How Can We Bear This Much Loss?

In William Blake’s engravings for the Book of Job I found a powerful lesson about grief and attachment.

By Amitha Kalaichandran

If grief could be calculated strictly in the number of lives lost — to war, disease, natural disaster — then this time surely ranks as one of the most sorrowful in United States history.

As the nation passes the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths from Covid-19 — only the Civil War, the 1918 flu pandemic and World War II took more American lives — we know that the grieving has only just begun. It will continue with loss of jobs and social structures; routines and ways of life that have been interrupted may never return. For many, the loss may seem too swift, too great and too much to bear, each story to some degree a modern version of the biblical trials of Job.

I thought of the biblical story of Job last month when I was asked to speak to the National Partnership for Hospice Innovation. How would I counsel others to cope with losses so terrifying and unfair? How could those grieving find a sense of hope or meaning on the other side of that loss?

In my research I found myself drawn to the powerful rendition of the Book of Job by the 18th-century British poet, artist and mystic William Blake, in particular his collection of 22 engravings, completed in 1823, that include beautiful calligraphy of biblical verses.

Job, of course, is the Bible’s best-known sufferer. His bounty — home, children, livestock — is taken cruelly from him as a test of faith devised by Satan and carried out by God. He suffers both mental and physical illness; Satan covers him in painful boils.

Job is conflicted — at times he still has his faith and trusts in God’s wisdom, and other times he questions whether God is corrupt. Finally, he demands an explanation. God then allows Job to accompany him on a tour of the vast universe where it becomes clear that the universe in which he exists is more complex than the human mind could ever comprehend.

Though Job still doesn’t have an explanation for his suffering, he has gained some peace; he’s humbled. Then God returns all that Job has lost. So, the story is, in large part, about the power of one man’s faith. But that’s not all.

The verses Blake chooses to inscribe on his illustrations suggest there’s more. In the first engraving we see Job’s abundance. Plate 6 includes the verse: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.

So, the Book of Job isn’t just about grief or just about faith. It’s also about our attachments — to our identities, our faith, the possessions and people we have in our lives. Grief is a symptom of letting go when we don’t want to. Understanding that attachment is the root of suffering — an idea also central to Buddhism — can give us a glimpse of what many of us might be feeling during this time.

We can recall the early days of the pandemic with precision; rites that weave the tapestry of life — jobs, celebrations, trips — now canceled. In our minds we see loved ones who will never return. Even our mourning is subject to this same grief, as funerals are much different now.

In Blake’s penultimate illustration in this series Job is pictured with his daughters. Notably Blake doesn’t write out this verse from Job; instead he writes something from Psalm 139: “How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them!” In the very last image, however, God has returned all he had taken from Job — children, animals, home, health and more. Here, Blake encapsulates Job 42:12: “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had 14,000 sheep, and 6,000 camels, and 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 donkeys.

Blake intentionally didn’t make the last image a carbon copy of the first, likely in order to reflect new wisdom: an understanding that we are more than just our attachments. The sun is rising, trumpets are playing, all signifying redemption. Job became a fundamentally changed man after being tested to his core. He has accepted that life is unpredictable and loss is inevitable. Everything is temporary and the only constant, paradoxically, is this state of change.

So, where does all of this leave us now, as we think back to how our attachments have fueled our grief, but perhaps also our faith in what’s to come? Can we look forward to a healthier, more just world? Evolution can sometimes look like destruction to the untrained eye.

I think it leaves us with a challenge, to treat our attachments not simply as the root of suffering but as fuel that, when lost, can propel us forward as opposed to keeping us tethered to our past. We can accept the tragedy and pain secondary to our attachments as part of a life well lived, and well loved, and treat our memories of our past “normal” as pathways to purpose as we move forward. We still honor our old lives, those we lost, our previous selves, but remain open to what might come. Creating meaning from tragedy is a uniquely human form of spiritual alchemy.

As difficult as it is now, in the midst of a pandemic, it is possible — in fact, probable — that after this cycle of pain we feel as individuals and collectively that we might emerge with a greater understanding of ourselves, faith (if you’re a person of faith), and our purpose.

The word “healing” is derived from the word “whole.” Healing then is a return to “wholeness” — not a return to “sameness.” Those who work in hospice know this well — the dying can be healed in the act of dying. But we don’t typically equate healing with death.

Ultimately, to me, that’s the lesson offered by Blake’s Job: understanding his role in a wider universe and cosmos, transformed in his surrender, and the release from the attachments to his old life. Job had the benefit of journeying across the universe to understand his life in a larger context.

We don’t. But we do have the benefit of being his apprentices as we begin to emerge from this period, and begin to choose whether it propels us forward or keeps us stuck in pain, and in the past.

Complete Article HERE!

In his life and death, my uncle taught me the real meaning of bravery

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For her Loading Docs short Going Home, film-maker Ashley Williams paid tribute to her late uncle Clive by learning to fly.

Some people say I was brave to fly. I tell them my Uncle Clive was the one who had courage.

He was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer at the age of 50. He had no choice about dying. But he made a choice about how and when he wanted to die.

When I was funded by Loading Docs to make a personal documentary about Clive, I knew I had to challenge myself to do something adventurous, something he would do. He always loved to fly, so what better way to honour him than take to the sky myself and paraglide.

This year marks 10 years since he passed. I wanted to make a film that both honoured Clive’s memory for those who knew him, and shared his story with those who didn’t. In a year when New Zealanders are voting on the End of Life Choice Act, I believed the timing was right, and could offer insight to those that need it.

In preparation for the documentary, as well as the flight, I buried myself in my uncle’s legacy – as a photographer, an adventurer, a scientist and a spiritual seeker. I dug out his old photos and read the letters he wrote over his final year, letters that were integral to the making of this documentary. What struck me most was his courage in facing a terminal illness, dealing with his own loss, yet managing and helping others in their grieving too. Now that is brave.

Making this film I learnt a lot more than just whether or not I could fly. I discovered it’s not just about the big, bold moments when we are brave. It’s about things like kindness in the face of adversity, being able to laugh when things don’t go to plan, standing up for what you believe in and being honest with yourself and others.

Clive taught me that life is about the little adventures along the way. So much of life is out of our control – there will always be the possibility the wind direction might change. So for the days you can, you fly! And oh, how I flew. Up there, among the clouds, being a bird. I realised why I had to do this and it changed me forever.

It also helped me understand what it must have been like for Clive, to have been caged in his bed near the end, watching out his window as the wind blew the clouds across the sky. To have known it was a perfect day to fly, or just go for a walk, but not be able to. When you’re that close to dying, surely you must know a thing or two about living. Clive was always the wise one.

Through Clive’s life and his decision about how he died, when he had only days to live, I hope viewers will consider those who no longer have a choice about whether they die or not, who are asking for the right to die with dignity.

I also want to encourage everyone to read the Act before voting. It’s designed for those suffering from a terminal illness that is likely to end their life within six months, for those who have significant and ongoing decline in physical capability, who have unbearable suffering that cannot be eased, and who are able to make an informed decision about assisted dying. This law could bring real support for people who need it in their time of pain and suffering, and in doing so also provide support and care for those left behind.

My hope is that if I ever face terminal illness I can do it with as much courage and grace as my Uncle Clive. I also hope I’ll have a choice that affords me the dignity I deserve.

Complete Article HERE!

How to Die (Without Really Trying)

A conversation with the religious scholar Brook Ziporyn on Taoism, life and what might come after.

By George Yancy

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with religious scholars exploring how the major faith traditions deal with death. Today, my conversation is with Brook Ziporyn, the Mircea Eliade professor of Chinese religion, philosophy and comparative thought at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Professor Ziporyn has distinguished himself as a scholar and translator of some of the most complex philosophical texts and concepts of the Chinese religious traditions. He is also the author of several books, including “The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang” and “Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings,” as well as two works on Tiantai Buddhism . — George Yancy

George Yancy: For many Westerners, Taoism is somewhat familiar. Some may have had a basic exposure to Taoist thought — perhaps encountering translations of the “Tao Te Ching” or Chinese medicine or martial arts or even just popular references to the concept of yin and yang. But for those who haven’t, can you give us some basics? For example, my understanding is that Taoism can be described as both a religious system and a philosophical system. Is that correct?

Brook Ziporyn: “Taoism” (or “Daosim”) is a blanket term for the philosophy of certain classical texts, mainly from Lao-tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” and the “Zhuangzi” (also known in English as “Chuang-tzu”), but also for a number of religious traditions that adopt some of these texts while also producing many other texts, ideas and practices. This can make it difficult to say what the attitude of Taoism is on any given topic.

What they have in common is the conviction that all definite things, everything we may name and identify and everything we may desire and cherish, including our own bodies and our own lives, emerge from and are rooted in something formless and indefinite: Forms emerge from formlessness, the divided from the undivided, the named from the unnamed, concrete things from vaporous energies, even “beings” from what we’d call “nothing.”

Some forms of religious Taoism seek immortal vitality through a reconnection with this source of life, the inexhaustible energy that gave us birth. Many forms of cultivation, visualization and ritual are developed, with deities both inside and outside one’s own body, to reconnect and integrate with the primal energy in its many forms.

The philosophical Taoism of the “Tao Te Ching” seeks to remain connected to this “mother of the world,” the formless Tao (meaning “Way” or “Course”), that is seemingly the opposite of all we value, but is actually the source of all we value, as manure is to flowers, as the emptiness of a womb is to the fullness of life.

In all these forms of Taoism, there is a stress on “return to the source,” and a contrarian tendency to push in the opposite direction of the usual values and processes, focusing on the reversal and union of apparent opposites. In the “Zhuangzi,” even the definiteness of “source” is too fixed to fully accommodate the scope of universal reversal and transformation; we have instead a celebration of openness to the raucous universal process of change, the transformation of all things into each other.

Yancy: In Taoism, there is the concept of “wu-wei” (“doing nothing”). How does this concept relate to what we, as human beings, should strive for, and how is that term related to an ethical life?

Ziporyn: Wei means “doing” or “making,” but also “for a conscious, deliberate purpose.” Wu-wei thus means non-doing, implying effortlessness, non-striving, non-artificiality, non-coercion, but most centrally eschewal of conscious purpose as controller of our actions.

So in a way the idea of wu-wei implies a global reconsideration of the very premise of your question — the status and desirability of striving as such, or having any definite conscious ideals guide our lives, any definite conscious ethical guide. Wu-wei is what happens without being made to happen by a definite intention, without a plan, without an ulterior motive — the way one does the things one doesn’t have to try to do, what one is doing without noticing it, without conscious motive. Our heart beats, but we do not “do” the beating of our hearts — it just happens. Taoism says “wu-wei er wu bu-wei” — by non-doing, nothing is left undone.

Theistic traditions might suggest that what is not deliberately made or done by us is done by someone else — God — and done by design, for a purpose. Even post-theistic naturalists might still speak of the functions of things in terms of their “purpose” (“the heart pumps in order to circulate the blood and keep the body alive”). But for Taoists, only what is done by a mind with a prior intention can have a purpose, and nature isn’t like that. It does it all without anyone knowing how or why it’s done, and that’s why it works so well.

Yancy: How does Taoism conceive of the soul?

Ziporyn: Taoism has no concept of “the” soul per se; the person has many souls, or many centers of energy, which must be integrated. All are concretizations of a more primal formless continuum of energy of which they are a part, like lumps in pancake batter. These are neither perfectly discontinuous nor perfectly dissolved into oneness.

Ancient Chinese belief regarded the living person as having two souls, the “hun” and the “po,” which parted ways at death. Later religious Taoists conceived of multitudes of gods, many of whom inhabit our own bodies — multiple mini-souls within us and without us, which the practitioner endeavored to connect with and harmonize into an integral whole.

Yancy: The concept of a soul is typically integral to a conceptualization of death. How does Taoism conceive of death?

Ziporyn: In the “Zhuangzi,” there is a story about death, and a special friendship formed by humans in the face of it. Four fellows declare to each other, “Who can see nothingness as his own head, life as his own spine, and death as his own backside? Who knows the single body formed by life and death, existence and nonexistence? I will be his friend!” We go from formlessness to form — this living human body — then again to formlessness. But all three phases constitute a single entity, ever transforming from one part to another, death to life to death. Our existence when alive is only one part of it, the middle bit; the nothingness or formlessness before and after our lives are part of the same indivisible whole. Attunement to this becomes here a basis for a peculiar intimacy and fellowship among humans while they are alive, since their seemingly definite forms are joined in this continuum of formlessness.

The next story in the “Zhuangzi” gives an even deeper description of this oneness and this intimacy. Three friends declare, “‘Who can be together in their very not being together, doing some­thing for one another by doing nothing for one another? Who can climb up upon the heavens, roaming on the mists, twisting and turning round and round without limit, living their lives in mutual forgetfulness, never coming to an end?’ The three of them looked at each other and burst out laughing, feeling complete concord, and thus did they become friends.”

Here there is no more mention of the “one body” shared by all — even the idea of a fixed oneness is gone. We have only limitless transformation. And the intimacy is now an wu-wei kind of intimacy, with no conscious awareness of a goal or object: They commune with each other by forgetting each other, just as they commune with the one indivisible body of transformation by forgetting all about it, and just transforming onward endlessly. Death itself is transformation, but life is also transformation, and the change from life to death and death to life is transformation too.

Yancy: Most of us fear death. The idea of the possible finality of death is frightening. How do we, according to Taoism, best address that fear?

Ziporyn: In that story about the four fellows, one of them suddenly falls ill and faces imminent death. He muses contentedly that after he dies he will continue to be transformed by whatever creates things, even as his body and mind break apart: His left arm perhaps into a rooster, his right arm perhaps into a crossbow pellet, his buttocks into a pair of wheels, his spirit into a horse. How marvelous that will be, he muses, announcing the dawn as a rooster, hunting down game as a pellet, riding along as a horse and carriage. Another friend then falls ill, and his pal praises the greatness of the process of transformation, wondering what he’ll be made into next — a mouse’s liver? A bug’s arm? The dying man says anywhere it sends him would be all right. He compares it to a great smelter. To be a human being for a while is like being metal that has been forged into a famous sword. To insist on only ever being a human in this great furnace of transformation is to be bad metal — good metal is the kind that can be malleable, broken apart and recombined with other things, shaped into anything.

I think the best summary of this attitude to death and life, and the joy in both, is from the same chapter in “Zhuangzi”:

This human form is just something we have stumbled into, but those who have become humans take delight in it nonetheless. Now the human form during its time undergoes ten thousand transformations, never stopping for an instant — so the joys it brings must be beyond calculation! Hence the sage uses it to roam and play in that from which nothing ever escapes, where all things are maintained. Early death, old age, the beginning, the end — this allows him to see each of them as good.

Every change brings its own form of joy, if, through wu-wei, we can free ourselves of the prejudices of our prior values and goals, and let every situation deliver to us its own new form as a new good. Zhuangzi calls it “hiding the world in the world”— roaming and playing and transforming in that from which nothing ever escapes.

Yancy: So, through wu-wei, on my death bed, I should celebrate as death isn’t an ending, but another beginning, another becoming? I also assume that there is no carry over of memory. In other words, in this life, I am a philosopher, male, etc. As I continue to become — a turtle, a part of Proxima Centauri, a tree branch — will I remember having been a philosopher, male?

Ziporyn: I think your assumption is correct about that: There is no expectation of memory, at least for these more radical Taoists like Zhuangzi. This is certainly connected with the general association of wu-wei with a sort of non-knowing. In fact in the climax of the same chapter as we find the death stories just mentioned, we find the virtue of “forgetting” extolled as the highest stage of Taoist cultivation — “a dropping away of my limbs and torso, a chasing off my sensory acuity, dispersing my physical form and ousting my understanding until I am the same as the Transforming Openness. This is what I call just sitting and forgetting.”

And the final death story there describes a certain Mr. Mengsun as having reached the perfect attitude toward life and death. He understands nothing about why he lives or dies. His existence consists only of waiting for the next unknown transformation. “[H]is physical form may meet with shocks but this causes no loss to his mind; what he experiences are morning wakings to ever new homes rather than the death of any previous realities.”

The freshness of the new transformation into ever new forms, and the ability to wholeheartedly embrace the new values that go with them, seems to require an ability to let go of the old completely. I think most of us will agree that such thorough forgetting is a pretty tall order! It seems that it may, ironically enough, require a lifetime of practice.

Yancy: Given the overwhelming political and existential global importance of race at this moment, do you have any reflections on your role as a white scholar of Taoism? In other words, are there racial or cultural issues that are salient for you as a non-Asian scholar of Eastern religious thought?

Brook Ziporyn: A very complex question, probably requiring a whole other interview! But my feeling is that, when dealing with ancient texts written in dead languages, the issue is more linguistic and cultural than racial. This goes for ancient Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Latin texts as well as for ancient Chinese texts, all of which bear a complex historical relation to particular living communities and their languages, but all of which are also susceptible to fiercely contested interpretations both inside and outside those communities.

I think it’s a good thing for both Asian and non-Asian scholars to struggle to attain literacy in the textual inheritances of both the Asian and the non-Asian ancient worlds, which is “another country” to all of us, and to advance as many alternate coherent interpretations of them as possible. These interpretations will in all cases be very much conditioned by our particular current cultural situations, and these differences will certainly be reflected in the results — which is a good thing, I think, as long as we remain aware of it.

Writing about Taoism in English, one is speaking from and to an English-reading world. Doing so in modern Chinese, one is speaking from and to a modern-Chinese-reading world. Working crosswise in either language, as when a culturally native Anglophone like myself writes about Taoism in modern Chinese, or when a native Mandarin speaker writes in English about Taoism, or for that matter in either English or Chinese about ancient Greek philosophy or the Hebrew Bible, the situation will again differ, and the resulting discussion will reflect this as well.

In terms of the dangers of Orientalism, though, what I think must be especially guarded against is making any claim that whatever anyone may conclude about any particular ancient Chinese text can give any special insight into the politics, culture, or behavior of modern Chinese persons, communities or polities. The historical relations between modern and ancient cultural forms are simply too complex to think that the former can give one any right to claim any knowledge about the latter.

Complete Article HERE!

I want my hair to be fully gray.

The lives of Black folks should end with dignity

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As a Black man, these past few months I have thought a lot about dying. More than usual.

When I was young, I imagined a death where I learn that I have an incurable disease and then begin my final, glorious lap around.

The end comes in the company of family and friends and a final touch of a loving hand before my last breath. The end, in some way, resembles the very beginning of life — swaddled, surrounded by love, care and attention to every breath. There is something sacred about that first breath, the last and all in between.

When I was in college, I read about death and dying, which Emerson described as being “kind” and Socrates described as “like a dreamless sleep.” I learned that death is sacred and is a counterpart to birth. Buddhists prepare for death, because it can happen at any time — breathing is the most cherished gift of nature.

I loved my college courses. I have taught my share as well. Every time I would return home from college and enter Grace Temple Baptist Church in California with my mother, I was in the presence of people who knew things. They knew, to quote James Baldwin, rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” They knew about death and dignity, especially those who grew to be old.

I have lived long enough to know there is no promise that the end of my life will be the one I hope for — a time that involves a rocking chair and a grandchild on my knee; stories about the 50-pound trout that I caught in Lake Washington; the basketball game where I sang the national anthem and went on to score 75 points, including the winning basket; endless magic tricks.

I want to fall asleep at the dinner table but not before saying embarrassing things. I want to be seen as having wisdom worth sharing. I want my hair to be fully gray. I want to be called distinguished every now and again and crazy most often. I don’t need much praise and will settle for forgiveness for the times I’ve come up short. I want to tell stories about the 70s. I want to pass down my Marvin Gaye and Supremes vinyl. I want to tell the kids, “Lemme show you how the ‘Soul Train’ dancers busted a move in the day.”

When I would return home to visit my mother in California, there were fewer and fewer Black men in her church. One year, the men’s choir had become a trio. I know the life expectancy data for Black men, many who have suffered quietly. I know the price of things, which is why I lie awake at night out of the “reach of warm milk.” I know that I’ll be fine but not okay. My father held his grandson, my son, once, for a moment. He never met his granddaughter. I pass on my father’s fishing and military stories as best I can.

I think about death more now because I want to live well. I do not want my life to be something I beg for. I do not want to plead for my last breath under an officer’s knee. I do not want to run from a bullet. I do not want my final moments to be recorded by a stranger with a cell phone, a video that goes viral. I do not want my nurse to be in a biohazard suit. I want my last breath, my brother’s last breath, my son’s last breath, my daughter’s last breath to be cherished — just as I cherished their first breaths. On my last night, I want to feel like a child again, safe and beloved.

My friend, B.J. Miller, a palliative care physician, has made it his mission to help people live well in the face of death. He knows life, death and suffering. He says, “At the end of our lives, what do we most wish for? Comfort, respect, and love.”

I have no desire to give a “last lecture” when my time comes. I’ve had many opportunities to say what I need to say. I want the last word to go to the elders; I want there to be more elders. I want the last word to go to the young Black man in middle school and the young Black woman in high school now, those who will become elders.

I want to hear the cries and laughter of the baby newly born in the neighborhood that has the most cracks in the sidewalks and a few broken windows — a community that is truly colorful and vibrant, a community that cherishes that baby. I want that child to live to be elderly. I want my current and former students to have their say.

I want us all to rest in peace. I want it never to be said that our birthright pre-determines the length and quality of our lives. The lives of Black folks should end with dignity, their final breath sacred and childlike.

If there is such a thing as a good death, and let us imagine that there is, we take our last breaths, not have them taken.

Complete Article HERE!

On reckoning with the fact of one’s death

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A friend is sending me documents needed to make me the executor of his will. He does not expect to die from this pandemic but he has enough weaknesses in his body to be fairly sure he would not survive the virus if it gets to him. He is not as old as I am but he is not young either. He is clear-sighted enough to know what he must do now: stay at home. He is also clear-sighted enough to admit into his thinking the common fact of death.

And common fact it is — about 160,000 Australians die in the course of each year —though every death is a particular death and no single death can be quite like another. From a certain distance, it looks as if we must all enter this darkness or this blinding light by the same gate when we die, and from that point of view our common destination is undeniable.

But from another point of view, the one taken in Kafka’s famous parable, Before the Law, each of us stands at a particular gate made for us, a gate no other person can go through. Making a similar point, “Death is a black camel that kneels at every person’s gate”, goes a Turkish proverb.

I am a little shocked by my friend’s matter-of-fact approach to the idea of his death; and I am comforted by his attitude as well. At least he is not leaving matters to bureaucrats or stolid workers who might think his death is much the same as all other deaths.

As a friend, I have always valued him for the no-nonsense realism he brings to bear on our lives, and for the creativity with which he has approached every experience of his life. I tell him I will be happy to sign the documents and, if needed, to act as his executor. He says it will be simple. He has everything in labelled boxes and files.

When I talk to another friend who is a doctor at a Melbourne hospital, she speaks of the bruise on her nose from wearing a tight mask all day every day, of the sweating inside her protective plastic garments, of washing and disinfecting her hands after taking off each item of protective clothing at the end of a shift.

She says she thinks it is only a matter of time before she will be infected with the virus. She is young and her chances of survival are high, she says. I am shocked all over again by the way she thinks — or must think if she is to continue to do this work.

This fearful companion

Another day and there are nearly 2,000 people from aged care homes sick with the virus, and a record number of deaths reported for two days running. Grieving families are interviewed on television and on the radio.

I am living at home now with my death a definite shadow in my mind. I am 70, which makes me vulnerable. Many of us, I know, are in our homes with this fearful companion so full of its own patience and fierce focus.

One mercy is that I don’t have to be worrying about my parents, who both died three years ago after reaching their nineties. Their deaths followed the familiar pattern: a series of falls, an illness that brings pneumonia with it, a descent into morphine assisted sleep, then days of dragging in those last breaths as though they are being counted down.

But their deaths were particular too. My father was exhausted, I believe, and my mother was not ready to go. She fought through to those last breaths with all the fight she had in her.

In 1944 Carl Jung suffered a heart attack after breaking his foot, and was in a coma for three weeks. In a brief memoir of this experience, he describes floating out into near space where he could look down on the planet, then entering a light-filled rock that seemed to be a temple with a room inside where he was sure he would meet all the people who had been important to him, and where he would finally understand what kind of life he had lived.

At the entrance to this room, his doctor called him back to earth where there seemed to be a continuing need for his presence. He had to forego the experience of death, he wrote. He was 69 and he would live for another 17 years. For those who were caring for him, he might have looked like any patient in a coma and near death, but for him this was a particular moment of reckoning and even joyous anticipation.

Watching my parents die was its own shock after witnessing the deterioration in their bodies and minds as they aged, the reduction of their lives to a hospital bed, closed eyes, machines attached, the days-long struggle to breathe. It was almost unbearable to be near this and almost impossible to keep away as the time left became shorter.

Now in the time of this virus a painful new imposition bears down upon the families of the dying for they cannot even stand by the bed of a dying parent or grandparent or partner. The sadness of this immeasurable.

In an essay about death, called On Practice, Michel Montaigne mentioned that “practice is no help in the greatest task we have to perform: dying.”

In this matter we are all apprentices. But is there some way of breaking ourselves in for death, or must we always work and work to keep both death and the thought of death at bay?

When my sister died of cancer at 49, I remember her patting our young daughter’s hand the day before she died, saying to her, “Don’t cry, I’ll be all right. I promise you I will be all right.”

At the time I thought she was in denial, or that perhaps she thought that she needed to protect us from the heavy presence of death.

But now I think she might have been looking past us and even past herself: we do die and it is all right — and every living thing that moves only moves under the condition of its coming death. She might have been seeing this well enough to embrace its truth. I don’t know.

‘A second, a minute, longer’

Today the sun was out, a low winter sun sparkling through the twisted branches of our back yard ornamental pear trees, and I could not resist going out into the sunshine to weed around the carrots and beetroot, and take up the last of the autumn leaves from under the parsley bushes. I felt lucky to have these few minutes with the warmth of the sun on the back of my neck.

I have been reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, and somewhere near the end she records the words of a physicist dying of cancer from the Chernobyl fallout. He said,

I thought I only had days, a very few days, left to live, and I desperately wanted not to die. I was suddenly seeing every leaf, bright colours, a bright sky, the vivid grey of tarmac, the cracks in it with ants clambering about in them. ‘No,’ I thought to myself, ‘I need to walk round them.’ I pitied them. I did not want them to die. The aroma of the forest made me feel dizzy. I perceived smell more vividly than colour. Light birch trees, ponderous firs. Was I never to see this anymore? I wanted to live a second, a minute longer!

This reaction is deeply understandable, and each of us shares this feeling, even if only faintly, every morning that we find we have the world in our world again — for perhaps a whole day. Each time I read that paragraph I misread “I desperately wanted not to die” as “I desperately wanted to die”.

This urge to stay at home is almost matched by the urge to be out in the world rubbing shoulders with crowds. The desire to save my own life is mixed somehow with a desire to have it over with. My misreading troubles me, but it keeps happening.

A woman I know who is 30 years old answers, when I ask her how she feels about the growing numbers of aged victims to this pandemic, that there need to be more public “death-positive” campaigns in order to make death a more natural part of life in our culture — to make of it something we need not fear so much or become so angry over.

Though she speaks as if death belongs to other kinds of being than her, she makes some good sense because this is the other side of our attitude to death. Sometimes I lie in bed and count the likely number of days I might have left to me, and it always seems both a lot and not enough. And then I forget what the number was because after all, how can there even be a world without me in it?

Some years ago our dear neighbour Anna said she had decided it was time for her to die. There was nothing else she wanted. We had watched her nurse her husband through dementia for a decade, we had many afternoon teas with her as she fussed over our children and showed us the latest thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle she was completing. She talked about the books she was reading. And then one day she was ready to go.

Not long after that I visited her, more or less unconscious in a hospital bed. My amazement at her decision to go. But now, as I inch closer to old age, I imagine I might be able to understand how her decision was as much a matter of the mind as the body.

An American news service has reported that across 24 hours one person every minute died in the United States from Covid-19. I am not sure how to understand this kind of counting. It conjures images of queues of bodies, of frantic funeral directors and grieving families. It speeds up the mind and produces in me a feeling of panic.

Every minute across each day of the year about seven babies are born in the USA. A lot happens in a minute across a whole nation. Numbers tell a certain kind of story, the heart tells another, but sometimes the numbers are aimed at the heart.

If not death-positive, then perhaps we could be death-realistic. Svetlana Alexievich talked to children in cancer wards. A dying child named Oxana spoke of what she desired: “When I die, don’t bury me in a graveyard. I’m afraid of cemeteries. There are only dead people there, and crows. Bury me in open countryside.”

It is possible to know we are afraid, and know at the same time that this fear is a fear up to the brink of death, and beyond that we can go with our imaginations into an open countryside.

I am afraid, as we all are. When my daughter asks what she should do with my ashes after I am gone, the fiction we play at is that I will care what happens to “my” ashes, that it will make a difference to me, and that “I” will still be somewhere when she makes that decision.

I can never compose a clear set of instructions for her, though I know that putting those ashes somewhere in nature, perhaps out on water or under a tree, would fit with an idea I have of how the journey is best completed.

Intense light

With a state of disaster formally declared and a curfew at night for all the citizens of our city, the word, “disaster”, might seem to mark an endpoint. But it has become the sign for a new beginning and a new campaign.

With these new plans in place, drastic though they are, the possibility opens for believing, perhaps naively, that there will be a time when death does not dominate our thinking, that the virus will be a memory of a time we negotiated, a dark passage of intense narrowness before coming out of it into an open countryside. Perhaps as faltering human beings we must live this way: repeatedly imagining in hope of further scenes of rebirth.

When we know as fully as it can be known that we are each on a sure way to our own particular death, perhaps then we are already in that open countryside. My partner Andrea and I walked in the sunshine today to a park where we met, briefly, with our son, who stood well away from us, all of us in masks.

We talked about everything that is small, inconsequential, funny and ordinary in our lives. Two of us will have birthdays under this extended lockdown. We did not mention death, but everything we said was bathed in its intense light.

Our duties

I receive emails offering support and good wishes from friends interstate and around the world for the six weeks of lockdown. There is a shift in attitude and mood away from blame and towards support. We have a difficult time ahead of us. The street falls still and silent at night. I have a list of books to read, old papers to go through and throw out, but before that I find I wake up ill.

When I ring a doctor friend for advice he tells me he is COVID-19 positive himself, contracted in one of Melbourne’s aged care homes, and is in quarantine at home for two weeks. So far, into day six, he is feeling not too bad. In anticipation of this he says he has been keeping fit, eating well, and taking zinc tablets. My friend advises me to go to an emergency ward at a nearby hospital, and I do, though with much nervousness.

I am the only person in the emergency waiting area when I arrive, and am soon inside with a nurse in a cubicle, having urine and blood tests. Everyone is in plastic, masked, and across the aisle from me there are three police officers guarding a prisoner with shackles at his ankles and one arm pinned by a padlock to a wide leather belt. All three police are masked and one wears bright orange ocean swimming goggles as well.

In the emergency centre, I feel that I am both in the midst of an unfolding crisis and present at a theatre-in-the-round performance. A woman in a wheelchair asks loudly what everyone’s name is and what their job is. When one man says he is the director of the emergency centre she laughs loud and long, as though she has somehow caught the biggest fish in the river and doesn’t believe it.

Someone asks her if she wants some lunch, and she announces that she is starving and could they make up a bacon and fried egg sandwich for her followed by a crunchy peanut butter sandwich.

I am released from the emergency ward with blood and urine samples left for analysis, but without being tested for COVID-19 because I showed no specific symptoms.

My time in the hospital is a reminder to me of how far I am from the world now. A workplace, I realise afresh, can be dizzyingly busy, chaotic, packed with humanity and with unpredictable moments of basic care for fellow humans, of suffering, and those bizarre sights worthy of a circus or an opera. I have become so used to moving between two or three rooms at home and going outside only to go into the garden, that I am in a panic here in the hospital over doorknobs, sheets, chairs or curtains that I’m touching — and at the same time I feel that this closeness to others is what being alive is really about.

Returning home I have to keep reminding myself that it is in this quiet, almost passive way of living that I am doing something needed. It might be that this social isolation, one from another, is a plague response from the middle ages, but without it, we are told, modern hospitals, ventilators and ICUs will be overwhelmed. There is an intimate, human response needed to this virus. It forces an honesty upon us.

If this social isolation is now one of life’s duties, it goes along beside all the other duties, and among them is the fact that dying is one of our duties. This is an old thought, and perhaps a pagan thought.

Seneca the Younger wrote of this duty in the first century of the Christian era. Would it be too heartless to say that in the presence of so much death and illness we might now be capable of being driven into a new and eerie awareness of what it is like to be alive?

I can envy the vivid, raw consciousness of the man Alexievich quoted, the man who “desperately wanted not to die”, while feeling something desperately hopeless for him too. Perhaps a part of this being alive to dying is being able to hold and carry more than one feeling at once, and especially the contradictory feelings.

This morning Andrea called me to come and look at our second yellow poppy bursting out from her planter box in the back yard. It stands slender on its hairy stalk, its papery petals a shocking splash of colour against its perfect background, a winter sky.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying in Your Mother’s Arms

A palliative care doctor on finding a “good death” for children in the worst situations.

A palliative care doctor on finding a “good death” for children in the worst situations.

by John Beder

If losing a child to an illness is one of the worst things that can happen to a family, Dr. Nadia Tremonti has made it her mission to make it better.

It’s not easy. But as a pediatric palliative care physician, she works to ensure that terminally ill children receive quality end-of-life care. Palliative care is sometimes misunderstood to shorten life expectancy, but it’s a method that increases quality of life, improves symptom burden and decreases medical costs. We follow Dr. Tremonti in the short documentary above as she works to make death less medical and more human. In the process she asks a critical question: When a child is terminally ill, how can we make the end of life a better one?

Complete Article HERE!

How to Say Goodbye When Someone is Dying

By Dr. Lynn Webster

Once, a patient with chronic pain due to an immunodeficiency made an appointment with me to say goodbye. For years, he had received intravenous therapies for his infections, but they had all stopped working. His other doctors had already told him that nothing more could be done, and he had little time left to live. He came to let me know that he appreciated what we had done for him.

It was a surreal moment. The young man wasn’t in agony, and he seemed to be at peace with the inevitability of his death. However, I was caught unprepared. Since I wasn’t sure how to respond, I simply acknowledged his words with a “thank you.” We shook hands and he departed. That was the last time I saw him.

Last week, a colleague of mine sent out an email to a small number of his professional associates. He told us that he is very ill. Clearly, his implicit message was that he might never see us again. 

As I reflected on his message, I felt unprepared again. I wondered how I should respond. How would I say goodbye? Should I even broach the topic? This might be my only chance to let him know that I’d always considered him a mentor. But would he become despondent if I appeared to eulogize him? Would it be hurtful to express my sadness that we might never speak again?

I certainly didn’t want to add to his suffering. Perhaps I should ignore the gravity of his illness and focus on how I hoped he would recover soon.

But that would be dishonest. He is a physician, too, and always modeled treating his patients with empathy and compassion This was the part of his character that I felt most drawn to. He is a doctor who healed as much by listening to his patients than by any other therapy.

Asking the Right Questions

I decided to tell my friend what an important role model he has been for me, but I also had a question for him. Having treated many terminally ill patients, I have learned that most people who are dying have hopes for themselves, as well as the loved ones they are leaving behind. Therefore, I asked my physician friend whether he had any hopes he wanted to share with me. He told me he had two wishes.

“As I have been reflecting upon my personal and professional life, my first hope is that my presence really made a positive difference in people’s lives. That would be my legacy. The outpouring of affection, goodwill and positive comments that I have received from ex-patients, friends, family and colleagues has made it clear that I have succeeded in that,” he said.

My friend also expressed his hope for a change in our political situation. He mentioned the anger, frustration and hopelessness he feels watching American society fall into two warring ideological camps. His hope is that the young people of today will lead us into a better future.

Opportunities for Closure

COVID-19 has forced me to think about the reality that death can catch any of us by surprise.

As I write this, we are in the midst of a pandemic that has infected more than 17 million people and taken more than 680,000 lives worldwide. Many of the COVID-19 victims died alone and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.

Even in ordinary times, most of us don’t get to say goodbye. We often deny the reality of death as life draws to a close. “You’ll feel better soon,” we say, either to make ourselves feel better or to avoid the topic. Even when we are allowed to be at the bedside of someone who is dying, we often lack the courage to convey our true feelings. Honesty can be too painful during those moments.

I remember saying goodbye to my dying father. Lying with him on his bed in his home, I asked my father if he was afraid. Many of us refrain from expressing grief at moments like that, because we worry that we might make the dying person feel worse. But I could not keep from crying.

In The Four Things That Matter Most, author Ira Byock, MD, identifies the messages he considers most important to communicate to loved ones near the end of life: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.” Expressing these sentiments can help create a sense of mutual peace and completion.

Saying goodbye does not wish death on anyone. It acknowledges the richness of the relationship that has been. That is what I felt when I told my dad I loved him, which at the time was my way of saying goodbye. It is also how I felt when I brought closure to the relationship with my friend who emailed me.

Congressman John Lewis, the noted civil rights leader, expressed hope for the future in a New York Times op-ed published shortly after his July 17th death. He said, “Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.”

Perhaps we should consider following Lewis’s example. By daring to acknowledge what is happening and to say goodbye, we are bravely addressing the highest calling of our hearts. We also have the opportunity to honor all those who touched us and made us who we are.

Complete Article HERE!