Posts Tagged ‘death’

Death, and dying are not topics that we discuss freely in our Western Christian culture; we tend to live life with the certainty of death hidden in the recesses of our mind.  It is all around us, but we dare not think of it in case the impact of it is too much to bear.

We have made enormous advances in openly discussing other existential issues – relationships and human sexuality immediately come to mind.  We have matured in our various faith (or non-faith) communities to the point that we can, at least in many quarters, discuss issues that were previously taboo, or ‘brushed under the carpet’ as we would colloquially refer to it.

But death……death is still stubbornly knocking at the door that we dare not open.  From an early age, we have been taught not to talk about it – perhaps this has not be conveyed to us consciously, but sub-consciously through the culture we live and move in, or the avoidance of the issue in our homes and places of worship.

We fear death.  Most of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves would admit to this as a factual reflection of our emotional status.  We fear the unknown, or the ambiguity, or the fact that we take that final journey alone.

Yet, if we face death head on, we find that we can liberate ourselves from the shackles of fear and meaninglessness, and instead walk in the light of peace and contentment.  Yes, that might sound clichéd, insensitive and lacking in pastoral tact, but it does have a biblical basis and a sound psychological underpinning.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and best-selling author made the point ad infinitum, in his writings and speeches, that there is meaning in all circumstances and situations, including death and the process of dying.  Our will to meaning may indeed be enhanced when we face the finitude of our earthly life and contemplate what lies ahead.  We may be, in the words of NT. Wright’s book title, be ‘Surprised by Hope’, or in the Franklian sense ‘Surprised by Meaning’.  Those of us to minister to others in such circumstances can attest to that, although we may find it difficult to articulate the profundity of our observations at the time, or to grasp its import fully without a period of prayer and reflection.    We have seen it in front of us, in its rawness and unpredictability, therefore we can attest to it in our convictions.

As part of my training as a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, my colleagues and I were required to write a  ‘spiritual autobiography’ (with the spiritual aspect not being confined to the ‘faith dimension’, but rather in the much wider sense as delineated by Frankl to include all of those experiences that make us uniquely human). This autobiography took us from before we were born to how we might envisage our death , and importantly, our legacy – not, at first glance, a particularly easy thing to do!  Nor was it in truth.  But it was, as I’ve alluded to a few seconds ago, not only enlightening, but it was uplifting.  As Frankl understood, it is only in the shadow of death that life can be seen for all its beauty, and the opportunity to realise meaning in its myriad forms presents itself more clearly and urgently.

In our Christian faith, our tradition has much to say about the topic of death, particularly in terms of continuity and a new mode of being. But how that manifests itself in practice is often difficult to pragmatically articulate, and crucially, to employ as part of a wider roadmap that can be consulted as we inevitably go astray from time-to-time.

By far the most helpful book I have come across in that respect is a small volume by Dr. Ann V. Graber, author of the incredible ‘Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology’ and a Professor of Pastoral Logotherapy.  This book, published in 2009, entitled ‘The Journey Home: Preparing for Life’s Ultimate Adventure’ is nothing short of phenomenal; Dr. Graber combines a detailed, and a times very personal insight with her talent for writing simply, yet profoundly, distilling a wide-range of pertinent issues into an accessible format.

Dr. Graber asks those questions we are sometimes so reticent to ask: 1) how can we help a loved one who is dying, 2) does death frighten us, and 3) how would we, as unique individuals, deal with the reality that we were about to die, if and when, that situation arises?

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that such questions would inevitably result in a book that is very difficult to read! Instead what we find is a book that represents a journey, or an unfolding adventure that begins with an exploration of Dr. Graber’s own transformative experience, where she confronted mortality following a traumatic injury.  She writes convincingly of an ‘expanded awareness’ that she encapsulated in this short reflection: ‘There is a wondrous life to be lived, here and beyond, as we love and serve each other!’

Throughout, Graber skilfully and gently offers practical suggestions as to how those who are facing death can do so in a meaningful way, thus confronting uncomfortable emotions that can be characterised by fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Graber describes this ‘transformation of attitudes’, it can be facilitated and understood in terms of one’s belief system, but crucially, can also go ‘beyond the rites and rituals available to a person’.  She identifies these as ‘attuning to nature, imagery, stories, art, music, and whatever helps one cultivate an inner peace in which fears melt away’.

Preparation then, is central to the process of understanding the nöetic dimension of the dying process.  Graber rightly points out that, as Viktor Frankl himself noted, we need to prepare ourselves for death before we can venture to help others.  Part of that process includes acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with the insights of religion, science, poetry, literature and philosophy and how they enrich and underpin the ‘transitoriness of our mortal existence’.

Key to Graber’s approach, as explained in her own words, is that ‘the transformative process will take on a hopeful note if it is accepted as a presupposition that spirituality is central. And that a person’s particular religion is supplemental’.

In journeying with others, Graber posits altruistic love, or self-transcendent caring, where the soul of another is touched at its core, as a liberating experience; how that works out in practice differs between individuals.  Although the overarching meta-narrative is the same, the micro-narrative differs from person to person.  Thus the ‘familial encounter, friendship, or therapeutic relationship’ is moulded to suit individual personalities, needs, desires and fears.

In reflecting on her own experience, Graber refers to the journey into one’s own ‘interior castle’ where meditation and the invocation of particularly meaningful imagery leads to a ‘communing with one’s ‘higher self’, the point at which we experience peace and wellbeing within.  This state of acceptance then is a powerful antidote to the fear of the unknown that often characterises death.  Moreover, by facing our fears directly, they lose their power to manipulate and direct our wider emotions.  Graber moves beyond ‘meditation’ and examines the role of storytelling, the arts and music as a repertoire of accessible tools which can lead to a gentle acceptance of fate.

Graber briefly touches on the conceptual elements congruent with a continuity of consciousness beyond death, based on religious insight, particularly that of Christianity.  That personal and empirical insights can be instructive to those facing their own mortality is a point well made by Graber. In that respect, I am reminded by a few short words penned by Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but are to be lived’.  One could apply such insight into the spiritual process, and experiential value, attendant with dying and death.

At our Journey’s end, Dr. Graber draws on Prof. Frankl’s maxim that our lives are a monument to our experiences and values.  It therefore makes good sense that Graber discusses memorialising and ways that the needs of the living can be expressed healthily in their grief and attendant loss of a treasured friend, relative or colleague.  In-so-doing she touches on various practices such as candle lighting ceremonies, prenatal loss memorials, commemorating body/organ donation and memorial plantings and gardens, among others. Throughout Graber emphasises sensitivity to individual preferences, a practise that is increasingly important in an evolving society that becomes more pluralistic by the day.

Perhaps the most touching part of Dr. Graber’s book is the example of one person’s specific preparation for ‘the journey home’ as explored in the final chapter entitled ‘Kay’s Legacy’.  She asks the question ‘how do we assist people who seek us out to be available to them, soul to soul, as they explore inner territory that is unfamiliar or hitherto untraversed?’  That indeed is the crux of the matter for those of us who minister to others.

Kay’s preparation was a very conscious one – she began by withdrawing from ‘earthly’ attachments such as property and business interests, prioritising healing relationships by expressing thanks for those who enriched her life, and extending forgiveness to those who had wounded her. She embraced those ‘spiritual companions’ who loved and supported her.  Her specific journey thereafter consisted of a ‘final farewell’ get-together, was surrounded by those who meant most to her.  Her funeral included participation by loved ones and a garden was constructed as a lasting memorial to her life.

Graber ‘s last sentence in her epilogue sums up succinctly the purpose of her book, that it ‘was written for anyone who may be willing to consider death as a doorway one passes through when physical life comes to an end and new vistas on the continuum of consciousness open up’.

For those who are searching, for those who are afraid and unsure of the contours of the ‘journey home’, how to live well and to die well, this book is a must read.  Our final earthly journey is an opportunity to realise meaning in profound and unexpected ways; Dr. Graber’s book provides us with the opportunity to reflect deeply on our own mortality, the continuity of consciousness and how we can embrace others.

May you journey well, Scott

The very last thing most of us want to talk about is our own death! The prospect of our earthly demise tends to elicit fear and denial, even for Christians (and others) with a philosophical understanding of the afterlife .  But it needn’t be like that.  It may sound rather morbid, but thinking about, and planning for our own death, can give us a much greater chance of experiencing a ‘good end of life.’

Judy MacDonald Johnston, who helped two of her friends at the end of their lives, writes on her website ( ‘At the end, our bodily functions and independence decline. I found that with the right people and a plan, our quality of life can remain high during this time’.  She goes on to say that ‘I wanted to share what I learned from my friends’ successful approach to the end of life. I have outlined five practices, with worksheets for each to help you to prepare for your end of life. This is a topic that normally inspires denial and fear. But if we put time into planning our end of life, we have the best chance of maintaining our quality of life‘.

Judy’s five practice worksheets entitled: ‘make a plan’, ‘recruit advocates’, ‘be hospital ready’, ‘choose a place’ and ‘caregivers and discuss last words’ can be downloaded from her website.

You might think to yourself that some of Judy’s tips are dependent upon having suitable resources available; for people who have little disposable income their choices are often more limited.  And that’s a fair point.  The sad reality is that poorer people are disadvantaged in so many respects, in life and in death. But we can all do something – for example, making your wishes known and putting together a realistic plan, costs nothing.

Something else that we can all do is to talk more about death.  It’s though talking about it that we combat misunderstandings and fear.  After all, it’s going to happen to each-and-every one of us whether we want to acknowledge it or not!

You can watch Judy MacDonald Johnston’s short TED talk entitled ‘Preparing for a Good End of Life‘ here:

It was Robert Bolt who once said: ‘Even at our birth, death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks towards us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh‘. How true.  But most of us do our utmost to avoid talking about, or even thinking about death, despite the fact that it is all around us.  A healthy acceptance of our mortality is often suppressed or even missing.

First year medical student and journalist Ilana Yurkiewicz has penned a very insightful and honest piece in Scientific American entitled:  ‘When a Patient is Ready to Talk About Death, but a Medical Student is Not‘. It raises many issues that I’m sure will strike a chord with most of us.

As a Christian Minister, death and dying are very much part and parcel of my working life; perhaps that makes me more accepting and aware of death as a natural process. But it’s still not easy to talk about.

Anyway, here is the article:

Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s Buddhism-inspired extended 2003 meditation  – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring – takes place on an isolated lake nestled among scenic mountains on which floats a small, one-room hermitage housing two monks, one old and one young. The narrative unfolds over the course of several years, and is divided into five sections denoted by the seasons corresponding to the title. Whilst each section broadly tells a story of its own, the overall plot concerns the education of the younger monk, a small boy in the beginning, as he learns lessons over the course of his life; these lessons are learned from life experience as well as wisdom imparted from his teacher. As the film draws to a close, the young man himself becomes a teacher and the cycle completes itself.

As the title suggests, the film’s overarching theme is cyclical renewal; as the seasons pass through phases of birth and death and rebirth, so do the lives of Kim Ki-duk’s characters. Concepts such as dealing with loss, exploring love, persevering through difficulties and learning lessons from life’s adversities are dealt with masterfully in this beautifully constructed film.

Ki-duk’s characters are engaging, deeply human and eminently watchable and contribute, combined with the breathtaking scenery, to a produce a film that is sensitive and thought provoking.  As such, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring is a film that is well-worth watching – the life issues explored are relevant to us all. Watch the trailer here (courtesy of youtube):

Death in dolphins: do they understand they are mortal? – life – 01 September 2011 – New Scientist.

A fascinating article dealing with a very profound issue.  How do cetaceans, complex and highly intelligent animals that they are, deal with death?  It may be impossible to determine how an animal comprehends death, but behavioural observations can sometimes be instructive (whilst also paying due attention to the oft-cited anthropomorphism caveat).   In highly social animals, such as elephants and gorillas, behavior akin to mourning in humans has been extensively documented.

This raises the question – are there theological implications arising from this scientific research?   It seems to me that we should be asking ourselves some profound questions about how we relate to the rest of creation, and the theological assumptions that underpin this relationship. For too long, Christians have fallen short in this respect – how, for example, can the concept of dominion be reconciled with a highly intelligent animal that exhibits what comes close to what some may describe as a  ‘moral’ behaviour…………?


“The only two certainties in life are death and taxes” according to Mark Twain……..and a few others that came before and after him.

So, what actually happens when we die?  All faiths and wisdom traditions have something to say about the destiny of our ‘soul’ (however that is defined) when our bodies die. But what does science say?  Perhaps this is one of the areas where scientific methodology really does not lend itself to providing illuminating and coherent answers?  Still, it is an intriguing question that occupies the research activities of many clinicians across the globe.  Investigating so-called ‘Near Death Experiences’ (NDE’s) is a contentious area of research that generates competing explanations as to what happens to the individual when they ‘die’.  Vexed questions concerning the nature of consciousness are viewed in their true light and not just as philosophical abstractions.  The evidence and arguments are complex, but their importance cannot be underestimated.

I came across a brief excerpt the other day of a presentation given by Bruce Greyson, MD, PhD speaking about near death experiences and the mind-body connection.  This presentation was part of a Nour Foundation panel discussion at the September 11, 2008 United Nations symposium, “Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness,” inspired by the philosophy of Ostad Elahi.  Dr. Greyson, who is a world-leading authority in his field, gives an excellent summary of the issues surrounding our current level of understanding of NDE’s and what they tell us about the validity of belief in an ‘afterlife’.  You can watch the clip below (courtesy of youtube):

I don’t need to believe….I know!  So says the famous Psychiatrist and founder of Analytical Psychology, Carl Jung in an interview given to the BBC in the mid-1950’s, shortly before his death.

At first glance, Jung’s enigmatic statement contrasting knowledge with belief seems rather difficult to fathom.  Thankfully he goes on to explain in much more detail the thinking behind this in his autobiography.  In his book, Jung writes in some considerable detail about an actual experience he had as a child that proved to him personally that God was very real.  For Jung the experiential was always more important than the theoretical.

Although often criticised as heretical in his espousal of a form of Christianity shorn of dogma during his lifetime, Jung’s insights are intriguing.  Take for example his perception of the psyche as existing, at least in part, beyond space and time (and therefore continuing post-mortem).  Indeed, Jung describes death as ‘the great adventure that is ahead’, a notion that is of course perfectly compatible with orthodox Christianity!

You can see some actual footage of the BBC interview here: