Let’s Talk about Death Baby
It's not the done thing. It's sad, morbid and way too depressing for a society that runs on happiness as a commodity and instant gratification. I wonder; If I showed up to a party, dressed as the grim reaper, introduced myself, sipping champagne and chatted about dying, would it become more intriguing to you and therefore easier to handle?
Perhaps I’ve lost you already, simply by putting death in the title?
But bear with me. What if I told you that, in ignoring death, you’ll never experience the best moments life has to offer? That in coming closer to death, you'll never again run from your pain in the same way. That you’ll start to experience more freedom than you ever thought possible. Perhaps now you’ll stay with me and read on?
What if I told you that you’re dying right now, that you’ve been doing it all your life, only you’re unwittingly doing and accepting it.
Till death us do part.
Eight years ago, I lost the most important man I ever thought I would come to know or love: my father. Before that, there was the loss of my grandparents on both sides, my first dog and over the course of my childhood years, an array of other pets.. The death of my first dog and my father were the most traumatic. These two separate events are now inextricably linked together in my psyche as having left me deeply lost, alone, and desperate for love and belonging.
My golden retriever, Clara, died at 14, having lived what I think was a loving and full life. So, when her death came, it was hardly surprising; and yet, as it was announced down the telephone by my parents, I felt like my whole world had just come to a standstill. I was beside myself with grief. I was not present for Clara’s death, physically nor emotionally; instead, I was wrapped up in my own sense of loss and was not present to the opportunities or learnings offered up by death.
With my father, death came quick. I stood at his hospital bedside only for a brief number of moments. Hell, I even gave death a helping hand, ushering his soul towards the bright lights with my words, reassuring, encouraging: “Daddy, it’s ok, I’m here now, you can go”. This time, I was in the room physically and yet, once again, I was not fully present in a way which I wanted to be. Blind to death’s bliss and unable to fathom the gifts in my father's departure.
What was it about one of life’s greatest events that left me far from celebration? What is it that triggers me when death comes to rock my world? How many dates do I need to go on with death before I can truly be present in its presence?
Following the death of my father, I was left with an all-consuming sadness, panic attacks, and an inability to have fulfilling relationships. And if I’m brutally honest, there was also the horrible question of who now would look after my mother?. I was mad at my father for leaving me, abandoning his role and leaving unfinished business behind. I hadn’t signed up for this.
But wait, what I initially saw as a burden bestowed upon me by my father via his death, I later view as a final gift from him. My father had actually given me a series of opportunities to fast track my own spiritual growth and my journey deeper into love.
What I talk of here is the notion that long before we are born into a physical body, each of us unconsciously choose a plan which we will follow, so that our souls can learn certain key lessons in life. Just as we take great learnings from the celebratory events that happen in our lives, one aspect of death and pain’s purpose is to accelerate our personal and spiritual growth. Each, a message and opportunity to learn the greater lesson being conveyed and our opportunity to shed all the misplaced and unhelpful notions about death; the assumed behaviours we are expected to exhibit at the loss of a loved one, and the emotional patterns forged in our neural pathways, which are holding us back. This fear of death which paralyses us and prevents us from fully living. This is our opportunity to die before dying. And thus to live completely.
I had previously looked upon my dad's death as opportunities stolen from him – opportunities for him to live better, be more at ease within himself, experience more. When in actual fact his consciousness had come here to do what it was meant to do, however hard a conversation that is for us to have. His death was his quick, an ultimate return to essence, his best self and freedom from earthly suffering. His death had impact. Now it was down to each of us left behind to decide how to receive and how to use that impact.
Fate worse than death?
My choice to learn the lessons laid down came later than perhaps my father would have liked. Following my father's death, I had been unable to control the movie of my life, to press pause on my emotional state, press rewind, to review and reflect, or press play to have recognised the truly transformational messages available to me. It was much later, when illness came to threaten my own life that I sat-up and started taking notes.
It’s difficult not to regret the missed opportunity for learning I had when my father was still here – if I had only just asked my him what would he want me to do differently given his own experience in life. Sounds odd right, but behavioural patterns are transmitted from parent to child, carried across generations; many of us are carrying the same lessons our ancestors bore, they just manifest slightly differently.
It makes me wonder why the hell are we not having a full scale "Lessons Learned" meeting with the dead at the end of each year. What a joy that would be. Communing with the dead in a boardroom to get all the crap out on the table, devise a full scale project plan ready for the forthcoming year. I guess what I'm getting at here is that, as a society, we need to start talking more openly about death and we need to start to doing this in our families, in our relationships and opening up space for it in our workplaces.
From the moment I knew what death was, I was taught to be sad, afraid and mournful. I grew up in a catholic family so any alternate emotions I had, went alongside, open-caskets, drunken wakes, no talking ill of the dead, no laughing and definitely no questioning of the status quo: that would be deemed too disrespectful. A confusing and conflicting response of being open and simultaneously closed to the aliveness in death.
In the aftermath of my father’s death, there was also a great sense of an assumed silence in my a wider family, with my friends and with colleagues in work. The lesson I was learning here was one of avoidance: avoidance of grief, avoidance of pain. Ultimately, avoidance of any type of discussion that could lead to being ok with death.
“Death” is a milestone, bigger than any 60th Birthday or Golden Wedding Anniversary and yet it has become an event which is by far deemed socially unacceptable. No doubt a product of our growing inability to bear witness and spend time with the depth of our emotions. Death has fast become something we aim to avoid. Our fear of death, whether it be our own or another's, is one way in which our minds try to hold onto everything we think we are. Our fear of death is, in fact, irrational and concerned only with our bodies. If I am not this body, then what is there?
It is in our inability to grasp state of consciousness without a physical form. and our urge to bypass the processing stages before and after death that we never really learn to appreciate the joy and liberation death brings. We are increasingly becoming more detached from death.
Death is not on its own when it comes to our seemingly lack of duty of care in the school of life where we are all pupils. Over the ages, open and frank dialogue about sex, drugs, suicide, depression, mental health, you name it, we avoid it. It seems like we spend most of our time not giving space to the hard truths and as a result, many of us are left to repeat the same unhelpful patterns, thwarting our personal and spiritual growth critical to fulfilment.
Matters of Life and Death
So, how do we even begin to enrol “death” as a new member of our inclusive and well-adjusted gang? What does that it even look like from a practical perspective? In truth, I don't yet know what will jumpstart a transformative shift in how we currently deal with death. I’m not certain what will be an easeful journey for people. What I do know is that in failing to pick up the baton for living a fulfilled life with death, we run the risk of passing on our hang-ups, our limiting beliefs to those who come next. Setting the next generation on yet another lap of this flawed approach to living. In essence missing the central point that death is the ultimate celebration of life.
If you’re interested in trying on different perspectives/approaches to death, check out some of the ways below which we can all revisit death.
Start by asking yourself now: What do I think about death? What is it I want for my own death? Then, start to explore the shift in perspective where you accept that death of the body, is not death of our essence nor our energy. That the physical in anything is limited and the idea limiting.
If you need to explore using something a bit more practical, start to chart your history with death. Draw a timeline; at one end put the date you were born and at another your age today. Now chart all the loss you have had in your life. Loss is a death of something after all. Look at loss of people, places, things and start to build up the story around each of those things. What lessons do you think were offered up? What did you awaken to? What were you unable to let go of? Add your own questions in. Treat it like a mind map of sorts, start to follow the patterns, themes and messages. What is being repeated? What are you avoiding and what are the new lessons you want to learn so that your future generations don't have to?
Put the “Fun” back into Funeral
Yup the clue is in the word. You need to find your own idea of what ‘fun’ looks like to you. It might mean going wild, hiring bouncy castles, dressing up outrageously and wearing coloured wigs at for your Granny’s funeral and now come to think about it, why the hell not! Or it could be just simply wearing bright colours. It doesn’t need to be complicated; let’s wear anything but black, let’s share the quirky, the funny, the naughty at funerals, just as we do in wedding speeches. Let’s put as many well wishes for the future into our saying ‘goodbyes’ with the same zest we ascribe to welcoming new born babies to the world through baptism.
The processing of emotions is multi-faceted and is not limited to one course, one action or one way of being. The question we need to ask ourselves more is how we fully express the full range of what this person passing meant to us over the time that we knew them.
The Death Plan:
When it comes to awakening to a new more purposeful and inspired way of living, one of the most powerful drivers we have (for us and those around us) is our desire. Desire is a catalyst to action.
Your dreams and visions for how you want your life and death to be and feel, will serve as a constant reminder for acceptance, awareness and reverence for what you are. Designing and laying claim to your most extra-ordinary life can come with imagining what it will be like on your last day on the planet. No self-editing, no limits, no rules. What do you want people to say on your last day in your physical body? Who do you want to be there? What have you achieved in terms of spiritual and personal growth?
Get the Fast-Track Pass!
All of us know someone who is dying, nearing death or facing the truth of their own mortality. In here lies the opportunity to engage compassionately on a topic that has so much depth and richness. So start asking the questions you’re scared to ask or go one step further and attend a death cafe to witness how people talk openly about death. Coming from someone who had to have secret conversations with death during my breast cancer treatment, trust me when I say it is always better to engage than not to at all. People facing death are often separated from life; perhaps avoided, overprotected or less visible because of confinement or treatment programmes. It is our separation from the living where dying becomes a fear. If you’re in doubt of what to ask, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org for some examples of questions i’ve picked up on my journey.
If this article had an impact on you and you'd like to try exploring "Death" further, you can do so in a safe space: the “Day of the Dead” on 31st October [London] is an open to all workshop with guided dialogue, reflection exercises and meditation. The sole aim of the workshop is to bring together a diverse community to listen, engage and witness, thoughts, feelings and emotions on death. Tickets are available from Eventbrite
*In memory of my father, John Joseph Devine, until we meet again so much love.
*An extra special thanks to the wonderful editor Loren Amy Bowe who helped work through the rambles of my thoughts and an apology for publishing without a final proof. Any errors in this final version are a result of my doing, not hers and my need to leave the piece perfectly imperfect.