You can feel almost apologetic introducing the subject of death. In a materialistic society there's no future in it. Death occurs in a terminal ward, when the heart stops beating and vital signs have ceased. It can seem like a depthless chasm we dare not look into in case it draws us down.
Yet here's a curious fact. If one can discuss death without fear and anger, the most extraordinary feelings may be evoked; a balming of reassurance, humility and awe - and even joy. It is far from morbid. In fact dwelling on death seems to bring one closer to the heart of life.
Late last year I was privileged to speak with a lady called Judith who has developed an intimate knowledge of the dying process. Judith is a bereavement counselor, companion to the dying, and founder of The Ruby Care Foundation. To speak with her is to feel oneself bathed in a true appreciation of life.
"The Ruby Care Foundation," Judith explained, "was set up to provide better understanding and care for people who have received a terminal diagnosis. It also aims to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the time of terminal departure." While the immediate aim is to counsel the dying and those they leave behind, Judith sees that there lies beyond that a real need to educate the general public concerning death. The Ruby Care Foundation is a non-profit organisation which provides its counseling services for free. Financial support comes from the training courses it runs.
Judith feels that many negative attitudes towards death stem from the word itself. 'Death'; it even sounds terminal. She feels that the words we put on things often stop us from understanding the process that each word is a label for. Labels act like mirrors: we see our preconceptions reflected and don't think to search below the surface.
"What really do we mean when we say 'death'?" Judith asked. "And what do we mean when we say 'life'? Look at your hand. It's warm; there's blood flowing through it, and energy; cells growing and dying; a whole universe of activity. Now if I was to put a gun to your head and shoot you, it would all stop. Your hand still looks the same, everything's there, but it would go cold and start to rot. What has happened? The only difference between 'alive' and 'dead' is that nothing is looking out of a body's eyes anymore. Something has gone."
So while saying 'John is dead' is an end stop; saying, "Something that was looking out of John's eyes isn't looking anymore," encourages us to question, and opens insights into the very core of life.
For Judith the journey into assisting the dying process has been less driven by conscious decision than moved by unconscious impulse. Judith strongly believes that every human life is born with a particular purpose and with an in-built intuitive urge that guides us towards fulfilling it. In Judith's case life seemed to direct her almost despite herself. In the 1980s her multi-lingual skills gained her employment at a UK organ transplant hospital. This was in the pioneering days of transplants, when patients were sent there from all over the world. Surgeons had begun to recognise that patients suddenly finding themselves alone among strangers speaking a foreign language were not in an ideal state to be operated on. So Judith was employed as a companion who could explain to them what was happening and hear their concerns. This caused a relaxing that improved surgery success rates and aided recovery times.
But her role developed into something more. Because in those days the life expectancy of patients even after a successful operation was only a few years, Judith's companionship often extended until their death. She became intimate with the dying process. But unlike doctors and nurses whose jobs are to fight that process, Judith's role was to accompany it. She couldn't afford to see death as an enemy. She sought to understand and work with it, and so entered experiences that changed her life.
One of her patients was an 18-year-old Spanish boy who came from a traumatic family background. He spoke no English and, apart from his mother who had come with him but who represented his difficult past, Judith was the only person at the hospital who knew Spanish.
One day she visited his private room, to be engulfed by bedlam. His sanctuary had been invaded. The youth was stretched out on his bed surrounded by machines and strangers shouting things he couldn't understand. Men in white coats studied him and nurses jabbed needles into his body, trying to find veins withdrawn under the stress. His mother, the only person who could understand what he said, was hysterical. "He kept trying to pull away his oxygen line and trying to get away from all the pandemonium being perpetrated upon his body."
As Judith entered his eyes found and caught hold of hers, and she felt his desperation, then his immense relief that a friend had come. "His eyes locked onto mine." She sat with him, and did her best to insulate him from what was being done to his body, until came the moment she will never forget.
"He murmured, 'No puedo mas,' which means 'I can't anymore.' And then he went. As he went down his eyes pulled me down with him. And then this - thing, suddenly departed from his eyes and I was able to go free. It was tremendously moving. And I know it was moving for him too. There is a very great ugliness in trying to keep the life force in a body when all it wants to do is to go. This life just desperately needed a companion as it departed. It must have been uncomfortable for it, the life force that had been rooted there for eighteen years suddenly sliding out."
The medical world regards any death that occurs in its care as a failure, which so often results in what Judith terms 'horribly aggressive' efforts to try to keep people alive. "Did you know that in the Accident and Emergency departments of hospitals, where they use these aggressive techniques on practically every single person who 'dies' or crashes, they are actually only successful three percent of the time? What a hideous deprivation of last minute dignity. Why they still continue to do such a thing is a complete mystery to me."
What will happen to me?
Among many, many experiences she has had on the border between the twin states of being we label 'life' and 'death', Judith chose to share another that happened in September 2001 as she was companioning a woman through her final days. There came a moment when the woman asked her, "Can you tell me what is actually going to happen as I go?" It was a moment Judith could not have rehearsed; the ultimate question of one person's life. It is why a bereavement counselor cannot rely on academic training, why neither an intellectual assumption nor an adopted belief based on wishful thinking is enough. Judith could only respond to what the moment required from an all-throughout knowing in herself, incorporating intuitive wisdom and the most profound reasoning and emotion won from experience.
Judith explained to the woman that her life was made up of three components brought together from different places: a body, a soul, and a spirit. As the woman approached her point of departure the force that held these components together was slowly weakening, causing them to loosen. Soon, gently, naturally, they would separate and return to the sources of their arising. Her body came from the earth and would return to the earth. Her soul came from the soul of the planet and would be used again in planetary service. Her spirit came from elsewhere in Creation, from the wellspring of life. Meanwhile the life she had built from the conjoining of these three things would journey home to the primary source of its arising, taking with it the best of her, the finest, truest feelings and wisdoms she had gathered during her time here.
At the end the woman said, "That was very beautiful. Thank you." From that moment until she departed three days later, Judith said, "She was very beautiful, peaceful. It was so beautiful to be witness to. It felt humbling, and very honourable."
It is easy to see with logic that death is not an ending. We are more than our bodies. Life is a flow of energy, and energy cannot be destroyed. The essence of life is change, so as at 'birth' we made a transition from one state to another, so at 'death' we will transit again.
These facts in themselves are comforting, but sometimes another reality can hit. Perhaps while waiting sick with guilt and helplessness by the bed of a loved one ravaged by cancer. Or when feeling the heart of the cat in one's lap stop as the vet presses the plunger. In these moments we feel confronted by an enormous mystery. Then the assumptions on which a life is based can be overwhelmed by the terrible appreciation of how little we really know.
From such appreciations rise the fundamental questions that haunt us. How much of 'me', my conscious awareness and personal store of memories, will survive death? What does it feel like to die? Must I join a religion? What is the best way to grieve? How do you cope when a loved one is denied a natural death, but instead wrenched out of life before their time?
The passing on of someone is a most powerful time. The feelings stirred up then - in the person themselves, and in those who love them - may be the strongest and most real ever felt in a life.
They may in fact 'print' that life forever, like signals engraved on a tape, to be played over and over. This is why Judith believes there is a need for highly skilled 'death companions'.
"Just as you need a highly trained person to assist a life coming into a body, so you need a companion to assist in the going out."
The Dying Process
What does it mean when we say someone has died? There's no point asking science; it hasn't defined life yet, let alone death. Death used to be seen as something that had occurred once a person exhaled their last breath and their heart stopped beating. Now it's perceived as having happened once certain electrical signals have ceased in the brain. But such legal definitions explain nothing. After all, it's not as if your heart suddenly blows up, or your brain vanishes. Your body remains, intact and in working order, but. . . empty.
"There's something else happening," Judith said. "Life is a force that isn't just happening here. It doesn't begin at physical birth, nor does it end at physical death. It is going on. It just resides for a while in a body."
This could be described using scientific terms. Energy can't be destroyed, so energy that leaves a body can only either disperse, change frequency or retain its nature. Out-of-body experiences demonstrate that dispersion isn't inevitable, so clearly departing the body needn't mean annihilation. In fact Judith talked of the stopping of the heart as only part of a process that under natural circumstances takes nine months, encompassing a period both before and after departure from the body.
Judith explained that a human life is the result of a body, soul and spirit coming together to enable that life to do something while on this planet. When the life departs it takes the best it has gathered. Each life has the capability to attract to itself universal qualities such as care, respect and honour, which it can then give theatre to in the world. At the point of departure all that a life has given away comes back to it, and those qualities that belong in the universe are what that life keeps when it leaves.
On the other hand, that which doesn't belong outside this planet must remain here where it was picked up. This requires that a shedding occur. Pain and anger, any residue of unnatural mental and emotional process, and all that relates to the body are anchors that prevent departure. This may be the rationale behind the tradition of shriving: through confession of their sins a person is made clean to go.
Facilitating this unburdening is an important function for the death companion. Judith has witnessed time and again the urgent need felt by the dying to conduct a 'sorting out'. She explained, "The systems in you know what's going on as death approaches, and they seek settlement and fortification. People who are terminally ill, as they get nearer to their time of departure, they naturally start to talk about the things they regret, or want to get tidied up, or sorted out. There is this deeply-felt need to get it all relegated." A properly trained death companion understands how to enable a person to feel safe enough that they can unburden themselves of secrets that may have been stored for decades. It's not a time for holding onto moralities and protocols. The companion's service even extends to not using the person's name, since their name is attached to what has to be left behind. (This is why people in some cultures have separate names for their social and family lives, and a secret name for themselves.)
Once a person feels ready Judith said, "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 seen it in young people, in elderly people, and in babies. It's very awesome." Yes, there is a natural trepidation, but it belongs to the body about to be left behind. For the life of the person another journey is beginning.
What part, then, does spiritual belief play? And what happens if you're an atheist?
Judith explained that these questions tend to become irrelevant at the point of departure. The important thing is what is genuine in a person, not assumed - what their life has built for itself. "Much religion today has become ritualised; it has not always expanded as humans have evolved. So the understanding that all religions are expressions of one thing didn't happen. Belief has seemed to acquire connotations of blind not-asking-ness. Even in some cases obedience to an authority. So people build their lives on things others have put into them, not necessarily their own personally worked-out belief. All things must return to the source of their arising, so where your belief comes from is where it goes back to. There's no wrong or right, only what your life could reach to while it was here. A dying companion's job is to aid the settlement and fortification, not to convince. What you are is what you are."
What then of the person denied the nine-month dying process, whose departure is unexpected and perhaps violent?
An answer is suggested by the fact that the energy we know of as 'life' is not ruled by time in the way that matter is. Thoughts and emotions are transmitted in an instant, outside of time. So even if the body is suddenly obliterated, the outgoing life of that person still passes through the same processes. But sudden death does emphasise the role of the mourner, who can offer a very special and vital service to the departed life.
The Grieving Process
When two lives devote themselves to each other, to whatever degree and style - whether husband and wife, siblings, friends, or a woman and her dog - they exchange what Judith called 'harmonies'. With each conversation and cuddle, each sharing of a look and smile, each gift, courtesy and synchronisation of thought or feeling, something passes between them. Each lodges part of themselves in the other. Over time so much is exchanged that it manifests physically, through shared tastes and habits. They can even begin to look alike.
When one of them dies the law that 'all things return to the source of their arising' must take effect. The departing life needs to draw back to itself the best of what it has lodged in others. The fine energy it has produced and given away - through high human qualities such as inspiration, compassion and love - are the immortal produce of its time here. It needs them back to be complete for its journey onward. The feelings of pain that come with 'grief' are you feeling that lodgement of good things in you from your loved one being drawn out, to fortify them as they depart. A set of harmonies has been shattered; you feel emptied and displaced.
From her vast experience Judith offered the following advice for those in mourning.
1. Drop that word 'death' It refers in an ill-defined way to a physical process. A body has been abandoned and is now a husk. But the life that occupied it continues. It's important to try and see beyond one's personal loss to the significance of what is happening. We can get so caught up in the personal aspects of life that we miss the overall beauty. "The whole point of coming here to be alive is to die, to be able to carry on and be of service elsewhere." Judith suggests that a useful thing to do at some point in life is to actually contemplate a dead body, in order to appreciate the difference - and absence of difference - between a living body and a dead one.
2. The flow of pure human essence is two-way. As the departing life draws from you, so you in turn get back the best of what you have lodged in them, receiving it as a balm. This is why around the time of the actual passing those left behind may feel a kind of euphoria or a lovely sense of closeness to the departing person. So try not to be closed and insular in your grief, because this can impede this beautiful process.
3. "Forgive, let go, move on." It is a great service to the departing person to make sure that all is clear between you, that no guilt or secrets linger, that all regrets are resolved.
4. After the clearing comes the fortification. Continue to think well of them after they go. This is the origin of the wake, in which a life is celebrated rather than a death regretted. It also explains the eulogy, which Judith said, "is the formalising of a very high service, re-placing a person's qualities back with them to fortify them in their passing." The fortification process is particularly important in cases of sudden death.
5. Ceremony is an essential part of grieving. "The higher feelings are triggered and allowed to flow by ceremony." Judith regrets how in modern times the preparation and burial of bodies has been commercialised. She would like to see ceremonials returned to the family whenever possible. Washing and dressing the body, for instance, is a service that can provide a very great balm for the bereaved.
There is so much more that could be said. This article has barely touched on an enormous subject, the biggest of all. In conversation with Judith it feels as if each minute opens a territory it would take years to explore. The feelings are overwhelming. Death is not a subject one can distance oneself from, yet there is no foreboding, only reassurance.
Although there can also be a demand for self honesty. I have to admit, for instance, to a 'ugh!' reaction at the idea of viewing - or washing! - a corpse. Could that be because of what I have attached to the word 'corpse'? Which causes me to ask what that says about my attitude towards death. And then what does my attitude towards death say about my attitude towards life?