The Realities Life and Death
We all live, we all die — how do we come to terms with it all? How do we live a happy life not becoming bitter about death?
A friend of mine used to have a posit note on his door, reminding him to meditate on dying. It used to crack me up. Only my friend the wannabe monk would have a note like that stuck to his front door.
I, personally, was not a fan of thinking about death and dying. When my mother passed I was six years old and petrified. I still remember lying awake in my room at night, knowing my mother was dying in cancer. I was scared and trying to make sense of the patterns I saw on the wall.
The next day when she died, I did not feel a warm presence saying goodbye to me, nor was I assured that dying was part of life. Instead, I stood in the bathroom, listening to my grandmother on the phone with my father. I was, as we say in Sweden, “thief-listening.” I was listening in on this conversation so as to hear if she had died. I figured she had, so I pretended to having to use the bathroom to be able to listen.
At first, i was shocked I didn’t start to cry immediately. I willed myself to cry. Then I regretted it, as I cried so much I thought I’d never stop. Eventually my father, once home, told me to have some hot soup. Said it would help. And somehow it did — as if the lump in my throat clogged the tears.
When mom died, I was surrounded by people who thought her death was horrible. No one told me it was part of life. No one told me we could find love and happiness again. Everyone was keen to move on with life — my father told me “well get through this” — but everyone was lost and sad and at loose ends with what to do. No one accepted her death. They opposed it. Thought it unfair. Friends and family were simply devastated.
After that, I avoided death. I did not watch movies where people died. It reminded me too much of mom. I did not think about dying, apart from having a paranoid fear I’d catch whatever mom had and for the longest amount of time I confused HIV and cancer, thinking they were the same and, therefore, that cancer was contagious. I also thought if I did certain things, like adding “I hope” after saying I’d see someone the next day, I’d protect myself from death. In other words, instead of saying “see you tomorrow,” I’d say “see you tomorrow, I hope.” I didn’t want to make the mistake of taking life for granted. And I thought that by pouring cold water on my wrists, I’d prevent cancer. I’d play little games like that. If I only…I won’t get cancer. I stopped after my dad caught me one day and explained that’s not how it works.
I was emotionally lost. I ended up shy and withdrawn as well, as my mother’s death and other events seemed to put me in a situation where I was the “odd one out.” Being put in a new class in school and in a new step-family a few years later, I withdrew into myself entirely.
I didn’t know how to behave. I didn’t understand myself, or others. I thought everyone disliked me and there was something wrong with me.
Death touched me in an unfortunate manner. Yet death is part of life. As the saying goes: the only thing certain about life is dying. And I suppose the fact that you are already born.
Life and death. The two certainties.
If you see death as a natural part of life, if you come to accept it instead of fearing it and being bitter about it, then suddenly everything takes on a different meaning.
We were not unlucky to lose my mother, we were lucky to have had her. We’re not unlucky to die, we’re lucky to have been born. Some of us are given longer to explore this world than others, but for each one of us it is a gift where every day is a treasure.
Death is not something to fear, but a new journey across uncharted waters, or waters we simply cannot remember, the same way we don’t remember a dream, or everything that happened when we were ten. It may still be in our subconscious, but it’s not accessible information.
It may also be that we are all just part of this planet. Right now we are humans, tomorrow we become Earth and the week after a plant. We are the Earth, the universe and the space in between.
There are cultures in which death is celebrated, but the Western culture, as a whole, is not one of them. Instead, we do what I did: we stick our heads in the sand and pretend it does not exist. Until it does. And then we freak out, or become bitter.
I watched P.S. I Love You about ten years ago. I would never have watched that movie willingly, but I showed up at a member’s club with a friend, thinking I was going to watch a rom-com. About three minutes into the movie I wanted to bawl my eyes out, but I didn’t do that. Oh, no. I never cried. Another thing about my mother dying — I learnt that if you don’t start crying it doesn’t escalate into some incredibly painful thing where you think you have a hole inside of you what can never be filled again.
It also so happened that I thought people would think me silly if I cried. So I didn’t cry. Throughout the whole movie, I did not cry.
Once the lights came on again, I realized everyone around me was crying. I? I went home and immediately watched the movie online so that I could process my emotions in private and cry as much as I wanted to.
That movie changed me, because I realized it was OK to grieve. It was even a good thing.
Last year, I spent a week with my grandmother in hospice. She was dying from cancer at the age of 92. She was a fighter and seeing her in that bed wasn’t pretty. I was swabbing her gums with water and oil as she couldn’t drink. I was wiping her mouth as she coughed up mucus. But she had lived to the age of 92. She suffered for a few weeks in the end, but that was it. Her emotional suffering after grandpa died was much worse than any physical suffering she went through.
Gran never accepted death in any form. In the end, she wanted to sleep, not die. She was too tired to carry on, but she was by no means at peace with dying. Death, to her, was a bitter affair.
Maybe I’m wrong in saying she never accepted death — in the end she wanted to die because she was tired. She had told me that for months. However, the idea of death was not something she ever talked about as peaceful.
When I was in that hospice, I read the brochure they provided. It talked about how the dying don’t feel the same level of pain we think they feel. That we suffer more from their dry mouths than they do. That they are already in that state of in-between. That calmed me somewhat, as seeing gran like that was torture.
The other thing the brochure said, is that when someone dies it’s as if they get on a ship and sail away into the horizon, to start a new adventure. We are left seeing the ship disappear and feel loss, but they are just about to start a new “life” somewhere else.
That metaphor really rang true to me. Not because I know if it is true, but because from everything I’ve heard about near death experiences, it sounds true. What’s more, everything is a perspective. What perspective on death helps us the most?
The world is a mysterious place, not least because nothing can come from nothing and nothing can have existed forever. That, right there, tells us that we are impossible beings. So what says death is possible? Eternity sounds much more feasible.
Our instinct to live is necessary. If we all knew there was life after death, people would commit suicide at the least provocation. But our instinct to live, or our fear to die, shouldn’t be so strong we discount the facts: we will all die. Unless, of course, Silicone Valley comes up with a way of putting our souls in robots, in which case we may be eternally stuck on Earth. Which could totally ruin our chances of being reborn in a galaxy far, far away. (A galaxy that appears to have overpopulation problems as they sent way too many humans this side.)
The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve been working on a musical about life and death and our choice in how to deal with it all. It’s our choice to mourn, or celebrate. I think we all mourn, but I also think we can all choose to celebrate.
Part of this musical is based on real events and a friend of mine told me today that she’d told a family that I could speak with their eight-year-old son. The boy the film is, in part, about. He has cancer and doesn’t understand what’s happening. His grandmother has tried to explain to him several times, but he still doesn’t understand. So maybe I could speak with him, as I have a way with children?
When gran was dying, I seriously considered re-schooling myself as a grief counselor. I contemplated nursing. Psychology. Midwifery. Becoming a doula. I knew I had to make some decisions about life. In the end, I kept coming back to film and doing something more to help and heal people and work with herbs. You don’t want to see the enormous mind mapping boards I created in this process, but sufficient to say: when there’s a crisis, I run into the midst of it, finally feeling useful. I want to help and heal people.
This sometimes makes me feel bad: I feel useful when others are hurting because I can help alleviate the pain, calm them, or inspire them. For one reason or another, I was given the gift of having that kind of effect on people. Thankfully, I also feel useful when mothers are giving birth, which is rather more jolly, but it's the same thing: you bring calm; you bring inspiration. I don't know how, or why, this happens but my sister claims I'm the caring one in the family and the one to call when people are ill — she says I know what to say.
When I found out this boy is sick and heard I’d been volunteered as family support, I felt happy knowing I could be useful. They are already receiving counseling, so I know they are getting professional help and I'm just part of the support network. I also know it’s never easy. No matter how fulfilled I felt spending time with my gran in a hospice, I looked like death myself by the end of that week. I felt tortured in a way I’ve never felt tortured before — not because gran was dying, but because she was suffering. Because there were other people there suffering. Because I couldn’t alleviate it all.
And that, right there, is the crux of the matter: you cannot get caught up in the suffering. The moment you lose it, not only do you end up in a heap on the floor, the people around you end up affected by it.
Writing this movie, this musical, and thinking about speaking to the boy, my own fears, hopes, desires all got woven into it…and it made me face death once again and realize I have a choice. It’s a choice we make on a daily basis: to become aware of death and live an inspired life in spite of death, or maybe because of it.
My friend who volunteered me as family support always says: “We’re strong, so we have to be strong for others, too.” But as I said to a friend whose mother had cancer many years ago: “You know, you don’t have to be strong, right?” I could feel her battling — fighting to hold it together, instead of releasing it and letting go, facing her emotions and letting go of them. Holding it together is the wrong approach — accepting and letting go and thereby, staying in one piece, is a much better tactic.
I’m not going to go into a hospital wanting to be strong, apart from using strength to control my mind. I’m going to go in there with the purpose to provide love. I’m going to go in there making a decision from which perspective I view things and help others view things. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy — life isn’t easy — but it can be beautiful.