Chapter 6: Death

Back to Reflections on Chapter 5

Grieving people may need to talk about death in practical, personal or religious terms; what it is, why it happens, how they fear it, what has made them angry or confused about it.  During a visit, perhaps in the middle of a narrative about the loss, coping with the family or financial troubles, this new topic may emerge. They may say:

  • Why does everyone have to die?
  • The funeral made me so angry.  I felt that it was so false.
  • When I woke up, I really believed that he was there in the bedroom.  I was terrified.
  • How I wish I had done more to help my parents.
  • Shall we be judged?
  • I know I’ll be with my wife again.  Do you think she will still be senile??

These are difficult, even impossible questions to answer. But the fact that they have been asked indicates that the grieving person feels the need to share these uncertainties. In fact, where a companion fails to pick up such concerns {thinking them to be outside her remit or understanding}, the grieving person may feel slighted and may lose faith in the companion.

If a grieving person feels the need to clarify his thinking about some aspects of death, especially as it may be his first experience of real death, as distinct from death in fiction or  film, then it is the companion’s task to hear and involve herself, however ignorant she may be or however different her faith may turn out to be.

As usual, the best preparation we can make is to think about our own experiences and beliefs beforehand {see questions in Reflections 6}.  And, again as usual, we need to be very honest about our ignorance, to be open to discussion and be prepared to accept very considerable bursts of high emotion, of distress or anger.

Supporting those wishing to speak of their faith

The individual’s beliefs stem from his family, school or church education, or, it may be, from direct intervention from God. These beliefs may have provided a source of comfort and support and so should not be criticised without preliminary investigation

Besides, it seems that many people feel offended if their belief is questioned as it might seem that their family or culture are being criticised.  Direct criticism of beliefs is generally not useful.  But the bereavement itself may have led to the involuntary, internal questioning of deeply held beliefs, and this may prove very disturbing for the bereaved person. The two reactions: intellectual confusion, and loss of confidence may require great care and self-discipline from the companion.

Should a bereaved person wish to talk about their religious faith, agnosticism or atheism, we should listen, involve ourselves and clarify issues as usual, though we may need to remind them that we are without authority in that field. If, later on, it is agreed that a conversation with the experts could be useful, it is important not to imply that talking to you was a waste of time, for such conversations may allow people to explore their thinking without the weight of expert authority to embarrass or constrain them.

To help clarify just some of the aspects of death that you are likely to meet, we have split this introduction into 5 parts:

  1. Practical issues that may follow a death.
  2. Personal issues that may follow a death.
  3. The nature of man and of death.
  4. The fear of death.
  5. Particular concerns of those with a religious faith.

Regrets over practical matters linked with the death.

Practical events before or after the death, or at the death itself may cause much distress.  For example: there may be thought to have been legal or medical mistakes leading to injustices or distress;  a death in a busy ward in a hospital, even if clean and blame-free, may have seemed too medical and impersonal; a mistake in the process of registering the death, in organising the funeral, or trying to access money which is no longer available, may cause upset.   These events may have  “spoiled” the death, lessened its dignity, or made people feel that they have “let down” the dead person.

Regrets or disappointments may also have arisen over the funeral or cremation. Even where the funeral process is excellently done, as it usually is, it can still seem to be too “professional”, even inhuman. Or where the principal mourners decide on a formal religious ritual, some of the other grieving people may not share many of the stated or implied beliefs and may feel upset.  Or the funeral may have drawn on the humanist tradition that encourages friends or relatives to “celebrate” the life of the departed by telling stories of their life.  Such story telling may not be well done and may sometimes trivialise rather than celebrate.

Other very considerable difficulties arise where the boundaries of, e.g. hospital routine, the law, or autopsy procedures interfere with the timing or routine of the funeral under different faiths.

Further practical difficulties may have arisen because the deceased had failed to prepare for death. He or she may have failed to draw up a will, or make any allocation of assets {however small, they always have significance}. He or she may have failed to arrange for the care of dependents, to allow for the legal differences between marriage and partnership, to agree the desired manner of funeral or cremation. Such failures may cause real difficulties for family or friends, and sometimes considerable anger.

Many of these disappointments may need to be discussed before they can be let go. In any of these cases, the companion will certainly need to allow themselves to become involved in the emotional distress {though not in blaming}, and be prepared to discuss all that went wrong. It sometimes helps to support the grieving person to contact appropriate institutions, such as the Citizens’ Advice Bureau,  the hospital, the Social Services, the Churches or the Humanist Society.

Personal regrets and changes following the death

For many people, a bereavement changes their perception of the world, of themselves and of their value systems. It can awaken a realization that they need to reconsider their judgement, behaviour or reactions to people

Some consider that thinking of one’s own death is a morbid occupation, even an unlucky one, to be avoided at all times. Others, on the contrary, consider that thinking about death would enable them to lead a better life, largely for two reasons:

a) Most people lead fairly unconsidered lives, not questioning their habits of thought or behaviour until some event makes them realize the significance of what they have been doing. Bereavement is such an event; it stirs an awareness of themselves and of others: that they have failed to make up the quarrel, to keep the promise, to give needed help. They might say, for example:

“We always thought there would be time to make up that quarrel.”

“ I hadn’t realized that he needed our support.”

“ We could have saved enough for that journey she so much wanted.”

b) For their own life, unaware of how little time they have before they die, they may fail to make decisions, to apologise, to try for that job, to care for that failing person, to fulfil their own potential. When they realize that it is too late, then again they may feel the pain of regret.

It would seem necessary to examine very seriously any statements of regret from the bereaved person, not denying their force, exploring both the feelings and the circumstances of the regret; helping them to talk out their distress as far as they need. Then they may begin to come to terms with their regret, and begin to work out what they might begin to change.

The importance of this time of fresh awareness of death is that it can be the catalyst to rejecting an unreflective life, and to taking on a greater responsibility for others and for ourselves.

The nature of humans and of death

All things that live, also die. Some believe that this, in humans, is the result of sin.  Others may feel that this is an evolutionary process; that species have to adapt if they are to cope with changing circumstances, and that one way that they do this is through the constant renewal of birth, growth and death.

The differences of opinion about the nature of death seem mostly to stem from whether human beings are composed of body and spirit, or body only, for, where there is thought to be spirit, then that may continue after the cessation of life in, and decomposition of, the body.  The notion of a “spirit” or “soul” is very ancient, the main world religions are built round it, but recent knowledge of the complexities of the material mind have raised again the possibility that material processes in the mind may be able to account for the wonders of the spirit.  If that is so, then it may be easier to believe that human beings cease when they die; that there is no afterlife, no judgement.

These are not matters for a companion to dispute, but just to be discussed for such ideas may generate great fear or confusion in some people.

Regrets about behaviour in caring, concerns before death

Fear of death

The experience of bereavement really does force the attention of the bereaved person towards death, and so to their own death. It may awaken fears of the process of dying, but it seems more often to bring attention to, and anxiety about, death itself. What is it? What happens afterwards: is it nothingness or eternity? What happens to those they love? Bereaved people mention, for example:

a) meeting in an afterlife those who have died before them - sometimes with eager anticipation, sometimes with dread, sometimes with confusion;

b) questions which critically imply a purposeful interference into their life “Why me” or  “Why did He take my child?”;

c) concern over messages, or the possibility of messages from mediums or spiritualists, or as pictured in films or stories;

d) their fear of judgement and punishment in the afterlife;

e) their distress that they will not be able to help or protect those they leave on earth.

Those who have considered the matter and worked out their opinions on such matters seem usually to be relatively good at coping with these fears.  For those practising a religion, for instance, the frequent references to death and the after-life, the familiar use of ritual, the exercise of moral codes of practice, the company of colleagues of the same faith can each provide something of a support structure. Confirmed atheists may be similarly clear and supported in their thinking.  Further, in each case people of authority and understanding are likely to be available, priests, parsons, humanist speakers to whom one can turn for advice or interpretation.

The people who may have greater difficulty in dealing with their grieving are those who, through disenchantment with their church, or lack of thought {or through reading or seeing too many tales of ghosts or spirits}, have no clearly worked out perception of death.

As always, it is necessary for the companion to become involved and to try to comprehend these fears and difficulties, though not necessarily expressing agreement.  How can they prepare themselves? 

It certainly helps to have thought about your own death; also to have thought about “the afterlife”. People might ask about your beliefs and you have to decide how to react. Should you refuse to answer, for, after all, it is not why you are there, this may seem offensive, so maybe it is best to give a brief statement of your position without an ounce of aggression, and then to return to their situation.

Particular concerns of those with faith

The following thoughts come to bereaved people, especially as they begin to examine the disturbing force of their experience of death. They are predominantly from people of the faiths, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism.

A person with a faith may be expected to assume the existence of himself and the universe, and also the nature of knowledge and belief in much the same way as a non-believer.

But to the above assumptions are sometimes added other ideas that may be defined in detail by their religion. For example:

a) The idea that an individual consists of two parts, body and soul, and that when the body dies the soul continues, is judged and spends time with other souls in heaven, purgatory or hell; or, alternatively, in a process of reincarnation.

b) There is a good, all-powerful, all-knowing God, who may intervene in the world, independently or in response to prayer.

These ideas can give much comfort or much distress, depending on how they are understood.  Some people look forward to meeting a loved person again, perhaps healed of an illness; some look forward to the company of the good in heaven.  Others do not want to renew acquaintance with those who have hurt them. Some may fear judgement and punishment, others equally fear the idea of eternal non-existence for themselves and those they love.

It is rare that they want to talk about other religious issues of the day, for example, conflicts between religions, religion versus science discussions, evolution and creationism, conflicting moral positions, or particular issues of dogma.

The bereavement may have raised concerns about the bereaved person’s own death, especially if previously unconsidered. Questions might be:

a) Describing the afterlife

i) How shall I recognise people?

ii) Will they be young or old; well or demented; or altogether changed?

iii) Shall I be able to avoid my enemies?

iv) Shall I be able to stand an eternity doing nothing, however wonderful?

b) Judgement

i) How does the resurrection work?

ii) Shall I be judged? Shall I be judged on my morality or my faith?

iii) Shall I be rewarded or punished? How can heaven and hell be described?

iv) Can the punishments of hell be considered just by modern standards?

These concerns certainly exist for some people. Sometimes they become terrors. One natural way to explain them is by noting that in every human being, there is a tension between the animal drive to remain alive, and the human realization that we all must die.

Where that belief holds sway, there is no spirit, there is no afterlife and there need be no fear of heaven or hell, though the terror of hell-fire may now be replaced by a terror of “nothingness”, or of no human-like contact. Where such terrors exist, they are not trivial and it would be unkind to pass them by. The terrors may be susceptible to gentle, imaginative and detailed inquiries from the companion about what the bereaved person really believes and even to ask what their church really teaches.

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 6