What too of the personal griefs all of us have known? Those losses that have touched us deeply, affected our families and friends profoundly and been acknowledged by our own smaller and more local communities?
This week then, let us look more deeply at why some deaths stand out in the collective consciousness, and trigger a huge wave of communal grief as has happened in response to the very real, very tragic, very untimely death of Phillip Hughes, but first
Thought for the day
This body is not me;
I am not caught in this body,
I am life without boundaries,
I have never been born and I have never died.
Thích Nhất Hạnh - "No Death, No Fear"
In these days of mass media, even if we are fortunate enough to have no personal losses to grieve at present, almost daily we are exposed to death. War, murder, suicide, accident. The death of celebrities, people we somewhat knew, people we knew more intimately. It is clear that while life is Oh so precious, it is Oh so fragile.
So as we are regularly exposed to this ever present presence of death, my sense is that we almost mourn in passing. Life has to go on. On one level, we acknowledge these deaths as they come to visit us during the normal course of modern daily life. But there is no funeral; no effective forum to express our grief. We feel something of a pang, swallow deeply, and then we carry on.
There is the real possibility we can be left with what could be called “residual grief”. That deeper level of angst that comes from the accumulated losses and its attendant sadness; along with the constant covert reminder that all people die some day, that we too will die some day …..
So then, from time to time, it is almost as if some archetypal figure dies. Some figure is lost to us, often in tragic or unexpected circumstances; some figure that represented a collective dream. And this death triggers an outpouring of that stored up, communal grief.
We saw this so noticeably with the death of the archetypal Princess, Lady Diana. The death of that archetypal Aussie/Irish hero, Jim Stynes. We will face it next year with the centenary of the Anzac tradition.
And now what is it? The death of young hope and exuberance? Phillip Hughes.
Grief comes in many forms. Often the way emotions can swing so widely, even wildly, can be perplexing for people experiencing the loss of someone they loved. Often people report how when they focus on the more spiritual spectrum of human experience, death can be almost exhilarating; but then how in the next moment, by giving attention to the personal losses and changes brought on by death, there comes profound sadness, even moments of despair.
Therefore it may well be wise to reflect on death when it is not so close to us.
Geraldine Doogue asked me during the filming of the ABC Compass program A Good Life whether doing just that, reflecting on death, was of itself depressing and contrary to the notion of a good life?
My response was based on personal experience and observations made while working with many people who were facing their own mortality or the loss of those they loved.
What this experience tells, is that one of the best ways to have a good life, is to make friends with death!
Maybe at first thought, but actually, reconciling ourselves to death, being prepared for death, leaves us free of that fear, free of that angst, free to focus on living each day fully, free to experience a good life.
As a prompt to this reflection, poetry can be very useful.
Here then are two poems that touch on different ways of responding to death – one of defiance, one of welcome.
Maybe these poems, this post, could serve as a catalyst for your own reflection; maybe for a meaningful conversation? Maybe you have a comment or a poem of your own to share in the Comment section below?
Liz Maluschnig is a nurse from New Zealand who worked for many years in oncology before doing extensive training as a psychotherapist. We are fortunate to have Liz as one of the people who works with Ruth and myself during the cancer programs we present in New Zealand.
Liz has many years experience working with adults and children with cancer and is the author of 4 books. Liz writes and reads poetry frequently, and she wrote this poem based on her experience of working with many women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Death brazenly knocked on my door,
“You’re coming with me”
I recoiled. Froze.
“B -but I’m not ready”
“There’s so much to do,
My husband…., My children…., I can’t…….
I Slowly defrosted my mind’s freeze
From the icy grip
Of her arctic breath.
I welcomed my fear,
Cradling it with hope
Converting it to courage.
I challenged her….
Drawing myself up to my full height
I breathed deeply - into the very marrow of my bones
And defied her.
I looked her in the face and defied her….
Then pushed her outside and slammed the door shut!
I left her empty handed, outside in the cold,
Her chilling invitation declined.
There was no welcome in my heart for her today.
She could have one breast I conceded …..
If she really wanted to take something…..
But no more than that!
I knew I needed to get serious now
I asked for help.
I drank a million organic veggie juices,
I flooded my body with nutritious food,
I learnt to say “No”.
I kissed my inner child
…. all better.
I followed my heart.
I said Yes! to Chemo.
I said Yes! to Life,
I said Yes!
… to Me.
Boldly opening the door I shouted
“And I’ll visit you when I’m good and ready”
And watched as she bolted down the path,
Her tail between her legs.
Speaking personally, it may well be that in the moment of death all of our most profound questions about life and death are actually answered. Maybe we really do get to find out what the answers are.
So maybe, just maybe, the moment of death could be a moment of delight, filled with mystery and magic? Personally, I look forward to it.
Here then is what occurred to me:
The Clear Moment of Death
The moment of death may be the greatest moment of your life
It may be better than the best chocolate sundae you ever had
It may be better than the best orgasm you ever had
It may be better than the dearest, happiest moment you hold in your memory
For in that moment of death
The spirit separates from the body
And in that moment
It is free – totally free
If you can grasp that clear moment of death
Recognise it for what it is and experience it fully
Then you will experience fully who you really are
And unite with the mystery and essence of life itself
The only thing that scares me about the moment of death
Is that I may come to it unprepared
To be prepared for the moment of death
I would need to feel that I had lived fully
Loving and learning as much as I could during this lifetime
And feeling free of regrets
To be prepared
I would need to feel that those around me would be alright
That I could let go of my worldly attachments
And that they could release me
To be prepared
I would need to be free of fear
And to have had some glimpse of my own true nature –
Perhaps through the introduction of meditation
Being prepared for that clear moment of death
Then it may well be
That I would be able to recognise what I have been searching for always –
The heart and essence of who I really am.
A big mystery addressed
For a thorough review of many aspects to do with understanding death and helping the dying, read that chapter in You Can Conquer Cancer
CD or Download
Understanding Death, Helping the Dying – a very useful catalyst for personal reflection, or as a catalyst to listen to with family or friends, even colleagues and then discuss.