A journey through belief systems and their impact on life and death.
I am in a age where deaths begin to occur, parents, schoolmates, lovers, even children. My father died 30 years ago of cancer in age 59. Everybody agreed that he was “too young” to die, but he didn’t make it in face of the ultimate failure of his life’s goal: to be elected as the first mayor of our city. Life seemed not to give him any more a stimulus to go on and so he died with in a few months. He died at home, my mother was the main caretaker, assisted by myself or my sister. It was an intense time which took me 20 years to finally integrate. I had dared to look into his eyes, to create a deep heart connection with him, be there for him – while everybody else was only concerned about the outward care, the morphine shots in time – or only when we noticed he was in pain again? How to put the cushions, change the pampers, thing like that. But holding his hands, looking in his eyes, really be vulnerable and open for his pain, physical and emotional….. I observed so many things which seemed magical to me. He couldn’t speak loudly any more. Then, finally, a person came to visit him – all of his former ‘friends’ seemed to have gone lost somewhere in anonymity – he spoke up with confidence and full voice, like he did in his former life.
What is it that animates the effort to come back into life, like ‘normal’ again? And what are we really, we human beings? Everything which seems so normal, like sneezing the nose or bringing a spoon to the mouth – there comes a time where it just doesn’t work any more. We start out with birth not knowing how to coordinate our movements, our thoughts, whatever. And we end up not knowing it again. But there is a difference: consciousness. After the learning curve of a longer life we have a glimpse of what we have experienced and that we are now, in the neighborhood of death, we are aware of something missing, something we thought to possess before. And this is creating a huge amount of suffering.
All this is not new. Spiritual traditions talk a lot about the suffering created by attachment and try to unhook us from life while we are still supposed to live it fully. What for a while seemed a way to end suffering – going into deeper states of consciousness where normal reality disappeared – nowadays is not really valid any more when it is done in ways that lead to avoid life altogether. This is known under the term “spiritual bypassing”, but it’s not what I want to speak about now.
I want to speak about the beliefs about life and death, mine, yours, the doctor’s and who so ever. When my mother died of old age 4 years ago we agreed on not bringing her to the hospital for her rotten heel, because we feared she would be kept in life by all means. My brother – a doctor in a completely different field – took care himself of the needed removal of necrotic substance and the normal care, mornings and evenings, was done already for years by hired people. When I came to assist her in her last weeks I found her in a body constricted with fear and refusal. Her caregivers forced her to eat and drink in quite a violent way. She couldn’t defend herself other then close her mouth like iron gates and hide inside herself, as she could not defend her body. In the morning, when she was washed and the sheets renewed, nobody noticed her face distorted for pain, when her leg was moved. She had morphine pads – and so they assumed she had no pain and didn’t bother at all to verify if the assumption was right or wrong.
There seems to be a widespread belief that a person, who cannot speak and express herself has become an object the others can handle in whatever way they like. They talk openly about the medical assumptions, opinions, scenarios who can arouse fear in healthy people, and they do that in the presence of the ill or even dying person who has no possibility to ask questions, to express their need for comfort and respect. You can call this thoughtlessness, but I think there is this deep fear of death which expresses itself in unloving, inhuman behavior. It is only a few centuries ago that in our part of the world people loved to watch public executions. It gave them the feeling of supremacy: this time I could escape, it was the turn of those other people, and they probably have merited what happens to them. Not only an easy way to talk oneself out of guilt, but also to settle oneself in the illusion of one’s own immortality.
“What cannot be, just IS NOT”, with eyes wide shut we are used to ignore the reality of life, of ours and of every other being. Religion and spirituality tries to ‘correct’ this deep human instinct to escape and live in unexamined illusion. Sure, we don’t ask to old people any more to go out into the wilderness to die and make space for the younger generations, we even have doctors and structures for prolonger the life span. But I really doubt if we have done a quantum leap in examining our fears and correspondent false beliefs about what life is and what is death.
Christianity has done a lot in social care, in actions of love towards people. I think about the orphanages which have helped women to survive when they had given birth to ‘illegal’ children, or people like Mother Theresa who worked and still work for the survival of the poorest. On the other hand the definition of life has become a dogma: no protection for pregnancy – this is ‘against life’. Mhmm, strange. So we cannot eat eggs, because we prevent the life of a chicken, no hazelnut, because the bush cannot grow any more out of it, and every women is gulty when she hasn’t born hundreds of babys, because she has wasted almost all of her ‘eggs’ which were potential life source in their bodies.
I guess you can agree to the absurdity which arises, when good ideas freeze into dogmatic thinking and rules. Lets come back to the hospital, where I shortly accompanied an ex-partner of mine in his last days. Hospitals are good, you can have important operations which often will save your life – I myself had a cancer operation 10 years ago – and ideally there is somebody to take care of your progress towards healing. This is true, sometimes, other times not. It depends hugely on the mindset of the people working there and how they are guided and cared for in the system itself. People who are ‘grown up’, who have done their ‘homework’ and have come to terms with their own death regularly are very much able to have compassion with the person they are caring for, they can hold their hands, give them some kind and reassuring words, despite the huge amount of work which is on their shoulders. And others handle patients like so many animals are treated: no concern of their pain, they appear as objects in one’s power, rolled around like inanimate stones, touched with no regard, no explanation, no concern about the impact of what they do.
From the viewpoint of an integralist that can be easily explained in terms of ‘lower level of development’. It is good to have a roadmap where we can realize that people don’t necessarily do those things because they are bad or driven by the devil, but because in their level of development they are just not yet able to recognize another person as such, to ‘step into their shoes and see the world from their perspective’. It is similar to an 8 year old child of whom you expect to resolve a quantum physics equation. The capacity is not yet developed for that and maybe never will arrive there. I guess, you agree here. Psychosocial development though seems not to be considered yet in our world. That’s why no efforts are done to help people grow into the capacity to really care for people, deep in their own heart and being – instead of doing a job with the description: care. This sort of care can only be a superficial one, care for a wound, heal an illness, keep bodies warm and so forth. Real care begins when the emotions and the heart is involved.
And here is the paradox: doctor’s and nurses’ hearts get involved in the critical moments when they fear FAILURE, when their proven care doesn’t work, when the chemical drugs – helpful or damaging or both, not easy to distinguish – don’t work any more. Or they DO work in their clinical results: all values in the norm by help of various medicines (which often interfere with each other in not really always predictable ways) – and the patient is, nonetheless, on his deathbed. It is incredible to watch the amount of self-centeredness, which is sanctified by the official rules. How mature a person must become before he can say: “I don’t know the answer?”, before he acknowledges that his powers are limited, that her job is NOT to keep alive a being, the body, by all means, but that there is another part of the being which yearns to be acknowledged, that wants to pursue its natural cycle and would love to have support for that. That would mean that the caretakers take their focus off themselves, their needs, their fears and concentrate on the needs of the person they are meant to care for. Literally that means: don’t force a dying person to eat. A dying body knows perfectly well what it needs or doesn’t need any more. Take care for the physical pain of the person and of the emotional state. Be of real help to the person and give up to serve the illnesses and ideas how to fix them.
My ex-partner Mauro had a stroke in addition to other health issues during his stay in the hospital. He found himself unable to communicate, neither by language, nor by arm movements which were helplessly un-coordinated but nonetheless vigorous in their expression of fear and desperation. In the first days he tried with all his physical force to grap your arms and flee from this situation. It was really heartbreaking to witness this and not being able to do anything – except asking for pain medicine (his face seemed to express also physical pain) and some drugs to calm the profound agony he was living. Doctor and nurse declared that giving him morphine was DANGEROUS. Dangerous for what? That he could become a drug addict, 80 years old and on his dying bed? And tranquilizers? The orthopedist in whose depart my ex was located deflected our request back to us: if he gave him tranquilizers he would die in minutes – and if WE would take responsibility for that?? We transferred him to another depart where he got immediately morphine plasters and infusions with tranqulizers – and he didn’t die at all within 5 minutes but was finally relieved from physical pain and, within about a week, came out of acute agony and only occasional fear attacks, for instance when he was touched strongly and turned around in the bed – without anyone telling him before, because, in their opinion, he didn’t understand anyway. There wa still a doctor, an elderly harsh woman, who wanted to transfer him into a different hospital for a whole body scan, because she WANTED TO KNOW what parts of the brain was damaged. Fortunately the children, legally responsible now, insisted that it was not done for to bother less possible their beloved father. We all intuitively knew that he was dying, maybe it would go on more day, weeks or even months, but we felt that this was the end which needed to be cared for in a way which took out as many sources of sufferance as possible.
Actually, despite of his pacemaker he died unexpectedly quickly. I might be wrong, but I have an idea why this could happen. For to understand what I am saying now you need to believe, too, into the fact, that NOBODY dies without his consent, or, the other way round: when a person, deep in her being – not in the head!!!-, has decided to die, it will happen. Mauro had a very strong spirit of being free and autonomous, not allowing anybody to get involved with his inner life. He made his own decisions without too much considering other peoples concerns and did it ‘their way’ only to express his care for them, to keep them ‘quiet’. (Btw. This was a strong reason why I separated from him 20 years ago, because I was alone in his presence – by that fulfilling on my own false beliefs and deeply ingrained patterns).
Now he found himself in the mercy of other people, unable to flee and avoid unpleasant situations – as it was his habit. Furthermore he became aware that he would be a huge burden to his daughter who would have taken care for him in a very adult and beautiful way. She had used her life to grow, I was very touched by witnessing it after not having met her any more for more than 20 years. We both, in turns, had done our best to lead Mauro from his agony into a calmer state of mind by talking to him if he seemed to hear it or not, explaining him, what was going on, reassuring him by being very clear about what has happened to him and that he couldn’t do anything about it any more himself. I offered also some guidance towards spirit and religion, assuming that more often than not he was in a regressed childlike state where the miracle of the Christian stories he had probably perceived with awe and trust. There were moments of deep eye contact, understanding, connection. Outwardly hardly expressed, sometimes half a millimeter of an eyelash movement, but the deep sensing into the field between us allowed us to understand a lot – though there was always the doubt if we guessed the right thing. We moved in a constant feedback loop of inner connection, hardly perceivable to people who were not able to join us in this inner space.
The last few days Mauro was rarely ‘awake’, only a few times for a few minutes and I perceived the effort he put into it to be able to get into this contact. I reminded him about the slogan he had held throughout his life: “when you have a problem and you can resolve it, why complain? And when you can’t resolve it, why complain?”. And I affirmed that this was a problem he could NOT resolve in his usual ways. He listened. The same day his daughter signed a request for his translocation to a hospice. The next night there was a distant friend present in the room – the very fist time that there was no close person was there, (the daughter, who had been there around the clock, needed to take care of her own daughter after a week of absence and set things up in her location)– he took the occasion of leaving, without burdening any of his loved ones. Wow! Sure, this is only my interpretation of the events. But I wouldn’t be astonished if it was really this way.
Why do I write all this?
I intend to arouse your curiosity about life and death!
I myself experience the death of a loved one as a sacred moment in our lives, in his/her life and in mine. It has nothing to do with the “black skeleton which comes with the scythe’ to cut you out of existence. It is, in my experience, a sweet hand guiding you into a different reality which you are allowed to explore as you explored your life in this body. No beginning, no end, really. Only the form is changing. And when you are grounded in a similar belief than you are able to give comfort to people on their way to the other world, you can stand for them and alleviate their pain, physical and emotional. And you are given the huge opportunity for growing yourself, for becoming more aware, more caring, more human – and much less fearful! I experienced moments of profound happiness in this situation. Happiness for being alive, for being given this opportunity to experience the human condition in all its facets, the joy of being.