There is a cliché which says that there are only two things of which we can be certain in this life, that we are born and that we will die. Yet death is an aspect of life with which it is perhaps difficult to feel at ease. There may be many reasons for that, and I should like to consider some of them here, and at the same time to see if we might have a way of looking at the subject positively.
Fear and Loss
For many people, death is linked with fear, although that fear may have many parts. For example, we may be afraid of illness which leads to death, perhaps loss of strength, mobility, even speech and the ability to communicate in some instances. Death may be connected with loss in various ways in our minds, perhaps because we know that there are many things which we value in this life which we cannot take with us. That may include physical objects, but it may just as easily be relationships with people, hobbies about which we are passionate, treasured pets, abilities which we feel we have and many things which generally make life worth living. Sometimes it may not be our own death which we fear, but that of those around us, to whom we are close. That may bring up not just a sense of loss in the present, but we may find past memories returning too. It may even be that what we remember are things which we might have said but didn’t, help that we thought about offering but somehow failed to do.
The Final Countdown
All of this can bring us to what I believe to be one of the key features when we contemplate death: because it has such a sense of finality, death forces us to think about opportunities, including lost opportunities. If we believe that there is nothing beyond death, that sense will be sharpened, and it would be surprising not to think then of what might have been. If there is no feeling of what might be beyond death then the tendency will be to focus on what might have been. That may tend to drag us down if we feel that there were opportunities we have made not just to our own lives but the lives of others also.
There is something about death which involves a weighing up of things, and that is perhaps something else which causes fear in us. The threat of death, our own or that of someone close to us, may force us to look at some aspects of ourselves or our relationship with another person which are not necessarily comfortable. That can include our sense of finding it difficult to know how we will cope without someone close to us. Entering into these thoughts offers an opportunity in itself. Many people have no chance to prepare for their own death or someone else’s and it happens suddenly and without warning. Even today, when medical science has achieved great levels of sophistication and progress, this does still occur. Some people advocate living the whole of life aware of our own mortality for this reason. It sharpens our sense of what it is to be alive and we experience life more fully with this awareness.
A Bigger Picture
I have talked little so far about what difference a belief in life continuing after death may make. That may depend greatly on exactly what is believed, but it surely makes a difference not just to how we approach death but to how we live life as a whole. If we believe that something of us lives on after death, it may help to release us somewhat from the burden of finality which we sometimes carry when facing death. If someone close to us dies we may think about our need to release them and to help them in whatever way we can to make the transition between this life and the next. That may not take away the feeling of loss, nor indeed the physical suffering and pain which may be present, but it gives us a larger picture. It is so easy to see death as everything collapsing or shrinking down to a single point like the small dot gradually disappearing after a television set has been switched off. That is what our physical perception sees, especially if we are confronted with this process over a long period.
A spiritual view of death is very different. I have already talked about opportunities, and death is a gateway which leads to many new opportunities. It may be a very narrow gateway, so much so that while we are on this side we cannot see through and even seem to be looking at the proverbial brick wall.
Swedenborg, Death and Angels
Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century scientist, wrote at length in the later part of his life about spiritual experiences and insights which he was given. One of these was to have an experience of what dying might be like. One of the things which he says is that when we die we are accompanied by angels. This is said to be true of the whole of our life, but the angels present around the time of death have the special function of easing this transition. For some people, as they near death they seem not only to drift in and out of another world, but they even seem to experience that world as populated by beings with whom they feel comfortable. For others there may not seem to be this unearthly beneficent presence, but it may instead be that they are not consciously aware of it. This may also act as a comfort to us if we experience the approaching death of someone; to focus on what the angels are doing to aid both the person dying and those of us who will be left behind.
Death is a powerful, mysterious and at times bewildering event to witness. It may not always seem to offer us an opportunity for spiritual insight or growth, but it is my belief that in one way or another it will always do.
Copyright 2012 David Lomax