TOOLS FOR TROUBLED TIMES

#1 — LOVING, GRIEVING, DYING, (LIVING)

TOOLS FOR TROUBLED TIMES is a new series of reflections and soulful practices for living and working in the world today: a world that is troubled and divided; a world that faces the unprecedented challenge of the climate emergency; and yet, a world in which each of us is asked to live with integrity, love and realism in the midst of all this ’trouble’. Can we find ways that open up opportunities for healing and resilience into the future? These are deep tasks of soul-making, spiritual alignment and cultural rekindling — but they may be simple and personal practices nonetheless, for these provide us with the resources and resilience to engage fully, see clearly, live and love. Each piece begins with a stimulus — a point of emergence — and ends with a short selection of resources helpful in exploring this particular ’tool’ or ‘practice’.

Love makes a mess of dying

“A glimpse is all I can manage, like sun-hurt snow too tender for touch”. (Greg Gilbert, 2019)

I came across Greg Gilbert’s work when he was lead singer with Delays, a Southampton based indie band, somewhere in the mid-noughties. His voice was distinctive and beautiful, and the band made intelligent, moving pop music — including an album I consider to be one of the best of the decade, You See Colours. Since then Greg has focussed on art as much as music, and then, in 2016, he received a diagnosis of stage 4 bowel cancer with secondary lung. He has two small daughters, and a fiercely loving and articulate partner, and their story is poignant and moving. His latest chapter is the publication of a pamphlet of poetry — Love Makes a Mess of Dying— which is heart rending, truthful and beautifully written.

From: Love Makes a Mess of Dying, Greg Gilbert, 2019

The reason I am starting with Greg is that, in his art and poetry, and through his life, he connects dying with love and pushes neither away. It’s what Stephen Jenkinson might call ‘dying wisely’, and this is my first and perhaps the most important tool for troubled times. We all need to be prepared to die and to grieve wisely; to bring together the lessons of life with the inevitability of death — both for us humans as individuals and as cultural, collective beings.

The imperative of facing death — ‘staring at the sun’ as Irvin Yalom put it — isn’t a new concern. Indeed mortality and the fantasy of immortality (all too often tied in with superstition, power and religious belief) is an ancient human spiritual and philosophical preoccupation.

You’d think we’d have got it right by now, this dying and grieving business; but, as Jenkinson points out, somewhere along the way, in this culture at least, we have become death-phobic: “It isn’t pain, after all that is unendurable. It isn’t living that is undoable. It is dying in a death-phobic time and place”.

Greg Gilbert isn’t immune to this fear — none of us who have grown up with this cultural phobia can be — but at least he’s trying to face it, and to bring dying into the centre of the room. “I need to get my gods in order, they have grown unruly…”, he writes; and, as if in reply, Stephen Jenkinson suggests: “Try it this way: What if your dying is an angel? And what if your dying job, should you choose to accept it, is to wrestle this angel of your dying instead of fighting it?”

To wrestle the dying angel, we need to recognise that grief is something we all do — need to do — whether we are the person dying or one of those around them as they die. Grief is there within us as we prepare to lose someone, and also if we are the person who is to be ‘lost’. Grief is the sharp reminder that we need to STAY in the room; to stay with the love and the pain:

“Whatever tricks I tell myself to deaden before dying — /That I’m alone, that alone is the essential state — comes/Undone at the sight of love and I’m afraid, not of dying,/But of leaving a mess for love.” (Greg Gilbert, 2019).

Slipping from view

“Death phobia…is not culture. It is anti-culture. It multiplies wherever culture is under attack, especially when it is failing from within”. (Stephen Jenkinson, 2017)
Photo by Lieselot. Dalle on Unsplash

This cultural phobia, that makes us grieve and die so fearfully, is not simply about our own death — or that of those we love — it is about a larger ‘death’ we are trying not to face — not to grieve — that of our civilisation, and the planet we are accustomed to living upon. This we deny or ignore, even as we know that species are dying, that ice-sheets are melting, and our political and social consensus is fragmenting.

The context, then, for the essential task of ‘dying wise’ is all this trouble: climate emergency, ecological crisis and all the human socio-political problems that cause and, simultaneously, spill out from these.

I have been sharply aware of death and loss this past few months and years. My mother died anything-but-wise last June, after a long decline with Alzheimers. And the death and dying of much younger people I have known and know of, like Greg Gilbert and others in the prime of their lives, seems tragic and unfair, invites a kind of protective disbelief and touches into a kind of time-related fear of my own.

Yet, as Gilbert himself points out, this protective isolation comes apart when love is truly accepted, though, equally, love can be muffled and tempered when death is feared so much that we convince ourselves that we are alone. And this psychological self-isolation is a protection against the thought of losing the people we love most — whether we are the person dying (this time) or the person losing. Greg is lying in the ‘blue-cube’ in the hospital after his diagnosis, and his mother comes in. “I dissolve into her arms, her words, “My boy, my boy”. My words, “My girl, my girls”.

I have two grandchildren who I am sometimes petrified of losing and leaving, and so I relate to his fierce and helpless grief. This loss, close up, is hard enough to face and admit to, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we find bigger losses even harder to get our heads around, though it is something we need to learn as quickly as we can!

How do we grieve the Earth and ways of life that are almost certain to be slipping from view in the near to mid-future? Already peoples and species are witnessing the death and dying of their habitats and homes. And it is easy to settle for despair and denial; to carry on as if nothing is happening, as if no-one is already dying — as if our world wasn’t already crumbling.

Stephen Jenkinson reminds us that the way to die well is to face dying; to see dying as part of life — neither fair nor unfair — but something that is essential to allow and to sit alongside with compassion and self-compassion. And the way to grieve well, is to recognise that love sits at the heart of this most vital of human responses. If we bring deep love and presence to our relationships we may be able grieve well and die well (though these will still carry fear and be anything but easy) If we bring love and presence to our life on the Earth, we may be able to face the dying without despair, and find ways of surviving and thriving as a species into the future.

As Zhiwa Woodbury urges: “Grieve these losses, take them into your heart and feel them, as with the news that the last northern African black rhino has died, but under no circumstances should we give into the temptations of despair”.

(I wish I was equal to this. I won’t always be, but I will try.)

Love can be selfish and inward looking, of course. If we love our families but not our neighbours; if we love our home but not the Earth; if we love humanity, but not the other-than-human, then our grieving will be partial and self-centred, and our dying will continue to be fearful.

And the earth knew absence

“Here lies Ghost Orchid;/ Once haunted Beechwoods — / rest in peace”, (Helen Moore, 2012)
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

In order to grieve the Earth, we need to learn to love it again. And love is as much about connection, attachment and embeddedness, as it is about emotion. It is also about intimate knowledge and discovery — making conscious again what we once knew as children (“children know they are made of the same stuff as grass”, as Jay Griffiths memorably wrote), and what we know deep down as humans who have evolved to live and love upon this planet.

The task of grieving for lost species and dying ecosystems, that poets like Helen Moore have taken on, will bring us back in tune with our knowledge and experience of absence: “The memory of the earth shrouds our thoughts with depth and mystery. In each individual the earth breaks its silence…”, wrote John O’Donohue, “…The mind echoed back the earth’s deepest dreams and longing, yet its original break from the earth must remain the earth’s deepest experience of absence and loss. In us the earth experiences absence”.

It’s not hard to find this connection; this memory of depth and loss. It’s hard-wired into us — we are ecological as well as social beings, and this genetic inheritance emerges as an experiential soul-truth — if we are open to it. And being open to truth means being open to love means being open to grief. To grieve wisely — and in turn to die wisely in our own right — means recognising that the loss of a person, a being, a species or an ecosystem is a symbol of deep sadness that, neveretheless, is to be faced as a reality of existence.

At the heart of all this is a deep, ecological empathy, that recognises the mutuality of all we hold true. The Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you — extends vertically from birth to death, and horizontally out to encompass everything and everyone. And we can look to other simple adages that can serve us well at the level of the small and local right out to the grand and universal…

…such as this from the wise teacher of death: “Seeing the end of something precious to you gives you the chance of loving it well”…

…and this from the young man made wise from dying: “Death makes a crown of love,/ A mantle to take across the threshold/ As a sign of accomplished living/ You are loved,/ You have loved,/ You have lived.”…

…and this from a woman whose Earth wisdom re-minds us of home, and teaches us a new way of grieving, praying and hoping: “May grief be a familiar, righteous response to the insane way we live — every tear brushed into a jade bowl for blessing, then restored to the ocean, where our souls are strong enough to swim”.

Loving, grieving, dying , (living)— where to start…

There are probably many places to start in developing a practice around death and grieving. Our own lives throw them up all the time. Yet none of us are experts on dying — especially when we are dying. And few of us have cracked grieving and dying on a planetary scale! Here are my starting points for this article. Follow them and there will be plenty more down the rabbit hole…

  • Greg Gilbert: Love Makes a Mess of Dying— a wonderful pamphlet of poetry published by smith/doorstep in their Laureates Choice series, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy, and as a companion to this, the Delays’ album, You See Colours, a joyful, life-enhancing, roller-coaster of guitars, synths and Greg’s wonderful voice, together with his partner Stacy Heale’s poignant blog, Beneath the Weather in which she writes about “hard stuff that happens to humans”.
  • Stephen Jenkinson: Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul and the film about his work, Griefwalker, were two of most profound things I read and watched in the year my Mum died. There is nothing I can say that can describe the otherworldly, yet entirely grounded, presence and words of this man. His website, orphanwisdom.com is a treasure trove of new and forgotten wisdoms, and his voice is utterly compassionate and uncompromising.
  • Helen Moore: quite simply, the foremost eco-poet of today, Helen’s voice is unflinching and radical, and her writing is exactly what Life on Earth should be about. She is the lover of the small and other-than-human, and a celebrant of the magic of human ingenuity and kindness. Both her books, Ecozoa and Hedge Fund are essential. The quote above comes from her poem, Prayer for Grief, published in Unpsychology Magazine issue 2, 2015 (available HERE)
  • Jay Griffiths: Jay doesn’t write specifically about death and grieving — but she writes beautifully about what we have lost, and she is a champion of children and the wild. The quote above is from Kith: the Riddle of the Childscape. She also knows something of what death is; her book Tristimania chronicles her struggle with manic depression, and the edge of suicide that it brings her to: “A little bird died in the night/Instead of me” she writes, on waking, alive, one snowy January morning.
  • Zhiwa Woodbury: an increasingly influential writer bringing together ecology and psychology — and in particular the human response to ecological ‘death’ and trauma. The first paper of his I came across, Planetary Hospice, asks what a ‘good death’ might look like in relation to our acceptance of the ‘Great Dying’ in the context of the stages of grief. His later work addresses the effects of ‘climate trauma’ and he has an article in the latest Climate Minds edition of Unpsychology Magazine (click HERE to download it FREE). The idea of Planetary Hospice has also been explored by Carolyn Baker through her work on global collapse.
  • Irvin Yalom: talk to any psychotherapist and they will know of Yalom’s work over several decades of practice and writing. He wrote a seminal textbook on Existential Psychotherapy in 1980, and one of the best books on dying, Staring at the Sun in 2008, and numerous other novels and psychotherapy books in between. His ‘death’ book invites us to confront the reality of mortality — and his work around the existential human givens surely translates in to the social and ecological realms. After all, what is ecological crisis, if not a crisis of human existence?

Steve Thorp: Steve is a therapist working with ecology, soul-making and development in St Davids, Pembrokeshire. if you’d like to work with him, please get in touch to discuss possibilities at steve@21soul.co.uk.