My father-in-law’s funeral last weekend has me revisiting the mystery of death. Organized religions have it figured out. Unfortunately, their explanations stopped working for me many years ago. I often wonder if they work for anyone. Are words and beliefs which originate outside of us really enough to erase our terror of death, or is something more needed? Something powerful and personal that arises from within.
Dad’s church service was beautiful and deeply moving. I was grateful for the opportunity to honor his life in this sacred space and it felt right and necessary to celebrate his memory with family and friends. But this time-honored tradition didn’t answer my questions about death.
Over the years I’ve wondered things like, when I die, what is the “I” that dies? Is it all of me, or just the physical part of me, or some of the mental parts too, or what? If anything lives on, what is it? Where does it live?
Other questions are about how to deal with death while I’m still alive. Shall I fight it or accept it? Ignore it or face it? Is there a way I can come to terms with my eventual death or the death of a loved one now? If so, what is it?
And I wonder about people who say, “Why would I want to think about death? Isn’t it better to be happy and see the bright side of things? What good can it possibly do to dwell on such morbid thoughts?”
I know many people feel this way, but it’s not an option for me. I’ve consciously lived with the specter of death (I imagine it sitting just over my left shoulder) ever since life brought my naively confident ego to its knees at the age of 36. Until then I thought I was tough enough to handle anything. But when I discovered I had a shadow composed of everything my ego believed it was not, the shock was so great and the internal conflicts so painful that I began to fantasize about suicide.
That was when I realized I had a choice. I could escape my pain by killing myself, or I could choose to go on living. For me, staying alive meant tolerating some unbearable suffering for as long as it took to understand and befriend the opposing forces in me that had brought me to this point. It meant choosing to take my needs and gifts seriously instead of allowing them to wither away under a persona of passive perfection and “good girl” conformity. And it meant assuming full responsibility for my choices without blaming anyone else. I chose life. Having confronted death, I had nothing left to lose by confronting my inner darkness.
Ironically, in facing my fear of death, I began to lose my fear of life! I haven’t fully conquered every fear, but if you could magically spend one day in the head of 36-year-old Jeanie and a second day in my head today, you wouldn’t believe they were attached to the same body! (Well, not quite the same!)
I don’t know the answers to all these questions but I have some theories. I do know that one thing that leaves the body at death is the light in our eyes. Light is everywhere a metaphor for consciousness. I suspect my fearful ego, unexplored shadow and all my other unconscious parts may die with my body. But years of inner work have created a new and independent entity of light that does not seem bound to physical life: a Conscious Observer. Like a lamp shining through a window on a dark night, this part of me can see beyond the walls of self-delusion that my ego has built around my psyche. I think this light may live on.
And where will it live? If it is true as some quantum physicists believe that everything in the universe is connected, then perhaps it will join the light of the One Universal Conscious Mind that has been evolving since the first human realized the miracle of his/her life.
How shall I deal with death while I’m still alive? By carrying on a dialogue with it when it whispers in my left ear, drops hints in my dreams, or shows up in waking life. And keep it up until we’re all talked out. Then I’ll just keep on living.
Is it better to be happy and positive instead of dwelling on morbid thoughts? There is no “better” or “worse” answer to this question. Different souls have different paths. Some are born to fly; some must explore the ocean depths. The healing way is to stop worrying about whether our way is right or wrong and start facing our personal realities with courage, honesty and love.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.