It’s pretty safe to assume that when death enters our lives the perception of our reality changes yet again. I have already stated my take on reality as one that changes over time and the non-existence of objective reality. My experience of what tomorrow brings will change how I see the world today. In other words I will be a different person tomorrow. I met new people today and they will now be in my reality. I learnt something new from my son today so that changes me forever. And reality can only exist subjectively. But when death comes along it changes reality like a seismic tidal wave hits a populated coastline.
As a newly qualified bereavement counsellor, I have already seen and felt the evidence of how death creates devastation to people’s lives. One of my clients described it in the same way that I felt when I lost a parent a few years ago. Time seems disjointed and unfixed, and the mind shifts alternatively into different realities. In a moment you’re in the death reality where thoughts and emotions are overwhelmed by the grief; in a different moment, the mind shifts into a different place, busy with the tasks of the day, immediacy enveloping the anguish. In those moments there is no grief until the death reality slips into our consciousness once again. We phase in and out of these two realities. It becomes disconcerting and tiring. But somehow we find the strength to carry on. We don’t know how we do it but it happens.
I believe that in these moments of our daily activities and chores, the mind reverts back to an earlier time before the loss occurred. Thankfully, for those brief, blissful moments, we forget that the death has taken place. We somehow lose awareness of the deceased. With a parent who lives apart from you I think it’s easier to slip into this state. Slightly. But if you lived with the person you have lost it must be a different matter altogether. Constant reminders of their previous existence are everywhere; photos on the mantle-piece; clothes in the wardrobe; toothbrush in the bathroom. That must be pretty tough to experience.
Keeping busy certainly helps but there is no escaping the authentic reality. So the grief comes back and topples you like an emotional sledgehammer. You wake up in the morning and you might experience very brief moments of ignorance and then comes the painful realisation of what has occurred. Literally you are taken back and forth between different realities. You don’t want to believe the true reality and wish that you could stay in the reality that your loved one still existed in. I believe that a sign that the grieving has alleviated is when you wake up one morning and the shock value between these two realities has subsided and have somehow merged into one reality. This is the time that you can truly say that you grieve no more; it is time to live your life with the accepted knowledge that your loved one is gone, but not forgotten. It takes an undetermined period of time for some peace of mind and an end of a turbulent transition to an acceptance of a reality without that person.
Death is the most prominent existential problem we know. The relationship between life and death seems on the surface to be poles apart but in fact are more intertwined than most of us think. Death is a taboo subject and some people can hardly talk about it. This is because it is hard to face the reality of one’s own death. I, for example, cannot face the prospect of making a will, not that I have a lot to leave! But I want to believe that I can live almost forever. Who doesn’t. I have a lot more to do with life before I meet my maker and in a lot of ways I think that I haven’t really lived at all. I have read numerous reports that some people realise the importance of life when they have faced death. Even terminally ill people seem to “get it” when they realise that they have something precious to lose. People who bungee jump, throw themselves off planes and other risky sports are perhaps searching for those death defying moments to experience life as it should be felt. Not all activities must be as daring, but life enhancing events, such as a holiday of a lifetime, or buying a Jag, will suffice. Things do seem important when we are on the verge of losing them and we begin not to take things for granted any more.
Although death destroys us physically the idea of death saves us (Yalom, p.30). This sounds weird but on close inspection it actually makes sense. Life has no meaning without death. It would be a long and somewhat meandering existence. The fact that we will die some day motivates us to do things in life. It’s a wake up call to do something with your life before it’s too late. Time has a habit of creeping up on us. The philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that we exist in two states: state of forgetfulness of being and the state of mindfulness of being (Yalom, p.31-32). The former is described as an acceptance that the things that exist around us are taken for granted; there is no pursuit for the reasons why they exist. Rather like what I mentioned before, we interact with things with a haphazard awareness at best that have a convenient value to us. That sense of wonderment you might get from holding the remote of a TV set might escape most of us, but just spare a couple of minutes and realise how special it is!
An example. I used to regard the weather in a nonchalant uninterested way, but now I take a few moments and observe the wind blowing through the trees, to hear the sound of the rain hitting the window, and feel the warming sun as it casts long shadows on a perfect summer evening. This is the state of mindfulness, that allows us to experience a state of being and be aware of the things around us. It is living in the present and an authentic way of existing, an appreciation that comes out of experiencing a deeper meaning through our senses. Many dying people have reported this conversion (Yalom, p. 35) to a higher awareness to the beauty of our objective world; a sense of importance has come over them and the small things that they previously took or granted now become very significant. Their reality is now subjective and very personal to them. So the influence of our future demise becomes very much a real concept. It is being in this mindful state that personal change in self can happen. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could realise this before we are about to die.
The concept of death propels us to cherish life, provides the motivation for achieving something of note while we live. So death has a purpose despite the fact that most of us prefer to push it aside and forget about it (the state of forgetfulness) but the very idea of our mortality should force us to stop and smell the roses once in a while.
Yalom, Irvin D., Existential Psychotherapy, Basic Books,