I have started to contemplate death properly for the first time. This contemplation began roughly one year ago, when I was in Bangkok. Running late for a Buddhist talk on impermanence, I dodged the heavy traffic as I walked across the road.
Suddenly I saw a man laying on the ground with a sheet over him, surrounded by police tape. He had been killed by a car. I stopped and stared and began to cry. Despite the hectic street, he looked so alone on the cold ground, as the police detatchedly stood around taking witness statements. I thought about his family, who wouldn’t yet have the news that he had been killed. Passers-by hurriedly moved on, and some people even giggled. (I wondered whether this was a nervous reaction to death, or whether it was because of a different relationship to death in Asia in comparison to Europe).
That evening, my Buddhist teacher compassionately told me that I was blessed to have had this real lesson on the impermanence of life. I felt anything but blessed.
In the last year, two of my good friends have also died. In January, we held a wake for our friend Bev, who died of cancer, which spread from her lungs to her lymph nodes. She was 53 years old when she died. What an amazing friend we had – always putting others before herself. Until the very end of her life, she protested against injustice. Even when she was really sick, she would go to anti-fracking camps, or demonstrations to protest against the local weapons factory. And she would drive us around in her car, doing us favours, taking us to our activist court cases (of which we had many!), sitting through long-winded trials and giving us all support.
I lost count of the number of people that she took under her wing and invited to live with her and her daughter Caitlin. She was always, always there for others, and she was the most amazing mother to Caitlin, and surrogate mother to those that she looked after.
I spent quite a lot of time with Bev in the last couple of months of her life. As we sat and ate Japanese takeaway in her living room, with Bev barely able to sit up, she told me that she only had a few more weeks to live. “But how do you feel about it?” she asked me. Always putting others before herself, she was more concerned about me.
And then in May of this year, a close friend called Karen died. Karen was 40 years old. Although Karen’s life was quite fragile, her death came as a complete surprise to me. During her wake, a friend described her as a butterfly. And she was just like a butterfly – delicate and beautiful. Karen felt all of the suffering in the world, and because of this she was able to empathise with others’ pain, put people at ease, and really relate to them. She was one of the most modest, and one of the most kind people I ever met, and I feel that I didn’t spend enough time with her. If I had really grasped that I only had limited time with her, I would have asked her so many more questions about her life and I would have made more time to just be with her.
The same week that Karen passed away, a 32 year old woman called Jojo died of cancer. We were both part of the Brighton Breast Cancer Action group, and yet I never got the chance to meet Jojo before she died. Although I never knew her, I was completely inspired by her beautiful writing, which I really encourage you to read (see here).
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, a friend tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose. He has bipolar disorder (manic depression) and told me in the hospital afterwards that he had had enough of life. Plied with pills that only seem to be making him worse rather than better, his suffering was (and is) too great for him to bear.
Although I am able to grieve the loss of my friends, and despite almost losing another friend a couple of weeks ago, I still don’t think that I really grasp the fragility of my own life. And although I know that I am going to die, and that it could be tomorrow, the reality doesn’t really sink in. This is despite the fact that all around us, people we love are being diagnosed with cancer (and despite the fact that I know that we live in a disgustingly toxic world that causes cancer, and that any of us could be next).
My boyfriend Chris, on the other hand, really realises that life is fragile. Chris has lived, and still lives, through the pain of his best friend dying, and I can see that this has had a profound effect on him. Every time he says goodbye to me, it takes him a few minutes. He makes sure that he kisses me and tells me he loves me, and then as he gets to the front door, he turns and smiles at me, and then comes back and kisses me again, tells me he loves me again, and then finally leaves.
Towards the end of Bev’s life, she was taken to hospital. A couple of hours later I arrived at A&E to see her. Absolutely all of the patients (except for Bev) had terrified looks on their faces. It seemed that everyone on the ward finally sensed their own fragility and the preciousness and fleetingness of their own life. Many people were alone with their fears in the sterile hospital.
Now, I often think back to that scene in the hospital, and I realise that similar scenes happen all day every day. As I sit and type this in the comfort of my flat, there are so many people in that hospital ward right now who are fearful and vulnerable, and there are many people who are facing death.
So I suppose that I am writing this blog post for two purposes:
– To begin a greater contemplation of death; to understand death; to no longer deny the fact that I, too, will die; to work on my fears of death and not necessarily see death as bad. I will use Stephen Levine’s book A Year To Live, to help me with this contemplation.
– To realise the fragility and the preciousness of life; to really see its beauty; to no longer take life for granted; and to live in the present moment.
A month or two before she died, Jojo wrote about a mantra “that I repeat to myself nearly every hour of every day when I start to think about the future. It goes something like:
Concentrate on the present
Don’t dwell on the past
Don’t worry about the future
Live for the now
Live for the now.”
As I will begin to realise the inevitability of my own death, I hope that the pettiness that I have created in my life will seem insignicant, and that I will no longer be harsh towards others. I aspire to become more generous; to live ethically and continue to speak out about injustices; and most importantly, to stop taking my relationships with others for granted. I aspire to realise the absolute beauty of life, and to become more fully alive whilst I am still here.