Recently, during the bereavement group that I co-facilitate at a local hospice, clients talked about the emotional pain they are going through as they come to terms with the loss of their mate. For some, the death of their spouse had come suddenly, when they least expected it, and they had no time to prepare. Others had years to adapt to the certain knowledge that their mate was gradually dying from an incurable illness, or dying with Alzheimer’s, an agonizing journey that Nancy Reagan wrote about in her book so aptly named, The Long Goodbye. But whether death came suddenly or slowly, both groups described the impact of their mate’s death as a “shock”. How can that be?
I think the answer lies in our cultural attitudes toward death, our denial of death, and the elaborate lengths to which our society goes to maintain the illusion that death is not part of the natural order of life. The fear of death is so strong in our culture that many people don’t even want to talk about it for fear that they may hasten it.
When a loved one dies, much of society urges us to quickly move through grief, and get “back to normal” as soon as possible. You may recall, for example, when the football coach Tony Dungy lost his son; the sports media community gave him about a month to grieve before they began asking when he was going to return to his coaching duties! That misguided emphasis on hurrying through grief is not only unrealistic, but self-serving: grieving people are a reminder to others of their own mortality, something many would rather not even think about.
- When society turns away from death and grief as a natural and universal human experience it …
- Prevents people from being able to adequately prepare themselves for the emotions of loss
- Interferes with and delays the healing process
- Extends the initial sense of shock into a longer period of time
- Amplifies loneliness and a sense of alienation from the larger world
- Denies the soothing balm of social acceptance, compassion, and understanding when it is most needed
- Refuses to acknowledge that healing a broken heart takes time and cannot be rushed
- Ignores that grieving is a highly individual journey
- Perpetuates an irrational fear of death
- Silences conversations that can bring death out of the dark and remove its power as a taboo subject
There are remedies and they include death education, and enlightened conversation about end of life issues (see www.theconversationproject.org ) that help encourage and strengthen us. A practice, known as Mindfulness, can help us reclaim death’s sacred ground and allow death and grieving to become a path to our wholeness. Mindfulness teaches us to embrace the full cycle of life and death with each moment we live. Toward that end, I want to tell you about The 1440 Foundation (www.1440.org).
The mission of the 1,440 Foundation is focused on supporting people and programs aimed at developing a greater awareness of self and in relation to others, so that we may choose to live mindfully and consciously aware of how we spend our time. It is named for the fact that there are 1,440 minutes given to each of us every day. Whether we are rich or poor, happy or sad, young or old, we each have 1,440 minutes available to us every day until our last day on earth.
Studies have shown that when people take the time to reflect on their lives what matters most are the enduring relationships they have created, the people they have known and loved, and the person that they became along the way. Power, celebrity and social status all rank well below the inner satisfaction and peace that comes from:
- Knowing ourselves
- Feeling the joy of being authentic and true to ourselves
- Experiencing the social and emotional bonds we created with our families, friends and communities.
In short, when we live in mindful awareness of what matters most in life, and when our actions are congruent with our intentions, we are making the best use of our 1,440 minutes a day.
Consider the words of Carl Seaburg, from Great Occasions,
“Time is too slow for those who wait;
too swift for those who fear;
too long for those who grieve;
too short for those who rejoice.
But for those who live, Time is Eternity.
Hours fly, flowers die, new days pass by.
A welcome cultural shift in our attitude towards death is underway, and it is long overdue. The Boomer generation is about to redefine our relationship to death and dying just as they have been redefining aging. Because they are a generation that has never met a ritual it did not like, Boomers will introduce death into a national dialogue. As a result, a healthier relationship with death and dying will emerge that affirms the ancient wisdom that life and death are “sisters who live in the same house and cannot deny one another.” Greater comfort around death will deepen our appreciation and gratitude for life – and our 1,440 daily minutes will be savored fully and completely.