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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

On Confronting the Inevitable

There are a whole bunch of interesting comments on my “journal entry” post last week musing about what comes next as I get older. One of them is a question posed by an Australian TGB reader, Brigid Walsh:

”I wonder if you might explain further on the first bullet point "Yielding to the truth of what lies at the end of everyone's life journey.”

I see her point; that's hardly clear, is it? Sometimes my reach for brevity goes too far.

I was talking about accepting the fact of our own death - of confronting it, of taking the time to reconcile with it through one's personal beliefs, philosophy, experience and whatever understanding of life and death we have reached (or not).

My personal story vis a vis the reality of death might explain further.

I was five or six years old when I first came to know that I would die – that is, stop living, cease to exist, not be here anymore.

And that knowledge terrified me. Although it could not possibly be true, my sense is that for the next ten years or more I never, ever slept; I just stayed awake all night trembling with uncontrolled fear in the face of future nonexistence.

Somewhere around my high school years I began a personal and private study of religions - in particular comparing their beliefs about death and afterlife.

In the years following school, I worked my way through the ancients' belief systems and the more modern philosophers and some naturalists helped too along with, as I entered my twenties, a lot of wine- and weed-fueled all-nighters with friends on the great questions of life and death. (That's what you're supposed to do at that age.)

In my case, none of it – well, except maybe for the wine and weed - did anything to alleviate middle-of-the-night terrors until I “realized” this: You are all going to die and I am the one immortal. So there!

Don't laugh. For a good while it was my best-kept secret, something to feel superior about, and even though I didn't really believe it, I sort of did and it helped. Sort of.

At this point, not a day of my life since age five or six had gone by that I didn't think about the prospect of my personal death for at least a smidgen of time and often, in quiet moments, longer.

Here is a glimpse of my confusion on the subject: my secret immortality notwithstanding, on every birthday I privately asked myself, I wonder how many more of these I will get? Will I make it to next year?

Time passed – a lot of time – and I came to see how debilitating my fear of dying was, how it got in the way of living. It was my constant companion shadowing even the best events: Is this the last time I'll feel this good? I would wonder.

It's exhausting to be always afraid and finally, after so many, many years of it, I determined to find a way to overcome it. I wish I had a prescription for any of you with the same kind of troubles. What would be better is that you are all much smarter and more fully evolved than I and don't need my thoughts on this.

The best I can say for anyone who does want them, is what you undoubtedly already know: we each face and work to overcome our demons in our own ways and in our own time.

For me, it took half a lifetime to recognize there might be a way to escape the constant fear. Once I arrived at that point, meditation helped – still does. Sadly, the deaths of elders I knew and, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, too many men I knew who died too young helped me see the way.

And all that study when I was a young woman into religions, philosophy and biology and those late-night bull sessions? They didn't go to waste. I found, in my search for some measure of serenity, that I had learned more than I knew from them.

The point was to find acceptance for this horror and we shouldn't deny that on a personal level, that's what it is – horror. With apologies to Hamlet, to be and then not to be? How dare we be given life only to have it snatched away.

But, as they say, that's what is and I'm grateful now to be pretty sure I found acceptance of it for myself. Note that's “pretty” sure. But generally, I hardly ever feel fearful about death nowadays.

Someone within my hearing recently said that she thinks of death as the last great adventure and I used to say that too. But now I think it's too facile, a phrase meant to sound more profound than it is.

Death is too serious to be taken lightly and god knows, I can't be accused of that.

It took the earthly equivalent of eternity for me to find my way to an accommodation with death but it was worth the effort. It has felt, these past years, like a great burden has been lifted and day-to-day life is much easier now.

Whew, Brigid – aren't you sorry you asked.

That was a particularly fruitful and interesting conversation last week and toward the end of her comment, Brigid made another point that reminds me of how proud I am of what we have created together at this blog:

”I love and welcome the responses you draw from your readers, Ronni. They...encourage and contribute to the building of a community in this place.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: Call Me Mister

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Well put, Ronni and Brigid, my feelings of community within this blog is a daily welcoming.
I lived with a fear, not as focused as yours of death, for much of this life. One day I was alone and realized I needed to feel it to the fullest. So I hung on no matter how many tricks I tried to use, and shouted, cried, crawled, whatever my body, mind and heart felt it needed, til exhausted. Upon awakening, a 'lightness of being' , knowing a threshold had been crossed, has stayed with me since. It's a door, without a lock, so fear is still there, but so is the knowledge and acceptance of it as a part of me, and I face it as well as I can. It's a hard but worthwhile lesson, to go that deep within in a way that works.
I daily choose, sometimes often, to let go of fears that are rooted in the past and future and those debilitating unknowns! - to reconnect with myself and the present and that helps deal with fears of death.
I'm looking for a class in Chinese exercises that require slow, easy, thoughtful movements (easy on the body) that keep awareness constant. Pretty sure that will be good, too.

I was terribly afraid of death in my middle years. Looking back now, I think those feelings were my mother's fears. She did not go quietly or with any acceptance of the inevitable; I lived her fear with her.

As I age, I find more acceptance in me that this individual being doesn't go on forever. I won't exactly pretend that I approve of the Deity for this annoying way of organizing life, but I carry more and more simple awareness that death/life is what is.

Perhaps one of your best posts Ronni since I've been reading your blog.

the rub is that no one really knows what happens after this so long life. there is much that we don't understand about the "reality" that we seem to exist in. the theory of infinity blows my mind and yet how could there be a beginning or end. we try to understand existence in limited terms that our small brains comprehend...sort of... and we can only believe what we can't prove. it probably is harder on those who will miss us when we leave this existence. i can only believe that what is continues in some way. we all suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and also enjoy great love and joy in our small lives. i guess if i am wrong, it will have been worth it all, but being human, i can't help wondering WHY. i don't know if other creatures ever wonder and i even wonder why do i infinitly wonder?

In "Forever Ours," by Janis Amatuzio MD, a fornsic pathologist, discusses life after death. She uses many examples of otherworldly experiences to tie one to the other. To me it seems 1920's spiritualistic, but I can't blow off her stories. Why? Because I had something similar happen to me after the death of my best friend. Sometimes you just have to let your thinking go and take blind faith by the hand.

Going back to the U of Mn at age 43 to major in mortuary science and then spending the next 25 years facing death on an hourly basis certainly helped me to face my own mortality. I think that we are very privileged to be able to have this earthly journey that we all share. After so many hours, days and years spent administering to the deceased and their families, I, personally, am convinced that we are missing some dimensions in our lives here on earth. Dimensions, that, in deed, we are supposed to miss. When we die it will be an adventure! Meanwhile it is our responsibility to take care of this precious time that we have. In watching the movie "The Call of the Yellow Dog" recently an elderly woman pointed out to the young boy that "We come back as a human as often as you can balance a grain of rice on a needle, therefore being a human is very valuable"..Again, from the mortician in me, there is a lingering peacefulness in the clients that I have entertained that brings a lightness and scattering of all fear to my soul....Not to worry!

Probably one of your best - and most potentially helpful - posts ever, Ronni. And some great comments too.

This is the blog I always needed. I find death to be a horror too - precisely because life is so full-faced gorgeous. At 57, I realize that I now need to find a way not to hate death. I'm trying on the idea of believing in some kind of after-consciousness. Any other ideas welcome.

Here's what a couple poets have to say:

The Gods conceal from those who have to live what a happy thing it is to die. (Lucan)

O Death, the loveliness that is in thee. Could the world know, the world would cease to be. (Mary Emily Bradley)

Well said, Monica, et al!

The most perplexing thing I've had to deal with in this area involves the death of my husband's parents in the past three years. I spent a great deal of time providing care to each of them near the end of their lives. Though I’ve felt much more at peace with the idea of death since then, there is one thing that I still cannot rationally process. Right before their separate deaths, each said something to me that I will never forget. Their deaths were two years apart and each one was functioning with limited cognitive ability, due to traumatic brain injury in one and severe dementia for the other. Yet, each one clearly said to me, shortly before their deaths, with very slight variation in the wording, "Are you going? I'm going. Four or for five are going. Are you going?" The only variances in their words was the number; my MIL who had dementia did not say a specific number, but said "only so many" are going. I suppose if this were explored enough, a rational explanation might be found, but whenever the subject of death comes up, this is the first thing now that comes to my mind. I suppose I may not understand it until it's time for me to go.

I like to think of Steve Jobs' last words: "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow."

Note to Suz: Qigong (chi-gong) is an ancient Chinese exercise that may be what you are looking for. We are very fortunate to have several classes available here in our community on the east coast of Florida. Some of these classes take place on the beach at sunrise. Nourishment for body, mind and spirit! Hope you find a class you like near you. Ronnie: Thank you so much for your wonderful topics! Looking forward to reading more comments.

Trying again, a note to Lisa who asked for ideas re: ruminating on death. I was being a Helpful Hannah in writing a much too wordy comment ~~ I mysteriously lost the tome I was wanting to edit. Hmmm. Anyway, for what it's worth, when I find myself yet again feeling down about _anything_ this is what works for me : Making an appt. with a therapist for one or two visits to change the focus of my thinking ~~ getting back to meditation (living in the moment) ~~ and last, but not least, an hour or so of daily exercise which not only brightens my mood but helps with mobility and pain following this year's injury to a second hip. I belong to the School of Try Anything, Something Might Work. (Hope this has not broken any boundaries here in being so specific.) I join others in thanking Ronni for providing us a place where we might respond to her super blog, and find additional comfort in knowing we are not alone.

My fear of death ebbed after I accepted the fact that it is inevitable. I don't know the time, but I know that I will die, just as all things do.

Once you fully face the reality that death is a given you are able to deal with it and then move on.

I had three experiences in my life when I was on the verge of death and I was not afraid. I hope that I feel that way when it finally happens, as it surely will.

I do not dwell on death for that is futile. I am just grateful for each additional day that comes to me.

When you analyze death what is there to fear? If you believe, as I do, that death is the end then you will not be aware that you ever lived. Did we know anything before our birth? Death is the other end of the cycle.

If you are a true believer your faith tells you that you will be going to a better place so why would you fear?

Only the guilty that believe in Hell should fear death. And I know that doesn't apply to Ronni's readers.

I think that the fear of death is not of what comes after, but of having to leave loved ones and this beautiful planet we inhabit. But leave it we must and if we prepare for as good an ending as possible (getting our affairs in order, having a medical directive, etc.) then we can say our goodbyes with calm acceptance.

Thank you for an absolutely brilliant and, for me, meaningful post, Ronni. I, too, have lived with a terror of death though it hit me far later than it did you. Now it has not so much disappeared as been supplanted by fears of dementia and/or debilitating disease. I love the thought of overcoming fear (though I don't know how to do it) and I DEFINITELY need and appreciate your thoughts on this (and many other subjects). Thank you.

Perhaps because I intuitively 'knew' the truth of reincarnation as soon as I became aware of the concept (I was still a child); perhaps because I've worked as a Hospice counselor,helping others through the stages of acceptance; perhaps because I've been gifted to participate in several beautiful end of life moments; perhaps because I know myself to be an eternal entity, not merely my body nor my mind - for all these and probably other unstated reasons I've never feared death. I hope to have a number of years yet to manifest the values of service to others and enjoyment of each day... but if I die tomorrow, that will also be perfect.

After my first LSD trip on Memorial Day 1966, at age 22, I realized I had better do a lot of research about the experience before I went any further.

In the course of that, I learned about something called ego-death, when one's Self becomes as one with the Universe. This, it turns out, is the DEFINITION of MYSTIC.

So I planned the experience and proceeded finally to attain it. When I did, I looked in the mirror at 'myself' and held onto the memory of it by repeating to myself, "We are all the same and we all different."

Ronni, you said "You are all going to die and I am the one immortal." I would say, "We are all going to die and we are all immortal."

After having attained that I stopped doing LSD, and for the rest of my life I have accepted all religions as based on that Truth. I do not believe all their musing and writings, but I believe what Christ and all the other prophets have told us.

I also believe that whenever I encounter a paradox, I am getting near the Truth.

Monica and Lynn I believe you see it the way I do.... but maybe not!


Darlene's last paragraph says it all for me.

After I got out of the Marines, I had no real idea about careers so I went to the Johnson Oconnor Aptitude Testing Service in NYC and spent two days taking tests to see what i might be successful at. The "high point" of what turned out to be o total waste of time and money was the word association game. The tester gave me words and I provided a response. Like: "chair" -"table", "knife" - "fork" . When the tester said "death", I went blank and after a couple of minutes of silence he offered another word and i responded and we went on again for a few minutes until he said "death"agin and i froze. After another try,the tester said something like "don't worry-it's no big deal" and I went on to the next battery of tests.

Two years later I was riding the escalator up to Park Ave.(still in NYC) with the other commuters coming out Grand Central Station when I hear a loud voice that seemed to coming from the ceiling of the terminal saying "You are all going to die" all of us on the escalator looked up to the ceiling to see where the voice was coming from but no one could find the speaker. I discovered the next day an article in the New York Times that identified the source of the "Voice of Doom" as a young Koren Vet (just like me) who was suffering from PTSD years before they put a name to his dementia and had been taken to Bellvue Psychiatric hospital for "observation" Even knowing the guy was crazy didn't change my reaction to the experience. I had finally been able to connect with the meaning of "death" I knew what it was and I knew that it would happen to me -sooner or later and the idea really freaked me out. For about five years I had the white knuckle syndrome every time I got in an airplane and I travelled constantly in my job. All around Europe and virtually commuted betwen Milan and Rome for two years.
Eventually I got over my fear of death and flying. Nowadays, I sometimes think that death might be better than spending 8 hours in an Airbus.

Recently I've been reading books about aging, in an effort to come to terms with growing old. (I'm 77.) Some I discovered on your site, Ronni. I sometimes come across the phrase "universal fear of death." I realized I don't have that fear and have wondered why. Some people fear eternal suffering as certain religions preach will happen if we aren't perfect enough. But the fear you describe sounds more like an existential fear of non-being. I've had occasional flashes of the strangeness of that but not fear.

When my children were young I did have a fear of dying; "what will happen to them?" But when they were young adults and I had a near miss, I can remember feeling a sense of relief; "they'll be fine" (also relief that I didn't die.)

I do have a fear of the process, a fear of becoming unable to take care of myself, dependent. The kind of negative flash I have would be, when I get on my tractor and think, "how long will I be able to do this?"

For me, death has been the ultimate "out." When I was still young and going through a divorce (which I didn't regret) and worried if I would be able to take care of myself after many years of being a housewife and mother, I remember thinking, "I can always die if things get too bad." Fortunately things didn't. Now I'm old, still independent in spite of some health problems. I still have worries about my future but not about death. I've had a long and fairly eventful life. It is now significantly diminished by age and illness but still pretty nice. On "bad" days I can baby myself. On "good" days I can do the things I like to do. I don't have any sure concept about death. Maybe some part of us goes on in a different form. Maybe it will be what I think of as "eternal rest" or "returning to the earth." Either way, I'm o.k. with it.

Ronnie, I felt as if I were reading a journal of my youth as you discussed your thoughts as a child and young adult about death. And then I decided not to waste precious time worrying. However, now that I am older (60) and sliding closer to the edge of the grave, the old terror has resurfaced. I wondered when this topic would come up on this blog; I do like reading what others think and feel.

I don't think I've ever been afraid of death itself. When I was younger, I was in denial like a lot of people. Now, at 77, I'm no longer in denial that it will happen but I'm not nearly as concerned about the fact of death as I am about how I'll get there--the "process" for lack of a better descriptor (I share that concern with Carol, Darlene and Laura and perhaps others who haven't voiced it, as well).

Back in the crazy, party-on days of my youth I made one decision I haven't regretted: to live life and confront death without the interference of traditional religion. So many rules and exclusions/so much punishment to fear in the afterlife (if there is such a thing)! I've tried to be a reasonably decent person, contribute to society and abide by the Golden Rule, and that's the best I can do.

I'd like to think that we all live on in some small way as an infinitesimal bit of the universe, but who knows?


I always like to quote Ernest Dowson:

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses,/Out of a misty dream, our path emerges for awhile,/then closes within a dream."

I've had several near-death experiences - the last, about five years ago - and fear wasn't on the menu.

I was, however, interestedv in what was going on around me, and felt as though I was standing outside a window, looking in at someone else.

No one wants a drawn-out, painful exit, but death? It's part of life.

Though it pains me to say this, my childhood (alcoholic father, enabling mother) was so bad I often thought of death as a release from suffering. Even at a young age, when I understood the meaning of death, I didn't fear it.

That has stayed with me, even though I've had a good life as an adult. I chose not to have children, and lots of times I'd think: "What can I tell a child -- you are born only to die?" Couldn't imagine having that conversation. I'm NOT religious, at least not as it's practiced in the South where I live. I've met a lot of people here are scared of dying precisely due to their belief in a real heaven/hell. No way to live, imo.

I also undertook an independent study of world religions. Eastern beliefs seem to suit me more than western, but by now, I'm not really spiritual. However, now that I've been a widow for nearly 8 years, starting to have health problems (osteoporosis/arthritis) and live in pain a lot of the time, I'm back to seeing death as a final release from suffering of physical ills.

Having recently lost my husband, death has been very much on my mind lately. I do believe that death is as much a part of life as birth, both being the start of new life. I am curious about that "life" after death but I don't fear it at all and I don't recall that I ever did. I think that my attitude is part of a built in Slavic character that accepts these things.

To Ronni, thank you for writing about this! And to Carol S. Rowland: Thank you for speaking up about not having that "universal" fear of death. I've always thought there was something wrong with me, something missing, that has thus far prevented me from experiencing this.

I do believe in compost, and the idea of my constituent parts becoming something else is of great comfort to me. We are "star stuff", after all!

Darlene, Carol Rowland, Olga, Cara, Elizabeth, Marc and Ajay all articulated my feelings better than I could have!

Thank you . I share your feelings and it has comforted me.From Chantal, french admiror of your excellent blog

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