Some Thoughts on the Art of
 Living – and Dying – by a Psychotherapist

Mary Paula Walsh

BA, CQSW, M. Soc Sci (Psychotherapy)

”It’s the soul afraid of dying

that never learns to live.”

                               (The Rose)

I think a lot about death, my own and others. It is my way of thinking
 about life. It certainly helps to put things in perspective. From my 50-year-
old stance, life is short and most definitely for living. That is a lot easier said 
than done. It is not easy to focus my attention fully on the “now” and enjoy 
life when there is so much injustice and suffering all around us. It sounds 
selfish even to contemplate enjoying life when so many people in the world
 are in pain.

In a rather subtle way, thinking a lot about death helps me to live.
 Focusing so much on death that I am hedonistically and desperately
 squeezing every drop out of life as if every moment were my last, would not 
help. It is deeper and much more satisfying than that. My life – and now my 
work – has forced me to contemplate death for as long as I can remember;
 since I was born in fact. My mother, with severe toxaemia and high blood 
pressure, could have died when I was born; as I could myself, a premature, 
three-pound baby born by section.

During my childhood death became familiar. Like many children, my first
 experience of death was the deaths of beloved pets, losses which should never
 be underestimated even for adults. Also, three aunts died before I was ten and
 then my father died suddenly of a massive coronary.

As an only child, I then began to worry constantly that my mother would 
be the next to go. I felt a sense of dread and impending doom hanging over
 me for several years. This still gets restimulated whenever I face the death of 
someone close. I regarded death as a bolt from the blue, a disaster over which
 I had no control whatsoever.

My main way of dealing with my father’s death was to put it out of my
 mind as much as possible through sheer will power. I pretended to myself 
that it never happened. In therapeutic terms, ‘denial’. This is quite a usual 
and normal reaction to death. It was a stance I was to maintain for many 

I never mentioned my father nor allowed anyone to talk to me about him.
 The real reason for this denial was my fear of crying in front of anyone. I had 
to be ‘strong’ for my mother and for myself. I did cry a little in private, but I 
considered even that to be somewhat weak. I also believed that if I pretended
 that death did not exist, it couldn’t happen to my mother, or to myself for 
that matter.

I find that this way of coping with death is quite common in children.
 Many adults are too caught up in their own embarrassment (a very common
 feeling associated with death) and fear, to help children do the necessary 

Meanwhile at my convent school I was enjoying Christian Doctrine
 classes. I was learning that death was not only the punishment for “Adam’s
 Sin” and the result of  “Man’s Fall”, but the price Jesus had to pay to redeem 
the whole of mankind from the terrible Original Sin. On the other hand, I
 was also learning that death meant going to Heaven. I was promised eternal 
happiness after death in God’s presence, which seemed more than worth
 considerable pain and suffering.

I found, and still find, these mixed messages, though they make some kind 
of sense rationally, extremely confusing at an emotional level. I am told to 
feel both sad and happy at the same time about the same event. However,
 confusion is said to mark the beginning of growth. Elizabeth Kubler Ross,
 the renowned psychiatrist and author, describes death as “the final stage of
 growth”. I agree that this could indeed be true, but I believe it is not 
necessarily so. I believe that whether it is true or not depends on each 
individual who embarks on the journey – not the journey of death, but the
 journey of life of which death is simply the final stage.

Death can and usually does evoke strong feelings of powerlessness. I 
believe that we do have power in the situation, invested in us along with our 
free will. That power is in how we regard death and how we approach it. We
 have a choice. This choice is whether to regard death as simply an outrage 
and a disaster (which it is at one level), or to regard it as a stage of growth or,
 as I prefer to call it, a turning point. This is an extremely difficult decision. In 
my opinion it is one of the most, if not THE most difficult decision of our
 lives. We can look at this choice, or decision, in many different ways, but 
whichever way we look at it, it challenges us not only morally and
 emotionally but on a deeply spiritual level. It is a response of the whole 
person, not simply a reaction which could, through fear, cause a block 
resulting in a “NO”. We are challenged to make this choice whether we are 
contemplating our own deaths or the death of’ someone close. In my 
profession I am challenged to make and re-make this choice, often many
 times in a day.

I’d like to share some thoughts which may be helpful in accepting the
 challenge to look beyond and through the disaster and the pain to the deeper 
meaning and opportunity afforded us by facing death. As with any challenge
 or adventure in life, we respond to it in our own completely individual ways.
 Who we are as individuals is vital. Many influences, genetic and
 environmental, go to make us the whole complex individuals that we are,
 composed of body, mind, emotions and spirit. All these influences and 
elements come together in the individual’s response to death, whether we 
choose to say “YES” or” NO” to the challenge of death.

I do not mean that in saying “YES” we are agreeing to die – giving in. I
 mean that we decide clearly to say “YES” to the possibilities afforded to us by
 whatever way death is presenting itself to us – in our own dying, in our own 
facing or recovery from a life-threatening illness, or our meeting with the
 death of others.

This saying “YES” to death is not an easy option. Death evokes many 
strong feelings beside powerlessness – fear, anger, guilt, embarrassment and
 deep grief and sadness. These feelings are difficult to handle and if bottled
 up, can block us from the ability to say “YES”.

Our capitalist urban society, with its glorification of youth, health and the 
able body, expends a lot of energy (and money) on the denial of death. The 
terminal stages of illness or old age are sanitised and mechanised in many
 settings. Both patient and relative are frequently drugged and are cheated of 
fully experiencing this last great adventure.

We become caught in a vicious circle of fear and denial. Our fear makes us
 collude with denial and the denial all around us prevents us from expressing 
our fear. We remain enclosed in the vicious circle and so are blocked from the
 experience. What might we have to face if we say “YES” to death? If it is the 
death of someone we love, it might mean some of the following.

  • talking about their impending death with them
  • saying things we always wanted to say but never did, like “I love you”
  • actually saying goodbye
  • being there when they die
  • helping to lay them out
  • arranging the kind of funeral they would have liked
  • grieving openly
  • daring to risk loving again.

If it is our own death we are saying “YES” to, it might mean

  • seeing a doctor if we are worried about a health matter
  • taking good care of ourselves and living healthily
  • dealing with any “unfinished business” with family and friends
  • making a will
  • discussing our deaths with family and loved ones
  • going to visit people and places we’ve always wanted to
  • playing more
  • letting our hair go grey
  • starting a new job or career in middle age.

So – what can help us to say “YES” to the challenge of growth afforded by 
facing death? What would help me now to live in such a way that I can 
become an individual who will respond with a “YES” when life presents me
 with the challenge?

My mother always said, “As you live, so shall you die.” In my work as a
 psychotherapist, I have become very much aware of how true this is. So to 
prepare myself and to enable me to respond every day with a “YES” to death,
 I believe that I must live in a particular way.

Death is a process of letting go. It is the letting go, or loss, of a million 
things – independence, possessions, status, health, home, family and friends,
 dignity, our bodies – life itself. In life as we know it, death is the greatest of all
 the letting go’s we ever have to do. The everyday living of life, letting go as
 we go along, and so engaging fully in living the NOW is what helps us and prepares us for saying “YES”.

Life could be looked on as a series of losses and attachments. This “letting go” is in itself a natural process if it is not interfered with. It involves three stages:

  • facing the Loss
  • grieving the person/thing lost
  • re-attaching to something/someone else.

We engage in it every day, may times a day, in small ways. For example
 when we get up in the morning;

  • we face having to get up and leave our warm cosy bed
  • we feel how difficult it is, maybe we complain or moan for a minute
we get up, maybe look longingly back at the bed and then face the day with 

Bigger losses require more time and energy: for example, when we say
 goodbye to people we love when they go on holiday, to emigrate, or when
 children grow up and leave home.

Life and circumstances often force us to engage in the first and third parts
 of the “letting go” process – the separation and re-attachment, but we 
frequently avoid the grieving. Grieving involves feeling, experiencing and 
expressing the deep emotions evoked by loss. This is difficult and often 
extremely painful. We cannot express emotion without feeling/experiencing 
it. If we do not express our grief, we become blocked. These blocks mount up
 or “snowball” each time we fail to grieve, and letting go becomes more and
 more difficult. It is when these blocks become hard and solid and/or we are a 
long way back that professionals may be useful in helping to melt them.

Therapists/counsellors approach this in many different ways. At Turning
 Point, we have evolved a vehicle for helping to give people a special “push”
 on this journey. This complements their weekly/regular therapy sessions,
 whatever their theoretical orientation. The vehicle is a special kind of 
residential workshop and Turning Point organises a number of these each
 year as part of our “New Horizons” programme. These workshops allow
 participants a more intense experience than is possible in weekly therapy, i.e.
people can stay with the material for long periods in a really safe
 environment. An important part of these workshops is the integration of
 whatever unfolding has taken place within the individual and on their own
 daily living. The workshops are staffed by professional therapists with a ratio
 of about 8-9 participants to a therapist. Much time and consideration is given 
to helping participants to ground themselves and return home ready to face 
back into daily living.

Once the blocks are dissolved we can face new losses more easily and
 grieve them, and move to new attachments, whether it is a new day, new
 clothes or a new relationship. The result is we are not simply preparing for the challenge death offers, we are LIVING fully. We are living in the present,
 having let go of the past and grieved.

The old song says, “Every time we say goodbye, we die a little.” That is 
because every time we say goodbye we lose a part of ourselves. When we 
attach to things or to people in life, we identify with them. In other words, 
they become part of our identity – part of us. That little part of us dies then,
 when we let go or say goodbye to them. If we can grieve all these losses or
 little deaths as we travel through life, we will have few bottled-up emotions 
about letting go when we come to face the challenge of the greatest “letting 
go” of all.

(Mary Paula Walsh is a Director of Turning Point, Anglesea House, 23 Crofton Road, Dun 
Laoghaire, Co. Dublin – phone 01-2800626/2807888)


Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1970); Living with Death and Dying (1981)