Monday, November 26, 2007

Accepting your death and talking about it to those who will stay behind

(This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 20th November 2007)

Channel 4 programme points the way

A man in his 70s who spent most of his life in the practice of Zen Buddhism recalled an encounter concerning death.

It had occurred many decades previously when he was training under the eye of an old-style Zen master. He had been contemplating the subject of death and had become rather comfortable with it, thanks to many hours of meditation.

Foolishly, he informed his Zen master that he no longer feared death. The master responded by jumping on top of him – they did that sort of thing in those days – and commencing to strangle him.

The attempt went on until the student had almost lost consciousness. Luckily, he had previously spent some years at sea and had learned how to take care of himself. He managed to land a punch on the jaw of the master and to free himself.

When he regained his breath, he berated the master for almost killing him.

But, the Zen master replied, I thought you told me you had lost your fear of death?

I presume the Zen master was trying to convey, in a way which would be barred by health and safety regulations nowadays, that if you say you have lost your fear of dying you are probably fooling yourself and anybody who believes you.

Death in other cultures
The dread of death seems to be common to people in Western cultures but this isn’t always so elsewhere. There’s a tribe in Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean which believes that everyone dies at 40. Even if, after reaching 40, you are walking, breathing and talking, you are still, essentially, dead. I apologise, by the way, to anybody who is staring down the barrel of the Big Four Oh but do remember that this is Micronesia we’re talking about.

Far from struggling against the idea, people over 40 seem to see the whole thing as a form of retirement. For instance, they don’t work as hard anymore. After all, they’re dead. What do you expect?

This acceptance of death and dying is found in many Buddhist traditions too. Indeed, in those traditions in which there is a belief in reincarnation, the ambition is to get to a point at which you can finally die and don’t have to be reincarnated anymore. That’s an attitude most of us in the West find baffling except when we’re sitting in a traffic jam on the M50.

In facing our own deaths, there is the question, if we know it is coming, of what to say to those who are closest to us. Many men, I suspect, would be inclined to take a sort of stoic attitude to it and to speak about it as little as possible. We would try to be good, strong men who are not going to upset other people by talking about our deaths. But in fact, talking to our partner and children could help to ease the pain for everybody.

The Mummy Diaries
These thoughts were prompted by the Channel 4 series, “The Mummy Diaries” about how mothers facing death through terminal illness interact with their children. The first programme in the series was reviewed by Olive Travers in last week’s TvScope so I won’t to into the details here. But essentially it seems to bring great comfort to children and partners if the mother talks to them about what is going to happen and if they gather up memories for after her death (these include letters, to the children, memories, advice for their future lives and so on). In other words, the whole family becomes involved in what is happening to one of its members.

It all seemes so much healthier than denying that anything is going on at all and keeping everybody isolated in their own world of pain and fear.

The final programme in the series is on Channel 4 next Thursday night. It’s worth watching. None of us knows when we might have to deal with the issues it raises but the approach it promotes has an enormous value, in my opinion, not only for mothers but also for fathers who are facing death through a terminal illness.

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