Dealing with Death
by TED Cleaver
One of the few certainties you have in life is that you will die. So will your loved ones. My mother passed away on the 1st of March 2003. It so happens that on that exact day of this year, friends of mine celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their crew in a club 3 minutes from the hospital my mother died in 9 years ago. This year, after no less than 9 years, was the first time I could fully live up to the promise I made to her.
She was hospitalized and comatose for a month. It is absolutely horrific how much technology is required for life support. The sheer amount of tubes and syringes going into her body, regulating her respiratory system, her cardiovascular system, and her gastrointestinal system, to name the most important ones, traumatized me. It was impossible to visit her and remain clear-headed, every trip to the intensive care ward was accompanied by cognitive dissonance. In the first three weeks visiting hours were limited to the usual schedule. After the doctors told us that there was no more hope, we were allowed to visit her daily for the remaining 7 days. Then, in the final moments, I was devastated by the unmistakable and irreversible flat line sound of her heart monitor. Seconds later her hand turned cold. These are the types of things nothing can prepare you for. You’ve heard the flat line sound before in hospital shows or movies, but if it signals the end of the life of someone you love unconditionally, it is the most shattering experience imaginable.
We had stayed with her that last night. I read one of her favourite books, Le Petit Prince by St. Exupéry, out loud. Ever since it has become a tradition of mine to read the book, or at least parts of it, once a year. My mom had good taste in literature, so this is just another blessing I received from her. One of the most memorable quotes in the book comes from the fox: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” What the Little Prince’s unusual friend understood is that love is the essential connection. A focus on the superficial detracts from the quality of your relations. My mother had wished for one thing, she wanted for us to remember her with our hearts. That is easier said than done. The intense emotional pain, the resulting trauma, the difficulty of accepting the fact that she chose death as a way out, and the utter unfairness of time not stopping, the world not stopping to spin, made matters difficult.
Our society is obsessed with youth to the point that it negates death. A bold statement, one that is vividly reflected in the ease with which we talk about plastic surgery and botox, while explaining the indescribable pain losing a loved one causes creates social discomfort. I am most likely not representative of the average person, if such a thing exists, but in hindsight I have come to the conclusion that our society is ill equipped to deal with death. After my mother died, three influences helped me immensely to move forward. Neither came from the institutional support network. The first was a letter I received from my friend Tommy, whom I wrote about earlier in his capacity as a gifted musician. He told me how incredibly unfair it is for death to rip people out of our lives, but no matter how vile the grim reaper is, he has no power over the love and memories we hold in our hearts. This is so true and comforting, to this day I repeat the phrase to friends who have lost someone as well, and to this day I am thankful for these empathic and insightful words.
The third influence is a book from a psychologist I bought rather recently. It goes well with the Holstee Manifesto’s line that all emotions are beautiful. See, this psychologist lost his son in a car accident. Experiencing grief himself for the first time in his life, he realized that the treatment he had been offering his patients was grossly inadequate. Deeply ingrained in the field of psychology is the assumption that the psyche and emotions are manageable. Techniques for dealing with grief make this assumption rather transparent with the introduction of step programs. Thinking about it, the theoretical underpinning for a 7-, 8-, or 12-step program is evidently linear. Pass one stage and advance to the next. Even if the possibility of relapsing is accounted for, the teleological foundation of such programs is reminiscent of the fallacious adage “time heals all wounds”. Time does not heal anything, healing requires a conscious effort and appropriate techniques. It is not only the trajectory of such programs that fails to treat grief realistically. The analytical approach to neatly partition grief into distinct phases almost begs the question whether any empirical research has been carried out to inform the ivory tower. The truth is however that unless you have felt agony, despair, anguish, sorrow, hopelessness, disbelief, and frustration to the point that it physically immobilizes you, you cannot understand it. Said psychologist understood the depths of emotional pain after losing his son and developed a new approach. Instead of attempting to regulate his emotions, he let them run freely, actively fuelling them by inviting memories of his dead son. In a society obsessed with positivity, this may sound like a form of masochism. It is not. It is accepting reality, dealing with it, and thereby processing emotions, relieving trauma, and alleviating emotional blockades.
The second influence is as much constructive as it provides much needed balance. Buddhism has a way of dealing with death that by far surpasses Western religions. It is not my intention to rant, although I must admit that with spite I once asked a Catholic priest if my mother would go to hell. The Catholic Church displays the same measure of compassion for suicides as it does for homosexuals: they are considered moral evils. Of course he evaded the question, perhaps sensing that I was more than willing to challenge the inept dogma of his faith. However, what I learned from Buddhism is that difficult situations sometimes require simple solutions. The eye-opener came from a lecture of the Dalai Lama who posed a simple question accompanied by some simple facts. In line with Buddhist teachings, when a person dies it is their karma to die. Hence, they die. Since death is not escapable and we all die, would it not be wiser to accept the situation fully and act accordingly? An important aspect of the Buddhist take on death is the concept of desire. I object to the idea that all desires should be abandoned, however relinquishing the desire to keep someone alive who is dying makes perfect sense. Instead of wishing for the life of a loved one to continue when it is impossible – oh the many subtle ways in which this desire stealthily manifests itself – one should wholeheartedly wish for the loved one to die well. I believe my mother died well. We had the opportunity to say goodbye, a gesture powerful enough to transcend diazepam-induced coma.
Combining these three influences has proven fruitful. I cherish the love and memories in my heart, accept that karma is inescapable and respect death, and I allow all emotions to flow freely. In the end, the pain caused by losing someone is an expression of how much and intensely we love that person. My mother was loved by all who had the opportunity to meet her. She was popular with our friends because of her humour, openness, hospitality, and generosity. She knew what was important in life. Of all the useless advice I received from various sources, hers rings forever true. She always encouraged my brothers and me to follow our hearts, go for it, and chase our dreams. In my case that meant writing, dancing, and finding a French girlfriend. Well, I am certain she would have adored most of the girls I have been with, whether they were French (they weren’t) or not. One of the coolest things my mother ever did was to join in with my breakdance training, just like I helped her train for her marathon. She learned the six-step when she was in her late forties.
It so happens that on the 1st of March 2012 I spent the best part of the day very close to the hospital where she died. It so happens that on this day one of my best friends, more like a brother actually, and I entered a battle for old times sake. We used to train together for hours on end and she supported us all the time, mostly by ensuring we always had space to practice. This day and this night were the first 1st of March that I felt no pain. There was nothing but gratitude and fulfilment. The anniversary was a celebration of life and everything that makes life worth living for.
As personal as this account is, I hope it does not come across as the story of an ego. My intention is to share experiences in way that provokes thought and tackles a notoriously uncomfortable subject. Timethief’s blog post on how Eastern philosophy, from Buddhism to Ikebana, helped her deal with her mother’s death gave me the final nudge to dedicate a post to this subject. With utmost sincerity, I hope my experiences and insights will help someone in the future. It helped me, when I had the opportunity to say farewell to my uncle three days before he died. If eyes are windows to the soul, I saw his soul radiate pure light. All it took to witness this miracle was to say: “Thank you for everything. I don’t know where you are going, but I love you and I wish you a pleasant journey.”