Are We Prepared To Meet Death?
Blessed is the one who anticipates his death and makes his actions sincere.
Blessed Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib
I was there when people were dying and most people were shocked and appalled when they were dying.
In our modern culture reflecting too much on death is considered morbid. It is a social faux pas to linger on the theme of death in conversation. Yet, spiritual teachers from all faiths urge us to remember death often and to prepare for it. In the Islamic tradition, a spiritual awareness of death is to realize that it comes to everyone and that it is a meeting with your Lord. Thus, the wise person prepares for it with good deeds and acts of worship. In addition, I am fomenting a new understanding of what it means to prepare for death, through the works of Stephen Jenkinson. For him, the wise person also recognizes that death is part of life and her preparation is to learn how to be fully aggrieved, rather than full of fear at the prospect of her life coming to an end. The Islamic approach and the approach that Stephen Jenkinson hearkens after are not mutually exclusive, in fact, I believe a thriving spiritual approach necessitates repeated practice with the experience of death and dying.
By way of background, Stephen Jenkinson is a lesser known public figure. He has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School and a Masters of Social Work from Toronto University and previously worked as a grief counselor at a large Canadian hospital. He is the subject of the documentary film, Griefwalker and authored the recently published book, Die Wise. Not surprisingly, the subject he deals with most is death and our death-phobic modern culture. He argues that death has been so medicalized in our culture, as to almost appear absent. Rather than recognizing that death is part of life, as we would if we were witnessing it over and over again, death takes place behind hospital walls, with much anesthesia and sedation. We are denied any kind of intimacy with death and in its place we are left with a terrifying fear. In a recent interview, he gently asked his host: “Ask yourself: why, if everybody knows they’re going to die, why are so many people sedated when they’re dying? And I would suggest to you it’s because few people know they’re going to die.” Dying is something that happens to everyone else. We have heard it is inevitable, but we have not fully grappled with this is our minds.
Part of the trouble with our approach to death is our medical culture. And in saying medical culture, I do not mean that the culture is confined to medical spaces. The trouble is the way we as a people approach health and well-being and treatment. As Stephen Jenkinson says, we have a mentality of “if you can, you should.” In other words, if you are not well, you should do everything you can to reverse this state, even when you are dying. The result is that the “the patient is under no obligation to be dying when they are.” This results in a kind of mania, under which the hospital staff, family and friends labor to sanitize the fact of a person’s dying. As he puts it, “patient satisfaction is the goal, not dying well.” The paradox is that the patient does not experience satisfaction. Instead, the patient experiences a prolonged death, a death that is extended due to advanced medical technologies meant to sustain life. This creates a burden on everyone. The patient does not evade death but rather dies longer, the family witnesses this struggle and the ideal death in our minds becomes that which is quickest or least burdensome. However, in Stephen Jenkinson’s view the ideal death is not one that is evaded, but one that a person approaches frankly, with great sadness.
The antidote he proposes for death phobia is learning the skill of broken-heartedness. We must acknowledge that the reason we love the spring flowers is that we have witnessed their death a thousand times, and seen them replaced by cold wind and snows and the beautiful bleakness of winter. Their beauty lies in how fleeting, and thus, how precious is the fact of their flowering. Similarly, when it comes to our relationships, he says, “loves understanding [must] include its limits.” In other words, the intensity of our love for one another comes not from the fact that we will live forever, but rather from the realization that we will be parted from the beloved. When we are blessed with the chance to experience the rawness of this parting it enhances our humanity. Also, through witnessing the death of our loved ones, we are reminded that our own lives are fleeting. In allowing our hearts to sorrow with each parting, we awaken to the reality of death. In other words, “If you live deeply, in an adult fashion, your heart will break and your skill will be to be heartbroken on schedule.”
Arguably, Stephen Jenkinson’s experiential approach to death is foundational to an Islamic or spiritual understanding of death. If we were allowed to witness death in a raw, less medicalized way, we could better reflect on its gravity. As Stephen Jenkinson puts it, “the midwife of real alertness is grief.” In other words, the experience of broken-heartedness, unmitigated by pain medication and treatment after treatment, would help the believer to truly anticipate death. This heightened awareness would assist us in practicing our faith with sincerity.
Below is a recent interview with Stephen Jenkinson. For more on Stephen Jenkinson, see his website http://orphanwisdom.com. A host of interviews can be found at the following link https://orphanwisdom.com/interviews/
Contributed by E Shittu