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Death & Gratitude


1 Minute Read

The lighting of candles plays a significant part in my daily life. Each morning I stumble out of bed and fire up a tea-light. I’ve been doing it for so long that it has become a reflex, though none-the-less potent because of that. I have places in each room where candles sit and get lit. I am prone to making altars, if indeed this is what they are, wherever I go. Even an airport hotel on the way to somewhere else gets a little nod from this habit of mine.

Everyday, I light many candles. I go through a lot of tea lights, and make a quarterly trip to Ikea to bring them home a thousand at a time. As I write this from Bed-World (which is sometimes the whole world), a little flame illuminates stones in a glass pot, the face of Buddha in wood, two pictures of the sea, two of Leonard Cohen, and a drawing of Leonard The Dog by a friend.

I am talking about my relationship with burning candles because I want to speak about death and gratitude. These little flames infuse both. I’m always offering up candles. This one is for Catherine’s mother. I don’t know Catherine’s mother, but she’s dying and Catherine is walking with her mother until she has to let her go. So I send some light to them. I often have multiple prayers burning brightly – in amongst my stones and pictures.

I will remember the summer of 2018, not only for the extreme and unusual heat but for the death and gratitude that marked it.

My friend Jayne took her life in July. She was utterly defeated by her depression. She tried so hard to fix herself and get rid of what felt ‘other’, spending months on a psychiatric ward and trying every combination of drug protocol. For a couple of months, during this hospitalization, I was in almost daily contact with her. We had long text conversations and some calls where she was desperate. I was one of the people Jayne didn’t need to explain depression to – and that has value when you’re in the belly of the beast. I’m no expert on anyone’s depression except for my own, and I couldn’t tell her if hers would go or stay. I could only tell her about my own experience of falling into the Fields of Kindness when everything else had failed. If I could have carried her there, I would have.

When all else failed for Jayne, she took herself into the woods and after building a nest under some foliage, she took an overdose of drugs.

You might say, where’s the gratitude in that story?

Jayne’s death ripped a jagged hole into the fabric of her family. Her mother, her sisters and her partner are ravaged by losing her. And… and, yet there is peace and simplicity too. The way Jayne chose and actioned her own death touched me beyond any easy description. I could feel a gentleness and grace in how she laid herself down in that cradle, the earth. I could feel simplicity in her decision and I trusted it. I’m grateful for that. I am grateful for Jayne’s precious life, that she was in this world and I was blessed to know her. I am grateful to have known her in her joy, and, yes, I am grateful to have known her in her hell on earth.

Many candles have been lit and burned down to nothing, for Jayne, and all of us that loved her. During our hot, hot summer, a schnauzer called Dennis also died. I didn’t know him personally. He lived in North Devon with his people, and yet he touched so many, so far and so wide.

I belong to two communities on Facebook, over and above the community of my personal friends. One is my Leonard Cohen family and the other is Schnauzer World. Both are exquisite. When I say exquisite, I mean open-hearted, generous, hilarious, inclusive and above all else, kind. Dennis was our hero in Schnauzer World. He made it to eighteen years, and all of us Schnauzer people were cheering him on. When he started to have seizures, we sent him enough love to change the world. Then there was the CBD oil intervention. He rallied beautifully for a while, and, then he was done. After all, in dog years he was a hundred and twenty-six. He died while on a camping trip in the glory of nature, with the kind earth beneath and his dog brothers and human family by his side.

I grant you it’s easier to see the gratitude in this story. A whole childhood, beloved, adored and then slipping back into the mystery in an actual field of kindness. But, for me, with my bedroom altar crowded with candles for Jayne and for Dennis, I was filled with gratitude for all of it. Death is in everything, and when we’re done, we’re done, if it be at a hundred and twenty-six, forty-eight, or barely born at all.

I have always felt death as a friend. Even way back, in the violent self-destruction of my little history, buried in the chaos was my kinship with death. The manner of a death can be horrifying, but I believe the doorway of death is a separate thing.

I don’t buy any of the afterlife theories. I think we are gone, and that gone-ness, the no-thing-ness of it all, calls me like a siren. I don’t think we are reincarnated over and over until we learn everything (perish the thought) and I don’t believe there will be a line-up of all our dead, welcoming us through the gates to heaven. All that is too complicated for me. I am hoping for the radical simplicity of Nothing.

A few days after Dennis died, one of our group snapped a picture of a cloud in our bright blue sky. It was very distinctly a Schnauzer flying. That I believe in. Sometimes, as the autumn notes come in and our heatwave summer feels like a bit of a dream, just as I drift off to sleep at night, I see Jayne dancing like she did at my fiftieth birthday party.

I cannot face into any death without the taste of gratitude filling my mouth and throat. To finish as I started, with the candle rituals – every Sunday I light a tapered candle, sometimes but not always, blue, and say: thank you, Life, for another week.

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.

How Doctors Die | Essay | Zócalo Public Square


1 Minute Read

Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds–from 5 percent to 15 percent–albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how …

Read the full story here: How Doctors Die | Essay | Zócalo Public Square

My first death


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Unlike many people of my vintage, I’d never experienced dying up close. Last year the universe sent me on a crash course, reuniting me with my friend Bob whom I’d met at university in 1979. This isn’t just a story of death. It’s one of friendship, the kind that doesn’t need Facebook Likes to remind it. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Bob in 26 years but it seems he’d been sitting in my subconscious. ‘Bob’ is how I’ve always introduced myself at parties when I don’t really know anyone. It sorts the dull men from the potential. I bought a cult toy back from New York years ago. It had a name but I renamed it Bob. For some unknown reason my godchildren call several of their toys Bob.

I wasn’t meant to be in Melbourne last August. I was meant to be working in Qatar. I didn’t care for the place but, unusually, I’d taken a contract purely for the money. They took the job away the day I arrived so I flew to Australia. Three weeks later as I was suggesting to a policeman he should close Melbourne’s meth labs, instead of fining me for my inability to cross at the lights, my sister switched on her car radio and heard an interview with Bob who’d become a famous children’s screenwriter. And then she heard the words ‘brain tumour.’ Bob had a Stage Four Glioblastoma Multiforme.

“Fancy name,” he said when me met. “Basically, it means Mr Imminent is at the door.”

The boy from Western Australia wasn’t just my friend. He was my Lebanese mother’s adopted Jewish son and a favoured guest at family gatherings. It took us one three-hour conversation to reignite our friendship. After that we were inseparable. I stayed at his flat and looked after him. People said later “You’re amazing for doing that.” I told them I was fortunate to be with Bob again.I wasn’t there because he was dying. I wanted to be with my intelligent, incendiary and incredibly funny friend.

“I’ve taken up smoking again Leens,” he said when we met. “I figured I’d die from lung cancer instead. That way people won’t feel sorry for me, they’ll just say I deserved it.”

These past months have been a time of fierce joy shadowed by despair and tears. Joy generally doesn’t turn up without conditions. There were times we both knew we’d never be more alive: I can’t recall rolling on the kitchen floor with laughter in many, many years. Bob looked after me as much as I cared for him, reconnecting me to people from our mutual past and introducing me to the parcel of scriptwriters, cyclists and musicians who coloured his life. At night feasting on Lebanese food parcels from my mum with a film primed to go, he’d grab my hand and say, “It doesn’t get better than this Leens. We’re living like kings.” Bob liked a ritual. We sat at the kitchen table as he smoked his evening cigarettes, then hugged each other before he wobbled off to bed. As people heard our story they shook their heads in disbelief. “You’re meant to be together for this time.”

Somehow I found strength when he needed it, shoring him up before hospital visits and distracting him from the demons who inconveniently popped up when we were trying to enjoy the moment.In January 2016, the Glioblastoma brought out the heavies. The seizures started and his left side was no longer his. I kept telling myself it would be ok. As aggressive as the tumour was, he wasn’t in pain. I didn’t figure on the emotional suffering, the anguish of having a lucid brain in better working order than most healthy people ever have. Very early on he’d told me he wasn’t going to let the cancer decide. Following his diagnosis he’d done copious amounts of of reading on the Glioblastoma and joined Exit International. “I’ve got Nembutal,” he told me. He’d bought it from China. “When the time is right, I’ll use it.” We knew it would be more difficult when he went into palliative care, but Bob knew all the legalities as did a close circle of friends. As long as we weren’t there, he could do whatever he wished. Endless discussions were held about how to get around the first part of that sentence, but it wasn’t possible. We all hoped he wouldn’t do it but we also knew that was just the living being selfish.

Those eight weeks Bob spent in palliative care – far longer than most people- showed me why we need to be able to make choices about what we think is a good death. Opposite Bob lay Graham, drugged to the eyeballs and getting increasingly foetal everyday. Quality of life is an individual issue and Bob knew this wasn’t the dignified manner in which he wished to die. He’d pushed himself mentally and physically all his life, and to be reduced to whimpering in the manner of a wounded kangaroo wasn’t in his plans. It was his wish and mine that I’d be rubbing his head when he died. Instead, along with a few other confidantes, I was reduced to distant bystander, wondering when it would be. The deadline kept shifting but two weeks ago it was patently obvious he’d had enough. Earlier that week he’d had a huge setback when his right hand seized, as he was playing his beloved harmonica. The last thing he liked doing was now out of reach.

I saw him 24 hours before he died. I’d already been to see him that day but at 6pm I was struck by a sudden urgency to be with him. When I arrived he was in his wheelchair staring at the wall. He looked so vulnerable, confused and childlike.

“Hello,” I said, coming up behind him. He was startled.

“Who’s that?”

“Me Bobby. What are you doing?”

“Dreaming. I think I was dreaming.” It was the way he said it but watching this huge character, this giant of a man suddenly dissolve into a lost child was too much for me.

I put my arms around him. He sparked up for a while, he asked me if I had plans because he was worried I didn’t plan enough and then he was tired. We hugged which we always did and he played with my hair not wanting to let go. Because I was trying to be grown-up and strong, the sobbing accelerated. Now he was comforting me. “I don’t say I love you enough Leens, but it sounds trite.” I told him it wasn’t but trite itself was highly overused and beneath him. He laughed. I cried all through the night and into the next morning. I figured we’d have a few more days but his calmness worried me. They put him on watch the night he died because he’d yelled at the psychiatrist but he was a clever bastard. He found a window around 10pm. It was time enough to wheel himself into the toilet, mix up the bitter powder, drink it and get back into bed. He fell asleep for the last time.

Bob detested the smiley cancer industry. Like Hitchens, the idea that he was fighting a brave battle was swatted aside. “It’s a fucking illness,” he said. The prevailing narrative of survivors and bravery overlooks the reality that most people diminish and die in the most painful circumstances. From the moment you’re diagnosed as terminal, death becomes a process based on a collective view of what is best. I’m not questioning palliative care: it’s one of the only alternatives we have. But it’s not for everyone (and by the way how many doctors do you see curled up in palliative care?) While we ramp up the fetishisation of cancer and parade those who’ve fought the good battle, it seems to me we’re avoiding the hard discussion, the one about most people dying horrible deaths and being unable to die the way they choose.

All Bob wanted was a few people to be around him at the end. But because he didn’t follow the script, he had to die alone. It’s not so much his death that upsets me: it’s that I wasn’t allowed to be there to rub his head.

TV Icon Mary Tyler Moore Dead At 80 | The Huffington Post


4 Minute Read

TV icon Mary Tyler Moore died on Wednesday after being hospitalized in Connecticut, her rep confirmed to The Huffington Post. She was 80.

“Today, beloved icon, Mary Tyler Moore, passed away at the age of 80 in the company of friends and her loving husband of over 33 years, Dr. S. Robert Levine. A groundbreaking actress, producer, and passionate advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Mary will be remembered as a fearless visionary who turned the world on with her smile,” her rep Mara Buxbaum told The Huffington Post in a statement.

Read the full story here: TV Icon Mary Tyler Moor Dead at 80 | The Huffington Post

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