Why should we learn about death and grief? Death advises us that life is temporary and fragile. Grief is the emotional terrain that reveals itself in the aftermath of death. Death phobia, or an extreme and irrational fear of death, can mire our sensibilities in anxiety. Grief illiteracy, or a lack of insight into the nature of grieving, can impair the process of self-renewal. We cannot eliminate our fear of death or fully understand the pathways of grief, but we can approach them as trusted advisors in life.
What we suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history. (Stephen Jenkins, Making Wisdom)
Aging culminates in death. When a loved one dies, every human experiences grief. Death is the essence of humility. To be afraid of death is to feel the essence of life. Grief is the painful process of finding our way back into life after losing someone we care about. To experience the suffering caused by grief is participate in the great flow of life.
Death Phobia: Walking into the Horror Within
Death is worthy of our fear. It is a frightening phenomenon that inevitably turns each one of us into a ghost. To die is to return to the impenetrable mystery of our existence. Our fear of death places us firmly in the midst of our limitations in life.
Death phobia is a painful source of emotional confinement. A phobia is a persistent irrational state of fear that imposes anxiety, aversion, and denial. And yet death is a natural and normal outcome of normal aging.
When we experience the death of someone close to us, we are never the same person again. The experience is harsh and painful. In the aftermath of losing my parents, I eventually realized that life would never be the same again, nor should it be. Death was advising me not to “get over” their deaths, but to find another way back into life.
If we maintain an aversion toward learning about death, we do ourselves a great disservice. Death means that life is a privilege we can enjoy for an uncertain amount of time. The precious nature of life is, at least in part, due to the ominous presence of death all around us.
Death phobia is an invitation to walk directly into the horror within. A phobia is not something that can be medicated away; it is an invitation to a mercurial journey. Unexpected risks will be encountered. We may become wounded along the way. Our core task is to transform our irrational phobia into the wisdom of fear.
What is this Experience Asking of Me?
It is a question that invites a courageous conversation with two of the more frightening forces of existence. Although I did not know it at the time, I wrote A Conversation with Grief as a way to figure out how to find my way back into the world after my parents’ deaths.
We do not have an effective language for death. We often hide behind the language of loss. For example, I might say, “I lost my mother five years ago,” when I really mean, “My mother died a year ago.” In a hospital or nursing home, a great effort is made to render death invisible. Science often views death as a problem to be solved, instead of the natural culmination of life. In becoming disconnected from death we risk separation from the natural currents and flows of life that animate our home.
This question posed by Jenkins in his talk is especially relevant when we are in the midst of suffering. The question invites us into a courageous conversation with that we might otherwise deny and avoid. It implies that there are lessons inside painful experiences that can expand our own capacity for life. Rather than banishing the painful realities of death and dying, we work toward making our consciousness large enough to accommodate its presence in our life.
Holding a courageous conversation with death is an act of humility and integrity, not an act of heroism. Many portrayals of heroism are little more than superficial charades in which we pretend to act bravely in the midst of a harsh circumstance. In the face of death our task is to be authentic, not heroic.
Grief is a Skill that can be Learned
Jenkins coined the term grief illiteracy as a way to promote the idea that engaging with our grief is a skill that can be learned. In the midst of our grief, we often find ourselves wholly unprepared for the emotional onslaught. Worse, we attempt to bury our grief in order to “get on with life.” There is no getting on with life in the absence of grief. To deny grief is to deny the truth of our own existence.
Jenkins notes that “Grief is the animating orientation to the parts of life that we wish were not part of life.” To be literate with grief is to have the capacity to lean into the painful felt-meaning of permanent endings, and then finding a way back into life. Grief transforms our consciousness of life; it is not a phenomenon that merely ends. In other words, the grief emerging from the death of a loved one becomes a life-long companion to the end of our own days.
What is the deep etiquette of dying?
Life is a privilege that we would rather hold on to than be required to abandon. Both death and dying make it clear that life is not ours to keep forever. This is a remarkably sad realization, but a truthful one. The experience of dying will invite us to think about how well we have lived, how many things we have accomplished, and how many things we regret to have left undone or unsaid.
The deep etiquette of dying requires us to inhabit life in ways that our modern culture is too immature to encourage. Society does not properly encourage a deep, intimate relationship with death and dying, though the tide is beginning to turn. There is now more discussion about death, dying, and grief in the media as well as through unique approaches such as the death cafe.
Dying requires each one of us to make peace with the fact that we must abandon the privilege of life.
Jenkins reminds us that peace of mind is something we stole. A core discipline in life is to develop the capacity to observe the negative experiences of life in order to understand what they are asking us to do. This is a form of learning that is excruciating intimate and profoundly direct; that is to say, a form of learning that our years of education leave us largely unprepared to engage in.
The solution to our fear is not relief, it is moving into a personal conversation with it. Awakening in life is not about somehow becoming unique or invincible, it is really becoming a discerning presence in the world. Death, dying, and grief are pathways to awakening.
What is a full life?
Jenkins noted that a young child with leukemia that has little time left to live can still believe she has led a full life, while adults view the child’s death as being premature. This is a potent example of the difference between living a full life and living a long life. This in no way intended to diminish what must be extraordinary levels of pain and suffering inflicted by a life taken too soon.
The child noted that she wasn’t “allowed to be dying” when her loved ones are around because it was too hard on them.
Jenkins poignantly notes that “Grief has become our kinship with the world around us.” Each one of us is witness to environmental degradation on a planetary scale and the feeling of our planet dying permeates the collective unconscious with grief. We feel the earth dying, and our denial is so remarkable that we refuse to alter our ways of life.
What’s wrong with being heart broken?
Why is it that we have to “recover” from being heart-broken?
Jenkins encourages us to think of grief as a kind of animating force, a transformative energy, that allows us to fully experience to depths of a broken heart. The discipline of grief is to learn from it in a direct, personal, and authentic way over time, not merely to try and find relief from it. To do this requires an enlargement of our capacity to tolerate suffering.
Finally, Jenkins advises that we must learn the heartbreaking truth of where we are and have that inform our days: How can death, grief, and dying help us to show up differently in life?