At a funeral this week, while tears were streaming down my cheeks, I came to realise that I was actually crying for me, and for those left behind by the death of a beautiful person. It wasn’t the wonderful words her brother used to describe snippets of her amazing journey through life, which brought forth the tears, but the mournful way he looked at the coffin and simply said “I love you, I miss you so much”, which started the torrent. Even writing this now and remembering his face is tugging away at my heart and throat.
It’s the pain of loss which hurts so much, and a loss which can never be recovered, company which can never be shared again, which touches most of us so deeply. Death leaves a lonely space somewhere deep in our heart, a loneliness bourne of having risked connecting on a deep and meaningful level with another person, and then suddenly they leave us, never to return.
I spend a lot of my working days alongside people who are dying, and people who are about to lose someone. Often its the people alongside the dying person who can’t bear to talk about the immanent death, and try to prentend on some level thats its not going to happen. When we talk often people will say they dont want to get upset infront of the person who is dying, and that they dont want to upset or frighten them. When I have the same converstion with the dying person they are often bewildered as to why no one will let them speak about death, and why no one seems to be crying or upset that they are about to die.
My sense is that these two different groups of people are sharing parallel paths, which ultimately branch off from each other, with very different final destinations. The person who will end up grieving the loss of their beloved, and the person who will depart from this life and this world. One group is left to cope with the pain of loss, while the others have departed and are free.
But nothing that has lived is ever truely lost, for everything we experience lives on in our hearts and minds. Even when someone has died, we can usually still hear in our mind what they would say when something happens, or we mess up. Also we still think of them when we come across things they would have loved. If we were very close the life lessons we learned from or with them will also always be with us. The tears are cried because we feel the space, the lonlieness, and it is this which most of us fear when we hear that someone we love is dying.
In most cases the person dying is not afraid of death itself, of their life being over, but of the process of dying. The fear of potential pain, and loss of dignity are the two things which I hear over and over from the dying. Its the fear of the process of dying, not death itself which challenges them to their core. Fear is such a powerful emotion that often when we are in its grip we believe everything we think as though it were a fact. A thought is not a fact, it is our response to an emotion or an event.
In fact the process of actual death is often very peaceful, its the thought of it which triggers the fear and anxiety. Our thinking ahead, into an imagined future allows our mind to fall into fear and anxiety. A whole story of pain and distress runs through our mind, and it feels as though its actually happening, or that is exactly how it will feel when it does happen. If we can stay with life as it actually is in this moment, often we will discover that things are managable, and there might yet be room for some laughter and joy.
These struggles with life and death are as old as time. When I came across this quote from Epictetus, a Greek philosopher from back in the 1st Centuary AD, its familiarity made me smile. These are eternal struggles about being alive and being human, and the joy of life is worth all of it. We shouldnt lose the joy of living under the cloud of thoughts of the fear of dying.
“It is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death.” Epictetus.