I was posed a strange question a few weeks ago.
“Have you ever witnessed the death of a loved one?”
I pondered over it. I have indeed lost a few loved ones. But I really haven’t felt them leave me. One moment there. One moment gone. No. That’s a void for me.
The closest I have come to is talking to a mother who had just learnt that her child had a few days to live, losing a long battle with cancer. I talked her through her anxiety attack, all the time holding my weeping heart in hand.
What a morbid subject to ponder?
We don’t like to talk about death. In fact, elders used to scare us that there are celestial beings floating around who would choose to say “tatastu” (meaning Let it be) as we utter something, and if you happen to be talking something morbid at the time, you are done for it!
What is that we fear so much about death? If you think deep about it, it is not the death of the thing, but losing a part of our self. It is our own death that we fear.
Does that sound odd?
Rollo May comes to help. He explains this clearly. “A child has a dog, and the dog dies. The child’s grief in mixed with deep anger. If someone tries to explain death in the objective, evolutionary way to him — everything dies, and dogs die sooner than human beings — he may well strike out against the explainer. The child probably knows all this anyway. His real sense of loss and betrayal comes from the fact that his love for his dog and the dog’s devotion to him are gone now.”
See? There is something else that dies in us.
We do lose parts of our selves every day. We lose face. We lose our turn in the queue. We lose recognition. More philosophically, we lose lives familiar. We lose identities. Sometimes lose the belief in things we always believed in. We lose our paths. We lose clarity.
With every loss comes the pain and anxiety of losing a part of who we are.
We humans are a funny race. We grow socially and technologically in so many dimensions; but biologically and psychologically we remain the primitive beings that hunted and gathered. So every time we lose a bit of who we are, given out limited emotional maturity, we panic. We sense the death and loss of that part within us and grieve, anger, blame, resist, despair — anything but seeing it for what it is.
When your teenager closes the bedroom door on you and does not want to talk, how many of us have battled the loss of ego, loss of closeness we once thought was all this world, competing very closely with genuine care for the child?
When long term relationships change with years, as the initial rush of passion gives way to the gentle breeze of companionship, how many of us make the transformation gracefully?
For things to change in life, the old has to give way to new. When the old leaves, there is a vaccuum, for, the new doesn’t come and neatly fit into the space left by the old. It rather creates its own pattern.
That empty space is what hurts and aches. Not all clean slates feel warm and fuzzy. Most of them feel scary and uncomfortable. Without the familiar ground we operate, we wobble, not knowing which direction to go.
As Pema Chodron says, “We are raised in a culture that fears death and hides it from us. Nevertheless, we experience it all the time. We experience it in the form of disappointment, in the form of things not working out.”
Take heart. It is not all that morbid. Like all the other ugly things in our Pandora’s box, we don’t have to fight this either.
Have you ever tried going beneath that ache or anger to grasp at what is it you are mourning? Go. Find it. And then, as Pema Chodron goes on to say, pull up your socks. Get comfortable with it.
Having a relationship with death in everyday life means that we begin to be able to wait, to relax with insecurity, with panic, with embarassment, with things not working out. — When things fall apart. Pema Chodron
And then, as you do it every time you feel the loss, slowly, death ceases to scare you. You begin to recognize the transformation that death brings.
I called my friend to ask her why she asked me that question. “When you see it and you still breathe you learn that life exists beyond that moment. You have feared that moment. You have tried to hold it at bay as long as possible. And then it comes. And it leaves you empty. Yet is also leaves you, facing the next moment. And then you learn that life exists beyond death.”