Embracing the Unembraceable: Death

Valkyrien by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892)

Oh, Death. The elephant in the room. No one wants the Grim Reaper crashing their party, right?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to mock something that is very serious. Obviously, death in its purest form is simply that: physical death, when a physical entity is no longer living in this world. Clearly that’s not something that we want to belittle, mock, or underestimate.

At the same time, what we’re all going to ultimately face—that is, death of our physical bodies—is only one type of death and the final death that we face in this life. Throughout our lives, we’re inevitably faced with countless other experiences that require us to confront the experience of grief and loss, to varying degrees of intensity. So, in the time between now and that very final death, how are we consciously approaching the fact that endings can’t be, and in my view, shouldn’t be, avoided?

What Are We So Afraid Of?

Speaking for myself, I can say that for many years I grappled with a terrifying fear of death. I still fear death, but now but to a lesser degree after years of actively working with this fear and trying to mitigate it in various ways and with various approaches, especially reading all about it and all about people’s experiences with it (as living it and as observing it). At one point when I had a health scare myself, I became obsessed with it. This idea that everything ends, and will end, and that I have no control over that whatsoever. Sure, there are things we can do to try to prolong life if we know we’re sick, ways to “aggressively treat” and “wage battle” with illness. But frankly at the end of the day, we don’t outrun death.

Is it a fear of having no control? Fear of being forced to let go, even against our will, and having no say in the matter ultimately? And yet, in our day to day lives, how much control and say do we really have over things, anyways? How much of what we truly think we command and control is just an illusion that we live with in order to feel safe and secure? Sometimes we can’t answer this question until we have a literal brush with death itself, or with an experience that brings us to the edge.

When life is going relatively smoothly, these are questions we don’t generally bother to ask ourselves. In fact, our Western culture tends to view death as quite taboo, and those who talk about it, openly approach it, ask others about it, or work closely with it, are often viewed as somehow morbid. Think of your reaction if you were to meet someone at a party who said they were an embalmer, a coroner, a funeral home director, a driver of a hearse. Here in Italy, where I live, there are lots of superstitions, and one of them is to make a hand gesture when anyone refers to anything that might lead to death (kind of like saying “jinx,” and warding off death from ourselves).

I have a radical suggestion: let’s stop avoiding the elephant in the room and admit that death is as real and as unavoidable as coming into life in the first place. And, where there’s fear, let’s try to replace it with an open mind and an accepting attitude.

When Death Comes Up in A Reading

Trump XIII in the Morgan Greer Tarot

For those who aren’t familiar with tarot, one of the most common questions that can arise when this card surfaces in a reading is “Does that mean I’m going to die?”

Well, yes. We’re all going to die. But does it mean that you’re going to experience physical death imminently? Chances are good that the answer to that is no, unless circumstances point to that anyways (ie, you’re a terminal cancer patient who’s been given one month to live and it comes up in your reading: could this be telling you to actively face the possibility and reality of physical death? Perhaps.). But in the large majority of cases, most likely what we’re looking at is the tarot’s way of gently nudging you (or even dragging you kicking and screaming, depending on your willingness) to face an ending in your life, and begin the sometimes painful but always transformative experience of transition. Death in the tarot usually signifies the closing of a chapter so that a new one can begin. Many Death cards in various tarot decks also show the hope of a new dawn. But the overarching message is that Death spares no one. No matter how rich you are, how famous you are, how physically strong you are, how smart you are, how spiritually evolved you are: endings, grief, closure, and transitions are faced by all. How we approach them and how we handle them makes the difference as to how we ultimately experience them.

Developing a More Conscious Approach to the Death Energy in Life

One of the authors I’ve turned to most when dealing with painful endings and closures, as well as grief and even death itself, is Pema Chodron. Chodron is a Buddhist nun in the Shambhala lineage founded by Chogyam Trongpa Rinpoche. Here is one of her quotes I like the most:

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”

Now, I don’t consider myself a masochist. What I take from this quote is simply this: when we learn to accept the inevitable, and when we learn to face the life-death-life cycle in our lives (painful endings, unexpected or unwanted but necessary letting go that makes way for new growth), we can move forward with more grace, knowing that this too is a part of life, and that the core self, call it the soul if you want, never changes. The essence of life encompasses beginnings and endings, as well as everything in between. The more we become aware of this, the more we can remain calm and centered in the midst of “annihilation,” because we know that every experience is simply that: an experience. Endings too are necessary. They aren’t by any means fun, enjoyable, or even welcomed, and yet, they make up a part of this journey and as such shouldn’t be ignored, denied, or repressed. They too have their place.

To delve deeper into the mysteries of the transition that death brings, you may want to visit this site that talks about psychopomp work. Many cultures around the world actively embrace death and transitional points, and psychopomps assist in these critical moments. Psychopomps have a long history in mythology as well.

Azrael, Angel of Death by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919)

My take on the things that scare us is that we would do well to take a closer look. Repression tends only to intensify the fear. If possible, bring any fears you hold surrounding endings and transitions in your life into the light, so that they can be purified and healed. Denial is a powerful and necessary coping mechanism, but once grief has been properly experienced, moving on is also inevitable and can be aided by an awareness that we all will face endings and must be ready to walk through them in the way that best resonates with us personally.

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