Growing up in the country in Australia on a farm I was exposed to the birth and death of animals which introduced me to the inevitable end to life. Those early memories may have helped to take the sting out of death, when my father died aged only 57. His doctor then, a kindly and highly respected member of the small community was unable to diagnose his illness but arranged for him to be sent for treatment at The Return Solders Repatriation Hospital in Sydney. I had left my home in the small country town earlier on to work and study part-time in Sydney. I was in the process of preparing for my final examinations when his illness arose. That involved juggling daily hospital visits, work, attendance of lectures of an evening and numerous telephone conversations with specialists. Given the absence of my mother at home, there were critical decisions to be made, not least of which was how to candidly discus the emergent terminal nature of his illness. After a few tentative efforts eventually that was conveyed to him and he returned home to die less than two months later.
What gave me some comfort was an extract from his final letter he sent me once home which said “This illness of mine is bad luck Lin, just when everything was going so well, but perhaps it is just as well that we can’t always choose our time of departure from this life. I had hoped to last another 15 years or so but apparently not to be, so I’m not going to waste time worrying about what might have been. However don’t think I have given upon hope, I’ll be doing my best to make liars out of the Doctors’.
Today, 50 years later on, I do agree it is possibly best we don’t ultimately have a say as to when we depart this life. For maybe this indeterminate nature of existence serves us well, for to know for sure what may be predetermined rather obviously risks negating both that wondrous anticipation and fresh appetite inextricably tied to our existence along with its many challenges. From the most tragic events involving the shock and extreme sadness of the loss of loved ones, in war with its ever present nightmare of sudden death, what can emerge later from that grief is a new pathway that otherwise could not have been envisaged. The writer and former priest Morris West, in his twilight years found meaning in believing life was analogous to looking back in time from a mountain top to behold a beautiful landscape of streams and valleys intermingled with raging rivers and the thick thorny bushes and nettles that all form part of painful experiences. So, in death, as that life ends, new life awakens as patterns in thinking manifest in each generation, yet to experience life’s endless cycle.
What I also found of comfort, apart from the acceptance of his fate, was the outpouring of community support as evidenced by a continual stream of concerned visitors. There was a large roll out at his funeral from the Service clubs he had so avidly supported during his life.
That was hardly surprising as it represented the ethos of that era, for he considered himself one of the lucky ones who enlisted in the RAAAF where air crew experienced 30% of casualties whilst making up from only 2% of the armed forces. As my mother remarked, he was the only one to come back amongst his mates who had enlisted. That attitude, to make the most of life was evident in their every- day life exchanges with friendly neighbours that were never shy of talking candidly about death. To jokingly conclude a hope that the generous departed folk they once knew might continue on in some way in the memory or in an energised afterlife minus the pain and suffering. That immediate post war period exemplified a search for existential meaning underpinning the growth in service clubs, which manifested itself in a communal spirit of caring communities. However, many bad things such as the plight of aboriginal peoples tended to be swept under the carpet. Elsewhere in Europe Existential Philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre became cult like figures to the army of followers searching for meaning in a world recovering from the ashes of a warn torn existence.
For rather than entertain a morbid fascination with mortality what is missing in modernity is the ability to talk freely about the subject of death and ensure one is better prepared to cope with its inevitability. A natural outcome of such discussions can be it facilitates less attachment to material things and to act as a break on greed. For most fear the process of dying, but the opportunity to talk and think about options such as palliative care services helps reduce the stress and allay fears during a dying process or in the event of the sudden loss of a loved one.
But as human beings we have limitations, for without them there can be no meaning. So that this suffering as much as it remains a mystery it is also alleviated to the extent we are able to find a form of meaning in life.
The concern over death has riveted attention in all ancient cultures embraced various ritualistic observances and belief systems that no doubt gave comfort to those that remained. In the ancient world Plato defined death as the end of a terrestrial life which led positively to an ideal in the afterlife of the soul, free from the body’s imposition and ailments. Epicurus said “Familiarize yourself with the idea that death is nothing to us, as all good and evil lie in sensation, death is the complete denial of the latter. Thus, the sore that is most thrilling is nothing for us, since as long as we exist, death is not, and that death is where we are not. ” That follows on with the idea that just as most people believe you can’t remember anything before you are born so that applies to death, so why worry about it?
But it was not until the 20th century that any form of scientific study was undertaken into the process of dying. Such studies attempted to map out patterns in the process of dying such as premonition, altered states of consciousness and what was entailed in near death experiences. Although questionnaires and studies point to a high degree of commonalty in experiences, no definitive conclusions could be drawn as to their realty or whether the results just reflect drug related hallucinations. But what one could say is those experiences brought considerable comfort and preparedness to calmly accept death, to quell any fears associated with dying. The responses described a feeling they were exposed to a number of near death experiences which involved preparedness to finally break free of all worldly attachments and the ego which was no longer necessary in an afterlife.
For what remains is an enduring mystery concerning our consciousness and precisely how it arises, except most scientists today concede the idea that it needn’t be confined to within the brain. Like trying to define a shoreline, subject to periods when it is not under water, as representing part of the land or the sea when submerged due to changing tides. There are two schools of thought, those who favour the idea that all our consciousness can be only be a product of the material brain and those who believe it to be ubiquitous. That is our minds make sense of all of our experiences from conscious streams that can exist within and outside of the realms of the brain that continually changes at any given snapshot in time. But either way it seems we need not fear death.