy of the universe, actually become opportunities for something new to occur? What if it’s in that place that we find a whole wealth of story, of possibility and of life? What if that’s where the adventure really begins!

The one about…rest!

I like to run. When I was pregnant with #6 I ran a marathon a week for the last ten weeks of my pregnancy, we moved house six weeks before he was born so to some extent running was my escape, my way of coping. When #7 was four months old I ran a half marathon pushing him in the buggy, again running was at best a therapy, at worst a distraction, as I came to terms, or tried to come to terms with having no more children! I love to run.

Then just over a year ago I picked up an injury, my achilles, it literally was my achilles heel! I couldn’t run, not properly, not for nearly a year, and still now I can’t run every day. I’ve had to be creative with exercise and I’ve had to rest! Why do I tell you this? Well Friday was a cold, crisp, beautifully sunny autumn morning, the perfect day for a run after school drop, but I’d run the previous two days and I knew my ankle would shout at me if I ran again so I chose to follow one of my running routes at a much slower pace. Frustrated, I began to walk, incredibly tempted to jog slowly, I tried focusing on the positives, fresh air, sunshine, exercise, my mind began to wander, to think about my blog, about what I’d write about because so far this week I’ve started two blogs and finished neither! Then I realisedi should write about rest.

I’m not good at resting, often because the opportunity alludes me but also because I don’t naturally choose it over “doing”. We recently spent a week in Wales, the nine of us, in a cottage on the coast (actually it was an old police station, the children thought it was awesome and took a dress up police kit and proceeded to spend the week arresting each other!!) There weren’t the usual chores, I didn’t take my “to do” list and I’d even finished writing my blog by Sunday afternoon! So the week was focussed on being family and enjoying the sea and the sand, the hills, castles and waterfalls and each other (as well as a giant slide)! A perfect recipe fot adventure!

We climbed, we paddled, we talked, we walked and we played; we played a lot. The favourite of the week was “Hunted”. If you’ve seen the series on TV you’ll have an idea! We picked numbers for hunter and hunted, we strategically placed the buggy with all our belongings in the sand dunes and then we began…the hunter counting to 30 as the rest of us hid in the dips and contours of the coast! It’s safe to say I cannot run on sand, dodgy heel or not and I spent most of my time laughing hysterically at the pointlessness of trying to move at any pace whilst constantly being outwitted by the children!

The week wasn’t even close to ‘sit on the beach with a book’ kind of rest, to be fair it probably wasn’t warm enough! It didn’t even lend itself to cream teas and coffee shops, or strolling around quirky cobbled streets and looking in shop windows, it seems our stage of life doesn’t allow for that! Yet it was a change of pace, it was time to play and to laugh, there was time to all huddle back into the warmth of our holiday home and enjoy doing nothing in particular! I felt rested, mentally, emotionally if not physically!

Even in the every day, rest doesn’t have to mean lying on the sofa! Although I guess we all rest differently. I know that running has taught me that rest, for me, isn’t stopping altogether, it’s more about finding another rhythm, a different way. I don’t run as often or as far as I did. Instead I bike or I walk, for me, that’s rest.

In the creation poem that begins the bible it talks of God as resting on seventh day. It’s called Sabbath and the word is taken from the Hebrew word Shabbat or Shabbos and it means to ‘cease from activity, to rest’. Sabbath is found throughout the bible, from the creation poem which offers an understanding of Gods first interactions with the world through to the followers of Jesus being criticised for not “resting” appropriately on the Sabbath. Somewhere in the story the understanding of Sabbath had become distorted, maybe we still carry a distorted view of Sabbath or rest!

To understand a little more of the importance of rest there’s a story in the bible that’s actually quite helpful. However you view the bible, there’s possibly some wisdom to be gained from trying to understand how life on planet earth is unfolding?! So let’s go back a few thousand years ago to a group of people called the Israelites who’d become slaves in Egypt. Day after day, for years and years, they were forced to make bricks, trapped in a way of life they could do nothing about. Then Moses arrives on the scene! (You might have heard of him: baby in bulrushes/Egyptian prince/burning bush/parting the sea/Ten Commandments…yep, that Moses!) Moses liberates the people and as they journey from enslavement to freedom they find themselves, as Sid described in his talk at church last week, “needing something to hang their day off, a moral compass and good, strong healthy practices to allow them to thrive.”

The concept of Sabbath, a day of rest, was not an onerous law the Israelites now had to keep, it was a gift. The instruction to observe the Sabbath was for their own wellbeing, not a another rule, not another opportunity to fail. It was an instruction for people who didn’t know how to rest, who had been slaves to more powerful force which never let them rest. Sabbath rest was an invitation into a new way of being human that they had not experienced.

Our slavery might not be as obvious as that of the Israelites. Yet, what if there are subtle forces at work around us? A social media network that beckons us in, the urge to check the phone for messages or emails, despite the fact it’s only been ten minutes since the last time? What about that voice that whispers ‘work the overtime’ or the favour you say yes to even though you’d told yourself not to take anything else on? What if our culture is quite driven to “do”? What if we’re slaves to something? Busyness, achievement, people pleasing, success or just feeling good enough? There are so many things we do without really asking ourselves why we’re doing them. What if those things are OK as long as we know we’re still able to say no; walk away; stop; at least every now and again!

Rest, a day off, a change of routine, family time, leaving the phone at home, voluntarily shutting the computer down at 5pm, choosing not to complete the to do list; whatever it might look like for you, rest seems important. The motorway signs tell us “tiredness can kill”… it can! It can kill enthusiasm, it can kill desire, it can kill joy, it can kill creativity. What if we are a little tired; tired of the routine, tired of the constantness (not sure that’s a word!) and tired of the rat race (the problem with the rat race being that even if you win you’re still a rat!!*) What if we really do need rest?

What if rest is where creativity, desire, enthusiasm and joy are rejuvenated, re-imagined, restored? What if rest is where we get to really listen to ourselves and to the universe? What if when we rest we find that creativity flourishes? What if from a place of rest we can discover that awesome lesson plan, that radical presentation, that new suggestion the boss needs to hear, the direction that project needs to head in or that career path, that hobby, that friend we’ve not seen, that child we’ve not properly chatted to for over a week? What if rest allows us to see from a different perspective and re-approach life with a fresh vision?

It’s out of “rest” that ‘prodigal’ is growing…the dream; idea; vision; the possibility of exploring together who we are and who the divine might be, and from that place looking for ways to really live out community, genuinely caring for those around us. (We’ve written a few pages of ideas and concepts which I’ll post as a blog just in case you’re interested!)

So I know from my own story that rest changes things. If you’ve read my previous blog ‘the one about the journey’ you’ll know that we’re in a time of transition. These few months have offered a change of pace, a different routine. I’m not sure it’s what we’d of chosen but it has allowed space; providing an opportunity to stop, think, listen, talk, plan, see differently. It feels like an opportunity to rest from the ‘normal’. It’s not been easy but then birthing something new rarely is, but it is always worth it!

*One of my favourite quotes! Source unknown!!

The one about…the journey!

We moved to Peterborough four and a half years ago, seven of us, on a crazy adventure to a city we didn’t know and people who didn’t know us. To be honest, the very little we knew about the area wasn’t great. The ‘Peterborough ditch murders’ had taken place a year or so before we moved, carried out by someone who lived less than a mile from our house…when you don’t know an area you can be very quick to make assumptions, that along with the fact that both the church houses had been broken into in the months leading up to our move!

Alongside all those events though, the universe was speaking to us! We were invited to meet our prospective training vicar in September 2013. In the run up to the meeting we found an old bible that had been written in by our eldest daughter a year or so before. We’d never noticed but in her scribbled, seven year old handwriting was a prayer: “when we move house can I have my own room and can there be silver birch trees in the garden”. We were given a tour of the parish and shown our possible new home, where there were four bedrooms and silver birch trees in the garden! A couple of weeks after visiting Peterborough for the first time I had a miscarriage. It was a surreal time; the excitement of a whole new adventure, in a city we were slightly fearful of, without a baby we thought we’d be having. Yet the answer to the scribbled prayer connected with us so deeply that as a way to remember the baby and the significance of all that was happening, I had a silver birch tree leaf tattooed on my hand. I’m reminded each time I look at it that there’s a bigger plan and that we were meant to be here!

We’re still here and the adventure has been awesome! We arrived as a family of seven and now we’re a family of nine, with hundreds more friends! Our time here has opened our eyes to the variety that the role of priest or vicar offers. We get the jokes about how Sid only works Sundays…we can see how people think that! There is more to the job though. We have the privilege of sharing with people in key moments; through baptisms, weddings and funerals. We join with those who are celebrating and stand with those who are mourning, it’s humbling to be part of people’s lives. The role here has been so much more than that though too. We’ve been involved in the parish primary school as chaplains, mentors and on the governing body. Sid has taken on role of chaplain to the youth team at Peterborough United and then there are the relationships and conversations that grow out of simply living in a place, of doing the school run, or of taking your kids to clubs. It’s a whole way life.

Out of all those things we’ve also been able to experiment with what church might be, trialing a different way of being church. During the summer before we moved here, we created a list of ‘values’ that we thought were important for church, the key elements of what church could be, based on a combination of experience, reading and Sids training at college. When we came to Peterborough there was an understanding that we’d get to try and put some of our “theory” into practice! We called it “Refresh” and we held a monthly gathering where we talked about things of God, and pondered some of what makes us human; we shared food and formed friendships. Out of this other things began to grow, a weekly tots group, podcasts on the themes of the month and a blog!! In some ways we just began to touch the surface of what we’d like to do, mainly because the role of priest required time and energy too but also because our future here has always been uncertain.

We moved here for a three year training post, knowing that we’d then move on to our own parish. However, nothing’s that straightforward! Fifteen months into the training post, the vicar who led the two churches left. Sid took on the responsibilities of the role of vicar until the lines between curate and vicar blurred. At the end of his three year training post we were given the opporunity to stay for another year and continue the role of helping the two churches work together and become, in Church of England speak, a “united benefice”! A challenge which all involved threw themselves into. It speaks into what church should be: a place where people come together, listen to each other, seek to connect with the Divine. All of this required everyone to give of themselves, to love, forgive and celebrate…it’s a journey we’ve been on together as church. In the midst of that journey though we have had conflicting, confusing messages about our role here, some of that from our own understanding of what we may or may not be ‘called’ to do and some from the institution we work for, who ultimately decide whether we stay or go.

I guess when the vicar left and we continued the work here it seemed to make sense that we’d stay. I know at one point we wrestled with that because we’d always believed we’d have to move on. Staying became a new concept, something we found hard to comprehend at first. There’s a big difference between staying in a place long term and frequently moving. The community here have made it clear that they would love us to stay, which also speaks of what it is to be church, but it’s not that simple. It’s been painful and confusing as well as life giving and exciting. It’s been a time of soul searching, of prayer and conversation as we try to work out what it is we’re passionate about and what we’d give our lives to doing. Something I don’t think we would have explored so deeply if we’d found another parish two years ago!

So here we are, still uncertain about where we’ll do life in 2019 but with some clarity about what we’ll be doing. Our heart, our passion is to create church, Prodigal Church to be precise. Our vision? To be a church in the community, for the community, a spiritual centre of the community but with a very practical, action centred vision to make a difference for good, to go beyond ourselves and our limited experience; to love and look out for each other and those around us and as we discover more of what life in all its fullness looks like for all people!

We’re not sure where this will happen, we’re still trying to figure that out. It’s a little scary with two pay cheques left, especially when the house comes with the job! Yet it’s exciting and briming with possibilities. Life is an adventure; birthing something new is painful…but it’s always worth it!

The one about…death (part two- or is there?!)

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!