Recently, my mum was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Now, she is of a proud generation, and even though none of you know me (or her, for that matter), she would not appreciate me discussing the particulars of the situation. So I won’t. But suffice it to say, death has been on the mind of my family lately, and that has me thinking about societal views of death in general.
I think most of us can agree that death is not a pleasant thought. Even aging is often seen as a demise, rather than a privilege – we do everything we can to fight it. Anti-aging creams, surgical procedures, and other facets of the cosmetic industry rely solely on the human dread of growing old. And it can be argued that we dislike the idea of growing old because it brings the prospect of death ever-closer.
Your personal view on death may depend on your spiritual beliefs, but I find that even those who sincerely believe in an afterlife have problems accepting death. Why? Because it is unknown. I have no clue what will happen to me after I die. No one does. We have stories and folklore and other attempts at guessing, but there’s no way to know which are true, if any.
But I got to thinking, life isn’t all that full of certainty either. I could lose my job tomorrow, and then where would I be? I have been coming to terms with the fact my mum won’t always be around. Is death really scarier than that concept?
Yes. Because as far as we know, there might be NO familiarity whatsoever in the hereafter. Maybe there is no hereafter. Maybe we cease to exist. But we don’t know. At least, even if I were to lose everything I own, and be parted from everyone I knew, I would be familiar with an earthly environment. Even if I lost my memory, I would still probably know what a tree is, still know how to react to an ice cream cone being offered my way (pounce, obviously).
These are all just my initial ramblings to the idea of death and the fear of it. Because I honestly believe it’s silly to be afraid. After all, just because something is unknown doesn’t make it bad. But I also will still do everything I can to extend my life, because most of the time, life is pretty good. And even when it isn’t, it’s familiar.
So, in order to put some direction to my ramblings, I’ve been doing some reading about our perception of death. As one who writes, my first place to look was poetry. The Australian Poetry Library has a whole category of “death poems”. I clicked on some randomly, and found a wide selection. Most of them though, had a peaceful attitude of acceptance, or a “might as well die,” perspective, like in “My coffin is a deckchair”. Perhaps this is because the end of life is often full of suffering, and you can only take so much before you want whatever is next, even if it’s horrible – even if it’s nothing.
I realized as I read poems about other people dying that the narrator was often sad, but happy for the end of persons pain. So I think a lot of the sadness we associate with death is actually on the living end. After all, we have to go on without someone who has been a part of our lives. People get sad when friends move to far away places, so it only makes sense to be sadder when the move is permanent and inaccessible.
That got me thinking. I believe I am more fearful of my mum’s death than I am my own. This makes some obvious sense because hers is on my mind; it is likely closer, and therefore more immediately relevant. But it’s also because I know that I’ll be living in a different world, a world without her, and I’m a bit afraid of that.
In general, it also makes sense to be more afraid of the afterlife for others. Because we want what is best for those we love. If I were to have to deal with suffering in the afterlife, I would probably hate it, but I’d do my best to get through (if there was somewhere to get through to..). But I don’t want to think about my mum having to traverse the worlds laid out in literature by Dante or Milton. She doesn’t deserve that. Most of my fear of my own death comes from worrying about those I’ll be leaving behind. And there’s a whole industry dedicated to sating those fears, with life and funeral insurance like this.
But then I realized that looking at death from a poetic or artistic point of view is just looking at what other people have thought, felt, and written. I decided I’d better look at science. Of course, science can’t tell us anything about what happens to our personality, essence, soul, (whatever you’d like to call it) after death, but it can put the physical portion into perspective.
The Australian Museum has a whole department related to the study of death, and a lot of resources on their website. They emphasize death as a process, not an event, which is the most scientifically true statement I’ve come across. It may seem morbid to see life as a process leading up to death, but in a lot of ways, death is an undeniable part of life. I think that trying to ignore that leads to unnecessary stress and worry. Yes we will die. Yes it will cause our loved ones sadness. No we don’t know what will happen after. But as J.M Barrie said through Peter Pan, “To die would be an awfully great adventure.” Who’s to say he’s wrong?
Chris Jensen is a freelance writer who works with GIO.com.au, which provides life insurance products for families.
*Thank you Chris for your heart-felt contribution. Much love to you and your family.