In the final few weeks of 2017, a few people close to me experienced the death of someone close to them. A friend’s grandfather; another friend’s father; and the son of a family friend, who died tragically.
The news of this last death was different. It concerned a young man who had decided he no longer wanted, or felt able, to live. I watched, and felt, as the news of his death, and its circumstances, reached more and more people. It was staggering to see how far the story travelled and how deep were its effects, even on people who didn’t know him well, like myself.
The nature of his death – taking his own life – accounted for a great deal of the shock and pain. Suicide is so desperately hard to comprehend. Yet within the realisation of this act of choosing to die, lay, indisputably, the fact of his no longer being here. A void now existed where he once was and the mystery of this terrible, sudden and indefinite change contained the acute pain and suffering which is common to most, if not all, experiences of bereavement.
Bereavement as a wake up call
I have had no direct experience of suicide and won’t discuss the complexity of this kind of loss further here. But when I was thirteen my father died, having been ill for a couple of years with cancer. Although it wasn’t a sudden bereavement, the experience over the period of his illness felt shadowy for me and I didn’t prepare in any way for his final disappearance. Around that time though, after the funeral and as I returned to school for the beginning of a new academic year, I made some kind of resolution. I pledged to carry death more in my daily awareness. My consciousness began to be sprinkled with thoughts like, ‘…this could be last time I see this person…is there anything I want to say…what have I not expressed that I would like to express…’
I’m aware this may have the ring of an adolescent in distress. However, today little has changed for me in this respect and I tend to approach daily activities in a similar way: leaving the house, getting on my bike, setting off on a journey, are all fleetingly underscored with the thought that ‘this could be the last time’.
Positive rather than negative
This may sound heavy, or perhaps it sounds familiar. For me, rather than it feeling weighty, it acts as a brief reminder to not take things for granted, although admittedly this often remains, nonetheless, an aspiration or intention than an achievement. But still, I feel that for nearly forty years I’ve tried to stay attuned to the reality that death is all around, close by, rather than something out there, far away, relevant only to other people.
Studying death to celebrate life
In my late 20s I returned to university to train as a social worker. One of the modules I chose to study explored sickness and loss. As it turned out, following this course offered affirmation in relation to my teenage pledge. The module showed how, in our society at this point in history, we have come to marginalise and overlook the place of death. It examined how this hinders rather than helps the degree to which we are able to live life fully.
The question of death, a question for life
In more recent years, I have become familiar with Buddhist philosophy and have begun to try and live my life incorporating some of the principles described within this way of seeing things. A question at the heart of Buddhism seems to show with startling clarity how, if we live life with death in mind, our lives will gain more meaning. Rather than pushing the inevitably of death away, it is awareness of that very inevitability that helps us pay attention to what we are doing here and now and to how happy we are with that. As well as noticing more the ever-present, ever-changing small but potent pleasures of life – the heat of the sun, the sound of the rain, the scent of a flower, the smile of a friend – this central question about death helps us stay tuned to the meaning and purpose of how we are spending our days, how fully we are living our lives:
Since death alone is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what should I do?