Talking About Death

In his book, Facing Death, Averil Stedeford recounts the following story about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness:

Mrs. N. was a very particular housewife who felt she should clean her home every day. She did not entertain often, for it was such an effort; everything had to be homemade and to a high standard. When she realized she might only have a few more months to live, she thought things out and altered her ways. On sunny mornings, she would go out in the garden straight after breakfast, making the most of the good weather while she could, however dusty her horse might be. Before, she had entertained her grandchildren once a week to a meticulously prepared spread. Now, she wanted to see as much of them as possible, and they came three times a week, ate store-bought cakes, and everyone enjoyed themselves immensely, for she had become more relaxed, more interested in them, and less in her own performance as a hostess and grandmother. Later, as her illness progressed and she could do less, she had fewer regrets and more good memories than she might have had to occupy her mind when she could no longer be active.

Why did this woman, as she finally encountered the reality of her own death, discover that what meant most to her in life was different from what she had thought? And why had she not come to that realization before?

For those of us who are fortunate enough to live at least to our thirties, our encounter with the reality of death is not a one-time thing, all-or-nothing. It is a gradual revelation that occurs in many stages—beginning when, as a small child, we watch the leaves fall from the tree, or we encounter a dead butterfly, or, more deeply, when a pet dies. As the years go by, people we have heard of die, a grandparent dies, we hear of death in many forms through news and conversation. But still our own death—the reality of death—is not part of our psyches. It is not until our parents die, or people who are nearly as much a part of our lives, until we are in our thirties and forties, that our consciousness, our minds’ recognition of death becomes strong enough to confront our instinctive sense of immortality, and we begin to make more or less conscious choices about how we will deal with this reality.

Clearly, Mrs. N., though she had reached her late fifties or sixties, had not let the reality of death sink into her being enough to ask the question: "What is most important to me?" until she was told that her life was probably going to be over very soon. But when reality came, she did take that opportunity to make a momentous change—almost a transformation of her way of being. Like the pattern Bertrand Russell described, she opened up her narrow, rushing self, giving up control, to experience and to share more of life around her—to give and to take more than she had been able to do before.

Now, what Russell pictures, of course, is something that is possible for the fortunate among us: those who live long enough to grow into a maturity that allows us to let go, and whose experience of life allows us to mature in that way. I do not think that what he says applies to those who have had early experiences of traumatic loss—such as the death of a parent or a sibling in our early childhood years, or the death of a close and loved peer when we are adolescents or young adults. Such experiences change our relation with death in radical ways: if adults around us handle the loss openly and honestly, they may help us become, out of sorrow and healthy grieving, more caring, more open, more sensitive, and more ready when we encounter the realities of death later. If the adults cannot handle the situation themselves, if communication is shut off, if the wound is closed over rather than healed, then death and all it implies of pain and loss will become even more taboo than it is in society at large.

Indeed, it has become a cliche in recent years to point out how the subject and the reality of death have become increasingly remote to us in this century. Unlike people in earlier ages, we have done everything we can to shut memento mori, or, reminders of death, out of our lives. No graveyard paintings in the parlor, no skulls around the house, no soul-wrenching songs about cemeteries. Dying occurs often enough in hospitals, away from home, bodies unseen except by one or two of the closest family members. No stopping for the passage of a funeral procession—a custom that is still practiced in parts of Canada (drivers here are much more likely to try to cut in right before the hearse, and sit there cursing the waste of time if they don’t succeed). We are healthier and more long-lived than ever, but we worry more and more about our health. There is a general turning away from the very fact, the very existence of death—which is, as we know, the one fact that, having been born, we can count on. And yet, like Mrs. N., we rush on, minding our busy-ness, accumulating stuff we can’t take with us, isolating ourselves from reality and from one another, and then, perhaps, discovering too late that, given the fact of death, we would like to have lived otherwise.

I am not going to argue this morning that we should be obsessed with death, like some of the Victorians. Stedeford speaks of existential denial, the necessary shutting out of our consciousness of the myriad possibilities of death from illness to accident to nuclear war so that we can function: "Constant acute awareness of all these dangers would produce a state of paralyzing (or morbid) anxiety, making daily living almost impossible. We can only cross the road, travel abroad, or plan for our future without undue fear because we have learned to live as if the dangers...cannot touch us."

Fear, of course, is what we are covering over as we deny death—the fear that comes from the blessing and curse of awareness of the human ability to recognize, bit by bit, the inevitable end, long before it may come to us. And how many fears there are surrounding death (as Stedeford points out). Fear of the unknown—what will it feel like, will it be agonizing? Fear of separation—how can I lose all I have come to love? Will I feel and will I be utterly alone? Fear of humiliation in the process of growing old, being ill, dying—how will I look to others? How dependent will I become? Will I lose the control I have struggled so hard to attain in my living? Just the basic instinctive fear of death, born with us and within us, the corollary of our love of life. And nowadays, the fear that medical technology may take over control completely, forcing us to endure long, helpless, and perhaps meaningless days against the will of nature and of ourselves.

It is no wonder that, even if we are fairly honest and brave, the process of facing death is a long and uneven one—of growing knowledge and then repression, of acceptance and then denial. I can remember when I was ten, lying in bed, trying to imagine the world going on without me—remaining awake for hours in puzzlement and disbelief. And now, in those moments when I do contemplate death, or when the death of someone I have come to love forces that reality upon me, I lie awake with a terrible sense of loss and grief. Experience, reading, news stories force knowledge upon us. We think we understand, we vow to live more intentionally, but soon we are back living much the way we did before. Few of us are like one parishioner who spoke to me of his gratefulness now that a window of his home has a view of a cemetery—a ready reminder if he felt inclined to forget that death is there.

It is amazing, then, not how often we repress the knowledge of death, but how effective repression can be. But why not just let it be so? Why not just go on in a kind of animal unawareness? First of all, we can’t. The knowledge is there whether we admit it to consciousness or not, and if we try to repress it completely, the fears still dwell within us, still affect all that we do. Second, like Mrs. N., the very knowledge and acceptance of death helps us to become much more intentional, thoughtful, and active about what we want our life to be. Third, talking about death provides the opportunity to share our fears, to gain from the support and strength of one another, to learn, to grow in spirit and understanding, to gain perspective and wisdom. And we can do some of the work of letting go, of grieving and accepting, of helping others coming along behind us come to terms with our death and so, finally, with their own. Without these things, we live with dishonesty, with waste, with greater unpreparedness for the terror and the shock, with separation and isolation in our lives. We can never fully grow up, or use the gift of consciousness with its greatest possibilities, or find the fullest meaning of life.

One of the most challenging things about modern ways of dealing with death and about modern technology is that, by failing to help our present generations grow in this way, by hiding death away, by creating greater illusions of control over the dying process, we actually become less aware, less prepared, more blind to the real condition of our living and our dying. I think our lives have become more frantic, more superficial, less real—just because we do not face our ultimate lack of control.

Unitarian Universalists are far from exempt in the matter. In fact, partly because most of us do not have the old assurance of a caring, personal God in whom we have our beginning and our ending, with whom the mystery will be explained, the pain will be eased, and love will endure despite our earthly loss, we are even more compelled to try to hide away our lack of control, to blind ourselves. Many of us are quite distrustful of movements like Hospice, whose openness and sharing of the dying process have been found to be healing by so many even in the face of death. We are afraid of processes that will, indeed, open us up at moments to the overwhelming emotions of anger, fear, and above all, grief, that inevitably accompany the death of one we love or our own death—open us, though, in order to help us be at home with the whole of reality.

Control in the face of that which we cannot control. It is a tangled web, and the right-to-die issues are well tangled in it. Yes, we wish not to have our control wrested away by hospitals, doctors, strangers. We wish to have our own dignity and the dignity of those we love. And yet some of our anxiety covers a desire to have the kind of control that, finally, we cannot have—to dictate the terms by which we die.

I hope that we can come to restore a more natural sense of death, to learn what we can to rest in peace in our final days as well as in death itself. But I hope for myself that I will know the limits of my planning, the limits of my control, the reality that the mystery of life and death, of process and emotion, is still much bigger than I am, that I must consider the giving up of self, of control, back to the whole.

I must trust. Trust is not one of the greatest spiritual accomplishments of Unitarian Universalists because we are not sure what there is out there to trust. Though the rhythms of the 23rd Psalm, so closely associated with our experience of death in Western culture, are still comforting because they are part of our blood, the idea that "the Lord is my shepherd" is not a metaphor that works for many of us.

So what do we, what can we trust? The Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, in a recent interview, was asked why the tortured, agonized contemplation of death and its aftermath, which is so much a part of his early films like "The Seventh Seal" and "Winter Light," is not present in his later work. In response, Bergman described his first experience of surgery, part-way through his career: the terror he felt of the anesthesia, of losing consciousness (a terror most of us share), and then the experience that the total loss of consciousness, the abandonment of the need for control, felt afterwards like a blessing, a release. And so the issue of death lost its terror, the obsession was dissolved.

What lies beyond that loss of consciousness, we do not know. But we can learn to know the reality of life and death in which we live. I believe that our best hope lies in sharing the journey together, in speaking to one another of what we have seen and heard and learned—facing death, step by step, as honestly and openly as we can, and in building meaning together in the knowledge that whatever we do, whatever we are, the world neither begins nor ends with us, that we come forth and go back having been given the gifts of life, having given in return what we could of ourselves. Trust— not that the mystery will be explained or that we will be vindicated in our thinking and our hopes by a God made in our own likeness (another form of trying to control the world), but trust that the larger world holds us in its embrace, and we may rest in it at the end. We will be released.