Dimensions of Death by Anne Gereaghty
The one certainty in life is death. A Chinese politician, a native of the Amazonian jungle, a Wall St banker and a single mother in a Manchester housing estate lead very different lives but they have one thing in common – one day they will die. Yet death remains the great unknown. A recent survey revealed that discussing death is still taboo for 80% of people. It seems we are afraid even to think about it.
Perhaps we have enough on making a living without pondering our dying. But death is not separate from life; death is life. Without death, life would have no meaning. In fact being alive at all depends upon death, after all, the First Law of the Jungle on this planet is: ‘Eat or be eaten’. Being alive involves a continual encounter with death whether we are aware of it or not.
I was not aware of it. I never thought much about death at all; my focus was on coming alive, learning to love, being awake to the wonders of life. What mattered was life here, not an afterlife with white lights, smiling bodhisattvas, angels on harps or thousands of virgins, depending on which brochure I read. I had the vague notion that when we die we dissolve back into existence, God, the light, stardust, I didn’t mind what word was used, and we live on in whatever is our legacy, in memories, in the hearts of people who loved us. Then, out of the blue, my son Tim died. Many inexplicable things happened and I could no longer accept such a simple description of death. Neither could I accept the versions of afterlife given to me by various religions. I began a journey into death.
I explored Christian, Pagan and Tibetan Buddhist ideas of death. I researched Near Death Experiences. I read astrophysics and linguistic philosophy. I took Ayahuasca in a ceremony with a shaman. A medium channelled information for me from the Spirit World. I was seeking the answers to a multitude of questions – and I was looking for Tim. Had he dissolved into nothingness or was he still alive in another realm? Do we have one and only one life or are we re-incarnated thousands of times? Does our spirit live on in paradise or only in the hearts and minds of those who loved us? Do souls continue in existence forever or is death an absolute ending and we no longer exist?
Several months after Tim’s death, Jo, his widow, Martin, Tim’s stepfather, and I went to Samye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Scotland. We were hoping to find some guidance through our grief. While meditating in the temple Martin had a clear message that he must meditate every day. Jo had the message she must take up her art again. I got no message. I wandered out into the Peace Garden, sat down heartbroken and alone. Of course there would be no message for me, Tim’s death was utterly inconsolable. Suddenly I heard a voice say, ‘You must write a modern book of the dead.’
I was shocked. I am not prone to hearing disembodied voices and thought that in my grief I must be hallucinating. Besides, I was so lost in heartbreak I was incapable of writing anything let alone about a great subject like death. But I began to write down the vivid dreams I was having, dreams in which I met Tim and we explored his death together.
Our conversations revealed aspects to death unlike anything I had heard or read before. Gradually I came to see that our modern lives are very different from the lives of C12th Lamas in Tibet, rural Indian mystics or mediaeval Cardinals in the Vatican and so we cannot rely only on mediaeval myths or ancient eastern culture to inform us about death. For a start, in our culture we are complex individuals with many aspects; when we die, each aspect experiences our death differently.
Some parts may simply dissolve, others may continue to exist in the lives of others, other energies may need to re-incarnate to resolve themselves, other aspects may work through the energy fields of the cosmos in a different way, and so on. A death is as complex as the life that precedes it; we therefore need new understandings of death rooted in our current ideas of human nature and the workings of the universe. In my vivid dreams, Tim and I began to explore what this might be.
One time on my search for my lost Tim, I went to a Spiritualist meeting. The medium gave messages to nearly everyone there, but not to me. I concluded this was not my scene but at the end he called me over. He told me he had a different kind of message for me that was to be given in private. ‘You have a silver box and in it are unpolished diamonds. I am to tell you that these are very important.’ I thought, ‘This is rubbish, I have neither a silver box nor rough diamonds.’ But he continued. ‘There is a young man here but you don’t need me. You and he are in far deeper communication than I could ever be. And you two have a job to do together.’
I had been hoping for some kind of proof that the meetings with Tim were ‘real’, not all in my own head, but this was a consolation of a kind I supposed. I thanked him and went home. Later it struck me. My laptop is silver. Maybe my dreams and various thoughts on death were the unpolished diamonds. Perhaps I could write a book that could be useful for others after all. It did not have to have the answers as, of course, no such a book could be written. How could it? Only a dead person could write one. But dead men don’t write, jump, wear plaid or do anything. I began to write about death, the ultimate journey into the unknown.
It wasn’t always easy. When Tim died I was devastated, shattered into pieces, and each fragment experienced and described his death differently. Some parts spoke of myths, memories and introjections, others of God, spirits and angels, others of energy fields, black holes and dark flow; some parts of me wept at the inconsolable loss while others wondered at the mystery being revealed. I learned we need many languages to talk about death – of course, a life has many dimensions and so does a death. And so does a grief. Time and time again I had to let go of Tim as he was, the Tim that died, in order to find him as he is, the Tim that lived.
In one of the last vivid dreams I was walking along the ridge of a fell. I saw Tim standing ahead of me and ran towards him, delighted to see and hug him. We walked arm in arm with birds, butterflies and bees all around us. I was walking with my dead son through a landscape full of life. It occurred to me that Tim had died to the world, but not to life. He was alive in this dream. He was alive in me. He was a living presence even after death because while alive he had loved, struggled, danced, suffered, created and become his own unique self in so many aspects he could not die. Not all of him anyway. Death is only annihilation for those who never lived. Come alive while you are alive and you will be alive in some form or other after you have died. I hadn’t spoken but Tim laughed. ‘You’re getting it, Mum.’
We reach a point where the path forked. One path went down to the left and the other headed further up the fell. Tim stopped and disengaged his arm. ‘This is where we must go our separate ways.’ Tim held my hands in his. ‘It is only for a while. Then we will meet again. Differently.’
I nodded but could not speak. If I had spoken I could not have restrained my weeping. I would have clung to him and, in the desperation of a mother’s grief, would have refused to leave this death. But in this dream I realised that to choose death while alive was a betrayal of the deeper river within which Tim and I were finding each other again. I had to leave and walk into another loss in the long goodbye of death.
I silently took the other path. Tim watched me as I walked back down into the valley. I did not look back – I would have cried too many tears and turn into a pillar of salt. But I knew he was standing there looking at me as I walked away. I knew he was waiting until I had vanished from sight, then he would continue his separate journey.
After that dream I realised that while alive I will find Tim and the meaning of death in life, when I am dead I will find Tim and the meaning of life in death. And death is real. Many ideas about what happens when we die are consoling fantasies to protect us from the utter heart-breaking finality that is death, yet the fact is: I will die and so will you. Even though aspects of us may continue in a multitude of forms and energies, the I that is me will die. When we die our fear dies, our ego dies, our personality dies, our body dies, all that lived in time and is therefore temporary dies. But the individuals we have become in our modern world contain many qualities, energies and archetypes, and not all of these will die.
The ego that is the vessel for these aspects dies but the energies contained within that ego are released back into life, the cosmos, wherever is their next fulfillment in the mystery of existence. In this way, for each one of us, our death will be unique, because what happens to us when we die will depend on how we have lived. The more we come alive, the richer will be our death. And to come alive we must face our fears of death. Yet many of our fears of death are not about death at all; they are unresolved fears of life that we then project onto death to avoid facing them. Death then begins to look like whatever are our worst fears. The reality of death is very different. So what is death?
There can be no objective answers to that question, because what is being addressed is a person not an event. Any exploration of death therefore involves an exploration of ourselves. One crucial dimension is how we love.
Love has been defined as the gift of oneself. When we die we give ourselves, and all that we have created, back to life. Death could be seen, therefore, as the ultimate act of love. As Hermann Hesse wrote, ‘The call of death is a call of love. Death can be sweet if we accept it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation.’ And as I discovered on my journey into death with Tim, the person dies but not the relationship we had with them, not the love. Wherever we locate our dead loved ones, in paradise, in our hearts, in the cosmic energy fields, in the is-ness that transcends all duality, the great truth is that love does not die. Which makes loving each other while we are alive even more significant – we are creating our eternity. As Rumi wrote, ‘In the way you love is the way God will be with you.’
Camus wrote: ‘There is but one freedom, to put oneself right with death. After that everything is possible.’ I came to understand what he meant. Facing death releases us from our fears. This frees us to live our own life and die our own death with a fearless love. What greater goodness is there than this? Then we can answer the question, ‘What is death?’ Our life is our answer.