Thursday, April 23, 2020

"Speak to us of death .... "

"The physical structure of the universe is love" - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 
                       “Grief is how we love in the face of loss” - Joan Sutherland
                                             “Life’s a bitch and then you die” – Mae West

This article doesn’t attempt to give definitive, intellectual answers to belief issues like ‘is there life after death?’, Can we communicate with those who have passed?, Do near-death experiences really happen? Is reincarnation a reality? 
Nor ethical questions like the prolonging and preserving of life at all costs.
Nor all the ‘why me?’ questions surrounding personal suffering.

The article is a reflection (and expression of opinions) on aspects of death in our Western society, and closer to home – brought into sharp focus by the coronavirus pandemic - it is a reflection on our own and others’ dance between life and death. 

Every culture and every religion and persuasion have their own beliefs, customs, traditions and rituals regarding death, most of which are not known to me and won’t be addressed. I hope this causes no offence. Does not needlessly provoke.
The main-heads (each of which deserves a book or two to address adequately!), are:

  • Contemplating the nature of death
  • Facing our own mortality
  • Coping with losing a loved one
  • Coming alongside the dying
  • The impact of death on life


Westerners, whatever our class or age or religious affiliation, don’t like talking about or thinking about death. (Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "It seems to me most strange that men should fear seeing that death - a necessary end - will come when it will come"). We like to believe that it is something that is more likely to happen to someone else before it happens to ourselves. We hang on to our pseudo-immortality and allow our built in death-denying function to readily kick in. 
Our default position is to deny the possible advent of death. Theologians, psychologists and psychics have a plethora of opinions and approaches to questions about death, but death for most of us remains the great unknown and something to fear.

So we cling to life and anything that threatens it: “Not one of us would remain passive and indifferent if someone or something were to threaten that life. This is because we have a mysterious hunger in our hearts which keeps us going – a hunger for a life which is unlimited in happiness and time”. (Quoist, M. 1979)

The Grim Reaper 14th century image took hold during the black death pandemic when a third of Europe’s population died. (The reaper’s scythe was used to separate body from soul). That myth has been a part of our shared unconscious since before then, and has not abated. Death has a foreboding, unwanted connotation.

Perhaps the advent of preventative medical advances and improved palliative care, and greater longevity, have ushered in an increased fear of dying alongside an increased hope of living longer?  Perhaps our Western obsession with the worship of youth and 'rejuvenation, 'perfection' and 'beauty' as promoted by too many marketers adds to our conditioning - to grasp the opposite of death in any way possible.  And the unexpected, not-before-encountered, highly contagious coronavirus and the ghastly manner in which many people will die, alone, has even further fuelled our unwillingness to contemplate our own deaths?
I haven’t seen any research on our attitude to death, but have noticed some movement (which may grow) towards people requesting that a favourite song be sung at their funeral, and mourners showing a video or PowerPoint projection of events and memories that cover the dead person’s life, wearing of more casual clothes to the funeral service, more celebration services, and even holding funerals on the beach or on a mountain slope ….
The way the coronavirus pandemic plays out may mean that we see the death of institutions, organisations, ideologies, communities, the norms of relationships, and the work, home and social lives that we once knew. The death of family members and friends, roles, our confidence, dreams, hope, habits, practices, values and even worldviews and beliefs …  Any bravado we may now have, when we shrug off serious death and loss issues, may be short-lived.

We are also talking about positive death losses – for example, that of lost travel-to-and-from-work activity as a welcome loss (as is loss of excess weight) – as it provides the chance to “be home” in more ways than one: contented, mindful, and awake to hygge moments (a cozy, comfortable, pleasurable feeling when one experiences a special moment – a characteristic of Danish and Norwegian cultures). Appreciating the gain of time not spent on commuting is good and positive - provided we don’t misuse it by bringing our frenetic activity, communicating, and competing from work to home. And in this process shut out the existential need to face the unknown, and death itself.

Even ‘small’ deaths are meaningful. The loss of things we value - opportunity, our faculties, possessions, youth, (false) security. 
I’m struggling with a computer that is becoming more and more unstable, threatening to crash completely before lock-down ends or regulations allow for hardware repair work to be done. It’s as difficult, I think (although less concrete), to let go of, let die, and be free of ingrained attitudes and mind-sets, memories and resentments, anxieties, concerns, work-a-holism, and the limiting beliefs that imprison us. Let alone life itself!

Is death the ultimate ego statement? The pandemic may have the impact of shifting our mind-set away from being important, dominant, independent achievers to recognising that we are only a tiny blip in the immensity of universal time and space – as individuals and as a species.  And allow us to face up to the truth that death is a part of life, and everyone and everything dies. We are inextricably interconnected and interdependent, sharing the web of life with each other (across past, present, future boundaries), other species, nature, the planet. 
The virus is making us collectively conscious of this communion.

Thomas Merton explains from his perspective as a Trappist monk: 
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our dependence, as our son-ship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely”. (Merton, T. 2014)
And Franciscan Richard Rohr picks up on and adds to the theme by dedicating his most recent book thus: 
“I dedicate this book to my beloved fifteen-year-old black Lab, Venus, whom I had to release to God while beginning to write this book. Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can appropriately say that Venus was also Christ for me?  (Rohr, R. 2019)


We live “with great interest and much solicitude as long as possible, just as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although with the perfect certainty that it will burst". (Schopenhauer, A. 1969)

Philosopher, theologian, and psychologist Thomas Moore says that there are three ways of dealing with mortality:
  • Death is the end. End of story.
  • There is life after death. End of story.
  • There is a never-ending story. Our journey to eternity is now, and “our job then, is not to look for the end but rather to see the end, death and the eternal in everything we do …. Only by giving ourselves fully to the puny task that life has offered us this day will we have access to the eternal and the infinite. Only by seeing through to the eternal and blissful soul of our neighbour will we catch a glimpse of the unnameable (God)”.  (Moore, T.2003)
Neil Diamond’s hit song, Morningside, written in 1972, paints a picture of an old man who died alone, who valued family gatherings and meals, who loved and left what he could for his family. But no one cared. 
The song starts:

The old man died
And no one cried
They simply turned away
And when he died
He left a table made of nails and pride
And with his hands he carved these words inside
"For my children".
In the movie, Goodbye Mr Chips, this song speaks of what life we have led prior to our death:
In the autumn of my life
I shall look to the sunset
At the moment in my life when my days are few
And the Question I shall ask only you can answer
Was I Brave and Strong and True
Did I fill the world with love my whole life through?
Kitsch or profound?
And as Cape Town moves into Autumn and Summer fades, I’m reminded of and challenged by Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day, which ends:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

One way of thinking about our own death is that maybe it is akin to being born. As infants we resisted leaving a known, comfortable environment, the womb, and entered a new world kicking and screaming. So maybe death is a similar transition to a new life, albeit very different?

We are only a blip in time. And should perhaps we ought to recognise the five realities put forward by Richard Rohr:
1. Life is hard
2. You are not important
3. Your life is not about you
4. You are not in control
5. You are going to die (Rohr, R. 2020)

Paradoxically, once accepted, these perspectives do allow us to live with freedom and positivity, find purpose and joy in something larger than ourselves, find meaning and satisfaction, and belonging, by equally including and serving all else that lives – from this position of poverty, humility, justice and compassion.
A related thought to contemplate is this: Do we physically live in tick-tock time, but our spiritual being and interconnectedness allows the possibility of passage into eternal time? If so, what does this mean for how we live our tick-tock time?

When working as part of a reengineering team, and faced with impossible deadlines to meet (before the days of ‘agile’ organisations, I sometimes engaged in right-to-left planning. Essentially this meant discarding the step-by-step, critical path approach, envisaging the required end result clearly, and then doing whatever it took to get there in the shortest impossible time! When contemplating the end of our physical lives, perhaps this approach has merit. Consider how we wish to be remembered and what we wish to become, and then put into action what’s needed now ….

Some people at workshops I’ve held found benefit in doing an exercise that involves envisioning your own funeral, who attends and what do they say about you, your values, behaviours …. What eulogy would you like to hear … and what obituary would you like to read ….? The exercise can give rise to a need to reconcile with and restore relationships with a family member or ex friend, and trigger a change in demeanour, attitude, expression of feelings, consideration for others …..

My friend of over 30 years, Dave Smal, died quite recently. Back in the day we were brother elders and long distance runners of little note. We enjoyed and shared music. Our families were close.
At the end, as a result of crippling, ravaging multiple sclerosis, his limbs were locked rigidly, leaving a knee permanently on his chest.  For him, just speaking was a huge challenge. Yet during years of being curtailed and deprived physically by MS, Dave never once voiced a complaint, remained positive and focused on others, always displayed a wry sense of humour. Bereft of power, position, possessions, mobility - privately he must surely have cried the tears of Job?

His witness at the Robin’s Nest frail care centre was so strong that the staff called him Sipho, meaning ‘the gift’. He loved Love. In Dave I saw a remarkable, transparent emptying, and an emergence of a poverty of spirit and a purity of heart of the sort I understand was displayed by St Francis. As the material declined so Spirit emerged. Dave's small room (containing his bed and not much else) and his “lock-down”, was a sacred place. A space of joy, calm, peace, humour.

Ram Dass was a Harvard professor of psychology, a spiritual teacher and author.

He taught conscious living as a compassionate being, aging and dying – belonging to Nature “as a manifestation of God”. One of his teachings was that from the ego’s perspective death is a stopping point. A final end. A suffering at leaving the world. From the soul’s perspective “death is a ceremony in which one takes off one set of clothes and adopts a new one (set)”. An awakening to a new world. Whether you are soul-driven or ego-driven determines how you anticipate your inevitable death. (Forest, E. 2020)

7-year old Anna: WHEN I SHALL DIE (Fynn. 1974)

When I shall die
I shall do it myself.
Nobody shall do it for me
When I am redy,
I shall say,
'Fin, stand me up',
and I shall look
and lagh merry.
If I fall down,
I shall be dead


Pongo, our little boy miniature Yorkie, was run over and killed instantly while in my care. From being SO alive, he was suddenly so dead. I had put his sister, Perdita in the car in the driveway (which is right next to the garden gate), and before I could reach down for Pongo, he slipped out and hurtled towards a large dog across the road and straight into a speeding car. He was killed instantly.  I can still hear that awful thud. I still see myself screaming his name and rushing over to pick him up. He stayed warm and soft and cuddly for what seemed like ages, bled through three layers of my clothing to the spot where my heart is.  A neighbour fetched Lynette from her place of work and she was also able to hold and cuddle him. Perdita hid under the car seat.

I felt guilt. I was in a dwaal for a long while (Dwaal is an Afrikaans word for being in a daze, not present, unfocused, meandering, lost), and weepy. PTSD counselling was a great help. Pongo had shadowed us and brought love and joy for 9 years. We bonded from 'day one' - "... the bond you form with that animal is irresistible, inexplicable, indefinable, and unbreakable". (Walsh, N.D. 2013)

We remember his macho trot (He was about 20 cm tall and weighed a little over 3 kg but acted as if he was 2m tall and weighed over100kg). When his tail wagged his whole body wagged. Every morning he came along with me to feed the garden birds. He’d push his toy box with his paw if he wanted to play, push his food bowl if he wanted more. Push the koi fish down if they came too close to the surface for his liking. Pawed us for attention if he wanted his chest and tummy scratched. Pawed the sliding door if he wanted it opened so that he could go outside. Even pushed the tortoises to stop them from fighting.  Pongo was a great companion and comfort to Lynette when she went through a long bout of depression (during which time she lost both parents). He never left her side, was therapy. A ministry. He displayed angelic qualities.

I have no wish to enter into nor invite any long intellectual debate about a pet’s (animal's) soul, spirit, capacity to reason, show real love (not attributed by nor projected by us humans), or do wilful wrong,.... Or have a place in 'heaven' or the afterlife (however we define or understand it). We are told otherwise by 'learned' people - who claim to know not only about body and mind but also have the answers to all soul and spirit matters.
They offer thoughts such as: humans have individual, 'rational' souls that survive death, and animals have only lesser, 'sensitive' souls or collective (non-individual) souls. An anthropocentric view to say the least .... (Carl Jung sensed that “Even domestic animals, to whom we erroneously deny a conscience, have complexes and moral reactions”, (Jung, C.D. 1964) and the young Jung recorded, “Because they are so closely akin to us and share our unknowingness, I loved all warm-blooded animals who have souls like ourselves and with whom, so I thought, we have an instinctive understanding”).  (Jung, C.D. 1990)

Pongo loved unconditionally, consistently, transcendentally, and knew no deceit, only total transparency and honesty.  
We had times of uninterrupted, complete present-moment shared connection, clarity, peace, purity, an interchange of consciousness (which is a natural and shared thing). In this context Eckhart Tolle has referred to dogs as “guardians of our being”. (Tolle, E. 2017)  

Call me a heretic but I believe that although the physical Pongo may be gone, yet his spiritedness/ energy/ love/ essence/ memory/ presence/ his “thisness” (to use a word coined by the theologian-philosopher Duns Scotus), are still part of eternal time and the evolving universe.  In terms of the new quantum physics, are matter and spirit not one and the same?
We identify with what actor Jimmy Stewart said about the void left by his dog Beau: “After he died there were a lot of nights when I was certain that I could feel him get into bed beside me and I would reach out and pat his head….   But he's not there.  Oh, how I wish that wasn't so ….”  (Stewart, J. 2013) The grieving process has been real.

So for me, in a sense losing a loved one, human or animal, is like watching a yacht sailing over the distant horizon. It disappears from our view, our immediate presence. But is still there. And I recall the words of an old Vera Lynn song:
“We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when” ...................  (Parker, R & Hugh, C.1939)

Jewish proverbs teach ‘What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul’ and ‘A drop of love can bring an ocean of tears’.  Rumi: “Within tears, find hidden laughter. Seek treasures amid ruins ….”  Tears are necessary. They contribute to our sense-making.  Tears touch our physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual dimensions.
Joyful, thankful memory also has its place. An Irish wake is a sort of celebration, an occasion to share a special time with, say goodbye to, and then share memories and have a laugh, and drink a toast to the person who has died. A way of processing the loss.

Aztec and Mexican-American author and business consultant Dr Anita Sanchez, shares the indigenous wisdom of First Nation Elders and how this applies to our modern social, economic, and nature/ environmental situations. 
Anita writes: “Graham, I have been in many conversations with various indigenuos people from around the world in the last 6 weeks.  We talk of death, of loss, of grief, of love, of gratitude, of trust in the Great Mystery.  When we talk of death and sing our songs and do our ceremonies - we are clear that the loss is for us still on earth, not having that person, being of nature in our physical world.  Wholeness is experienced as having dimensions of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical.  So we are experiencing loss at three of these four levels, and at the spiritual level, many of us, including me, find the ancestor or relative who has passed brings great strength and support from the spiritual realm.  I experience my Grandmother Medina and my Mother in the spiritual realm regularly.  So death does not end a relationship”.  

There is “A time to be born and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2)


The coronavirus pandemic raises the awful spectre of dying ... alone. When loved ones cannot be close. Friend and Methodist minister Mark Stephenson: “The helpless agony of watching someone die from a distance is not easy under any circumstance. There comes a point when we want to squeeze the hand, wipe the glistening sweat from the forehead, bring a smile, offer words of comfort and deal with the mystery that is playing out before us”.
A great burden of being compassionate proxies is being placed on our medical heroines and heroes. 

Catherine Shovlin, mentioned below, makes a point I entirely embrace: a situation of a loved one dying on their own, perhaps in agony, is traumatic for those left behind. Not being allowed to be with the dying one (by government edict, control and compliance) cuts right across our values of free choice and wanting to express love (not just compassion). Is the taking away of choice not a gross violation of a basic human right? 

Coming alongside a dying family member, friend or another requires great understanding, an unconditional positive regard, and a companionable compassion that soothes and comforts, and knows when to be silent and just be there. 

Each person is unique and undertakes their journey in their own way. Elisabeth KÜbler-Ross’s wonderful, compassionate work has produced for us a model of the (not necessarily linear) stages of the dying experience and reactions. It has stood the test of time. 
After initially being stunned and numbed, the elements of the process are:

  • Denial and isolation
  • Anger
  • Bargaining (including with God)
  • Depression
  • Acceptance. (KÜbler-Ross, E. 1970)

It’s healthy to allow kids to share the process and not fob them off with inappropriate and false explanations, nor to exclude them from the mourning process.

A work colleague in the UK many years ago, Catherine Shovlin is now (as one of her many charitable and serving roles), a death doula. (From the Greek doulē or female slave, a death doula is a death midwife coming alongside, being with and serving the dying person and their family’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs). 
During lock-downs they are learning new approaches and make use of telephone help lines, Whatsapp, FaceTime, Skype as ways to hold space, listen, sooth, and build relationships.


Then Almitra spoke, saying, we would ask now of Death.
  And he said: You would know the secret of death.
  But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? 
  For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one”. (Gibran, K. 1923)
I applaud the pastoral care, comfort, counsel, encouragement and support of church leaders who have cared for and given hope to their people over the centuries; yet must voice deep disquiet at the power of the church institution to misinform, misguide, mislead. Many ordained church leaders, in a situation of essentially ‘sheltered employment’, have dispensed a theology that suited the institution as it obtained and kept adherents (and power) through the use of fear, and by disallowing any real questioning of dogma.

Now the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, that many believe, teaches that a stern God demands justice in the form of punishment for our sins (an eye for an eye), and that Jesus steps in on our behalf, thus enabling God to forgive us. 
A missing teaching or “lost” message, as Richard Rohr points out, comes to mind as I write this piece on Good Friday, 2020:
Jesus, condemned to death by the religious and state authorities of his day, showed in his living, teaching and dying that “the truth, the way and the light” was a way of living that applied not simply to a select few, but to all. He taught and lived and died a way of being that restores wholeness to others and ourselves - through a serving, sacrificial, total love that continues to evolve. This message is positive, liberating, inspiring. A mind-set that takes the focus off self and triggers a very different way of seeing others. Of being non-exclusive and accepting everyone, living a simple life, and acting for good. A way that transcends unworthiness and guilt, and that catapults us into self-emptying, an embracing of non-violence, and a showing of care and compassion for planet, nature and people. (Rohr, R. 2019)   

Death can be an impetus for living.
Dr BJ Miller, palliative care specialist talks about making something of who we are, and with what we can do with the raw material of our lives. (Miller, B.J. 2020)
His thoughts resonate with those of Therese of Lisieux. She lived what she taught, that we may not be able to solve or control the bigger picture or what happens, but moment by moment we can do little things with great love, 
What matters in life are not great deeds, but great love”. 
One word or a pleasing smile is often enough to raise up a saddened and wounded soul”.
One of those "little" things that remain important during our current crisis, is listening .... to the living and the dying …. To all who are going through shock, depression, loss, anger, pain, guilt, disappointment, bewilderment, insecurity …
It’s one way of moving from 'me' to 'we'.

In mysterious ways that are beyond our ken or ability to observe and recognise, death births new life. A Phoenix rising transformed from the ashes of its predecessor and perpetuating a cycle of life and death.
Mary, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, after the death of three children and her husband, came to be able to write: “There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others”. (Shelley, M.W. 1826) 


Forest, East (2020) Lilly Greenblatt talks to musician East Forest about his collaborative album with the late spiritual teacher Ram Dass Lion’s Roar Podcast
Fynn (1974) Mister God this is Anna Fountain/ Collins
Gibran, Kahlil (1923) The Prophet Alfred A. Knopf NY
Jung, C.G. (1964) Civilization in Transition (Collected Works Volume 10) Translated by Adler, Gerhard &  Hull, R.F.C     Bollingen Foundation/ Princeton University Press   
Jung, C.G  (1990)  Memories Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffé. Translated from the German by Richard & Clara Winston Flamingo, .
KÜbler-Ross, Elisabeth (1970) On Death and Dying MacMillan Publishing Company
Moore, Thomas (2003) The Soul’s Religion : cultivating a profoundly spiritual way of life Bantam Books
Merton, Thomas (2014) Adapted by Thomas Moore Conjectures of a guilty bystander Image
Miller, B.J. (2020) Death as an impetus for living You Tube (Made with Spreaker)
Parker, Ross & Charles, Hugh (1939) We’ll Meet Again
Quoist, Michel (1979) Living Words Gill and MacMillan
Rohr, R (2020) Reality Initiating us – part 1: The patterns that are always true Daily Meditation March 29, 2020
Rohr, Richard (2019) The Universal Christ: how a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe Convergent Books/ Penguin
Schopenhauer,Arthur (1969) The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 311.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1826) The Last Man Project Gutenberg (Published by Henry Colbum)
Stewart,  Jimmy (Actor) (2013) a poem he wrote 
Tolle, Eckhart    giving pointers on letting your dog go
Walsch , Neale Donald (2013) FaceBook  March 17th, 2013  

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