The existential benefits of death awareness
Not many of us like to talk, or even think, about death. Yet, embracing our mortality can have huge existential benefits.
I’ve always known that death is an unpopular topic – but the extent of its unpopularity became clear to me a few years ago, when I created my own coaching website, where I listed various areas which I was comfortable dealing with; one of them was bereavement. I asked a few friends and colleagues to take a look at the website and give me some feedback – and they all strongly advised me to remove the ‘bit about death’. Their argument was that the subject was ‘too morbid’ or just ‘negative’ and it would put potential clients off.
Our willingness or reluctance to think about death doesn’t seem to depend on whether or not we have experienced loss and bereavement, but rather on our worldview and perhaps our degree of personal and spiritual development.
In the West, however, death has become the ultimate enemy. There is even a movement called ‘Ending Aging’, whose supporters think they ought to live eternally. They seem to believe that life is rendered meaningless by its temporality.
In his book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari predicts that achieving immortality will be one of humankind’s major goals in the future.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has certainly thrown a spanner in the works, so to speak, in that respect. The pandemic has in fact highlighted, as if we needed it, how ubiquitous death is and how imminent it can be for any one of us.
Of course, it’s good to nurture our self-preservation instinct and to want to lead a long, healthy life. But it is equally important to be able to accept our mortality because it is a defining part of what it is to be human – and the more we become aware of it, the better able we are to appreciate our existence rather than take it for granted.
If human life were eternal, it would very probably become unbearable. Think of mythical vampires and what a curse being one of them would be!
Why are we so scared of our own mortality?
Probably because of our materialism, i.e. our tendency to place more importance on material things than on spiritual values. In industrialised societies, we’ve become so attached to our material comforts and possessions that we dread the idea of having to let go of them all. Which is what will be required of each and every one of us at some point.
The importance of preparing ourselves – psychologically and spiritually – for our own death is explained eloquently by the neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, whose approach to life and death is particularly inspiring because it blends the hard knowledge of Western science with the wisdom of Eastern philosophies.
The refusal to discuss or even contemplate the idea of death is problematic on an individual as well as a social level. In its extreme expression, it becomes a form of denial.
Social psychologists who have studied the ‘denial of death’ claim that when reminded of their mortality, human beings tend to become more defensive of their own cultural and religious customs and beliefs. Many people feel threatened by foreign cultures exactly because they expose and highlight the relativity and fragility of their own belief systems.
A rather dangerous substitute for spirituality, nationalism is on the rise across the world, and it appears to be linked to the phenomenon of denial and suppression. In her book The Drama of Being a Child, the psychologist Alice Miller (1923-2010) states that the future of democracy, and the freedom that comes with it, depends on our ability to face, rather than suppress, negative emotions.
Western societies deal with death in a much more clinical way than other cultures – ‘clinical’ both in the figurative and literal sense: most people die in hospital, hooked to tubes and machines in ICUs. The current pandemic has taken the ‘clinical-ness’ of the dying process to a whole new level, with countless people in the world losing their loved ones without even being able to say their final goodbyes.
In Buddhist and Hindu societies, people of all ages are much more at ease with the concept and process of dying – also thanks to their belief in reincarnation, which plays a big role in Eastern teachings. Their spiritual leaders, for example, are referred to as Beings who return again and again, their value measured by their deeds in successive Earth lives.
The concept of reincarnation opens up a perspective of life and the future imbued with great meaning, of which we’re all increasingly in need.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche (1947–2019) writes:
“The disastrous effects of the denial of death go far beyond the individual: they affect the whole planet. Believing fundamentally that this life is the only one, modern people have developed no long-term vision. So there is nothing to restrain them from plundering the planet for their own immediate ends and from living in a selfish way that could prove fatal for the future.“
The popularity of the notion of reincarnation has been growing exponentially in the West, also thanks to the work by scientific researchers such as Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia, and the heartfelt personal accounts by people such as Jenny Cockell, as well as many children around the world who have distinct memories of past lives.
By the same token, more and more people feel compelled to talk about death, realising that it is a way of honouring life. In 2011, Death Cafés began to appear in the UK. These are non-profit social gatherings for the purpose of talking about death. The concept was developed by the Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who organised the first café mortel in 2004.
It could be said that ‘death awareness’ has started to emerge.
The avoidance of mortality keeps us in a state of limbo, as though we were postponing our life. To compensate for it, we tend to buy and accumulate stuff and we grow attached to these material things, which make us feel safe.
Death awareness, on the other hand, frees and empowers us to make different choices. It also makes us more empathic and forgiving, therefore bringing us closer together. Above all, embracing our mortality allows us to feel fully alive.
Death awareness doesn’t mean denying our fear of death; on the contrary. If not of death itself, we’re all scared of the physical suffering that often comes with the final stages of life – and we all dread losing loved ones. The antidote to this fear is to talk about it.
After all, we’re the only animals born with the awareness that we will die and with the (relative) free will that allows us to try to make conscious choices about our life, and about our death.
The important questions aren’t: when or how will I die? But rather: will I have truly lived before I die? What will my end-of-life regrets be? And what can I do to minimise them?
This article appeared in the April 2021 issue of Coaching Today, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).