Over the last couple of months I have been forced to think long and hard about death. What it means to die. What I remember of it and how it felt. What we fear and how we live passed it.
To explain I am going to give you three examples of friends who are experiencing death in all its horrors today.
Death of Self
This is almost the easiest of all to deal with. There is a sublime peace in our dying: not the physical aspect which is often terrifying, bloody and traumatic. But rather at that stage when there is a liberation from from the physical. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodolo) is one I have found many answers in for what I experienced, equally speaking to my friend Melissa, a palliative nurse, who has witnessed the stages of “natural” death and my own childhood experiences of witnessing so much death when examined, are illuminating. Anybody still mentally and emotionally intact (somewhat) after witnessing a lot of death will recognize the stages of death: they are obvious to a quiet observer.
The act of dying, if violent, is horrendous and tragic, not because of the dying but because we are still clinging hard to life. Fighting for it. Death is not acceptable, nor is it wished for. But when all there is to do, is die? Then dying a good death becomes an act of the most serene and momentous.
I have never feared my own death, I have often wished for it and have met the threat of it with an impersonal shrug. So I had to work very hard at understanding the fear of death of self. In the end, it came down to four things: responsibility for other’s pain; guilt at leaving others behind; the unknown; unfinished living.
There is very little to be done about the first two, in the end many of those who die must work very hard to keep everybody else together, ease their loss. Understanding the weight of this is important – only one option and that is to seek out a pastor, therapist or psychologist to assist in creating safety for those around.
The unknown. I can tell you that dying is beautiful – it is peaceful and there is no pain. It is bliss. Sublime and a distance, ever widening, between the living and the dead. Countless numbers have written of their death experiences, and they all share the same sense of utter tranquility. If you have ever held somebody or been held by somebody who has died you will understand the stage at which they go, there is nothing physically obvious in that moment but there absolutely is a moment when they leave their physical body. There is an instant of absolute peace, shared. I believe that is why we all suffer with the ghosts of those who have died in our presence, a piece of us is forever connected with that ‘other’. It isn’t frightening. Not in that moment. And not in the remembering of it.
Unfinished living. Regrets and wishing to have one last moment on earth to … These are things that tether us here and create a disturbance for all around us. Those who die in their beds with their families, affairs in order and nothing left to achieve, experience a day or a few days of stepping away from the desires of this world, life no longer holds the ties it once did and slowly sleep increases until all there is, is the ultimate physical sleep.
So, my friend is dying. He has been battling cancer and has been told that he has limited time left. I have been hurt and horrified as he jettisons his possessions and the things he loves most in this world. It’s been hard even to open an email and read it from him. Instead of being there for him, I’ve turtled. Refusing to face it. Horns locked and standing by him to the bitter end. Nope. I’ve crawled under the bed and covering my ears, eyes and rocking, I appear to believe that if I don’t admit it, it won’t happen. The more accepting he is of it, the more he recognizes in me the truth, the tougher I find it and the more quickly I literally turtle (that’s where you pull your head, arms, legs and tail into your shell and refuse to come out).
There is no easy answer to this.
Do I know he’s going to be there for me whenever I need him, more than he is now? Yes.
Do I believe that as he dies he will find immense peace and no more pain? Yes
Do I believe that his afterlife will be free, beautiful and powerful? Yes
Does any of that matter? No, dammit. It hurts just as much and I don’t want a life without his cheerful messages and the way he has of making me smile. You see, I’m selfish and his dying isn’t about him, it’s about me and my loss.
And that’s what I worked out.
When they die, it isn’t their dying that is so terrible, it is living without them. When dealing with the death of self, the pain comes not from our own deaths as much as it comes from the pain it will cause the ones we love and who love us. For me, this is the key to finding some semblance of peace before death, unless that comes on the wings of a metal jacket.
Death of a Loved One
A new friend is losing his wife to cancer. She has been his best friend since they were in high school. Understanding the pain he faces in the coming months or even, years, does very little to alleviate the isolation and loneliness of living with the terminally ill.
Is there truly any glory in war? I saw a post today on my FaceBook and it showed a picture of a very young American marine who has lost an arm and two legs in Afghanistan. It asked me to “Thank him for his sacrifice”. I stared at it. At his eyes. I wondered what on earth he would actually think of my “thanking him” for his sacrifice. What would the ones who died there think of it? I can guess as I’ve annoyed my fair share of Veterans in my time and conversations usually include the word “motherfucker”. When a battalion or troop headed out to the bush I said goodbye to each of them. I knew that chances were they wouldn’t all come back, or at least, not all their bits either physically or mentally. Glory? That’s the stuff of hollywood and romantic poetry.
What glory there is lies in the loyalty and courage of the brotherhood. The deep connections between battle buddies.
Is it not similar to the connection between best friends who have stood shoulder to shoulder through life, come what may? I don’t know the answer to that as I have never experienced either, but from the outside looking in, they appear to have more in common than not. I find that it is the deaths of those battle buddies that sits most heavily on those surviving combat, it’s not their own injuries or the fight against insurgents or terrorists.
The one and only solution I have come up with is: connections.
Stay connected with this world, find something that is separate to the past and hold it close. That something should be a guiding light for the future once the person you love so dearly has died. For battle buddies, that is what family back home do – or at least should do but all too often there is an Epic Fail when the veteran comes home and is not the same as when he left. There is no understanding nor patience, only rigid expectations of “normal”.
Witness to Massacres/Atrocities & Mass Graves
This one is very difficult.
It never ceases to amaze me at just how ignorant the majority of Canadians are about “peace keeping”. Like they send soldiers to a part of the world to give out lollipops and tickle happy smiling children. Rather than stand impotently by, constricted by international laws and ludicrous politics whilst whole swathes of that foreign country’s citizens are brutalized, murdered and thrown into mass graves.
Impotent and incapable of acting in defence of humanity. This is the true image of UN “Peace Keeping”. Often mistaken are the peace enforcements that Canadians send their paratroopers into. Again, ignorance must be bliss.
Combat veteran friend witnessed too much of this.
I have experienced mass graves. I know that they throw lime on the layers of humans. One layer of lime. One layer of humans. One layer of lime. One layer of humans. Flies and death scorch throats and stab noses. There is a smell that permeates the very fibre of our brains and will never leave.
How do you experience this much human death and remain intact?
The truth is you can’t Or at least, you shouldn’t. It’s impossible to be an emotionally balanced human (by which I mean not a psychopath), experience that and come out the other side shrugging it off. It should never be shrugged off. It should stay with us. It should scar us to our very core. The challenge is to make use of that scar. Give it a purpose.
That’s all there is in the end, either we are absorbed by it or we use it to create something. Lest they be forgot. That is our challenge – never let their deaths go unanswered or unremembered. Let our actions speak to their deaths, they are at peace but we? We must live tormented by that never vanishing smell.
These are very important. We seem to have forgotten this. Without rituals we are lost. We require them. We require the marking of death, the admission of our loss in public and the celebration of what was, acceptance of life without.
Whether it is in the act of lighting a candle together or choosing a burial plot; perhaps it is to do as I did which was to build a small garden where every rock represented one I could remember who had died; whatever it is … give it meaning and do it. In this way we externalize the pain and loss. Externalizing it is paramount. Holding it within, becomes a parasite eating our very essence from the inside out.
It is why I fight those who would relinquish promises for memorials: Canada’s decision not to build a national monument to those who have given all in Afghanistan for example. Memorials are imperative. For the survivors. It’s why the Police Monument is so important to the survivors of those police who died in the line of duty and fight tooth and nail against having the names of those who died by suicide commemorated there. To diminish the meanings survivors give to these monuments diminishes not only their often tenuous hold on this life, but our very humanity.