Death at the New Year
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Today, countless people around the globe are celebrating the New Year with ritual, food, drink, music, and merriment. We will toss out the old and ring in the new. And this year, it seems that many people cannot rid themselves of the passing year fast enough. Peppered throughout my Facebook feed are messages like, “I’m so done with 2016”. And parts of me agree. 2016 has been a year of sadness and loss for so many of us — on personal, communal, and societal levels. But I also know that endings of things – even the things we find distasteful – need to be honored.
For me, New Year’s Eve is the perfect metaphor for how we often deal with death in our contemporary Western culture. We tend to rush toward new things – the new job, the new relationship, the new project – in an attempt to free ourselves from the experience of deep loss that is necessary to make way for new birth. In privileging everything that is shiny and new, we may have forgotten how to grieve fully that which is dying. Indeed, as a culture we ignore death and cling to life, particularly new life, in almost pathological ways.
When my son was an infant, a beloved family member of ours died suddenly, and we traveled to my husband’s hometown for the services. One of our relatives, whose daughter was about the same age as my son, expressed surprise that we would bring our baby to all the visitations and ceremonies. “We don’t want our daughter to know that much about death at this early age. We don’t want to expose her to that too early.” I have reflected on that conversation often in the intervening years. At that point in time, I was very ill; in fact, I was nearing the dying process, although I did not know it. Even without being aware of what would seem to be my own very imminent death, I was quite clear that death was one of the most important parts of life that I did want to introduce to my son. I always had known that I would not hide death from my children but would instead help them come to have their own personal relationships with death. I have continued to support their growing capacity to experience death and to grieve fully each person or situation that they lose.
Fifteen years after that event and just a few months after my return home from Mayo Clinic, as I was recovering from my second surgery and my third death walk, I received a text from a friend: “I was too busy with my son to check in on your condition; I hope you understand”. Someone close to me was enraged, wondering, “How could she not even care if you were dying or not?” But I understood this friend. She was raising a toddler; her world was focused on his new life. And she simply did not want to introduce illness, death, or loss into her consciousness. During that death walk, another person who was close to me immediately went into denial of my situation as soon as she received the earliest reports of my failing health. Throughout my month-long death walk and well into my long recovery, she continued to remind me to “just keep my vibration high” and other bromides that led me to believe that she was unable or unwilling to grasp the magnitude of loss that I was experiencing – or those that she was potentially experiencing through my dying process. Months after my recovery, she shared with me that she was unaware how severe my situation was; she had no idea that I was dying, even though she received all the same information as everyone else – that my heart and kidneys were failing, that I was moments away from being put on a heart and lung bypass machine as the doctors attempted to keep my heart beating just one more day, one more hour, one more moment.
Each of these approaches to loss – to ignore and to deny – are perfectly normal, as is almost every other response to loss. Those of us who work in end-of-life care or in bereavement support have seen behavior at all points of the spectrum between embracing loss and rejecting it. Healthy grief contains a multitude of expressions, and when we lose someone or something dear to us we often visit various features in the landscape of loss in our own unique manner.
Grief can become very complicated, however, when the losses we are experiencing exist simultaneously with new birth. Most of us gravitate toward the coming into being rather than honor the passing. But that which is lost and our grief related to it do not simply vanish when we place our attention on what is being born. Unacknowledged losses do not disappear; rather, we carry them around with us throughout our lifetimes. And for many of us, they will arise as we confront our final loss – that of our lifetime.
Each piece of unmetabolized grief that we ignore throughout our lifetimes has the potential to arise forcefully from our subconscious as we face our own death. Stephen Levine (1937-2016) was an American author, teacher, counselor, and end of life caregiver whose decades of work with the dying led to profound teachings about the dying and grieving processes (see http://levinetalks.com/). He witnessed the effects of lifetimes spent avoiding loss and grief:
For those unable to make peace with their pain, there was a gradual diminishment of their life force. It became obvious that it was not just the most recent griefs that underlay their intermittent depression and dysfunction but the imprint of losses long past – yet still painfully present (Levine, Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart. p. 2).
He discusses the weight of all such unexplored areas of grief in our lives:
From my twenty-five years working with the immediacy of grief in and around the deathbed, it gradually became evident how previous, unresolved loss seemed to intensify the blow of imminent death (Levine, p. 1).
Like my relatives with their new baby, like the two people close to me during my most recent death walk, we may feel drawn to ignore those losses throughout our lifetimes; we may attempt to pretend that focusing only on what is new will somehow lead us out of grief. And the New Year provides an annual opportunity for us to practice this denial. As we gaze at the ball dropping and make our resolutions, we can push away the events of the old year just as we send trash to landfills.
But our lives can be incredibly enriched by turning toward that which is dying, by honoring it even as we welcome in that which is being born. Unfortunately, most of us are not taught how to do this. We go out searching for the resurrection rather than spending our time in and with death. As Tessa Bielecki, Co-Founder and Executive Director at The Desert Foundation (http://sandandsky.org/), notes:
It is my experience that people do not experience “resurrection” enough because they don’t let themselves die dead enough. We begin to die and it is so terrifying, or so uncomfortable, so awful, that we pull back from the experience. And so we don’t experience the resurrection; we don’t experience all the life that is waiting for us because we don’t have the courage to die (Bastian, Bielecki, & Schachter-Shalomi, In N. Miles-Yepez, Editor, Living Fully, Dying Well: Reflecting on Death to Find your Life’s Meaning, p. 14-15).
Could we be missing an opportunity to practicing dying dead enough by not fully grieving each passing year? At the New Year, particularly, we run toward the resurrection, with our new calendars, our new intents, our new expectations. This holiday celebrates this deep longing we humans have to jump to the resurrection phase, where we have new life and all the hope contained therein. But it also provides us with an annual occasion to practice dying dead enough. Although it is challenging to bring ourselves to this place of nonduality, where we honor both death and resurrection, the rewards are priceless; and we carry the benefits of this practice to our dying days.
Watching my husband during my most recent death journey provided me with a brilliant example of this work with life and death, of grasping to the hope of life while reverencing the depth of loss. Throughout my entire death journey, my beloved worked tirelessly to keep me alive, providing physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological support to me and to our children. He consulted doctors, researched possible avenues for help, and kept everyone in our lives apprised of my condition. And he also held in his heart the loss he was experiencing. In that time when he was hoping for miracles, when he spent most of his waking hours focused on keeping me alive, my husband was also facing a multitude of deaths. Like me, he had spent years working with death, both theoretically and energetically. He had led countless death ceremonies, experienced a multitude of shamanic death journeys, and encountered shared death experiences a number of times; he had practiced for his own death through intensive state training and work with the usual forms of physical death preparation such as will-writing and gift-giving. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the deaths he was now encountering: the deaths of his family, his home, his role as a husband, and each piece of identity he had attached to those parts of his life. From my hospital bed, I watched him contemplate all of these endings; I felt his sorrow and despair. And I knew that I had to support him in this process. I realized that if he did not allow these pieces to die, if he did not go through that grief fully (no matter what the outcome of my health situation), he would carry this into his own death. During those long days and nights in the hospital, he was allowing himself to die dead enough.
This is not an easy road to take – to honor and grieve all the endings as we welcome all the beginnings of our lives. But each year we are given the gift of being able to practice this most challenging and most rewarding endeavor – to hold in our awareness and our hearts both the dying and the birthing. This January, as everyone delights in the New Year, I will be doing the same. Like others, I will use this celebration to welcome the things that are coming into being. But I will also utilize it to grieve what is ceasing to exist. The New Year is a time of both death and resurrection.