The other day I could not help myself reflecting on death. This came after hearing of someone I knew who has died of cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer and was told he only had a few months. To me, that sounds so horrifying. I couldn’t help but ponder it. I wondered how I’d react to knowing I only had a few months to live. My thoughts, I think, are interesting enough to write down but I don’t know if there is any truth in it.
I thought that there seems to be stages to the confronting and waiting for death:
- Confronting the idea of death.
- The alienation/horror.
- The first death.
- The two lives.
Each stage poses its unique problems and issues.
1. Confronting the idea of death
Death is a hard thing to grasp. How does one grasp what one does not know? Frankly, you can’t. This, it seems to me, is the first wall, the inability to answer the question: how does one grasp death?
But thoughts on death inevitably lead to life, of ones life, its meaning, etc. Its only natural to feel that one is not prepared or ready or did not do what one wanted to do in life. This is generally described as questioning ones life and its purpose. This often happens after reflecting on death. I have found that whenever I reflect on death I end up reflecting on life but usually in a different way, as if from a distance. Its for this reason that I often like to think of death (or, rather, life) as it puts things in a different perspective than if one looks at life as life.
An interesting thing people always say is “live each and every day as if its the last”. But what does that mean, exactly? How does one live each and every day? What does this statement really show? To me, it reveals another new sense, a sense that one cannot fully grasp life . . . ever. This is because its hinting that we “need” to try and grasp life showing, of course, that we are not. In other words, it makes a great circle, the inability to grasp death inevitably leads to the inability of grasping ones life. In confronting death one finds that one cannot grasp life.
For some people they can never get through the very idea of grasping death or life. It stops right there. It seems that, to got beyond this stage, a person must have ‘deeper’ feelings and an insight into oneself. I also think it can take some degree of courage. Some people don’t have these.
2. The alienation/horror
The inability to grasp death or life creates a sense of alienation. We realize that we never knew or comprehended life (or death) at all. This fact can shake us to the core. In many ways, this is the real horror. On confronting our death we realize that this grasping never took place. This causes a sense of “it’s all over” . . . and we never even knew what was happening or did what we wanted . . . life was never grasped. We may feel that we’ve never lived and we may feel incomplete and, perhaps, that life ‘was a waste’. In many ways, the confrontation of the horror of death is the horror that knowing that our life was never grasped.
For some people it stops here. The alienation and horror rests upon them like a big rock and they are squashed and smashed by the weight of its truth. Many people will not go beyond this. They as if sweep this subject under the carpet to hide it from themselves.
3. The first death
But some people go further. The sense of alienation leads to a sense, if one is so inclined, that there is “something more”, a sense of the beyond. In general, it is a mysticism, as its generally clouded in a sense of mystery. And like mysticism, there is a sense that life is beyond us. And, more importantly, there is an acceptance of this fact. Its not a question of knowing or grasping, it becomes a question of accepting. How well one accepts may determine how far one goes.
This acceptance becomes a death in itself, causing a spiritual rebirth, so to speak. This creates a sense of being part of the whole of life causing a sense of a loss of the self, the blurring of the self with the whole of life. It requires us, in a way, to abandon who we are and who we think we are. It requires a ‘letting go’ of life and what we think life is. This is not an easy thing to do. In many ways, this is so hard and painful that it becomes the first death, the death before ones death. This tends to turn into a spiritual quality. As a result, it generally requires a spiritually-inclined person to reach this point.
4. The two lives
The first death creates a specific condition in ones life. It as if creates ‘two lives’ that one begins to have:
- A life that is lived in separation from society and the world. It causes us to become removed from everyone else, a social alienation. One becomes the ‘pre-death’, so to speak. Everyone else is the ‘living’. This causes an isolation of oneself in relation to everyone else and the world. In some sense, the world and its people cease to exist.
- A life that is lived confronting the eternal (the knowledge of death). This is a continuation of the first death, really. It entails an abandoning of oneself and a staring into a great mystery and unknown.
These two lives complement each other, one as if feeding upon the other. They are like polar opposites. The first life is really a reflection of life-in-society-and-the-world, which is the condition that we normally and naturally live in. At this stage this condition begins to deteriate creating a separation with them. The second is life-confronting-mystery which is, in a way, life-NOT-in-society-and-the-world. Each life creates its unique problems and so does the conflict between the two lives (being that they are polar opposites).
Conflicts caused by the first life (being removed from society and the world):
- One feels removed.
- One feels disconnected and alienated.
- One feels abandoned.
- One feels alone.
Conflicts caused by the second life (confronting the eternal):
- One feels fear and horror.
- One feels ‘closer’ to the beyond. This may appear, perhaps, as seeing or feeling of ones family members who have died before.
- One feels a manifestation of a sense of union with the beyond with, perhaps, a peacefulness and acceptance
Conflicts caused by the two lives together:
- Confusion as to what you’re feeling (such as if a person is in society or not).
- A disorientation as to what is actually happening.
- A sense of a lack of direction (which life does one accept?).
- A sense that one is not ‘living’.
It seems that it is in the condition of the two lives one primarily “waits for death”. In some ways, it describes a condition where one slowly moves away from society and the world and faces the eternal.
It seems, to me, that opinions and attitudes about the eternal are critical at this stage. If a person that does not have good opinions and attitudes about it may have great difficulty (if they reach this stage at all). More than likely, it often tests people even with the best of opinions and attitudes. In many ways, the resolution of this stage is probably in the accepting of the eternal in a good and healthy way. Despite what a person has done in their life (such as being very spiritual, for example) a person may have to learn it all over again at this stage. This learning is compounded by the fact that there is no one to really help. This is because the first life entails a separation of oneself from society. Any learning will be what a person does on their own with their own effort.
Aspects of the problem
I have always felt that this process is largely wordless and hard to describe. How many accounts are there of it from people? This is probably the case because people in that position have become separated from everyone else, as described in the two lives. Because they are ‘pre-death’ they become disconnected with the ‘living’ and, so, have little communication with them and do not share things with them. Because of this, it primarily remains a ‘worldless affair’.
There are walls at each stage. How one reacts to these wall may determine how far one goes through the progression.
- Confronting death. Wall: the inability to grasp the idea of death.
- The alienation/horror. Wall: if one can handle that one cannot grasp life.
- The first death. Wall: acceptance.
- The two lives. Wall: the ability to handle the problems of the two lives.
If one cannot pass the wall of a particular stage, they stop there at that stage. This means that peoples experience of confronting death varies with people, probably having a lot to do with peoples character and inclinations.
I also tend to feel that old age seems to cause a version of this progression in people. It seems, to me, that most elderly people generally do not struggle with the first two stages . . . they struggle with the last two. When you get older there’s a point where one looks at death more as ‘real’ making the first stage easy. By the time a person gets very old one generally feels one has ‘lived’ so the second stage generally is easy as well. But the last two may not be so easy. Many elderly people will progress to the point of the ordeal where they will struggle with the problems of the two lives. In fact, I would not be surprised if a lot of the tendency of elderly people to be ‘removed’ from everyone else is a result of the two lives.
I tend to feel that spirituality is, in some ways, a version of this progression. In some respects, spirituality is nothing but a confrontation of death (and life) while living. That is to say, without death being imminent. As a result, it follows similar progression with similar themes. This makes sense as both death and spirituality is a confrontation with the eternal. Because of this, I tend to see that the confronting of death is, really, a ‘spiritual journey’. As a result, a persons spiritual inclination will have great impact on it. I would not be surprised if confronting death can awaken a great spirituality in people that they didn’t know they had.