Last Saturday on the Interesting Stuff post, I suggested an episode of the BBC World Service radio program, The Forum, about contemplating one’s own death.
Since listening to it (you can do that here), I haven’t been able to let go of the show and the ideas expressed therein but perhaps that is because I have thought about my own death almost every day since childhood. Diana Athill’s “money quote” from the program is not new to my experience:
“I don’t think you have to think very deeply about it [death] but I do think you have to think about it fairly regularly. Someone said, ‘You ought to think about death for about 15 minutes every day.’ I think that’s overdoing it, but I do think that saying to yourself, ‘What do I think about death?’ fairly regularly, familiarises you with the idea so that you’re no longer frightened about it.
That has worked for me.
I recall lying in bed one particular night at about age nine or 10, heart beating a zillion miles per minute and barely able to breathe so great was the fear in knowing that someday I would no longer exist.
It was not the first nor the last time I was caught in that waking nightmare as a kid. It was a constant worry, terror really, and I determined then that somehow I would rid myself of the fear of my death because there was no way I could live an entire life (yes, I understood the irony/humor in saying that) so deeply frightened every day about dying.
Those were the years of my religious instruction but even as a kid, I never bought the idea of heaven and hell. If, as they told me, god made us in his image and loved us unconditionally, I did not see how he would consign his children to the fires of hell no matter what sins they had committed. And no loving god would make heaven as boring as it sounded either. Where would I go swimming or ride my bike?
Such thoughts pretty much ended my religious belief in general and that of an afterlife.
Since childhood, I have mostly taken my cues about life and death from the world around me – we all see it every day. A seed is planted, a flower blooms spectacularly, fades and dies. A carrot grows, passes on its life-giving properties and thereby fulfills its destiny.
The animals, too, return to the earth in the end and as I worked through these and a thousand other thoughts about dying through the years, I saw and see no reason to think it is different for humans.
But what is different about us is that unlike the plants and animals, we know of our future destruction – although sometimes I’m not so sure. Perhaps in ways we cannot conceive, they do understand – and accept.
In 1996, my cat Beau Bennett, just a few months shy of 20, died in my arms of old age. He had no interest in food during his final week and he could no longer walk, but he had no trouble making it clear that he wanted to be with me.
In those few last days and nights, we sat quietly together as much as possible, me remembering all our wonderful good times and who is to say that is not what Beau was doing too. I don’t know, but I choose to believe that he understood and accepted that he was at the end of his life.
On the BBC show, poet Paul Muldoon related a story of the “sense of repose” he felt when, once, he was on an airplane that, it seemed for a bit, would crash. In the face of certain death, he said, his death became “okay.”
Something similar happened to me; I wrote about it on this blog a few years ago:
Talking with my friend Sandy as we walked down Bleecker Street in New York City, I gestured widely with my arms to make a point as I stepped backward. Instead of pavement, there was the emptiness of an entrance to a store cellar – a large, square hole in the sidewalk.
As I fell backward, I managed to brace myself against the building with one arm and could see below that it was a deep cellar with many, steep concrete steps. I would surely die as my body crashed to the floor.
Sandy caught my other arm and tried to pull, but she was wearing new, smooth-soled sandals that kept slipping so that she could get no purchase on the ground. My arm against the building was slipping too and in a span of no more than ten seconds, I went from blind, paralyzing fear (oh, shit, I’m going to die right now) to perfect calm and acceptance (it’s okay, I can do this).
Then I deliberately let go of the wall to fall to my death.
But a miracle happened. (I don’t believe a god is necessary for miracles.) Two strong hands caught me in the middle of my back and gently lowered me, unharmed except for a scraped elbow, to safety and continued life.
What often comes to mind now when I ponder death is the memory of that perfect calm and acceptance. I have no idea if my lifelong work to overcome my fear of dying helped me reach that acceptance, and knowing I am not alone in such feelings in the face of imminent death leaves it an open question.
The BBC show is important in that almost no one talks about the greatest tragedy of human existence. It is a social faux pas to bring up death with others. We go to great lengths to hide it from public view. Hardly anyone dies at home anymore and few families hold wakes, certainly not with the corpse in attendance as in the past.
In the U.S., funeral directors who, in more honest times, were called morticians and undertakers, are now grief counselors effectively removing the dead person from the event.
So congratulations to the BBC for bring this subject front and center and with such thoughtful participants. Me? I’m going to keep thinking about death every day and hope that when my time comes, I will muster the courage I felt on Bleecker Street.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claire Jean: Seasons