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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 years.

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 grieving.

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 energy.

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)

Bibliography:

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



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