Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Arctic Terns and Lupin Flowers: Reflections on Relentless Thoughts

“The Arctic Tern is one of the most aggressive terns, fiercely defensive of its nest and young. It will attack humans and large predators, usually striking the top or back of the head. Although it is too small to cause serious injury, it is capable of drawing blood. Other birds can benefit from nesting in an area defended by Arctic Terns.”
Migration – 

Our road trip through Iceland had to be one of the major highlights of 2016. I loved that hauntingly beautiful country.  This past week I spent time looking through photos and came across this:

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Arctic Tern COLONY you might be attacked by hundreds of angry birds, wear a hat and or hold a stick or Lupin flower above your head. 
 
We spent a few days in the Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, staying at a Mountain Lodge, 17km east of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. Taking a walk along the rugged coastline we came across the sign. Our amusement was cut short as the hilarious warning became a chilling reality – we became the focus of hundreds of very angry birds! Running for our lives like the students in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” there was no time to pick a Lupin flower – just get me the hell out of here.

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Months later I now sit in the peaceful forest surroundings in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland with no Arctic Tern in sight. Only the ones in my head. It is amazing what happens when you take time out; the very act of seeking solace in quiet spaces can become a minefield of a thousand thoughts and some of them are very angry. We should go into times of solitude and reflection with warning signs: “You might be attacked by hundreds of relentless, incessant thoughts – stick a Lupin flower in your hair and smile.

As a serial ‘overthinker’, an empath, and an only child, this blog is dedicated to all tortured souls out there who, like me, asked ‘why’ long before we ever said ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’!  Those not wired this way tend to see our questions and cynical streak as negative – and they have a point! We all have our shadows. Understanding that our critical mind can very quickly morph into an Arctic Tern Colony is an important step in self recognition. Just like the folk on the opposite spectrum can fly into the positive hyper-reality of Neverland, never to be seen again.

Existential angst is the hound that snaps at our heels on a daily basis. What a menacing beast it is. We look for meaning and everything needs to be analysed critically. Mistakes and regret are some of our worst nightmares. We have a small-talk phobia and would rather pluck the hair of our big toe than listen to cliches or one word answers. We connect deeply with the German word “Sehnsucht”, or unfathomable longing, that takes our mind on tours and detours as we search for significance and essence, just like Indiana Jones hunts for ancient artefacts.

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Some of us have found meaning in faith. Identifying with the author of Ecclesiastes (another obsessive overthinker!!) who wrestled with profound profundities and in exasperation declared that God has placed eternity in the human heart, we ponder all our lives and still don’t get it (3:11). The great, late C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” My own personal thousand rabbit holes of thought leads me back to the life and claims of Christ – but it is not an easy, ‘happy-go-lucky’ faith path. Rather, I go through seasons of doubt, hounded by questions that I know are veiled in mystery that greater minds have pondered for centuries.

But I digress! Back to those Arctic Terns that at times take it upon themselves to disrupt our peaceful state. Lupin flowers, it seems, are Iceland’s answer for this force of nature. The Nootka Lupin is a native to North America. It was introduced to Iceland in the first half of the 20th century to combat erosion, speed up land reclamation, and help with re-forestation. The Nootka Lupin has proven to be effective for land reclamation. However, some are concerned because it is spreading too quickly and becoming too invasive, and this delightful purple flower has now earned the name ‘Alaskan Wolf’.

362036164-nootka-lupin-reykjanes-wildflower-meadow-flowerIcelanders suggest taking this beautiful, purple perennial pest and waving it wildly above our heads to deter angry birds targeting our scalp. There is a lesson in this for all fellow overthinking empaths out there. When critical thinking begins to turn us into brooding balls of melancholy it is time to deliberately find some invasive forms of happy thought and swing them around in our head like a maniac. We don’t ban Arctic Terns, they need to be recognised and acknowledged, but we draw a line when they start to shit on our heads. 

So what does that Lupin flower look like for you? A bungee jump down some mountain cliffs? A long walk on the beach? Getting out your paint brushes and creating art that has no rules attached? A motorbike ride? A visit to the state library or national gallery? A good glass of red and a cigar? A cup of coffee with a dear friend? Singing in the rain? Goethe? Jazz or Viking Metal? When we open our eyes, we discover that we are surrounded by Lupin flowers.

Arctic terns come and go. We don’t pretend they don’t exist. They do and they have a role to play. So do Lupin flowers. Through the yin and yang of life, we discover that for every Arctic Tern there is also a Lupin flower. Remember that, dear friend. Pick your favourite flower, wave it above your head, and do a wild dance … just for the heck of it!

Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” – Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery)
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