A quick note before my blog post:
My heart hasn’t been in my writing for a while, which goes some way to explaining why my posts have been few and far between over the past few months. I started writing again today – for the first time in a long time – and the following reflection poured out of me, even though I was attempting to write something completely different. I believe that everything happens for a reason and so I have decided to share this very personal reflection about life and death with you. I’m looking forward to getting back to writing my blog more frequently so expect to hear more from me soon!
I always thought that I was okay with the concept of my own mortality, until a beloved friend died in September 2016 after a brave battle with breast cancer.
When she passed, I was utterly devastated. A torrent of sadness and grief washed through my body and I cried like I had never cried before in my life – not even when my own estranged father passed away in 1999. I cried for the loss of this wonderful soul, I cried for the tragedy that she would no longer be around for her loving partner and beautiful daughter, I cried for the tremendous loss felt by her family and friends, and I cried for our own friendship – for the knowledge that I would never again hear her laugh, feel her loving embrace, or experience her amazing warmth, kindness and generosity. Most of all, I cried for the world’s loss – it was completely unfathomable to me that such a gentle and loving soul could be deprived the opportunity of continuing to share her positive energy with the rest of the world.
I fell into a deep grief which lasted for several months, and I found myself struggling to go about the business of living. At first I thought it was just because of the shock of losing a good friend – my first adult friend ever to pass away. Yet as time went on, I started to realise that something bigger was happening to me because I wasn’t processing my grief in the way I had in the past. There’s probably several reasons for this, including the fact that hers was the first death I’ve had to deal with since my mental health issues, along with the ups-and-downs I was experiencing throughout all of 2016 as I stepped down my medication dosages in stages with the help of my doctor (and then there’s the fact that I just turned 40 in July…). Whatever the reason, it didn’t change the reality: I just couldn’t summon the strength I needed to do more than the absolute basics.
I happened to be starting several months of vacation time not long after she passed – the first real holidays I had had in years – and had been excited to make the most of the valuable time I had off, with plans to write, create and travel. Yet none of that happened. I half-heartedly wrote several blog entries and then I threw in the towel because my heart just wasn’t in it. I spent the majority of my time off mindlessly watching television or scrolling through Instagram, attempting to distract myself from the general malaise I was feeling. I switched my phone off, avoided all other social media and stopped responding to messages because I just couldn’t bring myself to communicate with anyone. Besides the weekly trip to the grocery store I remained in my house just passing the time, unable to clear the fog I was in.
Having already experienced several years of depression and anxiety, and having been slowly-but-surely improving prior to my friend’s passing, it was disorienting and disappointing to find myself back in a state of depression, even though this time felt very different to my past experiences. Yet here I was. After more than four months of being withdrawn, I knew I couldn’t stay hidden away forever. I challenged myself to deal with my feelings, accept them, and move forward.
As part of the process of confronting and working through my emotions, it suddenly dawned on me that some of my grief was probably about my own mortality, whether I chose to admit it or not. Whilst this realisation came as a bit of a shock at first, it’s not really that uncommon. When someone dies, we can’t help but be reminded of just how fragile our own lives are. That doesn’t mean we’re being self-absorbed; in fact, I believe it’s one of the few times that most of us give any serious thought to the reality of our own existence. Granted, it’s hard not to think about death when it’s so front-of-mind following the loss of a loved one.
What took me by surprise the most, however, was the realisation that I was not as okay with death as I had thought I was. At first I didn’t want to believe it; after all, I make a point of living my life without regret, so why should death be an issue? But when you really think about it, being down with death isn’t something that can really just happen; it’s inevitable that it should take work, because it’s the biggest thing that will ever happen to each of us in our lives. It’s the paradox of the human condition: we are aware of our own mortality and (usually) spend our lives doing whatever we can to avoid it, even though death is completely and utterly inescapable. Nobody gets out alive.
Thinking about your own mortality is, for many of us, such a complete and utter mind-fuck that we inevitably avoid thinking about it. Instead, we focus on the myriad of things that we as a species have invented to occupy ourselves in this mortal existence while we look for reassurance that there will be an afterlife because, in general, one of the greatest fears of humankind is that we might cease to exist. There’s a reason that we’ve been coming up with doomsday prophecies since the beginning of time.
Don’t get me wrong – I believe that we are part of something bigger and that this physical existence is just one part of our existence, but the reality is that nobody knows for certain what will happen to us after our bodies cease to function. If there is something, great. If there’s not… well, there’s no point getting upset about it because you won’t be around to worry about it, will you? You can either spend your life wasting your energy running from death – physically, emotionally and spiritually – only to have it catch you anyway, or you can simply accept it and get on with making the most of the time you have. I know, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. But it is what it is. Countless generations of humans have lived and died throughout the history of our world, just as they will in the future. With acceptance comes a sense of peace and freedom – by accepting the inevitable, it makes it that much easier (and invigorating) to live each day to its fullest. To truly live.
As I worked my own way through all of these feelings it suddenly dawned on me that this was not just a truth, it is THE truth. It’s certainly no secret – it’s the single most universally known fact in the world – yet, for most cultures, it remains the least talked-about or acknowledged fact known to humanity.
Then it hit me. We need to talk about our mortality in order to not only accept it but to truly embrace it, and this is the key to true happiness. This is the conversation that we all need to have with ourselves.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone – and I mean everyone – stopped running from the inevitable and, instead, really made the most of every single day? If we stopped spending all of our energy focused on all the things we have constructed to distract ourselves during this life – money, politics, physical beauty, celebrity culture, etc. – and instead spent each day truly celebrating life? Wars, discrimination, poverty – these really are all things that do not have to exist.
Regardless of your spiritual and religious beliefs, there is great inspiration to be gained from reading The Serenity Prayer, written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and commonly used in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, which asks:
“… grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And (the) wisdom to know the difference” *
Since our mortality is something which cannot be changed, it is up to each of us to find our own serenity with that inevitable reality. Instead of expending energy worrying about an inevitability (or running from it), embrace it and let it drive you to live a fuller, richer, more meaningful life every single day that you have the good fortune to wake up and exist in this beautiful world of ours.
As I continue on this journey of recovering from grief, I am humbled that my beautiful friend continues, even after death, to help me realise that there is so much still to be learnt about life, love and happiness. Because, when it all boils down to it, it is only through accepting the fragility of life that we can truly recognise the many dimensions of its infinite beauty.
And that, in itself, is serenity.
* Note: I’m aware that I have removed the reference to ‘God’ – I’ve done so because there is an invaluable lesson to be learned from the rest of The Serenity Prayer, regardless of your spiritual beliefs. No disrespect is meant.