Beauty / Health

Life after life: on death and our fear of the unknown

You never forget the moment you got the news. For me it was the voice of a woman I had never met, sobbing unremittingly down the phone line. I waited, silently, because what else do you do? And finally the words came, cracked and garbled but unmistakable: he’s gone. 

There is nothing that prepares you for sudden death. It’s a meteor searing through the atmosphere on a perfect day, precipitated by nothing, obliterating everything. There is no heads-up for the notion of ‘gone’ in the total sense. For a human being, in this case a man, who was, only days before, hovering in your bedroom doorway, fishing for compliments on his new shirt, casually scoffing a bag of cashews without offering you any, now simply being … not here. 

It seems an odd thing to say, but I suppose I was lucky in a way. My first experience of someone close to me dying happened in my early 30s, when I was a fully-fledged adult with a mind developed enough to rationalise the irrational, that could self-soothe and employ learned coping tools – some healthier than others. I was lucky in that this man wasn’t a partner, or a parent, or God forbid, a child. But he was a close friend who had come to be something of a brother over the two years I’d known him. Our rooms shared a wall and I’d fall asleep and wake up to the sound of him fussing about, always doing, packing for a trip or stumbling in from a boozy night out, talking too loudly on the phone, forever making deals. He was annoying and endearing, endlessly frustrating and utterly lovable. He was a force, a flame so white it left everything around it a little singed at the edges. His abrupt and tragic exit was enough to unravel my tightly woven world, to rock the ground under my feet with enough vigour to change the terrain, profoundly and irrevocably. I couldn’t have known it in the moment of that gut-wrenching phone call, but his absence would become the space from which my life regrew itself in a way I could not have foreseen. 

Death has a way of doing this to the living. It changes the game, radically. It can, and often does, catalyse a crisis of meaning, sometimes even a full-blown spiritual emergency. The questions we are forced to ask ourselves in the absence of a loved one call everything we believe to the witness stand – they are questions so stirring to the psyche they will, if we let them, unfurl a path to greater enlightenment but not before plunging us deep into an existential quagmire. It’s here, in the dark, disorientating aftermath of loss, we inevitably meet with the trembling current of dread that underlies the human experience: the pernicious terror of our own mortality. 

According to Ernest Becker, the psychologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Denial of Death, the fear of death is in fact the mother ship of all fears, the central channel to all peripheral concerns. It is, he suggests, the insidious influence that impels the protective behaviors we see in the human species when we’re deeply afraid – the kind that drive division and form the root system of all suffering. “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” he surmises. And yet it’s a fear that seems to be encoded in our DNA, there from the moment we breathe life into our tiny fragile being. The instinct for self-preservation has ensured the survival of our species for millennia – it’s the will to live that sends us running at superhuman speed from predators, keeps us from cartwheeling near the edge of cliffs or cavorting outside in thunderstorms with a bunch of forks. Without a fear of death we may live in a state of perpetual bliss, but for how long? Maybe the intrinsic fear mechanism that promotes survival isn’t what Becker’s on about, given it’s something we seem to need – but rather the point at which a healthy fear of death becomes a blanket denial of mortality. 

Western culture in particular has grown extremely adept at avoiding one very simple universal fact: that we’re all going to die and we have no idea what happens after that. We’ve evolved into a supremely controlling species; we crave certainty and constant assurance at every turn, in all of our endeavours. To contemplate the abyss is to disturb all of our carefully constructed notions about the solidity of our world, the accuracy and permanence of our material reality. And so we bury our fear of the unknown in the deepest recesses of the subconscious and pave over it with distractions – with doing, consuming, and constant task-making. But a fear buried is a fear planted and like a weed has the potential to grow rampant and unmitigated, creating conflict from within and eventually monopolising our cultural, psychological and behavioural patterning. This idea is the basic premise of ‘terror management theory’, derived from the early work of Becker, which maintains that the fear of death is essentially ‘the worm at the core’ of human existence. It’s a bit of a depressing thought. If fear is the nemesis of joy and happiness, and the fear of death is the root of all fear, and death is the one absolute certainty we all face, does this mean we’re condemned to live out our short time on earth in a constant state of nagging unease? Or, is it possible to unearth our subcutaneous terror and transform it into something useful? 

Stefan Hunt is a filmmaker, author and artist, who after experiencing his own struggles with anxiety, decided to tackle the conundrum of death head-on. After spending a couple of months off the grid trekking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, he was inspired to write a poem. It was called We’re All Going to Die. By what seemed like fated circumstance, the poem soon became a published book and, a year later, evolved into a self-funded festival that sold out completely and attracted some of the biggest names in the arts. To design a festival around confronting death might sound morbid to some, but the ultimate message Hunt is trying to communicate is a positive one: “Fear less, live More. We’re all going to die.” 

As he explains it, “We’re not trivialising the tragedy of death in an attempt to be some kind of shock value art movement. It’s painful. It hurts. But it’s inevitable. Ten out of 10 people reading this will die. That’s the truth.”

“We believe death is the most powerful force to live by,” he tells me. “For us it’s the ultimate perspective check of what’s important and how you want to live your life. So many of us are held back by fear – judgement, rejection, failure, the unknown. The list goes on. But comparing the prospect of taking a risk in life and failing versus the prospect of death is a game changer.”

The thought that death is inching closer with each passing moment can mean one of two things to the human psyche: that nothing matters, or everything matters. Hunt’s message is founded on the latter and is interestingly one that’s shared by the thousands of people who claim to have, oxymoronically, survived death. I’ll confess that over the last couple of years I’ve developed a fascination with the phenomenon of the near-death experience (NDE). I’ve probably watched, read, and listened to over 500 accounts of the soul’s journey beyond this earthly realm (I am, and have always been, a dedicated procrastinator) – the stories are compelling, confounding, and many of them, extremely convincing. Some of them completely defy all logic, science and reason. Most of them, if not all, completely altered the life trajectory and belief system of the experiencer. Atheists become believers. Money-driven egotists become humanitarians. Billionaire bankers become healers. The common thread being that each and every one of them return from their otherworldly jaunt absolutely, irrefutably certain of three things: that we have a soul, that soul is eternal, and that soul has a reason for being. One of the most notable side effects seen among experiencers, though, is a total eradication of the fear of death. In fact many of them now look forward it. While none that I’ve come across condone suicide, they all seem to share a sense of excitement at the prospect of one day returning “home”. Debate continues to rage about wether or not NDEs are ‘real’ experiences or just hallucinations produced by the chemical processes of a dying brain (although one guy I researched woke up in the morgue five hours after being pronounced dead – science is yet to satisfy me with an explanation for that), but what’s undeniable about the NDE is the subsequent shift in mindset that consistently occurs in those who claim to have had one, and it’s the reverse of what one might assume. The awareness of an afterlife far more splendid, loving, liberated and expansive than this one doesn’t seem to render our three-dimensional reality meaningless to the experiencer, but rather they return to human form with a renewed lust for life and an urgent desire to fulfil their “mission” – the thing that they, and all of us apparently, have been sent here to do. In other words their experience of death simply reaffirms life. They no longer see death as some impending horror to be sequestered from our thoughts but rather, like Hunt said, the ultimate perspective check on what’s important about being alive.

This embracive view of death is far from exclusive to near-death experiencers and anomalous individuals who put on arts festivals – it’s seen throughout history and in societies all around the globe. In traditional Mexican culture, for example, death is accepted as a natural part of the human life cycle and dealt with accordingly. The annual Day of the Dead celebration is exactly that: a celebration, carried out with joy and revelry to honour loved ones who have passed but also to remind the living to cherish their limited time on earth. Aboriginal Australians, like many indigenous cultures, share a universal belief in the indestructible nature of the human spirit and that death is just a necessary progression in the eternal rhythm of life. In the traditional belief system there is no fear of death as such, because people don’t die in a real sense, they are simply released from the bonds of physical form to continue their soul’s journey elsewhere or be reborn into another form. 

Similarly, in Bhutanese culture death is neither denied nor dreaded but rather normalised and integrated into daily life – in fact if you’re Bhutanese you’re expected to think about death at least five times a day. The aim of this practice is to remove any fear or taboo around what is simply an inevitable fact of life. While that might sound unnecessary and even horrifying to the death-phobic westerner, it has been shown that practicing death awareness or ‘mortality salience’ may actually increase happiness and reduce depression (it’s a widely known fact that Bhutan ranks among the happiest nations in the world). In 2007, a study was conducted by psychologists at the University of Kentucky in which subjects were divided into two groups: one was told to think about a dreaded visit to the dentist and the other to focus on thoughts of their own death. They were then given a word game that allowed the construction of either positive or negative word formations. Interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the group told to think about death produced significantly more positive words than the group told to think about a painful experience. The results showed that the positive coping response produced by mortality salience might in certain cases be an antidote to anxiety rather than a cause – as suggested in Terror Management Theory – which goes some way to explaining Bhutan’s impressively high Gross National Happiness. Based on these examples it would seem that the benefit of contemplating death and engaging in a cultural dialogue around dying is twofold: firstly it prepares the psyche for what’s to come, and secondly acts as a pretty effective reminder to fully appreciate and enjoy life. “Death is associated with pain, grief and sadness, so naturally we choose to look the other way and ignore it entirely,” says Hunt.

“So not only does this denial make it more taboo to talk about, when it does eventually happen to a loved one we’re unprepared to deal with it.”

This is not to suggest that the people of Bhutan, or Mexico, or any other culture or individual who embraces and even celebrates the idea of death lacks the impulse for self-preservation or denies the universal experience of grief. Grief, as those who’ve been gripped by it know, is a cataclysmic force that no amount of philosophical understanding will ease in the immediate aftermath of loss. There is no way to perfectly prepare for losing a loved one, but it seems that by having a cultural narrative around the concept of death and a ritualistic means of handling it, grief is allowed its full expression and the bereaved are offered a constructive framework through which to process it.

If all this rings religious alarm bells for some of our secular rationalist readership, I get it. There’s no doubt that religion has been responsible for perpetuating much of the fear we feel around death, and I do think we’ve rightly abandoned many of its unhelpful propositions (shockingly, fiery damnation hasn’t sold so well to Millennials), but overall atheism hasn’t done much better. A lack of belief in anything beyond the material world creates the perfect conditions for the kind of nihilism that proves useless at best, and deeply depressing at worst, in the face of tragic loss. The idea of an eternal nothingness, the permanent deletion of all we call the self, is a horror too great to contemplate while cradling a dying loved one after a long battle with illness. An atheist hospice nurse may not be the person you want at your bedside when it comes time to check out of this crazy hotel called life. “Don’t worry, Karen, absolutely nothing awaits you. Lights out!” There is definitely a lot to be said for our increasing cynicism as a society around organised religion – for debunking dangerous myths and dismantling dogma that only serves to divide us as a species. But in rejecting religion as a whole, I wonder if we haven’t done away with some of its more valuable notions around the existence of a soul, an afterlife, and pretty much anything beyond ourselves. Are we inadvertently feeding the beast of death anxiety by denying a spiritual aspect to life and blocking any conscious contemplation of our mortality? If, as Joan Didion said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then maybe we must also tell ourselves stories in order to die.

In the weeks and months after that shattering phone call back in 2013, I couldn’t help but feel my friend, almost tangibly, around me. It could have been a trick of the mind, a story I was telling myself, a coping mechanism, a symptom of the shock and confusion of loss. But in the end I don’t think it mattered. Whatever force was guiding me in the aftermath of that fateful event knew what it wanted me to do. It was direct, instructive and powerful. It had heat, a sense of propulsion, just like him, and a voice louder than my own tiny tangled thoughts. It commanded me, without hesitation, to move. To change. To burn everything to the ground and start again. To live with the ferocity and zeal of someone who knows they’re going to die. And so, rendered choice-less, I did. I let the dark blanket of grief smother me completely. I let the fever of urgency explode every mental blockade I’d ever constructed to keep myself safe. I let moments of liberation and relief enliven every sense. I let the carnival of feelings run rampant inside me. I cried, loudly and unashamedly. I danced on tables. I saw healers and psychics. I meditated in the morning and drank myself to sleep at night. I said yes to everything. I found solace on the shoulders of strangers. I stared into the eyes of my friends and family and saw more than I had ever seen. I spared no moment my heartache and my rapture. I dove right into the rapids and popped out the other side, battered and breathless but permanently altered.

Steve Jobs said, “death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent”. In the end I look back and realise that, ironically, it was death that resurrected my spirit – a passion and appreciation for life I had muted with the routines, habits and stresses of daily life. I was always inspired by the way my friend lived his life, with such wild enthusiasm. But as much as I admired that quality during our time together on earth, his impact on me was most profoundly felt in death. It was as if, unbounded by form, pieces of him could inhabit me and become like a ghost in the machine that drove my life further and deeper, towards greater meaning and purpose. Almost as if I took my hands off the wheel and allowed the strange, dark, tragic, confusing, transcendent experience of death to live through me, and for that brief moment of its reign explode all fear, all resistance.

Becker wrote, “The urge to immortality is not a simple reflex of the death-anxiety but a reaching out by one’s whole being toward life.” We long to believe in life after death simply because we long to live. Maybe it isn’t the fear of death but this primal longing for life that characterises the human species and drives us to evolve. Maybe death isn’t the malevolent grim reaper we’re sold in stories, but really just the loyal companion of life – a dark angel hovering in our periphery, always whispering: Move. Change. Live. You ain’t got forever.