We humans often suffer an internal conflict that rests somewhere between the concept of living and dying. It is a daily event to experience the possibility of death or be next to areas alluding to death especially as we get older. It waits with its unknown quality around every corner and when we are faced with it and feel its alien presence, some of us may respond overtly with calm assurance, “yes it comes to all of us” and or “there is nothing we can do about it, end of story.” Whilst others struggle with the dilemma, “it’s not about me,” and “it’s not my turn” and “I intend to live a long time.”
It is familiar to catch and absorb glimpses of the wonders of life as we see, feel and touch the beauties of nature. Sunset on an autumn evening and the early morning song of a thrush from your roof top, only to merely ponder upon the mysteries of death, we do not want to look into its eyes lest it notices us. It is not always easy to come to grips with living and existing alongside the permanence of death or indeed life’s impermanence.
For many of us the fear of death runs through our tissues, a bodily occupation popping in and out of conscious awareness. Like the feel of a missed heart beat or a mishap that shocks us into conscious reality. We are confronted by it day by day, both in fantasy and reality, within our relationships and by the media. It is offered with its starkness as a regular diet. Something we are often forced to eat even though it may make us sick.
My question this week is do we live in a society that is conditioned to deny death, maybe only hidden and talked about behind closed doors? In our society we do not fully succeed in defending against death but we humans encompass a basic psychological defence called denial. Denial means non-communication, disguising death in encoded messages and doing very little to decode it. So often we collude with others to avoid the discussion. Some pass over the subject of death as if a swear word, too disgusting for family members to hear. When a loved one is ill, injured or there is a terminal condition in the family there are those amongst us who use expressions like, “we mustn’t lose hope” and “let’s not cross that bridge” in order not to feel, thus pretending that death will not occur. I remember when my first husband was diagnosed as terminally ill some members of the family could not stay around him, and would even refuse to discuss his illness. How hurt he was about that. Some people even physically and metaphorically cover the ears of children should they have to know of its certainty too soon? Sadly for those who are grieving, the space where they are tolerated may be limited by fears of contamination.
Loss is painful, and if ignored, reinforces denial which helps stifle the pain and reality. Patterns of learned behaviour in relation to dealing with painful feelings are handed down through families, misguided methods on route to protection. Denial itself is a protective mechanism, a method of self-support when little or no holding was offered in times of need and loss as children. Denial may be encouraged in order to protect those who are afraid of the emotions surrounding loss. Shushes and silence fill the gaps of awkwardness when unspoken instructions are given not to speak of ‘conditions’ or ‘illness’ etc.
When an individual is faced with the loss of a loved one, they have to contend with their own historical patterns of behaviour about dealing with it. How loss and death were dealt with in the family will be the legacy and coping mechanism from those who have gone before. Familial methods will be the bottom line coping strategy.
Conscious awareness of illness, injury or death in others often arouses feelings of loss and depression; it opens up a path of vulnerability and helplessness; bringing a sense of impermanence and instability to the world around.
It can be seen in many forms in someone who has experienced bereavement.
Living for the children
Being constantly on the go
Suppression of tears and breath holding of course with the familiar stiff upper lip.
When someone is not willing to fully express feelings of grief there are generally symptoms of some kind. These can be either psychological or physical.
Physical symptoms may manifest in the form of aches and pains at the least, and at worst peptic ulcers, heart conditions, blood pressure etc.
Psychological symptoms might be seen as vehement self-reproaches of guilt, emptiness, phobic behaviours and even suicidal attempts.
When we avoid grief it lies deep within, only to manifest at some stage later in life. When grief becomes chronic the individual is obsessed with thoughts of the dead person, unable to think about anything else. For example, the bereaved person keeps the bedroom as a shrine, clothes in the wardrobe and photographs everywhere. Those with chronic grief can also isolate themselves and will not take support from friends and family.
For some bereaved there is a natural urge to isolate, but again, when it progresses beyond healthy it becomes chronic. This can mean they are unable to reinvest energy into others or form new ways of being and new relationships. There is a fine balance between healthy and chronic.
When someone we know and love dies we are forced to look at our own mortality. Fear of loss is a fear of death itself which is forced into conscious awareness bringing the true sense of life and its impermanence, its fragility in our daily lives. We cope with this in two major ways one is to bring it fully into our conscious awareness by working with those who are dying, or with religion. Believing in life after death helps us face the fear of the unknown. Imagining our loved ones waiting for us helps us cope with the sense of emptiness that comes with the anticipation of our own death. Foreseeing another life after this one eases the fear and insecurity that surrounds death. Also not facing the concept of death at all, keeping it in the recesses of the mind helps us avoid facing the unknown quality of death. Sometimes we do not allow ourselves to fully attach to others for fear of losing them, even being afraid to have a new pet because the death of the last was so painful.
Let’s be honest death is inherent in all living creatures a struggle goes on between creation and destruction, operating in harmony or in opposition. Finally when we allow the concept of death to invade our conscious awareness there is nothing to fear in forming new attachment because loss is inevitable in all things.