This week, to ease her suffering after a couple of illnesses that she couldn’t shake, I was forced to make the difficult decision of putting my cat to sleep. It is a week in which I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about death.
It seems to me that death is something very much unspoken in our society and culture. I understand the reasons why we do not frequently speak its name – the memories, the end of life, the recalling of the love of those we have loved and lost, as well as the reminder of our own mortality.
Death was on my mind a lot as a child, my (first) father passed away at a very young age when I was a baby. I can only describe it as an empty feeling, growing up with a sense of loss but no real comprehension of what I had lost.
By the time my (second) father passed I was in my late 30’s, a slightly different sense of emptiness, this time I knew what I was missing…and the loss, that we all feel for someone, is a wound that diminishes but never truly heals.
There is a famous story where the Buddha, in order to help ease the suffering of a grieving mother, asked her to find a mustard seed from a house which had been unaffected by the shadow of death. Unable to find one, she realised that the mustard seed was not an ingredient for a potion to heal her of her grief, yet a reminder that death affects us all.
It seems to me that for something that literally affects each and every one of us to the core of our very being, we either live our lives keeping thoughts of death very much to ourselves, or live in a way in which either intentionally or unintentionally almost deny the existence of our ultimate fate, distracting ourselves all the way to the end.
Wouldn’t it be better – for both the living and the dying – if it were more of an acceptable topic of conversation, something we educated ourselves and others about?
How many of us know what our closest family or best friends’ thoughts and beliefs are about the one certainty we all face after we have been born?
How about the topic being on a school curriculum somehow? Coping mechanisms for grief would have been far more useful than a great many things I was taught at school!
As did the Samurai, who would go to sleep at night mindful of their own impending death, I say let’s live a life with more of an awareness of death.
Our time here is short, and it could end anytime (I am writing this flying 37,000 ft over the Ural mountains on my way to China in a tin can with wings).
Is it really so bad to live with such a mentality? To not think or speak of death, other than in hushed whispers, treading on eggshells? Of course we have to treat the topic with sensitivity but that does not mean putting our head in the sand.
I know it won’t be for everyone but being conscious of our own mortality and the finite time we have in this life will surely see us more likely doing what we love doing, spending time with those that we love, respecting the lives of others who are on the same mortal path…and perhaps more importantly, respecting our own life by being taking up practices which will make us more healthy – exercising, eating well, reducing stress, escaping harmful environments, taking care of our mental health.
What is really ironic, is that by adapting this attitude to death, are we not way more likely to affect the length of our life, and possibly of those around us?