No Side Effects rehearsing ‘Anti-trust’, the introductory track on their forthcoming album ‘Reinventing Failure’
No Side Effects rehearsing ‘Anti-trust’, the introductory track on their forthcoming album ‘Reinventing Failure’
Can death reveal a way of leading a better life?
In the future, a billionaire may fund a medical breakthrough that cures ageing by replacing body parts grown in a laboratory or by integrating nano-medicine. They may simply upload the mind into a bank of servers to be downloaded later into a fresh host. Death will be just another illness to overcome. But, until the problem of dying is cured, we will all be forced to confront our own and others deaths whether we want to or not. Mostly we don’t want to.
“I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier to the land of the malady.” (1)
When we lose someone close to us we experience a variety of overwhelming, painful emotions (talk about stating the obvious!). It is because it is painful, too morbid and too ‘emotional’ that we just want to avoid thinking or talking about it, unless we absolutely have to. It is a subject unlikely to be dwelt upon for too long in friendly conversation or when contemplating alone. It’s a subject that is treated in succinct, minimal conversations, if at all. It should not bring down the joy of an occasion or ruin a perfectly cheerful dinner party. The result of constantly swatting away the conversation and contemplation of death and grief effects our ability to ‘deal’ with death when it occurs. More importantly, we fail to appreciate and take aboard the insights that it could teach us.
Death is like an awkward but clever uncle we rarely see, lets call him Albert. Albert will turn up at random times to say “hello” and send a card each Christmas, reminding us he’s around. As we’re absorbed and distracted with our own lives and not too keen on Albert, we quickly forget about him, accept for timely reminders. Over time, we start giving him our greater attention. We start appreciating his nuggets of wisdom he’s been trying to tell us for years. We start listening and become stop rolling our eyes or wait for him to fall asleep before turning over the Queen’s speech. The time with Albert becomes an enriching experience, despite his flaws and awkwardness.
As well as considering or experiencing the loss of someone close to us, we must also cast our minds to the rituals that help us say goodbye to the physical body. This, for many, involves a God or Gods and tapping into the ‘off the shelf’ cremation or burial. This embalms us in religious certainties that there is a Godly, unknown reason and over-arching meaning for our loss. This is followed by subsequent calming through speeches, scriptures and hymns. All this within the beautifully cold, auditory echo of a church and the uniforms of piety. This becomes a less attractive option if you do not believe in a God and want something more personal, less solemn and maybe more celebratory of the persons life.
So, the following questions or similar may arise:
Death, like Albert, will always be around. This poses a choice. Death can either be thought about when we, our families and close friends are well and of a constitution that is robust enough. To use our current strength to tackle the potential turbulent emotion of its raising. Or, it is forced upon us through illness, injury or accident and we find ourselves searching for the right words and coping mechanisms when sat next to the hospital bed. The understanding that could be received from thinking about death can not only help us through the events of a loved one’s departure but also illuminate our lives today. A truth that both disturbs and enlightens.
Stories can be powerful and contain nuggets of explosive wisdom. Good stories lead to understandings and changes in perception. We have stories about who we are, wether we think we’re nice, too aggressive or too soft. Whether we are too boring or always running around exhausted. We have stories about other people, about how they are too busy and never say hello or how generous they are when we go out for a drink. These are stories that constantly change and make up our subjective view of the world in which we live. In the same way, we can have stories that help us accept a loved ones passing.
“when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (2)
We are all descendants of stars. We are made of stardust (3). All the elements that exist around us, the suite of elements listed in the periodic table, all originate from the heat and energy at the beginning of our universe. Our bodies are formed when some of the elements are brought together and are bound by energy for a brief period. The energy holds as life, until we are then released back to the earth, sea and sky in the cycle of birth, life and death (more on this later). When we lose a loved one, they too are returned to the universe and surround us for the rest of our own lives. We will then eventually join them as, we too, relinquish our energy and elements. This grandiose, incomprehensible scale is humbling and awe inspiring. We are very small part of a universe but intricately connected. A further perspective of our fragile place in an indifferent universe is described in the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ by Karl Sagan (4), inspired by an image captured by Voyager 1 in 1990 of earth viewed from 4 billion miles away.(5)
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there, on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (6)
We are connected to the universe, the world, our families, the nature and wildlife around us and the loved one who has just died. We all share a common heritage, experience degrees of suffering as a human and a relatively short life in the “cosmic arena”.
“To the dumb question “why me?”. The cosmos barely bothers to return the reply “Why not?” (7)
The connection between us and those that have passed is a continuing relationship. Where it was once two, now it is just us holding the memories and continuing their story whilst we live out the rest of our lives. It’s the continuing story of us and the story we carry of them. A story that will change, fade, and be retold for our remaining days. The relationship is transformed through loss and grief but does continue. We don’t after all, immediately forget them. As the pain of grief subsides, their story can be shared and their lives celebrated with friends and family, invoking tears of joy intermingled with sadness. A typically human story in which we were, and are, a part.
The story that effects us the most is the story we have of ourselves. This is quite often not a good one. Not because we have led a bad life particularly, but because we generally give ourselves a hard time over the way we thinkour life has gone. This inner voice can often be critical and unforgiving, constantly tainting our everyday experience with negativity. “I am not good enough,” “I should have done better,” or “I’m a horrible person.” This story is fluid and changing, but the inner voice can constantly and exhaustively work against us and reinforce our alleged inherent ‘badness’. It is just not a true reflection of the world or of us. This negative view of ourselves, sometimes referred to in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as ‘The Inner Critic,’(8) does its best to ruin our day and we feel down because of it. The challenge is to go some way in understanding how our negativity appears within our minds by paying close attention to it, to be mindful of the effects it has. The experience of living through a death does a lot to change our negative narrative as it places the act of the ‘Inner Critic’ firmly under the category of ‘unnecessary suffering’. Even a momentary realisation of this harsh inner voice can open a door to realising the power our habitual thinking has over us. It distorts our view of the world and ourselves. How it can dominate and restrict our lives. This small insight could install a determination to live life fully and not to be limited by our own self imposed restrictions that are just not true. Death is a catalyst to a better story of ourselves.
The story of what happens when we die stretch back over millennia. A non-religious person may struggle if we are to follow the truth of reason and science as we know it today. The fact is we really don’t know what actually happens. The most likely scenario is we become part of the earth, sea and sky and have the same awareness of life as before we were born. A state that is simply, not being. Death is the ultimate finality, no more joy or laughs, but no fear, pain or discomfort either. The ultimate indifference to the rest of us alive. This is the essence of deaths instruction. This life is all we have, all we have been and all we’re going to be, and all over a short period of time. In the absence of a ‘sole’ we rely on our memories to carry the love felt for a person. We can lament and reminisce from our memory of them once the rawness of grief has passed. This is a way of keeping their natural sole alive. The physical discomfort felt after an immediate loss is there to sear the memory, give it a good push so the ‘essence’ of their character endures through many years to come.
The very fact that any individual is alive today is miraculous. To think of the multiple relationships that needed to be. The unlikely chance that a sperm managed to find an egg, setting in motion a process of cell division that culminates in a child autonomously breathing. The evolutionary steps needed to create a human life, from crawling out of the sea to typing on this computer (I have actually just crawled out of bed). An infinitesimal string of encounters, mutations and changes that lead to any of us being here today, right now, are very, very long odds indeed, leading back to the big bang. A long string of cause and effect. This story singles out life as sitting on the precipice of unlikely, and when it does occur, we are fortunate.
We live the cycle of birth, growth and death. The person we’ve lost today is a reminder of the immense backdrop of this simple understanding. We are born, we live and we die. We experience this cycle every day. The pause, inhale and exhale of a breath, the summer abundance of fruit appears and then disappears as the winter approaches. A plastic bottle is moulded, used and then thrown away to break down in a landfill, our pets have babies that grow and die, the shoes on our feet are sewn, walked in and then wear away. A toadstool rises from the ground, bright and waxy but soon blackens, wilts and decays. Even a hard piece of volcanic rock, forged in the inner heat of the earth is cooled and then eroded over millennia by sands drawn up in winds until eventually it disappears. A star like our own sun, expends enormous energies to warm its planetary satellites, eventually burns out. If we cast our mind to this simple process of birth, growth and death and look around, we already know it. The cycle is hiding in plain site everywhere and comes to us all. This truth connects us to the land, sea, sky and universe as we are born from them and return to them as everything else must do. It is a beautiful thing.
This birth, living and dying pattern is a cycle of constant change. Death can be a stark reminder of the lack of permanence that we make great efforts to believe. We cling to and comfort ourselves in the illusion of permanence. Change is, after all, as certain as death and taxes. The denying of the enlightenment that can be gleaned from knowing that all things change seems a simple idea, but is a cause of a lot of our suffering. We have an impulse to collect, to hold on, to expect a certain story of how our lives will unfold, from when we are children right through to old age. We plan for the future and cling to loved ones. At the root of this longing is fear of loss and a subsequent aversion to dwelling on the ‘darker’ things in life. To turn away from the glare of misfortune as if merely thinking about these things will highlight the fragility of our lives and that everything will change. This can be a scary story to tell ourselves but we need to find courage.
“Most to us choose comfort over truth” (9)
Gently accept that things change and loss always follows life. We are quite often shielded or turn away from thinking or discussing this simple truth. In denying change and loss, it is like succumbing to a flu in which we have no protection. The understanding that we’ll lose everything and eventually die becomes harder if we don’t accept the smaller coughs, scratches and infections along the way. Those smaller understandings of splitting from a partner, of changing or losing a job, of emerging from the winter into spring, accepting the ailments of age and the loss of vitality or saying goodbye to an old friend moving away. They happen so we must accept them as part of life, as hard as it is. To stop holding on and refusing to accept change. Take in a little pain at a time as we move through life with brave acceptance. Permanence and control are painful illusions and impermanence is normal so stop fighting it and embrace it.
“Whatever view one takes of the outcome being effected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else” (10)
To gather at death can be a celebration of life but to say a final goodbye is crushingly tortuous. The desire to enter systemised ritual that is honed to guide and console can be a vital part of healing. The many religious systems embrace the grieving through ceremonies developed over hundreds of years. These were born out of the desire to ease the pain and bring some essence of meaning to both their departure and the lives of those still living. We look around for support. It is these times we rely on the help of friends and family.
We often fall easily on the traditions of our religious community. These rituals, or funerals, are designed to reinforce the religious doctrines as well as sooth and comfort us. If the doctrines of ancient texts fail to resonate and instead illustrate that this is not really what we want then we can look to other options. I’ve been to a few funerals, each one different and carried out professionally and with dignity. We would spend some time with the Vicar beforehand where he or she gleaned some pertinent points about the deceased and did their best to bring their character to the rows of relatives and friends. But I always felt a little distant and considered something conveyor-belt like about the ceremony, with the next family sometimes hovering outside. These traditions are easily available and an accepted norm by the majority of society. We’ve all been to them so we can answer our own questions about how helpful and cathartic they have been. If they do not help, or do not live up to what we want for the passing of our loved one then we can look for alternatives.
If we would like something that reflects our true lives and the way we live it then why not plan our own funeral? To think about our own life so far and how we would like to be remembered. To also consider the best way in which those you leave behind can be consoled. There are formal humanist funerals (11) that create a framework for consolation that can be explored, with trained people able to help. Any ritual is a way to gather family, friends and associates so they can have a common connection for a few hours, witness the departure and celebrate the life of the loved one who has died. A shared experience, reinforcing links with those close to us. In thinking about our death and possibly planning it out when we are well, not only ensures that our wishes are adhered to (although should we actually worry about that as we’ll be dead!) but it also takes the practical planning burden off another. More importantly however, for our own benefit, is that by reflecting on our end earlier in life, it reinforces the urgency to live as fully as we can. If we write our own eulogy, typing out the words that sum our lives, it can be an intensely revealing project.
So, we can think now about practical things. What to do with our body, what ceremony we’d like and who should lead it. We can consider writing our own eulogy and planning to get our will in order so material distribution is all arranged. This will all go some way to help console those we have left behind by freeing them of the practical burdens and allow more time for greif. The emptiness and loneliness we all feel after a death requires great courage and a mustering of friends and family. We should not be afraid to lean on others, whatever the ceremony. Taking care of these practicalities will also bring a resonating urgency to how we live our lives now and help appreciate the moments we experience today.
As we age, we must relinquish the roles we once played in our families, amongst friends, our places of work and let go of the dreams we have held onto for a lifetime. We have to let go of the future and everything and everyone we’ve ever loved. These are all part of the birth, life and death cycle. The process of change which we should not think of as ‘giving up’ but rather accept that they simply disappear. Life is like the pause between breaths, the life cycle of stars and the burning out of the sun. To just accept and ‘let go of’ rather than trying to grasp or control. It is not worth wasting our whole lives trying to insist that the life cycle does not not exist. We can try to welcome what is ‘right now’. As we’ve explored, grief can be so overwhelming that we try either controlling or avoiding it. The process of grieving needs time to breath, to change us and to transform us. We must let this process ‘just be’ as outlined in Frank Osteseki’s book ‘The Five Invitations’ (12):
“We don’t get past our pain. We go through it and are transformed by it… we speak of loss, losing and loosening. These are not stages and nor are they meant to be map. There is no linear process through grief. Loss, losing and loosening are simply common experiences that we might cycle through as we grieve or that might suddenly explode to the surface of our awareness.
The initial experience of loss is often visceral. Even when death is expected, our bodies and minds can’t seem to take it in right away. We don’t want to believe the person we loved has just died. Just as when you’ve been punched in the belly, grief can take your breath away. A common reaction is shock and uncertainty. You might feel disconnected from other feelings or people. It can seem like you are sleep walking or living in a dream. It can be difficult to find your balance.
Losing can go on for weeks, months or even years. When someone we love dies, we keep on losing that person over and over again, especially at holidays, in times of difficult decisions, and in those little personal moments we long to share. During this period we realise most clearly the roles that the other person has played in our lives, and we grieve the loss of those also. This is the phase of grief where we feel most alone. Friends drop away and others give us unwanted advice. Losing is the time to be around the people whom you trust the most, those who have earned the right to listen. It helps alleviate the feeling of being disconnected from life. Those who have consciously lived through a loss of their own also know the importance of listening without judgement or agenda.
Loosening is the period in which the knot of grief is untied. It is a time of renewal. You can’t go back to life as it was before because you are a different person now, changed by your journey through grief. but, you can begin to embrace life again, to feel alive again. The intensity of emotions has subsided somewhat. You can remember the loss without being caught up in the stranglehold of grief. You can move forward without abandoning the one you love.”
The length of time we spend grieving is unique to us and should not be rushed. It is important to have faith in ourselves. Grief can also evoke feelings from other past losses, not just of loved ones, but an umbrella of experiences related to losing in everyday events in our lives; losing a job, a break-up, losing touch with a friend, the children finally leaving home or having to give up on a dream. A bundling together of what we’ve had and lost and what we’ve never had.
This brings us into the possibility of regret. Imagine we are now old, on our death bed and looking back over our lives. As we think about questions like; “what have I done?,” “how have I been?,” “who am I loved by,” and “what could I have done differently?” What would you say? In our changing lives, the great moments can be fantastic, resonating in the memory for years but are interspersed with sadness. The ups and the downs. A review of our life we have led, or at least the current narrative we tell yourself, makes itself especially poignant at the time of a loved ones passing. Grief and regret focuses its beam on those of us around the coffin and says ‘well, over to you’. This is a call to do the things we want to do now where we can, and release ourselves from the burdens of regret where we can’t. Try to act now or let them be. It is very unlikely we will be able to do and have everything we desired so let go of regrets.
“Don’t wait is a pathway to fulfilment and an antidote for regret” (13)
Another part of letting go is forgiveness. I was chatting to an elderly lady today, lets call her Ella, who recounted the feelings she had for her mum, now passed on. Ella was often told by her mum, “I regret that you were ever born” so there was little love lost between them. Ella felt she had not been able to experience full grief because she was not near to her. Ella went onto say that in later years her mum had asked for forgiveness but Ella could not give it. As we talked, her discomfort at this memory was obvious to see. To not forgive is a burden we have to relinquish, just as much for ourselves as for the subject of our anger or resentment. Holding onto a grudge builds up like a tight knot, a constant nagging that gets under the skin. It nibbles away at our mind and looms shadow-like. Holding a grudge encourages anger and resentment and adds a few more wrinkles to our foreheads! We can go easy and forgive ourselves. In the glare from grief and regret we are forced to ask; “I should have been a better Dad,” “I’m not good enough to be his friend” or “I should have been by her side when she died.” To forgive ourselves and others frees us from from its hold and the pain that it causes. That doesn’t mean being weak, forgetting or agreeing with someones behaviour but it is a benefit to us. Not forgiving is a resistance to living fully.
“what we resist, persist” (14)
The grief, regret and suffering is going to be with us wether we want it or not. It is up to us how we respond. We have a choice. We can let it in or try to push it away. It seems clear that pushing away does not stop the suffering but prolongs it. It seems we can turn towards our suffering and embrace it as part of living our lives fully, warts and all, as part of the whole human experience. To welcome the good and the bad as equally valid experiences.
“if we didn’t feel the heat of the fire, we’d burn our fingers. pain has an essential role in our lives” (15)
The experience of being human is multi-faceted and not just about the happy days. In fact, in a world of opposites and greys in between, great joy is deeper when sorrow is experienced fully. So how can we learn to embrace the full suite of human experience?
In any moment the mind is a scattered, wildly speculative generator of thoughts that often hold us hostage. It’s great at sweeping up all the baggage from our lives and dumping it at the front door of every experience we have. Even if we fully understand the stories we hear about change, life, birth, death, wisdom, compassion and all the other things that we may strive to understand, how can we actually experience them if we are on a roller coaster, clinging on with our eyes closed? How do we at least try to understand how to open our eyes?
We are constantly looking forward, lost in thought or an activity. The day flicks past quickly and the moments are constantly swamped and buried. Our view of the world can be insular and limited to the events that swamp us. The stresses and anxieties are multiple. We constantly comparing ourselves to others (instead of ourselves yesterday(16)). We measure our worth on wether we are good at our job or if we’re liked by others. We have mortgages, bad health and shaky relationships. In the middle of all this is a moment, a calm space that can be reached at any time. We can try to access this space and allow a familiar ground beneath our feet that can help hold us steady.
This calm space can be reached through mindful attention. We can sit calmly with our eyes closed and focus on our breath or the weight of the body at any point during the day (please keep your eyes open if you’re driving at the time). We can start by trying to feel the sensations as they occur in our fingers, toes or cold wind on our face in this very moment. We can then aim to ‘see’ thoughts entering the mind and inspect them with curiosity before they fade out. Thoughts themselves have a birth, life and death, constantly appearing and then disappearing. We can observe the emotional attachment associated with those thoughts, wether that is anger, anxiety or fear. It takes practice, like any new skill, but bringing this attention to any moment wrings out the full experience of the moment. The present is the one place we can rest and the only real experience.
To practice living the full human experience, the ups and downs, bringing our full attention to them seems a sound way to approach life, to me anyway. We can learn to recognise how and when the mind leads us away from the moment towards a future goal or desire at the expense of what is happening right now. We can allow the space and time for all events and feelings, including grief, to flow through us whilst paying mindful attention to how it manifests and changes us. To try and be aware of the moments of life as they occur and not take them for granted. To be mindful allows all our attention to focus on the person talking, the walk in the woods, the feel of sunshine on the eyelids and the sting of snow on our skin whilst knowing that it is fleeting and will soon pass. To allow the attention to quench its thirst and soak up each moment.
“I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do’ death in the active and not in the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance” (17)
In grief, we can observe the moment, using the breath to ground us, and invite in what hurts. Get to know the effect it is having on us really well, observing with curiosity and not push it away. We can also have compassion for ourselves and others when we are present in the moment, allowing our attention to listen fully. We can be present in our experience right now and develop a capacity to pay attention. To not grasp the next experience by hoping for a particular outcome, but rather just relax and extract the most from each moment by just being aware of its presence. By truly living in the moment, as theysay.
“its not the activities that bring joy, its the attention to the activities” (18)
The ultimate finality is just that. It is the end. But in this moment we have already been born and are not yet dead so we’re left with the nice bit in the middle. What do we want to do with the rest of it? Nothing lasts for ever so try and embrace all experiences of grief, loss, pain, joy and love. Stop trying to avoid the worst bits when they arrive or hold onto things like regret or resentment. Be curious and proceed with surprise and wonder. Stop being so hard on ourselves, show some self compassion. It is largely a matter of shifting our attention.
“Embrace the whole experience of life. No part of our experience should be left out. the joy and wonder or the pain and anguish. All are part of our lives. When we embrace this truth then we step more fully into our lives. Be present during grief and submit to it, accept it and don’t runaway from it” (19)
Life, each of our lives, is a painful, strange, wondrous and mysterious event. As far as we’re concerned, this is the greatest story which, when on our death bed, we should look back and say to ourselves, “yes, I lived a good one.” The transformative effects of grief is a major accelerant to reaching this finale in style along with being open, moment to moment, to the full experience of being us.