There’s not a huge amount that qualifies me as an expert on death. I have never died for a start, and I will only ever do it once, same way that I will only ever be born once (and I don’t ever intend to repeat that again!). What I do have to give is a lifetime (approx 38 years) of experiences that seem to have all involved death on pretty much a daily occurrence. I was brought up a devout Christian in an evangelical Church with a faith that was based on what happened to me after I died. I then left the Church and obviously spent a vast amount of time pondering my naval about what there was if there wasn’t a heaven or hell. I then joined the Royal Navy as a medic and subsequently I did my nurse training within the military. In both aspects of military and nursing experience, you would have to be seriously ignorant to not have to think about death on a regular basis. So my point is that I have thought about death a lot whether I like it or not and I intend to put down a few thoughts here. I am not professing to be right or wrong. It’s a very individualistic bit of writing and my own opinion. It may be wrong for you; in which case it is still valuable because you can then disagree with it and come up with your own ideas. I hope it helps some people though.
I try to be less spiritual these days. That is, we are all spiritual beings and it comes more naturally to be so than we care to think. There is no point a squirrel trying hard to be a squirrel. It’s a lot of wasted effort for something the little rascal has already achieved with little intelligence or physical effort. So it is with some reluctance I refer to a book that obviously aims to be at the gold standard of spirituality. I didn’t enjoy reading this book for that reason but I must admit there are some good lessons. The Life of Pi by Yan Martel involves the rather ludicrous idea of a young boy stuck on a life raft with a tiger who happens to be called Richard Parker (which I quite liked) after the ship he was on sank. The young boy called Pi is forced to accept that one of two things is going to happen. Either the tiger is going to eat him or he is going to (albeit unlikely) eat the tiger. The story goes deeper and deeper with different things representing different things etc, but let’s sticks with the tiger being a tiger and the boy being a boy. The simple fact is: if Pi didn’t find some way to tame the tiger, to find a way of existing in harmony with the tiger, he was going to be a pleasant change from eating big chunks of cow in the eyes of Richard Parker.
So with this in mind, I would like to consider death. Lets stick with the basics. Death is death. Its not falling asleep. It’s not some grim reaper waving a sickle. It’s not nice angels coming to sweetly transfer us to pearly gates. I obviously cannot say for sure that death isn’t these things but all I do know is that at some point our bodies stop conveying electricity and the cells in our body stop being combustion engines. It’s a cold stark thought but it is fact. It is not the nicest way to think of it which is why a lot of people use euphemisms but; whether we like it or not, the moment we’re born, we are stepping on a road towards dying. I’m sorry to undress it all rather crudely but be grateful, at least, that I have given you the image of being on a boat with a tiger. So; back to the life raft with the tiger. The only difference is that unlike Richard Parker, our tiger is going to eat us at some point.
There are many ways that we might react to this. We might do what most people do. Ignore the fact that this tiger is going to eat us and put it from our minds. We concentrate on things we see other people concentrating on. Namely the nice media people give us lots of things to distract us and to help us escape. Interestingly, in a nation that doesn’t think a whole lot about death, we are stricken by addictions that help us escape the aspects of life that make us unhappy. As Tom Waits once sang “the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget”. Even in our purposeful ignorance of the tiger, we are tempted to try taunting it to break the monotony of life in an uneaten state.
Another approach is to avoid the escapism and stare the tiger in the face. The buzz of extreme living may well bring about a great sense of life affirming adrenaline rushes which may help you consider the good things you whilst on the way back down. It is an existence that only few can maintain for a long period of time. Most calm down a little, others get eaten by the tiger rather prematurely and the rest get book writing deals which mean they have to carry on doing crazy things to write about so they can honour their contract. The point is: our life, whether we ignore the tiger or pull on its ears, is one which involves an intimate interweaving with death. Our lives in every sense are lived with the knowledge of death permeating each of its pores. We define ourselves through resistance against those around us and the walls we meet. Equally we are defined; or rather our lives are defined by the fact that we are going to die at some point. If this is something we are not conscious of, then it is something our unconscious is damn well determined to take care of.
Of course there has been a big problem with this blog so far. I hope you haven’t followed too much with the assumption I placed here to trip people up. The tiger is not the best analogy of death in the long term. Death is as much a tiger as it is a grim reaper or whatever other images we give it. Death is not some external force that comes to us. Death is who we are as much as being born is. It is something that belongs to us and no body else. It is our body that dies and stops. It is something we can’t control but it belongs to us, non the less, and when it comes, it belongs to nobody else. It is what makes us all equal.
All through Dying Matters week, we will read and hear a lot about planning for death, talking about death, planning for after we die. It’s all good stuff and it is vital that we talk about these things. There are so many resources that we have available to us now to take the sting of death away, to ensure loved ones can focus on happy memories rather than a traumatic, unplanned memory. It is vital that we think about this way before it happens so we can pass away with the most psychological, spiritual, and physical comfort for us and our relatives. But this blog today wants to focus on something else which will inevitably link in with the other themes of Dying Matters.
Most of our lives are lived trying to be an escaper of death or indeed that person that slaps it round the face with a banana skin and runs off. Death is something that doesn’t happen to us and when it happens, it happens in hospitals or behind closed doors and does not affect us. Yet we fail to realise that everything about our behaviour, consciously or subconsciously is telling of the friction that exists between life and death. At either end of the spectrum, (escaper or banana slappist) death is an enemy. It’s a tiger that can’t be tamed. It is the end of all we love.
My point is that death doesn’t need to be any of these things. It is not something that needs to be defeated. It can’t be defeated. Death is an integral part of our lives; it plays a large part in how we define ourselves and how we live. It is not something to be feared. It shouldn’t be feared. I have seen a daughter unable to go behind a curtain to kiss her father goodbye because of the mystifying fear of death. That was a loss of living: a fear which will stay with her forever, perhaps permeate future generations. If we fear death or hate death then we lose an element of our lives. Fight it by all means! There is nothing wrong with fighting death in order that we may live longer so long as it is for the sake of actually living as opposed to submitting to fear. Living and dying are not two stages of life. They run concurrently. It is the inability or refusal to give freedom to both living and dying as an inseparable couple, which brings about the fear, denial and loss of control. Ultimately if we do not embrace dying as much as we embrace living, then we lose our lives before we have even died.