Death be not proud


Sometimes I think I spend too much time with myself. I realize, however, that the only way to spend any time away from me is to die, and that seems a bit harsh. Death is one of those subjects they never taught in school -in my day, anyway. Of course, when you’re young, Death is only a name, just like chicken pox or the measles -something that, in the old days at least, was only likely to keep you playing at home for a while. I don’t think they capitalized the word then, however.

I remember a class in English Literature in high school when we had to read the early seventeenth century poet John Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘Death, be not proud’; it was a real eye-opener. The teacher had lost a brother in the War quite a few years before and was still processing the loss, I think. At any rate, the poem argues against the power of Death because in those religious days, Donne was able to assure people that ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.’ Heady stuff in Grade 12, although not entirely relevant, I suppose. It did, however, get me thinking about death.

I have never been particularly death-friendly, if you want to know. I suppose Death was always one of those faces you see in a crowd that arouses no curiosity, no suspicion. And yet, as the years grow heavy, and my memories long, I begin to recognize the eyes of some that pass. They do not linger long; there is no need -I will know them when they come again.

It’s interesting how perspective changes with Age, is it not? Death is not a subject I fear; I only avoid the topic with those friends who still believe in detours; those who do not understand the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran that ‘life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.’

But avoiding things does not eliminate them; it only makes them more worrisome when they approach -more unnatural. Unlike the old days when my parents were more intimately acquainted with the mannerisms of Death, people often chose to die at home among those who had meant so much to them. Nowadays it seems almost mandatory for the Final Act to be played in a hospital, or at least in an institution where the suffering can be disguised, and the final agonal mutterings muted, their meaning drifting away like a thin cloud in an overcast sky.

Perhaps, now that I am aging myself, I have been so thoroughly conditioned to this manner of passing that I don’t think it unusual for me to have witnessed little of it. And yet, although I may have seen the person recently and am assured by the voice on the phone that they died peacefully, something is missing. It’s not the grief -the grief is there in full measure- but something far more meaningful is absent. Like the whispered ‘good-bye’ in your ear from a child who is off to her first summer camp; like the final hug from your son as he disappears in the crowd at the airport to travel alone and far away for the first time; like the wistful gaze from the woman you love, as she turns her head at the door and you realize you will never see her again…

We are not prepared for exits, I think. They often require closure of a type we do not experience -do not even know we need to experience. Death is certainly one of these, and yet it is one whose terminal manifestations we most frequently avoid. There is an uncomfortable feel to witnessing impending death: both the grief, and the feeling of abandonment, I suppose, but for many of us, it is also having to face our own mortality.

And yet, it is just that, which should make us pause; it is not so much that we are being left behind, as the nagging question of whether or not our presence at their death may in some fashion validate the life, the very existence of the loved one as they depart. Whether or not it is important to the dying, it may be valuable to imagine how we might feel under similar circumstances. We all die alone, I realize, and yet I, for one, would like to think I could appreciate a final smile from those I have grown to love over the years. Silly, I suppose; maybe the presence of others would be the furthest thing from my fading mind… And yet, if I could still muster up some terminal empathy, I wonder if I would think that some might want to be with me at the end; I wonder if I would realize that my death is not a private thing. I have touched many people in my life, whether for good or ill; some of them might feel that my absence should not go unnoticed -or such is my conceit from this side of the curtain anyway.

There are, I realize, innumerable articles on Death and dying, but I suspect the one I happened upon recently, was what started me thinking about it again. https://theconversation.com/death-friendly-communities-ease-fear-of-aging-and-dying-157655? It is a composite effort by three authors all involved in ‘age friendly’ community health in one way or another. They are advocating for ‘death friendly communities, in fact. ‘A death-friendly approach could lay the groundwork for people to stop fearing getting old or alienating those who have. Greater openness about mortality also creates more space for grief… There’s a lot we can learn from the palliative care movement: it considers death as meaningful and dying as a stage of life to be valued, supported and lived. Welcoming mortality might actually help us live better lives and support communities, rather than relying on medical systems, to care for people at the end of their lives.’

‘The compassionate communities approach makes death a normal part of life whether by connecting school children with hospices, integrating end-of-life discussions into workplaces, providing bereavement supports or creating opportunities for creative expression about grief and mortality. This can demystify the dying process and lead to more productive conversations about death and grief… It doesn’t tell us what death rituals or grief practices should be. Instead, it holds space for a variety of approaches and experiences.’

I suppose this all seems a little morbid to those of us not in the final act of our play -something we’ll consider only when the time is nigh- but in so doing, we would miss much of what is valuable in our lives: realizing the importance of living while we can, and then having exhausted the time, not raging against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas urged, but going gentle into that good night.

I have to admit that, far from fearing what Thomas seemed to dread, I am encouraged by another poet -this one an Indian polymath, Rabindranath Tagore who wrote that ‘Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.’

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