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.