Please note that this post is a personal reflection on the experience of bereavement.
I did not originally intend to use this blog to post very personal material.
I set out to discuss different aspects of leadership and change and, in particular, the role values play in good leadership. This subject matter can involve relating some personal experiences and personal reflection, but this is not the prime purpose of the blog.
However, my family has recently experienced two bereavements in quick succession. My 55th birthday also fell in January; I don’t think I have ever been more aware of my own mortality.
So I have decided to give in to a desire to post something about my recent experiences, although I am not completely certain that it’s the right thing to do.
In doing so I do not wish to in any way compromise the dignity of those who have passed away, or of other family members who are still mourning them. I therefore say nothing very specific about the lives and circumstances of those concerned, and concentrate instead on the thoughts and emotions their passing has provoked in me.
When someone dies, and knows that they are going to die in advance, they face an inexorable journey to their final moment. They cannot pre-arrange this final moment (unless they opt to take their own life) but neither can they escape the harsh reality: their life is coming to a close. ‘The experience of living near the end of life’: the words of one of those who recently passed on. Surely it has never been more succinctly expressed.
For the rest of us, staying sufficiently sane to get through the day means we view our own demise as a distant and almost theoretical event. So distant, we can pretend it isn’t going to happen.
Such pretence is no longer available to the terminally ill. They must live their last days with the full knowledge that their time is running out. And so must their nearest and dearest, for whom the knowledge is, if anything, harder to bear. Death tortures friends and family with this knowledge and then besieges them during the merciless process of mourning; it merely kills its principal victim.
The dignity and bravery with which some people face their demise is quite awesome. Their example poses some awkward questions; could we be that brave in similar circumstances? When a condemned prisoner enters the death chamber, we cannot be certain whether there will be a last-minute, undignified begging for mercy, or a simply a stonewall of silence.
Does it matter – is one reaction better than the other? I don’t know the answer. But having recently witnessed someone ‘face down’ their own fate, I do know that dignity and bravery in the face of death are both inspiring and deeply humbling.
Rudyard Kipling sums up the challenge of facing one’s own death in ‘If’:
‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same’
The triumph of cancer remission is sometimes followed by the disaster of its return. For sufferers, like recovering alcoholics, the ‘all clear’ is a treacherous ally, to be trusted one day at a time. The unbridled joy of the first event is matched only by the abject dismay of the second.
But if we can truly see both events, and the responses they evoke in us, as impostors – a vision requiring huge spiritual strength – it seems we can genuinely react with something other than abject dismay when the prognosis is terminal. Friends and relatives might go to pieces, despite their best intentions, whilst the person on the final stage of their journey exhibits a remarkable graciousness.
The poet Gibran recognised an essential connection between joy and sorrow:
‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.’
Some people respond to another’s imminent death very well. They seem to know exactly what to say. They comfort without ever being patronising. They can even share a joke with the person who is soon to be deceased.
Others are effectively dumb-struck; it’s as if the passing away is such an unspeakable event that they can no longer even converse with the person they will shortly be mourning. This has the sad effect of squandering those last few precious opportunities truly to communicate.
And when it’s all over, what then? The body of a man once celebrated as a hero, now shrunken and diminished by illness, and left almost unrecognisable by death.
How sad it is to see a life full of adventure, endeavour and achievement reduced to a single box of faded possessions: The musical instrument that will no longer play to its master’s touch; the photographs of past exploits that no-one can now illuminate or explain; the last administrative dealings, which now seem almost absurdly and insultingly irrelevant.
Is this what it comes to?
Not quite. In the telling of stories, the man lives on. He lives on as the vital, strong, flawed and fully rounded human being he once was, not as a shell or a husk. His presence is felt, even as the stories are spoken; old laughter and sorrows reawakened, shared and felt afresh.
How can you cope with the death of someone close to you?
In the manner of your living. Each day offers the chance to fashion new stories, the telling of which will one day be the celebration of your own life. Fill each page of the book to the brim.
To paraphrase Gibran, the emptiness of your death is only the fullness of your life unmasked.
In memory of MT & ASM: I salute you both. I hope I can do half as much.