Of course while I write purely from my own perspective and based upon my own (ongoing) reflections upon my life, my ideas and by the law of averages or statistical probability; I suspect that there are at least some people out there who can identify with my own position. It's not a leadership issue; instead I'm hoping to find that I am alongside some other people on this subject. After all, it's instinctively comforting to be part of a herd...I must have evolved from a Wildebeest.
So; just exactly what is it about death that has in the past made me give the subject a wide berth? What is it about death that still has me creating an internal feeling of discomfort when the subject arises in conversation? What is it about dying that gives me the heebie-jeebies, the collywobbles, the willies or a mild knipchen fit? It would be easy to - as I have done for most of my life - wave my hands, dismiss it in terms such as "Well it's obvious, isn't it?" and walk away from the subject yet again. But this time, I'm going to hang in there and brazen it out - because until I do so, the aura around the subject will probably not be dispelled for me. It's time to be brutally honest with myself about my fears.
Let's address those fears about death that I am most aware of;
· Being 'not alive' any more and somehow knowing it, thereby suffering - again, somehow.
· Being 'not alive' and yet somehow wanting to be alive again.
These two encapsulate what my child-mind decided long ago were the worst things about dying, and so this is where - now that I'm being honest with myself - my emotional energy was most actively and consistently diverted from. What, I ask myself, am I doing here today, as an adult, still with these thoughts? Objective assessment tells me that I am making a major and child-like assumption or presumption; namely that consciousness somehow transcends the end of physical life. In all probability, this idea is a corruption or perhaps a development of my Christian upbringing, which of course has at its very core that critical notion of life after physical death. I no longer have a religious faith of any kind, so it's probably long past time that I revisited these two scary thoughts with a different perspective.
Other fears that I am aware of include;
· Dying painfully.
· Dying young or otherwise 'before my time'.
Hmmm...yes, well dying painfully is probably a reasonable one, don't you think? I'd guess that the majority of us would concur with that one. Pain isn't fun (no, BDSM fans - it really isn't!), and for me it tends to cloud my reasoning strategies, to the extent that I become recognisably fatalistic and inevitably hypochondric about almost any undiagnosed ache. In particular, however, I hate the idea of enduring a drawn-out painful decline, and I think that while I know that I really despise being in pain, one of the things I dread most about it is not being wholly me as I am enduring such a hypothetical end. I am afraid of not being able to completely live each of those moments; of not being able to give to my loved ones as much as I would hope to give as I slipped towards death. Even writing about it has tears filling my eyes. Thankfully, however, there is a strategy for managing such events; hospices are the places where people in our society can end their days surrounded by caring people, an absence of absolute rules (You want your pet with you? Why not!?) and expert medical attention and pain management by specialists in the field. While I don't plan to need those facilities, it's good to know that the alternatives (i.e. pain or no pain) are not as black and white as I thought when these ideas were first forming in my young mind, rather longer ago than I care to dwell upon.
Dying before my time: this one makes me smile wryly. I am now approaching fifty years old (mentally going on twenty five), and the spectre of dying as a 'young' man no longer has any real meaning. It's time to admit that I'm no longer young - I'm not exactly old either, but if I were to depart this planet tomorrow I might feel rather cheesed off in the moments of awareness before the end. My final thoughts would probably be about my loved ones: my wife and children, who, in return, love me. Since I have already had almost fifty years, however, I'm more fortunate than a great many billions who have not reached even this moderate age. So, 'before my time' takes on a new meaning these days for me - a meaning of...well...meaninglessness. Thinking further about it, what did I used to believe was 'my time'?
As a child I set my sights upon the age of eighty as a good target for shuffling off this mortal coil. I don't remember why, although I have a sneaking suspicion that eighty probably seemed like a ridiculously great age to reach. I grew up without any grandparents, the last of them (my father's mother) died when I was a babe in arms, and none of them reached the age of seventy four before giving the bucket a good kick. Indeed, my maternal grandfather died in his early forties, ostensibly as a result of injuries sustained in the First World War. I didn't, therefore, have any elderly role models about me (and much to my chagrin, had nobody to utterly spoil me!), and so to that very young boy the age of eighty - greater than it was than any of my grandparent's age at death - probably seemed like a reasonable improvement. Nowadays, I'm not so sure!
My wonderful, gentle father died two years ago after several years of degenerative illness, at the age of eighty one. My mother, dear old lady that she is, is still charging about at the age of eighty four and is showing few signs of slowing down. It seems, therefore, that the standards have been raised, and I'm in turn raising my ambitions and now aiming to reach ninety!
Hang on though; just what is 'my time'? Do I even have a time to call my own? Of course not. It's all a bit silly, I think. I strongly suspect that the phrase and concept of 'his/her/my time' are simple euphemisms that - in the UK at least - allowed us to avoid saying nasty truths like "such-and-such a person died at an early age which makes me feel sad about the fact that they didn't get to live the normal expected life span"...although in comparison, all that would be a bit of a mouthful, I admit.
My time is - let's face it - my time; it happens when it happens, and it's not as if I have any recourse if I feel a mistake is made!
I think I can ditch that idea, then. So; what's left? What else is there about death that I have been historically afraid of? Upon reflection I think that there really is only one fear left;
· There is nothing after this life.
In some ways this is the umbrella fear; from underneath this one, peep all the others. Perhaps I should have addressed this one first, but in my defence I plead mild mental and emotional chaos...
During my Catholic upbringing I was taught that there was an unending life after death; either for better or worse. This created a strongly-protected belief that heaven was a place I wanted to be (although I must acknowledge a nagging yet honest doubt that it all sounded rather vague and hopeful) and that hell was to be avoided (and similarly, it all seemed to be more like a scare story with no details, than a genuine fact). In short: there was more than this physical existence, and I think now that my acquiescence with religious dogma was more about me wanting to believe that there was more than just this life and that death was not the real end. The notion of it all just stopping after a paltry few decades seemed entirely unfair and something of a waste. Because of this, I wanted to believe, because believing stopped me from having to face the alternative - that frightening thing which seemed to be so deeply wrong.
I believed the Christian teachings for two main reasons: I had been taught to do so to avoid eternal damnation (quite a motivation despite the nagging feeling that it all seemed rather too simple!), and because doing so helped me to believe that it would, in spite of everything, all turn out right in the end. Those were my versions of religious belief; my particular reasons for needing a psychological crutch upon which I could lean throughout my journey towards the end of my small life. Things, however - and I am mightily pleased to note this - tend to change.
Some years ago, as I mentioned earlier, I left behind my religious beliefs. For me it was a case of relinquishing my hold upon a heavy weight that I had painfully carried for my entire memory. My religion, if truth be told, had probably never been completely honest. I'd believed on the outside because I had been taught and expected to, while inside I had always had doubts. With the innate Occam's Razor-like thoughts of a child, at an early age I had seen through the dogma and regarded it for what it plainly seemed to be: fairy stories made up for us to feel safe and to give us meaning. Believing was an established Catholic duty, and a bit of a personal insurance policy (after all, what if I was wrong and it was all true?) for when the reaper's scythe falls. Now, those particular beliefs have gone, and as a direct result I have been able to face my fears about death with more honesty and clarity. Without the religious baggage that I was carrying around, the issues are more simple for me.
The fact that we all die - that all forms of life so far as we understand it, die - is not in itself the tragedy that I used to believe it to be. It's simply the way of our universe. We all die, and as sentient creatures we all face that certainty from billions of different perspectives. Some people - probably more than many of us would be comfortable with - face death with a sense of relief and therefore welcome it. Others face it with apprehension and fear. Now, rather than having a terror of it, I find myself in the 'apprehensive' camp - and I'm only apprehensive about it because I'm enjoying myself and would much rather not stop doing so. I'm surrounded by a small group of people who love me, and whom I in turn love just as much. I would prefer not to have that come to an end, and the certainty that it surely will is something that I don't relish. It's a bit of a bummer, really, but I accept that I can't prevent the end of my life (although I'll do my best to hang on as long as I can).
For me, there is nothing to be afraid of after we die. The fear is only about before I die. After death there will just be nothing - of that I am convinced. This means that my previous worries about some kind of anguish after death seem rather foolish and childish (as they certainly were). I won't be anxious about not being alive: I won't be anything (except, perhaps, fertilizer). I won't miss my loved ones because of this, the emotions around this issue exist only now, while I live. They will miss me, but I won't be able to know it - there will be nothing, because my world will have ended. There is nothing to fear after death, because there will be nothing to endure.
Pain? Yes, I think that fearing a painful death will stay with me - but I'm OK with that one; it makes sense to me, and I know from my own life experiences that nasty, horrible deaths are not the normal way for people to leave the rest of us behind. Fear of dying horribly will prevent me from taking risks such as putting my head on a crocodile's mouth, dangling my tie into an industrial meat grinding machine or failing to unplug the tree chipper while I clear a piece of wood out of its jaws. Some fear is appropriate and useful but it's worth remembering; most people die peacefully. As for the blackness - well I won't know about that one either. I have never been aware of the moment when I fall asleep, and that gives me some comfort about my very last moments - it is for me a hint about what crossing over from life to death will probably be like. Intuitively, that makes sense.
There will be no regrets, no suffering, no anxiety after I die. I will be merely a collection of memories in the minds of those who knew me, a face on fading photographs, a name on a family tree, perhaps a name on a park bench overlooking the ocean somewhere and hopefully some entertaining writings into which I have poured my self. It indeed comes to us all, does death; there is no escaping it, and so with that thought in mind, what matters to me much more than death is life. I'm not a parachutist, an explorer, an adrenalin junkie who lives life on a dangerous edge, but I can enjoy life in my own way and lay the ground for my own tiny legacy; the memories I leave for those wonderful people I love.
My own father's death has taught me to be me; not merely to be 'dad' to my children, but instead to be who I really am - still at heart that young, foolish, devil-may-care adult with the world (at least theoretically) at his feet. Suddenly it is important for them to know me, rather than the label. It's important that they know I was a class clown at school, an academic under-achiever, a promising but uncommitted rugby player, an expert driver (yes, really!), a self-conscious worrier, a clown at work, a mistake-maker - and so many other things. These are the things which I have been, done and experienced, and these are the things which will become a legacy of memories about me.
It seems to me that the tragedy of death lies in how few of us remain in memories as real people rather than the titles and labels we use every day. I want my children and grandchildren, when I am gone, to remember 'Leo' as much as they remember their father and grandfather. I would love to think that they can tell stories about me that make them laugh, shake their heads at my foolishness, my kindness, but most of all, share the knowledge of my love for them. The thought of this makes me cry today because I never want to leave, but nevertheless it's the truth - I don't wish for a better legacy, because I can't think of one.
Death, then, is becoming a reason for living well, rather than something which limits the way I approach life. In that way it is becoming a positive influence (I'm a work in progress) rather than a shadowy 'thing' only to be dreaded. My very personal route to this realisation was the relinquishing of my personal religious 'beliefs'; for you it will, I am sure, be different in some and possibly many ways - I'm not in a position to make a judgement, and it really doesn't matter. It's personal - very.
What I do believe matters most is that as we all head towards death, we take the opportunities that present themselves for us to enjoy our lives. There's no need to go base-jumping or paragliding if that's not already your thing; I'd suggest that you just do the things that you enjoy doing (and of course try whatever you fancy!), whatever they may be: remember it's for you and nobody else, and the people who truly love you will ultimately only want you to have enjoyed yourself, just as you feel that way about the ones you truly love.