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From Fear to Here


7 Minute Read

The Buddhists say two things are certain in life:

We’re all going to die.

We don’t know when.

I shared this with a friend once, as he was leaving my house; it was one of the last things I said to him. He died suddenly shortly after. Like me, he was somewhat death-phobic, and ‘talking death’ was our shared guilty pleasure. My last view of him was him laughing at the absurdity of this truth.

Dark humour aside, death is inevitable for every one of us. Today’s living are tomorrow’s dead. No exceptions. No matter how much wealth you pile around yourself, you still can’t escape death, as Steve Jobs proved. Maybe it’s no coincidence that ‘hated’ is actually an anagram of ‘death’.

As a passionate death conversationalist, my mantra is ‘get curious about death before death gets curious about you’ and it’s my mission to get people talking openly about this, the most feared ‘deadline’ we will ever have to face.

When I tell people that I host a monthly Death Cafe, it amuses me how many look confused and immediately respond with ‘DEAF Cafe?’… usually several times before they allow the dreaded D word to permeate their thinking.

It’s a party pooper to mention the dreaded D-word at all. A close friend told me that nobody could clear a party as fast as me when I started talking death. I used to have a list of ‘death friendly’ questions starting with – would you rather die at sunset or sunrise? Eyes would roll and friends would mock, but I noticed how quickly they joined in after the eye rolls had stopped. That was many moons ago, and now everyone and his dog seems to be writing a dying blog. It seems I have been upgraded to a legitimate weirdo.

So how did this obsession start? Sadly, I suffered from debilitating death anxiety for the first half of my life. I have no memories of it not being there.

My much-loved granddad died when I was ten – my mother went into an all-consuming depression to the accompaniment of Edith Piaf, and my grandma never uttered my granddad’s name again. Death seemed to be an open secret. Everyone felt its dank presence but didn’t mention it. Curtains were drawn, and people spoke in whispers, or not at all. At least they didn’t mark the houses of the deceased with big black crosses, but somehow it felt like they did. As a child, I would pass these houses of contamination, these containers of the dead and the bereaved, and the sense of isolation and abandonment felt overwhelming.

By the time I was 13, my fear was turning into an obsession. I found myself turning to the In Memoriam column in the newspaper every day, I was reading books about the Holocaust, and had saved up my pocket money to buy an Ouija board which only served to terrify me further. I quickly discovered the power of uninvited fear to hijack life. I was too busy living my future death over and over to be fully present within my own life.

‘If you can’t accept death, how can you accept life?’

In desperation, in my 20s I took my phobia to a succession of doctors, where I quickly learnt that doctors were equally scared of death. After all, they are trained to SAVE lives and let’s face it, from that perspective, death is a pretty epic failure. So off they sent me for anaemia tests, with the unspoken admonition that people who smoke deserve to die. One had a breakdown himself shortly after returning me to my black hole of death anxiety.

They just didn’t get that it was an existential thing, not a hypochondriac thing, although I believe now the two are intimately related.  Put simply, I was terrified at the thought of disappearing from existence and always had been. I was but a tiny speck of flesh dust, destined to be hoovered up by a big black hole, never to reappear. I tormented myself nightly with that particular thought for most of my childhood.

Nope – iron pills and giving up smoking were definitely not going to fix this.

It seemed to me, you either look death squarely in the eye, or bury it in a deep dark grave, and maybe if you bury it for long enough, dementia might eventually take over, so you don’t have to consciously face the fact of your death at all before you die. A small perk in a nightmare world.

By 30, my phobia had reached a peak. Depression and anxiety came in crashing waves, as I went through phases of believing I was about to die imminently. The thought of death had become unliveable. Luckily, at this lowest of lows, I met someone who changed my life forever –  a wonderful holistically-minded NHS GP. She was the first one to really hear me, although mostly I was weeping in front of her. I learnt that the most radical act of healing one can do for another, is to simply be present and listen from the heart.

I began my long journey back into life and continued to read everything I could find on death and dying.

Carlos Castenada encouraged me to ‘keep death at my shoulder’.

St Francis referred to death as ‘brother death’ and instructed me to ‘befriend death’.

Easier said than done when you’re death phobic! But, over time, slowly something changed. I began to question that consciousness ended with death.

So fast forward 30 years and my path of enquiry is still ongoing, and my fear can be better described as awe or reverence of a great mystery. I spent some years volunteering with suicidal people, and then the dying, and I am now a trained End of life Doula (someone who supports the frail, demented and dying).

I host a monthly Death Cafe, a relaxed space where people meet to talk death over tea and cake. I think of these spaces as Temples of Truth. At a Death cafe, you never have to say ‘Please leave your bullshit at the door’. It just happens all by itself.

When we meet as strangers we don’t have to worry about upsetting or protecting others. There’s an energetic release that happens, often accompanied by much laughter.  Anonymity gives us permission to share openly and honestly. It reminds me of when women started talking openly about sex in the 80s. Exhilarating.

Looking back today, I see clearly that talking about death has enriched my life, in ways I never could have anticipated in those days when my fear was completely all-consuming.

Death reminds me that one day in the not too far off future, all those I care about, will no longer be around, and to enjoy and appreciate them now. Or maybe I will be ahead of them on that one-way escalator. Either way, the goal is not to waste time on resentments and petty grudges.

Death has taught me to be myself more fully. How incredible to be this one in 7 billion unique idiosyncratic Caroline character. I love that ALL of us are totally irreplaceable.

When I walk through graveyards, and I pass the headstones with their names erased by time, I find myself mentally saluting, and whispering ‘well done, you got in and you got out! You completed the story of you…. as I will too.

Sometimes when I set out on a journey, I say to myself –

Wherever I am going, I may not return.

Today may be my last day.

This hour may be my last hour.

Sounds morbid, but I see it as a mental extreme sport really, playing with that edge;  and just as those who do extreme sports say it makes them feel more alive, so it is for me.  When I allow death to takes its place at my shoulder, I too feel more alive. When I keep it within the light of my consciousness, it cannot fester unattended underground.

Life is change, so maybe death is simply another change, a beckoning and unavoidable mystery, to be revered more than feared.

Perhaps there really is ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’.

When death finally comes to claim my bones, I hope I will be able to meet it in such a way that my death will shine a light for those behind me on the escalator, in that, I will have met it with my eyes, mind and heart wide open.

The fact that 108 billion people have successfully died before me, cheers me up in this endeavour. If they managed it, then so can I.

My Beloved River


10 Minute Read

I could feel my heart beginning to swell as I approached the brow of the hill, and I freewheeled down, until there she was before me – my beloved river: My place of sanctuary and delight. At that moment, my tears started falling.

I had discovered her by accident, one beautiful summer’s day, when friends invited me to a small music festival along her banks. Her dancing waters, wild hedgerows, swooping birds and bobbing barges all framed by an open sky, cast a spell over me. A hidden jewel in a grubby city. It was love at first sight. I walked along in wonder – my breath and then my feet gradually slowing down – as if merging into flow with her own gentle rhythm, and a feeling of coming home enveloped me.

Within days, I was back again, this time cycling for miles and miles along her towpath, until I had left the noise and chaos of London far behind me.

And so my love affair began. Each day, upon waking, my eyes would turn to examine the light peeping around my blackout blind, and if it was the right kind of brightness – I came to know the quality of light intimately – I would be straight out of bed, on my bike and wending my way towards my lovely Lea.

I would come to know every curve of her sinuous length, her unique sounds, her subtle and intoxicating scent, her changing beauty throughout the seasons.

In the beginning, I would occasionally invite another to join me, to delight in sharing this newly discovered beauty with them, but I soon realised that most people did not see what I saw. They tended to bring the city with them, so after a few failed attempts, I kept her to myself.

It became a reclusive period for me. I encountered few people on these journeys, for which I was grateful, as my tears could then surface unimpeded by self-consciousness. I must have been a strange sight in those days, this weeping woman of the waters.

I was in a period of intense overwhelm. The advent of menopause had brought with it a deluge of tears, which begged for release, and over time, these journeys morphed into grief rituals that felt both cleansing and healing as the river received my tears again and again.

I would cycle for hours on end, my feet barely touching the ground, often until darkness fell, when I would reluctantly go home in a state close to euphoria. A friend who was into martial arts told me the euphoria was due to all the chi I had taken in.

My acupuncturist told me that menopause is a time of too much fire energy (yang) and that I was naturally seeking out its opposite through the element of water (yin), which is receptive and balances the fire so it doesn’t consume us. This all made sense, but I chose not to think too much about the whys and wherefores then.

All I knew was I never wanted to return to my house at the end of the day. Being under a roof felt very oppressive at that point, like a heavy lid that could not contain the overwhelm inside me. I have always wanted to live in a place with a roof garden, and on the days I could not get to my beloved river, I would sit at my upstairs window for hours, watching the changing colour and light of the evening sky above the rooftops opposite, like a series of Rothko paintings, until the last band of light surrendered to night. I at least had this.

But the river was where it was at. Something deep within me craved to be in continual flow and the river echoed this back to me. My tears were part of this flow and so I wept as I cycled.

There was something about the rhythm of cycling, the continuous turning of the wheels, no beginning and no ending, that was very much in alignment with the flow of the river itself, and also in alignment with some deep need within myself, too. I often heard myself softly whispering: “Going… going … going.”

I was learning to open to the river within me, allowing my feelings to flow unhindered by thought. There was a sense of comfort in this inner place of aching sadness, this place of acknowledgement, this place of truth.

Emotional honesty was everything, and I made a conscious decision early on, to not question these tears, but to simply allow them to flow. Swedenborg says that rivers are the spiritual representation of Truth, and in Russian the word for water means ‘liberator’; both felt true for me. It was definitely a time of truth and letting go.

So I never asked myself why I was weeping. Thoughts were like red lights that would stop the natural and spontaneous flow of feeling so I learnt how to jump the lights. These journeys became meditations.

I have always had a huge propensity for tears. According to my mother, I cried non-stop as a baby and the few photographs of me from that period show a glum-looking child wearing a permanent frown. Like so many of the Dr. Spock generation, I never had a place where my tears were fully received, not as child, nor later as an adult.

My mother was unhappy, tired, depressed and angry for much of the time, when I was growing up, and there wasn’t space for extra tears in our house. The allocation had been used up and, as a child, I knew better than to trigger more in her.

You are a survivor,” my mother would say emphatically throughout my life. ‘I don’t worry about you.”

So I cried alone in a tiny closet in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister, and even now, I can recall the comforting embrace of its walls as I crouched in the dark and wept and raged.

The life partners I chose were all walking wounded themselves, revealing my tendency to seek out hearts that had been closed by pain and fear. I fell into the role of rescuer perfectly.

At the river, all the losses of a lifetime seemed to be presenting themselves for feeling and healing.

So I cycled, feeling deep into this well of sorrow, the most tender of spots. I was a human version of the weeping willow, finding sustenance at the water’s edge.

The river became a mirror for my soul, a loving embrace in times of emotional emergency, my place of sanctuary – asking no more from me than that I come unarmed and unquestioning, to seek solace in her watery gaze.

I came to feel that deep connection with nature that leads us to connection with our own nature. Mother Nature, my own nature, my relationship to my own mother, then a learning to be my own mother through this watery journey of aloneness and allowing my own tears to be felt and released.

I began to wonder whether the extreme fear of death that plagued me as a child, stemmed not simply from a fear of annihilation, but also from fear of aloneness, of abandonment, of being forgotten. Nature herself was helping me to make friends with this sense of aloneness

 All your feelings are welcome here,” she whispered gently to me. I was not alone after all.

I became increasingly aware of a universal sadness that permeates all of life, that is part and parcel of the human condition, and there was a growing awareness of the unexpressed tears of others – all those ‘others’ who, just like me, were also feeling overwhelmed, scared and vulnerable, and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ arose, which provided great solace. To be alone did not mean to be lonely.

Away from the river, I began volunteering in a sanctuary for suicidal people. The river had been teaching me how to be quiet and to really hear my own cry, and so I started to learn how to be with the river in others. The river was everywhere. In all of us.

During this time, I was listening to a lot of melancholy music and sacred chants on my little iPod shuffle which went everywhere with me, and sometimes I sang or chanted quietly as I cycled. Native American and devotional chants, mainly.

I began singing simple chants to the cows I passed in the fields, and when I discovered a dairy farm close to the river, I began singing to the newly-born calves which were separated into tiny pens. My heart hurt for these animals, these mothers and babies torn apart. I felt I was singing to their sadness, saying: “I understand and I am sorry”. They would gather in front of me and respond with their mournful eyes. We were in it together.

Later on, when I discovered stables along the route, I would stand with the horses and hum gently to them. In those moments, I was simply resting in the collective sadness of this broken world.

It probably sounds as if those times were just about tears of sadness, but many of my tears, especially later on, were tears of joy at all the beauty I discovered around me. So much beauty everywhere! Rivers full of blue sky one moment, turning into molten streams of golden green the next. Joy and sadness were becoming close friends.

I found a hill where I would often stop and sky-gaze. Nobody could see me there so I felt very free, and I would spend hours lying in the soft grass, watching the clouds drifting through the blue, listening to the sound of the bees being seduced by the blossoms in the hedgerow. Life in all its fullness. I felt such joy in those moments, and then I cried from the sheer beauty of it all, as I realised there is a bittersweet joy that can only be experienced through embracing impermanence, and I found it here, in this sublime display of transient beauty.

As I look back now, some eight years later, I see clearly that a transformation was taking place, almost a rebirth. A new path was forming. My old life as creator of beautiful ‘things’ no longer attracted me in the same way, and my creativity was taking on a more inner form. I was moving away from ‘things’, and towards ‘feelings’.

My lifelong enquiry around death and dying was growing. I began volunteering with the terminally ill and I discovered Death Cafes. When I first heard about the new role ‘death doula’ which involved accompanying the dying, I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of this new death movement. I am now a trained ‘end of life doula’ who hosts a Death Cafe. I have left my old life behind, like a worn out skin.

I can still be found at the river most weeks, but no longer every other day. Over these years, my glorious obsession has expanded to embrace lakes, and I now find myself being increasingly drawn to the wide open spaces of estuaries, places it is impossible to see where the land ends and the sea and sky begin. No beginning and no end. Everything connected in a shimmering mirage of oneness. Life merging back into itself, boundless and ever changing, reaching into this great mystery we call life.

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