For most of human history, it was taken for granted that death was a part of life. It happened frequently, for all sorts of reasons – childbirth, predatory animals, human aggression, accidents, illness, poor nutrition and starvation, lack of modern medicines, and the list goes on. Our life expectancy was shorter, and from an early age everyone was familiar with death.
In modern times, and especially in modern western society, death comes to visit far less frequently. So less frequently that for most of us our normal expectation is that we will live to a “ripe old age”, and so will our parents, our children, our spouses, and our friends. We walk around, as it were, with a “psychological bubble” around us that says that death happens “out there” but not to us or those close to us. We almost need that bubble, because without it we would be in a constant state of anxiety if we lived with the reality that death can come at any time, to anyone.
So we are not well-prepared for death, even if it comes under “normal” conditions, and not at all prepared when it comes unexpectedly. In modern Anglo-Saxon culture, which predominates in the Western business world for example, we are hardly given any time off to grieve. We do not have many cultural rituals to acknowledge and process death. We do not get much permission to go through the natural grieving process (which can take a year or more), and our friends and family frequently don’t know what to say or how to help.
The most driving question in death, particularly when it slams through and bursts our “bubble” with shocking violence, is “Why?”. Even ancient peoples, more than 5,000 years ago, had to find meaning in death. The oldest burial site in Europe was recently discovered on the coast of Wales. It showed special treatment and placement of the person, the things they were buried with, and so forth. It showed some understanding of death as a passage, and acknowledged the person with a ritual that helped secure the person’s memory for those who mourned. It showed the existence of culture and community. It is theorized that such burials reveal early religious or spiritual concepts about the universe, life and death – at the very least, the concept or wish that there must be something beyond death. Our human nature hasn’t changed. We need to find some meaning in death, and acknowledge it both personally and as a community.
In modern times, many people find meaning in death through their religious or spiritual faith. Those previously without faith or even spiritual sensibilities, will sometimes find them turning to spiritual answers for the first time. For others, death frequently can cause a crisis in faith, and reject faith. Why could a supposedly good God allow this to happen? All these are understandable responses to the question of “why?”. Each person will need to find some answer, although often the answer is a long time in coming. What is certain is that without finding meaning in death, we risk the rest of life becoming meaningless.
Death requires of us a response, a choice. We can use death as an opportunity to reconnect with the living – with ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and our God – or to remain in the isolation of despair. Grief is both an intimate, personal, and lonely journey, and at that same time a journey that needs to be shared with others. It is a part of human nature.
There are many people around who are willing to be a companion in the long journey of grief. Some have found answers for themselves, which might help you, or maybe you need time to find your own answer, and they will be patient enough to wait with you. I hope you’ll reach out.
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