Dr Skye Scott
Death is a part of life that Western culture has distanced itself from. Reconnecting with your own morality, might just be the thing that leads you closer to your most vital self
One of the most poignant elements of the coronavirus pandemic is the new nearness of our mortality. It’s unusual for our news anchors to be sharing mortality rates each and every day. A healthy measure of perspective is so important, but not always provided. If CNN was reading our daily mortality rates due to cancer, cardiovascular disease or suicide, we would all be equally astounded. People die every second of every day. The irony is that with this new opportunity to reflect on our mortality, the rituals, ceremonies, prayers and togetherness that once shrouded times of loss, have been taken from us.
Our losses have been sterilised and sometimes stigmatised, only to be replaced with insipid, two-dimensional substitutes. Funerals on screens, families mourning together, but in isolation from one another. How do we reconcile all of this? Something about death doesn’t sit well with us. In spite of its certainty and ever present nature, we are unable to agree on a best set of practices to navigate it.
In a book titled Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying teaches Us About Life and Living, Brandy Schillace, a medical-humanities historian, suggests that somewhere in our relatively recent history, Western culture has lost its relationship with loss.This article’s intention is not to question which of these rituals is right or best, rather it’s an exploration of how we can be inspired by those who came before us to better narrate our relationship with death and dying. Sometimes we need reminders – like the small embellished shrines you find in the streets of Greek islands; to ask questions about permanence, presence and meaningful connection. The daily ritual of placing a small offering before a graceful Madonna is a marker of time, of healing and of heartache.
Buddah believes that death is our greatest teacher. If we can find pause to reflect, our greatest losses can offer us our most profound learning. Bringing your mortality near to you is the fuel to lean into your best self, to be more present with your loved ones, to take your life into your hands and aspire to your most pristine nature.
I have such a clear memory of my first experience with a corpse. It was at a biology class outing in high school and we examined the cadaver of a very old lady. I felt so inextricably alive, something vivacious pulsing through me as I stood beside this vacant vessel. I suspect the experience is different for everyone. It stirs up images from an article I read about the Torajan tribe who keep their departed loved ones’ corpses well dressed and cleaned in their homes for many months, even years. When they can afford to bury their dead, their burial ceremonies are an enormous celebration. They change their clothes, wash their bodies and leave meals beside their resting beds.
In bygone eras, communities did not have the luxury of outsourcing their death rituals and their elderly. We have evolved to give up the complex and beautiful family structures still upheld today in places like India and China. Westernisation has made clear demarcations between us and the parts of life which are more difficult, less productive, less pretty. Living closely with your elders brings brevity to your own passage of time, respect for your numbered days and sets an example for your children. Have we forfeited the gift of supporting our elders through to old age to their deaths?
The atrocities of the bubonic plague, which left the streets strewn with bodies, marked a change in the way we engaged with our grief and loss. The volume of loss disabled us from affording each death the same reverence. With the Reformation and the Enlightenment, religious authority lost even more favour and what came next was the Victorian era. The Victorians held an open dialogue about their imminent deaths. This was the beginning of the commodification of death; funeral parlours, specialised coffins, memorabilia. Their grieving practices were especially oppressive for young widows who were expected to embody their grief for two years after losing their spouses.
In Judaism, interestingly, the loss of a spouse provides the shortest duration of restrictions imposed on a griever. Loss of a parent and/or child holds a longer time-space in the community to govern your loss. There is a prescriptive way to behave and activities to refrain from for periods of time. There are also daily rituals to honour that encourage you to fully immerse yourself in your loss, so that you might emerge more radiant and unencumbered. They also offer us the anchors that we need to harbour our grief.
In the 1800s, medical advances moved to centre stage within the theatre of death. Death and dying was no longer the burden of the clergy and was now the domain of medicine and science. With mortality rates dropping due to medical intervention, Western culture developed its anti-death attitude. Anti-aging medicines and elixirs to keep us looking more youthful coupled with a shift away from public demonstrations of grief turned this previously communal experience into an intensely private and lonely one. A practice once held in many places was the participation of a professional mourner in and amongst the grieving process. In Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda writes eloquently about a self proclaimed professional mourner. These professionals were invited to funerals to inspire the depths of grief with wailing and lament. A far cry from our now restrained weeping behind dark glasses, or the detached experience of watching a burial on a live YouTube stream.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler Rosses’ book, On Death and Dying, was a revelation in reopening the death dialogue. Her insightful book, still taught in medical schools today, invited us to think of grief as having stages, namely; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Any of you who have loved and lost can surely recognise some truth in this process. She spoke of death and loss as an invitation for growth and self reflection.
I often turn to the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran who writes with such gentle elegance about the hardest parts of our humanity. He writes of death: “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.”
The ancient Jain ritual of Santhara involves a walk to your death when you feel the time has come and you have lost your purpose. These elderly monks wander across the desert to their end, giving up food and water. In contrast to the Torajans who revere their corpses, the ancient Buddist ritual of Sky Burials still takes place; involving the dissection and placement of diseased bodies on mountain tops where birds of prey are able to devour the remains. An embodiment of the Buddist concept of Samsara, which simplistically refers to an endless cycle of pain, insight and liberation. Each sky burial is a certain proclamation that the body is only a vessel untethered to its spirit.
Shillace writes how important it is for us to keep death near so that it ceases to threaten us. Anything alien is always scary. From the endocannibalism of some of the ancient tribes of North America to the preening and plumping of corpses for open coffin ceremonies today, history is full of rich and varied mourning customs. The growing ‘Death Positive’ movement in the USA invites us to reconnect with some of this heritage. At a time when we have been robbed of so many of the ways in which we find solace and closure, how are we to forge a new way of grieving? How are we to create communities to share and mourn our losses so that we can heal?
“An old Celtic proverb boldly places death right at the center of life. ‘Death is the middle of a long life,’ they used to say. Our Western lives have moved us so far away from nature. When we live closer to the earth and its bounty, we are able to witness the fruits of fallen trees in the new blooms of a changed season. Death replenishes life so vividly. Loss breeds gratitude and gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
When we reach back to our more primitive, less distracted selves, we are able to reconnect with our story. Let us begin to dispel the fear that clings to death. Let this pandemic be another turn in the road where we take back rituals that serve us and connect us to one another. I invite you to feel your pain, talk about your loss, sing your lament loudly into the open air.
When to seek help in the context of mourning
There is no right or wrong way to grieve and each person’s journey through loss is different. Listening to your inner voice is the best place to start. If you feel you are unable to cope with the everyday things that you usually do with ease, then reach out to your general practitioner to start a conversation. It is normal and completely appropriate to feel helpless, angry or even detached and numb after the initial loss.
Grief is also not limited to the death of a loved one; there are so many losses that a person can face. Loss of a job, loss of one’s personal safety, loss of one’s personal autonomy… You have a right to your grief. So often people feel shame around their pain. It is not shameful to declare your pain and give voice to it. It is the beginning of your journey towards a more fulfilled version of yourself.
While feeling your pain is a part of healing it; people often lack the support or the tools to manage these overwhelming feelings. We want to remind you here, that the signs of depression and anxiety often mimic the normal stages of grief. The difference lies in our ability to continue to function in the world. It is appropriate to feel incapacitated after a great loss for a little while; but humans are resilient, tenacious and adaptive beings. We are wired to survive. We are wired to stand up again. If your grief has disabled your capacity for any glimmers of hope and joy, then it’s time to seek help.
Anxiety and depression present with changes in sleep, weight, appetite and motivation to do things. Loss of enjoyment in all things. Intractable worry, irritability and changes in your mood are also a red flag to alert you that you might need extra support. There are so many resources out there to help you through this difficult time. Don’t be afraid to share your experience and reach out to others who have had a shared experience. If you are having thoughts about taking your own life, reach out for support this minute. You are precious and here for a purpose. Be kind to yourself and show yourself the compassion you would give to others.
If you need help, the following resources are available from www.sadag.org.
Dr Reddy’s Help Line
0800 21 22 23
Cipla 24hr Mental Health Helpline
0800 456 789
Pharmadynamics Police & Trauma Line
0800 20 50 26
Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline
0800 70 80 90
Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Line 24hr helpline
0800 12 13 14
Suicide Crisis Line
0800 567 567
SADAG Mental Health Line
011 234 4837
Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour
0861 435 787
Cipla Whatsapp Chat Line
076 882 2775
Death is a certainty. How we choose to respond to our deepest loss and pain is a choice. Join me on a journey exploring the mourning customs of others, so that we can better understand our own needs in times of loss and transformation.