Do you ever think about death?
It’s a strange thing: put like that, most people react with a slight frisson of distaste or fear. ‘Why do have to be morbid?’ they imply.
Some people think about it all too frequently: it’s always there on the edge of consciousness. A possible escape route, maybe, or a fascination. ‘What’s it like? Can I imagine it? Is it that bad?’
Others have to deal with it as part of their job – police, medical staff, undertakers, ministers.
Fact is, death is all around us. It’s part of the world envelope in which we live. Things start off, are born, emerge, come to life. Then – after a while – they finish.
Why is it such a big issue? Why do we find it so difficult to accept? It’s just one of those things – like the sun shining and air being available to breathe, isn’t it? Why does someone else’s death affect us so much? And I don’t just mean the death of someone we know but the deaths of those we have no hope of knowing – those recently identified remains of two soldiers killed in WW 1 or the 370 killed when that building collapsed in Bangladesh. As soon as we focus on the fact of their no longer being alive, we feel touched by it.... hopefully.
We can, of course, become immune to news of death. That’s deeply worrying. Why? Because once we become less sensitive to dying and the fact of death, then society (pace Mrs Thatcher) weakens and we begin to lose our ability to live together. That’s a main argument against entertainment of all kinds that depends on stimulating the adrenalin rush that pain and death can bring. Too much of that and our systems shut down levels of sensitivity. That’s bad enough as a result of war or natural disaster. To promote that process in the name of ‘enjoyment’ is, at the very least, irresponsible.
I’m part of the people I live with, whether they’re known to me by name or not. Their quality of life impacts on mine.
This week I’m dealing with the unexpected deaths of two people. Professionally, there’s the logistics and creativity of dealing with the process well – supporting, managing arrangements, comforting, leading funerals and so on. But there’s also the other side: what have I lost by their deaths? In the light of what’s happened to them, how should I live now?
More carefully, perhaps. More caringly, certainly.
You see, I realise that – when these people were alive – I had many opportunities of enhancing their quality of life. Did I take all of them? I don’t think so. Now I don’t have the chance. That diminishes me.
If I am prepared to give more of my life to raising the life-experience of others, that revitalises me. If I react against that and don’t care about how others are doing, it’s actually I who lose.
‘There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’
Their deaths will still happen and there may not be much I can do to delay them. But I can certainly contribute to an improved prelude to death – what we refer to as ‘life’.
I know not everyone’s my friend.
But perhaps I should act as though they were.
By Nigel O’Dwyer, who leads Goring New Life Church, and lives and works in Worthing.