Coronavirus is almost the only word on news bulletins and everybody’s lips in these early months of 2020. Followed by pandemic, ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’. And when the daily, bulging statistics are presented, ‘deaths’ is right there too. In Australia the number of deaths is low, so far; in Europe and the USA it is getting high.
Fear and panic are palpable. Maybe not everyone watches much news but they get the message anyway and a heightened state of anxiety is just about inevitable. Governments are telling us “this is war”. We must obey orders because we are “at war” with this virus.
War is synonymous with lots of death. The public health message is that if we don’t follow all the rules there will be many deaths. I suspect much of the fear and anxiety felt in the community is our underlying fear of death—fair enough, very understandable. If we get the infection we may die ourselves. If older or chronically ill family members get it we’re told their chance of dying is much higher.
There is an odd thing here though: why weren’t we fearing dying last year, or the year before? Maybe you were but I don’t think it was widespread in the community. Yet in many of the last ten years there have been big flu epidemics with many deaths. There have been many deaths from flu symptoms, from pneumonia and other respiratory complications. There have been more deaths from those in recent years than from the coronavirus pandemic, so far.
Perhaps in an average flu year the public messages are not loud enough to get through our defences to thinking about death. In this pandemic it has broken through—people are scared, death is stalking us.
Still, it is curious that it isn’t this way every year, all the time, because death is always stalking us. Isn’t that right? Death is our close companion from the day we are born. Death is always as close as the breath you are breathing out right now.
Death is as close as this breath? What do I mean? Firstly, I mean that we cannot see much of what is going on around us. The metaphorical bus that could hit us as we cross the road may be just around the corner. That is always true. Or a piece of metal may have dislodged from a plane flying high above a minute ago. It may be about to hit me.
There are many other ways a relatively healthy person can die suddenly. You may go into hospital for something quite non-fatal and catch a hospital-acquired, antibiotic-resistant infection. This is a plague killing thousands in Australia every year, but not much talked about. It’s not discussed enough to make the general population terrified; it is happening every day though.
If I think for long about the act of driving on the road, how fast each car is going and how close they pass each other by, it is a second by second flirting with death. Somehow we convince ourselves it is not so. Death is not our constant companion, as close as this breath now. And yet it is. It always has been.
In most centuries past, throughout humankind’s history, I imagine the awareness of death has been less hidden away than it is in our culture. Young men regularly went off to very bloody wars or local skirmishes. Sometimes only half of them would come back. If the war came to your country or town, women, young and old might be killed or suffer fates worse than death.
Women and babies died in childbirth in high numbers. Maybe not in all cultures, but certainly in the recorded history or our Anglo-European ones. Major epidemics were common and poorly understood. In bubonic plague and cholera epidemics every short section of street might see many neighbours being carried out to the death carts. Death was everybody’s close companion, as close as their next breath in and out.
Even when there is no war, pandemic or sudden accident, death is there walking with us. None of us know anyone who has survived longer than about 105 years. The average is about eighty. If you are fifty now that might seem way off into a misty future. But a moment’s reflection reminds you that the first fifty years flew by very fast and surely the next thirty will be even quicker. Just a blip and you will be there. Much like the way it could happen with this breath now.
Why am I raving on about death? Firstly, because it seems to me that most of the fear and panic in the community now has “unaddressed fear of death” underlying it. Second, because much of my career, study and training has had the phenomena of death in a central position.
In the 1980s and 90s I worked in holistic support programs for people with cancer, AIDS and other life-threatening illness. Many of our participants died. I conducted countless discussion groups and workshops on death and dying. They were always confronting, especially for a support person of a cancer patient and often for the patient themself. Yet most people expressed that they gained a lot from the discussions, emotional release and support.
My life-training and professional training has taken many forms. Foremost has been a lifelong study and practice of Yoga, Vedanta and to some extent Buddhism. Each of these reminds us constantly that all living things die. Whatever is born will progress through growth, maturity, aging and death. Biologists can tell us that death is built into the DNA of our cells and likewise the philosophers, that the immediacy of death walks with us every moment. None of us know whether we will have a long life or short; whether it will end today or some years down the track.
Vedanta and Buddhism reckon that embracing the immediacy and reality of death is part of the maturity, the expanded consciousness needed to live fully. If that is the case this COVID-19 pandemic will be the catalyst to create a whole lot more enlightened Buddhists and Vedantins in our society.
Does the above paragraph go too far?—then let’s say a lot more people who have simply had to stare their fears of death in the face and come out the other side as more integrated personalities.
Some will also come out of it with a lot of trauma and stress. We are going to need tremendous support for our healthcare workers at the frontline as well as for everyone who has suffered through deaths of loved ones. They may die without having the close contact with their family that you would normally hope for. That is going to be tough.
Those who have become that bit more integrated and whole through the inevitable contemplation of death in these times must be a source of support and strength for those who have given everything they could and come out shattered. Nurses and doctors get far too little training and support in dealing with emotional stress at the best of times. Many will be worked way beyond their emotional capacity through this tumultuous year. Supermarket workers and others may be in a similar boat.
It is an opportunity and a duty of those who have gone through personal encounters and contemplations of death to be there for those who come through this pandemic badly. Not to lecture them or tell them what they should do, but to be there with them with the big hearted awareness they might have had the good fortune to acquire.
Whether we talk about it or not, whether we let it into our thoughts or not, death has been our close companion from the day we were born. Death is always as close as the breath you are breathing out right now. And somehow, it might make you more alive.