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Contemplations on Death, Dying - and Life

A Conversation with Judith Pocock- Bereavement Counsellor and Founder of The Ruby Care Foundation in Carmarthenshire, Wales, UK

By Diane M. Cooper

Diane: Judith, I'm aware that you've been involved in esoteric study and research for a number of years. I'm also aware you have gathered tremendous knowledge about the arena of death and dying through the work you do in the world.

Judith: Yes. I am a bereavement counsellor, but more than that I'm a general and support counsellor in the area of death and dying, particularly dealing with people who are terminally ill and with their families.

Right now, I'm literally in the middle of setting up an international bereavement organisation. It's an international charity called The Ruby Care Foundation and I'm the chairman of it.

Diane: How did you begin to find your calling into the area of bereavement?

Judith: Well it's like anything that you might find yourself doing with your life. You don't necessarily realise when you're very young that something's tugging at you. It's only later when things start to click into place that you look back over your life and think "Crikey, that's why I was so interested when I was young." It's more like that.

When I began to actually deal with people who were dying it triggered in me an awareness that this was something I'd been fascinated by, going right back to my childhood when I had a puppy die in my hands. Something had made me stop and say, "Look! Hang on a minute... what's going on here?"

We use the word 'die' or 'death'. Sometimes, by the very act of putting a word on something, we can actually stop ourselves from being able to continue any kind of thought process with it.

Well, what happened is that this puppy died, and I realised that the moment before it died and the moment after it died, to look at it, there was actually no change in it at all. It was still warm. It weighed absolutely the same. It was still lying in the same way in my hands - but nothing was looking out of its eyes. And what's more, from that moment on it would rot - whereas up until that moment it wasn't rotting.

That was the first time, if I look back, that something caught me about what we call 'death'. There was obviously something going on there beyond just that word, just as there is something much more going on when you use the words "being born" or "laugh" or anything else. If you look behind the word there is always something else there, something more, much more.

One of the things I've discovered in my own journey is that you must be very careful if you are seeking for some kind of truth. If you find, when using a particular word for something, that it somehow stops you from thinking about it, then chuck the word and find another one. That will help you to keep searching for what you're actually trying to discover. Do you get what I'm saying? Finding an answer (using a word) uses one system in you - keeping the questioning open uses another system. If you say "the cat's died" that can stop you... whereas if you say, "something which was looking out of the cat's eyes isn't looking anymore," that allows you to move on in your thinking. It causes you to keep questioning.

So that would be how I would begin to answer you, because I realised as I went on though my life that I just kept being drawn... I found myself being in the proximity of people who were either dying or had just died. In one way or another, I just seemed to be around it. I used to feel inside that maybe I wanted to be a doctor, but really there was something in me that wanted to deal with people who were in trouble and who were near to dying.

Eventually I sought work in a transplant hospital in England, and worked there for quite a few years as a translator. You would meet somebody on their first visit and you would be with them all the way through until some years later when they died, including everything happening to them in the mean-time.

Inevitably this drew me strongly into the counselling arena, having to deal with, in a very practical way, dead bodies, and people in desperate situations and grieving. I learned how to move bodies around the world, and about all the legal matters that had to be attended to. It slowly honed me down and gave me a huge amount of hands-on experience.

So I think that's when it started to crystallise in me that I could bring some of whatever was drawing me actually to bear.

Diane: I understand. There is an urging that happens inside oneself, and words seem inadequate to describe its pull.

Judith. Well that's it. There is one thing I'm absolutely certain of, now that I've reached the ripe old age of 62.

There are other systems inside of us besides the ones we use for the processes of thinking, knowing and experiencing. I think that we have other systems inside of us that we just don't use ... well, its not that we don't use them... it's that they are more abstract, and probably sit in the feeling realm. We have certain senses that push us and very strongly influence the way we choose the things we want to do.

People use phrases like... "something made me do that" or "I just got pushed into doing that". I wonder what the system is you're using when you say, "I am fascinated by" or "I am caught by"... you can't say, "...that's my brain or that's my liver." I think there are more abstract, or subtle, systems that we use inside of us, at play all the time, and the best way we can speak about them is perhaps in more poetic terms.

What is it that drives a poet to such lengths to seek such extraordinary words to describe something he's felt, maybe to do with the sunset or the flight of a bird?

Well, it was that 'something' within me which somehow drew me always to be right there at the time of somebody's life when they were reaching their inevitable departure.

Diane: Over time I'm sure you transitioned from one way of perceiving this movement to something else... what did you observe happening in your awareness about death, from being the child who held the puppy to now having many years of experience?

Judith: Well I think it has really stayed very similar. It's certainly kept a part in me open to observe and wonder at something going on, rather than trying to explain it away or to put a set of words on it.

What can you say? There you are with somebody who is looking you in the eyes, and they fall backwards, and because of the strength of what's in their eyes it sort of pulls you with them, and then there's suddenly nothing pulling you anymore.

The wonder [of this moment] is still the same now as it was at the very beginning. But what it has caused me to be is always more and more open to the greater wonder of 'What is Life?' What do you mean when you say "that thing is alive"?

You know if you hold out of your hand as I speak to you now and you look at it, you know that it's warm and it's got things going on inside it. There's blood going into it by the arteries, and coming back out of it via the veins. There are cells in there that are living and dying. There's whole loads of stuff going on inside your hand, Yes?

Diane: Yes.

Judith: Well, if I took a gun and shot you through the head, your hand would start to rot.

What's going on? What is it that we call life? Where does it reside? It obviously goes through every single cell in your body, but the minute you "die" as we call it, suddenly all that activity, all that "something that's going on" is no longer going on. And for whatever reason, you're body starts to rot.

Now remember, it's the same thing I mentioned before when using the word "life" as there is with "death". You can stop yourself from continuing to be open to what is actually going on by simply putting a word on it.

So, if you like, this urge has taken me into a far greater openness - into looking at - what does anybody mean when using the word "life"?

And, what the heck is going on on this planet? Why is there such a thing called "life" going on this planet, and it's not happening on Mars? What is it about this planet that makes life happen here, when it doesn't happen anywhere else? What happened in the millennia of time that has squeezed out of this particular planet the fact that life can happen on it, when it didn't squeeze it out of Saturn or Jupiter?

If there's something happening on this planet specific to causing life, then can I really settle and be happy with saying it's just a kind of arbitrary happening? Because I truly cannot live with that. I can only live with the fact that something, somewhere, has caused an order to happen, in which this planet, and the life that lives on this planet, fits into that order. And, that it's an interacting order. And, if there is something that's ordered, and you have an open mind and a questioning mind, then you have to ask the next question, which is what is it all ordered against? What is its purpose?

And if you can take that step in your thinking, than you have to take the next and ask, "In that case, what is the purpose of human life? And then, what is the purpose of my life? And what is the purpose of having to get born, as we call it, in order only to die? Why?

And so you start to get into a wide, open questioning state in yourself asking "What the heck's going on here? And why should a life like mine be drawn to a series of happenings during the time a life gets born and the time it leaves, or, if you will, the time it comes on to the planet and the time it gets off again?

It's very difficult to answer the question in any direct way because its not really a direct thing that's happening.

What I'm finding myself doing is bringing to bear what's behind the question "what is life?"

If that something we call "life" happens... whether it's in a cat or in a person... on this planet, what was it before? What was it doing while it was here? What is it doing after it's no longer inside a body anymore?

There's this thing called "life". For some reason or another it gets squeezed into a body for a period of time and then it gets squeezed out again... Where does it go after that?

Diane: Have you come to any resolve in yourself about this?

Judith: Well obviously along the way you come to a lot of interim understandings, but in terms of a kind of final "Ah well that's what it's all about"... no. I don't know that in what I call an "interim time" in a human body we can actually come to all of that.

The human faculty can get to the experiences that happen whilst in that faculty. But maybe you can't get to what's not in that faculty while still in it. You might have to wait until after it's all over, and you're in whatever the next thing is, for you to be able to say, "Oh, I see. This is what that was all about."

So no, in terms of a complete and full understanding... but many, many deep understandings along the way.

Diane: Will you share one of these understandings?

Judith: Of course. For example, with the grief process...

You could ask yourself, "Why is it so painful for someone, when somebody close to them is no longer living inside their body, or if you like, when they 'die'. Why should their dying be painful to somebody else?

"

It's too simple to say... "Well, of course, you're used to having them around..." but that doesn't explain what's actually going on there.

Over a period of many, many years of research, not just by myself, but with many people, what I've realised is that two people, or frankly two things... you live in a house, or you live with a cat, or you live with a husband, or you live with a child... over a period of years you build up a whole series of what I call "harmonies" between you.

For example, when you first meet somebody, and there's an attraction there, well to begin an awful lot has to go on in the way of talking, experiencing and doing things together; and then over a period of years there's such a harmony that builds up between you that you can be listening to a piece of music... and a simple look between you will cause a series of things to go on simply because you both have a huge set of mutual harmonies. You don't have to ask, "Do you like that?... or say, "Oh I like that too" .... you don't have to do that anymore.

Now, if one person of that two-some dies, that set of harmonies is no longer there. The harmony that you had built with that person - and it is indeed an actual physical thing you build - or indeed with your cat or with your house... those harmonies get shattered. And therefore, there is a sense in you of feeling displaced and feeling lost.

Now, you have to ask yourself, "Well if that's so, then what actually makes up that set of harmonies?" Why should you feel, first of all, a harmony? And second of all, why would you feel a loss of harmony? What I've found is that you hold inside of you, because of the transference that goes on, the very best bits about the other person. Just as they hold in them the very best bits about you. That's what we call Love. Another word for harmony.

Now, there's a universal law that says, "Everything must go back to the source of its own arising". Its a physical law that's perfectly understood.

"Everything must go back to the source of its arising".

When the life that's in a body withdraws, that is the time when, for its own fortification, everything it needs [to go on] has to go back to it, for it to be the completeness it now needs to be.

So everything you held - this nice, high lovely stuff that you held in you about that person - now has to go back to them, and that's the bit that hurts, because it's being pulled out of you. The harmony that you had between you is now being shattered and broken when the bits go back to the other person. That's what the grieving process is - that's why it's a painful process as it gets drawn out of you.

However, if you are attending a person that is dying, there is for a while around the time of the actual passing... a kind of euphoria... some people call it beauty... some people describe it as a lovely sense of feeling close to a person... and for quite a long time there isn't any sadness. Now that's when the flow is going back the other way. Because just as much as you held the nice bits of that person, so they held the nice bits about you and that flows back to you, and therefore you get the balm as well as the pain.

That's just one understanding that has been distilled out of being present at, and watching and seeing, this process we call death...

And what's amazing is the fact that you have systems in you that do that...

Diane: And they are automatic... and they know...

Judith: Exactly! Just like your systems know when you're born. Nobody had to teach you to breath. Nobody had to teach you to suck. Nobody had to teach you to exist on this planet. You just came into the world, and the systems in you knew what to do. This is true in exactly the same way, at the other end of life, when that which we call 'life' has to separate back out again.

It's a marvellous, marvellous process.

Diane: Well it would certainly be wonderful if our society could make more of a magical experience out of it than what it has...

Judith: Well, Diane, I think more and more there is an awareness beginning. I have read I don't know how many books about it all, and there is an awareness happening, albeit all too slowly for my liking, of people wanting to, and indeed actually achieving and feeling, a greater emotional beauty around the area of dying. And I for one, am doing what I can to make that happen more.

Now, if you look at history or throughout the world at different tribal customs you will see that humans respond upliftingly to ceremony. Ceremony triggers a deep spiritual or emotional response - a kind of "religious" feeling around an important time in life... around a wedding, around a birth, around a naming of a person, and especially around dying.

For instance, just the simple washing of a body after its dead CAN be the catharsis that somebody close to that person needs in order not to go into shock. A simple ceremony that the human systems respond to.

I think people are seeking an experience wherein dying doesn't have to be awful and taboo, and something you have to hand over to someone else who seems to knows more than you do.

Diane: Isn't it the search for something of value in death? Even in our religions death has been made a retribution... and as payback... it no longer works and we are no longer willing to accept that.

Judith: Well, I hope not. I'm doing everything within my power, with the lectures, and the courses and seminars that I do, to get people more aware of the fact that dying isn't an awful thing. It's perfectly natural, and there are many things that you can do to help, to make that time easy and lovely and more natural, and more aligned to what is actually meant to happen.

The systems that go to make up the huge complexity that is a human being need to go through specific stages, and if you could learn what they are, then you can learn to help what needs to happen be more harmonious.

Diane: Let me preface the next question by telling you something that I was thinking about.Yesterday I interviewed someone from the Hemlock Society, and it was mentioned that, because of the lack of Doctor Assisted Suicide laws, some people choose to end life in ways that must be extremely stressful for them such as jumping off buildings, or by a self-inflicted gun shot. I felt that if it was my choice to die, and I chose to do it that way - how traumatic it would be. I wondered what I might be carrying with me, as I made my transition, and wondered if it would be enhancing or detracting to my next experience.

So given that, would you speak about the experience of coming into life and leaving it and how the manner of both might affect things?

Judith: Let me deal with the end bit first because the way you've asked the question has triggered something in me.

Going back to our "systems" again. Anyone who has had any dealings with people who are terminally ill, as they approach nearer to their time of departure, will notice that they start to talk about a lot of things that they regret, or want to get tidied up, or sorted out. Many people want to contact others they've not been in good relationships with, to work things out. Occurrences that have happened to them as children, which they may have kept secret all their lives, they now feel the need to talk about and get rid of. There's a tremendous amount of what I call "sorting out" that suddenly very urgently needs to happen. What that is, it's the systems in the person who is dying starting to get rid of things.

Now again, this is something that has totally awed me as I've watched over a period of many, many years. Obviously what is going on is at the level of "greater purpose".

What has gone on in our life here, inside of a body, on this planet, needs to be dropped. It needs to be left here. Again, it's the thing about "everything must return to the source of its arising." Whatever you've picked up here in the way of experience, whether it's left in you either joy or pain - that needs to be shed or gotten rid of, because it doesn't fit with whatever the life force is that's going to be moving on without a body. It got it all here, so it needs to be returned to here.

So, one of the things that, for example, the organisation that I'm setting up at the moment is dedicating itself to, is helping those systems shed what doesn't fit wherever the life is going that will no longer be housed within a body.

And it's not easy to get rid of because, while you're here, you also pick up things like inhibitions, etiquette, collective behaviours and moralities. So you can come near to the end of your life and, for example, be desperately ashamed about something you did as a child, find your systems trying to get rid of it, but because you may have some kind of morality in you, it doesn't allow you to talk about it. But your systems know that you've got to get rid of it here, so it isn't stuck on the life of you when it leaves.

If you look through the history of religions for example, you'll see there's always been either a priest or someone coming at the end of a person's life. In the Catholic religion, for example, it is asked if you have anything you want to confess. The person might confess to something awful, and the priest will be able to say, "All right, you've gotten rid of that, now you can pass over clean."

So, a properly trained "death companion" would know how to help and ease that time, so when the time comes for a life to separate out, it can do so cleanly, and take only what is essential for its new time, rather than what it picked up here.

Now, exactly the same thing happens at "the coming in here" [birth]. This is where you've got to go back into some of these "wonder" questions. Why do we not all turn out with the same kind of desires and wishes? Why is somebody drawn to be an artist? Why is somebody drawn to become a musician? Why is somebody drawn to be a healer?

If you could draw an imaginary line as I speak to you from left to right, and imagine that line represents the whole continuum of life itself. Then imagine the middle portion of that line happening inside a human body. So, "Life" is coming in from somewhere, it lives in a human body for a while, and it goes on to somewhere.

But the "what it picks up" during the time it's in the human body can only be processed by the human body. When it [life] leaves, it's got to leave all that behind, otherwise it can get attached to the body along with what its time in the body picked up.

When it comes here, it doesn't have the experience of being in a body - that's why it takes such a while in order to get a baby to learn how to take hold of something with its hand, or speak, or walk, because the life that's in there didn't come programmed to deal with the human body. It has to learn. But it definitely has come programmed with what I call "urge". Otherwise why do people become artists and others become mathematicians?

Diane: And that is a great question.

Judith: A huge question.

Diane: And furthermore, "what" did that?

Judith: And an even bigger question is.... why?

Because if something has an ordering going on, and it's patently obvious that it has, then it's got to be for some purpose that is beyond what is just going on here. I think it is arrogant to think there is nothing greater, or more, beyond the human. I think all the evidence shows that that's not so.

Diane: It's such a HUGE territory to consider!

Judith: And in a way you've stepped into something that I'm almost drowning in, because here I find myself drawn to the arena of death and dying, and the more I get into it, the more it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Obviously we are talking about everything to do with human purpose. And it's obvious that when life needs to separate from the body, there is much more going on during that time than would meet the eye. Therefore, I'm trying to set up this organisation to train people to be the best possible what I would call "death midwives".

If it's deemed that there should be midwives to help a life come into a body, then how much equally necessary for a helper or companion to assist in the going out - otherwise it may get stuck, and have to spend time doing that shedding after it's passed out of the life. I wonder if that's what is known in some religions as Purgatory - that time of getting rid of what didn't get rid of while still here.

What a service it is, to train people as "death companions" - those who are able and know how to accompany someone who is dying, and indeed for some time afterwards, until a full adjustment is made to not being in the body - just as a mother assists the transition from not being in a body, to being in a body in the first few years of a child's life.

Diane: Wow! I find myself being in many places at once with this! It must be a chore for you to focus some times.

Judith: Well it's just huge! And I have to tell you Diane, I find myself in a very privileged position, because I've now accompanied many, many people through the dying process, not the least of whom was my husband, 2 1/2 years ago.

I don't really get more knowledge in me - I feel as if I get less as to what the heck is really going on here.

You talked about people taking their own life or at least having the choice and how that can become not helpful to the process of departure....

Let me share something with you. My husband contracted a dreadful disease - one type of it is called Lou Gerig's disease - and it's the one disease you most don't want to get. It's called Motor Neurone Disease. Your brain dies slowly, very slowly, and you're body starts to give up, because it's no longer obeying you.

Now there came a point with my husband where I had said to him, "I can't go on looking after you unless you agree to go into a wheel chair", because his body was failing, and he'd fallen over many times, and had been faced with that. And it was the one thing he'd said to me from the beginning that he was so afraid of and didn't want to happen.

So, anyway, I had to say to him, "Okay sweetheart, it's going to have to be a wheelchair from now on, because I can't help anymore." And that night he died.

Now, I know that somehow he got out of himself by his own volition. He was full of little tubes - he had a tube in his throat to breathe with, and a tube in his stomach to be fed through - and he really was not able to do much for himself at all. I put him to bed that night, and I turned on all his machinery to keep him alive, and when I came down the next morning, all the tubes had been taken out and laid neatly by the side of the bed, in exactly a straight line... and he was gone.

Now I know he must have done that of his own voluntary wish. How he did it I do not know.

But, let's go back to what you said about suicide - well, why don't we first of all dump the word. It's like with the word 'death' - lets dump it and be open to something.

The fact that somebody feels they want to "not continue" within the body can exist at many levels. One could be because they are psychologically so disturbed, for many, many reasons, and there's a real mess going on in there, and they are compelled to do terrible things like jumping off buildings, or taking poison.

But at another level it could be that somebody is ready to go, and they've shed what they've needed to shed, and they've decided that they wanted to let go of this life and this body, and go into whatever is next. I know that's what my husband did.

Diane: It occurs to me that if someone is at peace with their choice, then any means of transition they chose would be okay for their next life experience.

Judith: well... yes!

And I think, Diane, you could be using choice even in the midst of what one could call a traumatic death - a sense of choice in yourself. For example, if you're just about to crash in an aeroplane, instead of you going into panic, you could deliberately set your mind into some kind of peaceful way of going on that could cause the passing to be very non-traumatic. Because what is trauma? Is trauma something that is in the mind? And, if you have control over your own mind, then surely you could make peace even out of what others could label traumatic? I've seen it happen dozens of times. Something seems to happen at the time of separating, when this peace descends. There is a look that comes out of their eyes that says, "Ah... it's okay... I can do this." I've watched it in young people, and in elderly people, and in babies. It's very awesome.

Diane: I understand you are in the midst of writing a book?

Judith: Yes. I don't even really know what I'm going to call it - but its going to be about the arena of what we call death and dying.

I think the reason I'm writing a book, and the reason I give lectures, seminars and courses, and am setting up The Ruby Care Foundation, and the reason I'm setting up a training for others who want to follow this path of death-companioning, is because I hate the fear and the worry and the difficulty that seem to be perceived around an area that really shouldn't be so troublesome. If there is a life continuum, and part of that life has to be spent inside a human body, then surely there should be only a huge looking forward to the time when you move on into whatever else there is for this life continuum to go into.

The medical profession looks at death as failure, and most people look at death and dying with fear and worry, or even prefer not to look at it all. It's shrouded in problems and difficulty. And yet, here I am looking at it with a huge curiosity. I'm actually dying to know... excuse the pun... just what's going to happen. I'm really waiting to see. I think it's the most exciting thing. Maybe the manner might be a little worrisome, but not the fact of it.

Now I'm wondering if, just before a life gets born here, if it doesn't have that same excitement. There might be a little trepidation at having to get squeezed down a rather narrow canal, but that's the trepidation of the body that it's living in.

I'd like to see, perhaps before I die, that I've put into place something in the world which might begin to turn the wheel of transition from fear and worry towards a natural acceptance and peace.

When people look at their own death as something quite natural, perhaps they will begin to look at their own life, and begin to see that what happens after they leave here might well be governed by what they do here.

Diane: Is the bereavement work you are doing open to the general public?

Judith: Well not in the US yet - but why not! I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get this whole part of one's life out from the closet, out from under the carpet, and into the clean and decent open light of day, so people can start to look at it and stop being afraid of it.

But I can only do what I can do. And if doing an interview with you, or whatever, can help that further along, well great!

Diane: How does someone get a hold of you.

Judith: Phone, fax, email and address: I'm here and I'm perfectly happy to be gotten hold of.

Diane: Thank you Judith