Beyond the Fear of Death and Dying
Beyond the Fear of Death and Dying
by John Pollard
Death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship. This is a phrase that has kept coming back to me again and again in the past few months. It’s a line from Robert Anderson’s wonderful play ‘I Never Sang for my Father’ and it’s from a speech that I used to audition with when I worked as an actor in the 70s and 80s. But it has taken on a deeper resonance for me lately as I have just gone through another season of loss. I don’t know if others have noticed this but for me it seems like I go through periods when I experience a number of losses in a row, followed by a period of relative quiet. And then another season of loss moves in. Last December I lost my oldest friend and spiritual mentor, Susan, and this was followed a few months later by the death of a favourite cousin, Brenda.
I was fortunate, though, since I had already registered for a five-day silent meditation retreat on death and dying in early March so I had the opportunity to reflect on these losses, and on my own mortality. I have been studying and teaching in this area for a number of years as well as volunteering at Casey House Hospice, but just when I think I know something about death and dying, I get thrown out of the nest and am humbled by these life experiences. I have also come to be grateful, however, for the great gift of learning that comes with these significant losses. With each one I ‘get’ it at a deeper level that I will die, that life is short, that time is precious. And this is something I don’t want to forget.
This is one of the reasons that I am so grateful to be teaching the unit on conscious living and conscious dying in Transformational Arts College’s Spiritual Director Training Program each year. Almost 10 years ago, Gord Riddell, one of Transformational Arts College’s Co-founders, was creating this Program and I was quite honoured to be asked to develop and present this unit. Gord felt that this Program could not be offered without addressing the topic of death and dying – one of our greatest fears and deepest mysteries. It has been a great privilege to share this journey with students over the years, and there is no end to the learning that we share in this heart-centred exploration of one of life’s greatest challenges. It’s something we all have to face, sooner or later, so let’s do our preparation now.
Some key elements in this seven-week unit include:
- Opening up to an exploration of conscious living and conscious dying by examining our denial and fears around death and dying, and how our lives might change if we knew we only had one year to live,
- Finding new ways to turn toward death rather than away from it, and seeing impermanence all around us,
- Looking at practices and rituals around death and dying from various faith traditions around the world,
- Learning to embrace our mortality with compassion and pondering what a ‘good death’ might entail,
- Examining such difficult areas as suicide, assisted suicide and euthanasia, and
- Understanding the importance of caring for ourselves as we learn how to simply ‘be with’ the dying and honour their needs.
Through discussion and gentle experiential work, we explore our own struggles around these profound issues and discover new ways of helping others come to terms with their mortality. By remaining soft and open in this exploration, death and dying are revealed as an integral healing process in the human journey.
In the five-day retreat that I mentioned earlier, I experienced some deeply transformational moments that helped me to see, at a very personal level, the interconnectedness of all beings and of all experiences. I will share a few lines below that came to me during that time, and I invite you all to embark on this exceptional journey toward wholeness, toward completion. The hidden gift in this challenging and ‘sacred’ work is that by compassionately embracing our dying, we are liberated to fully experience, at last, our living. As hospice director Rodney Smith says, “We study death in order to learn how to live.”
Life moving toward death
Death greeting life
When does life stop
And death begin
John Pollard, MA, is a Spiritual Director and Psychotherapist, teaching and counselling at Transformational Arts and in private practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Transformational Arts at 416-484-0454.