Life, living and being open to change (whether it is desired is another matter) invariably involve grief, because change – inevitable as it is – often involves grief, a recognition of a loss for something or someone beloved or simply familiar.
I find it odd that so many people use fighting terms and war language in reference to a disease or threatening physical condition, as if it were “the enemy” which must be vanquished at any cost. This is quite contrary to many other cultures’ acceptance of the inevitability of death.
I found instructive some of the teachings from the Samurai code of conduct, known as bushido and as described by the late Japanese writer (and paradoxical figure) Yukio Mishima in the 1977 Basic Books’ translation of “The Way of the Samurai: Hagakure in Modern Life.” He observes that when a samurai is constantly prepared for death, he has mastered the Way of the Samurai and if a man holds death in his heart, thinking that whenever the time comes he will be ready to die, he cannot possibly take mistaken action. What Mishima describes is an intimacy with one’s own death that can help train one’s heart and mind to focus on the life that is right now, in the present moment.
I also think of the Native American saying (attributed to many different tribes and bands as well as to the Lakota leader Crazy Horse) “today is a good day to die.” Its essence reflects the belief that one should never live a moment of one’s life with any regrets, or leave important tasks left undone. This preparation, which is an acknowledgement of our mortality and life’s fragility and uncertainty, means that it would make today as good a day as any to die. Implicit in the ability to recognize a “good day to die” is the understanding that one can more easily let go when a life is well-lived, because of course the proper focus here is on the quality of life as a continuation of that life in its ending, in death.
How different this approach is from our death anxiety and death denial of the post-modern age. Mortality and disease are often seen as the “enemies” in the medicalized model which is so prevalent now for health care for our elders. We simply want more time – but what do we often do with the time once we get it? We bargain for more. Longevity becomes as obsession, a form of greed in some respects because that greed for more quantity of life, not quality, separates us from the “how” of our living, leaving only some length of days for which we should be grateful. Greed for our quantity of life, and for those experiences that we will miss if our life is “cut short” (at whatever age) – this greed is a form of forgetfulness of our mortality. To the extent we remember, we often feel “out of control” and anxious due to the uncertainty or our demise – both the timing and circumstances. I have known one woman who planned the meal for after her funeral service including the menu for the caterer. How many of us could do that? Mostly I think we follow what is written in so many Tax Court rulings: “taxpayer died unexpectedly.”
Or perhaps it is simply because we have become rather used to thinking of our physical body as something separate from ourselves somehow, as if it were a medical problem to be managed. This is in many respects the post-modern mechanistic view of North American longevity and life.
And what of the consolation of grief, or better expressed as “from grief” – the recognition that we are never alone in our grief as there is always someone who has, in their own way, experienced an incalculable and unfathomable loss? This is part of our human condition to be sure, but as Heraclitus observed:
Whoever cannot seek
The unforeseen sees nothing,
For the known way
Is an impasse.
Perhaps he is also addressing a similar choice presented by the entry of life via the narrow gate.
What if grief is not something that “happens” to us that is to be “gotten over” but is rather a fundamental aspect of human activity, of be-ing human? How might this change how we look at our mortality and our inevitable death? In this respect, grief can be viewed as an invitation to be more fully human. We, in this dark age of pervasive objective materialism, where mysteries are stripped away – are challenged deeply by this. We can’t measure the unseen or the mystery or think it through because it is a quality of being. This is the domain of the heart – a realm that includes the rational but goes well beyond its rather short tether.
Finally, I’ll close with a good clip to watch of a Canadian friend, Judith McGill, who is a “death midwife.” She was recently featured in a CBC- Radio Canada broadcast and you can listen to it or read it here.
©Barbara Cashman 2015 www.DenverElderLaw.org