01 December 2014

Communal Grief - what the death of Phillip Hughes tells us

The recent death of the talented Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes has triggered a remarkable wave of communal grief. How do we make sense of the scale of this outpouring of emotion, when many of us will have been touched by deaths in other sports or arenas of life that went by with far less public response?

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 …..

Residual grief.

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 Visits 

Death brazenly knocked on my door,
Barging inside 
She said:
“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…….

Stunned. Silenced.
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 researched, 
I prayed, 
I asked for help.

I walked
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 forgave, 
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.

Liz Maluschnig

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.

 Ian Gawler

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.


  1. Great post! I love the poetry!

  2. Thank you, Ian. Yes, being prepared is really the answer. This, of course, reminds me of my brother (55) dying of cancer in Holland last year, aided by euthanasia. He remained master of his death, not letting death become his master. The end was peaceful, serene, with a touch of humour, a glass of Australian Merlot, and full of gratitude for a life well lived. It's the quality, not the quantity of life that counts. I hope we will be able to experience this freedom in Australia too.

  3. Thanks Ian. In recent years having lost family and friends, I've been much more aware of the importance of spiritual preparation for death throughout one's life. One of the poems that has touched me came from a novel by Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone (2009), the poem attributed to Rabindranath Tagore, from Gitanjali.
    "And because I love this life
    I know I shall love death as well.
    The child cries out when
    From the right breast the mother
    Takes it away, in the very next moment
    To find in the left one
    Its consolation."

  4. Here's a Poem perfectly appropriate to your article on Phillip Hughes & Death

    Vitaï Lampada (The Lamp of Life)

    There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
    Ten to make and the match to win --
    A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
    An hour to play and the last man in.
    And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
    Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
    But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
    "Play up! play up! and play the game!"

    The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
    Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
    The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
    And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
    The river of death has brimmed his banks,
    And England's far, and Honour a name,
    But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
    "Play up! play up! and play the game!"

    This is the word that year by year
    While in her place the School is set
    Every one of her sons must hear,
    And none that hears it dare forget.
    This they all with a joyful mind
    Bear through life like a torch in flame,
    And falling fling to the host behind --
    "Play up! play up! and play the game!"

    Sir Henry Newbolt :

    Dying isn't the problem.

    It's living.


  5. Ian, thanks for the blog.

    When I sit in meditation what sometimes arises is a sense of sadness. I guess this is the residual grief you refer to. If I manage to persuade my mind, even for a short time to stay with the very present moment, to be still, this sadness presents itself, sometimes as tears, sometimes more dramatically.
    I don't know where the sadness comes from but it is not new. I experienced the same feelings when I was young. I didn't know what to do with them then. It seems now that the feelings were stored away in my body. Waiting for an opportunity to arise again when there was enough stillness for the quite voice of the sadness to be heard.
    Yes, residual grief, mine, the communities. Anything that was not fully integrated at the time it was experienced, for whatever reason.

    John Walsh

    1. Dear John
      my sense is that you are touching on something very important.
      In our society, where traditionally we have had very little and/or very poor preparation for death and grief, the obvious losses and the deeper feelings of annihilation that come with death have very little opportunity to be expressed adequately and/or resolved effectively.
      Therefore they tend to be sublimated, with people carrying on as best they can, but with a deep well of grief and fear. Hence when the opportunity for politically correct, communal grief comes along, there is this huge outpouring.
      If we are brave enough to say it, the emotional intelligence involved is not great, but maybe that of itself is not very politically correct.
      Anyway, the same thing can happen on a person level with meditation. We relax and let go deeply, and the unresolved grief and fear, now unfettered, naturally bubbles to the surface.
      At first we may well have no idea of where it came from; what the feelings or the tears relate to. Maybe we do associate them on one level with particular losses. But my sense is there is something much deeper involved, and that is the grief around our relationship to death and how death relates to life - how we can live a life informed by the fact that we all will die one day...
      So that is the clue. Investigate death. Go into its truth. Sort out what dies, and if in fact as seems obvious, all that we are familiar with in the relative world is lost to us in death, what is left to cling onto? What survives?
      This then is one of the great gifts that meditation has to offer - the direct experience of that part of us that is beyond death.
      And yet most people these days begin to meditate to relieve stress, perform better or feel better. Fair enough, it does all that, but maybe this immediate focus is missing the real gift meditation has to offer. Meditation introduces us to the truth of who we really are and provides an answer to death on a profound level.
      And that is transformative.