Breaking the taboo
Until a few weeks ago, death, for many of us, was a vague and remote concept. Though logically all of us knew it would happen to us sometime, we chose to keep this inevitable reality tucked away in the recesses of our minds, forget about it, and only face when absolutely necessary. We considered it morbid to think about, unnecessary to prepare for and distasteful to talk about. When someone we knew died, we sanitised it by saying we had “lost someone” or that our loved ones had “passed away”. Death, in word, thought or experience was a great taboo.
Beneath most of the things we avoid lie strong emotions – feelings that make us uncomfortable; fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow. When we think about mortality we can be frightened and scared, we cannot imagine not living, or those we care about not being with us for ever. Though many have beliefs and hopes, we don’t know for sure if there is anything beyond this life, so is there any meaning or purpose in existing at all? These are huge philosophical, psychological and spiritual questions which we can barely put into words, so no wonder many of us feel ill equipped to answer.
In the past few months much has changed: death cannot be avoided; it confronts us daily – the number of people who have died from coronavirus in the last 24 hours screams at us from our TV and computer screens. There are charts indicating the number of deaths in our own and other countries. There is almost a macabre competition to see which area or nation has the highest figures and which has “flattened the curve.” Eventually we will all know someone who has died from the coronavirus pandemic, it may be someone close, it could even be ourselves. Death is in the spotlight now.
So, what happens when we face death head on, as we are currently having to do? A 52-year-old man was interviewed on the news. He had had the coronavirus and been in intensive care, but was now recovering at home. Whilst he was in hospital the nurses told him they needed to draw the curtains around his bed. He asked if this was because they were removing the dead from the ward? They were. At this moment the man was acutely aware that this could have been him. Being up close to the possibility of dying had changed him, he said. Things that had seemed important before he was ill, were irrelevant now – the new car, the nice holiday, the next promotion. What mattered to him were his relationships – with his family and his friends. He said I am going to look at my life differently from now on.
The closer we are to death, the more focussed we become. We appreciate the precious things that cannot be bought with money. We see the world through a fresh pair of eyes – the colours are brighter, the birds seem to sing louder. This was my experience when I worked as a chaplain in a hospice – people who were facing death – either their own, or the death of a loved one, changed. One woman who was aware that she was dying and had accepted it, told me she was able to live more fully than ever before. In dying she was the most alive!
The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.
This crisis situation has turned many things turned upside-down; carers are more important than celebrities; kindness makes the news; reducing our pace of life is the new normal; manufacturing ventilators has replaced car-production. Could we also learn lessons from people who are dying or people who have been close to death? Could the current proximity of death help us to live more meaningfully and mindfully? Could this pandemic even change our attitude to death itself, and make it less taboo?
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?…
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death,
open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one,
even as the river and the sea are one.
(Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet)
By Rosie Deedes
Author of “Into the Depths, a chaplain’s reflections on death, dying and pastoral care”
Available from Sacristy Press