In response to my spring newsletter an epistolary friend of some years, John Rhead, suggested that I write something on “how do you prepare on a daily basis for your own death?” This topic isn’t one that I had been planning to write about, but it is one I have given a lot of thought to since midlife.
Because of John’s request, I am sharing my reflections on preparing for death. I hope that you will find them useful and enriching – and that you will share some of your responses with us.
Death has haunted my life since childhood. As I became more aware of the story I am living, I had to recognize death as a co-author. When I was a boy, death sent fear and grief ripping through my family’s life like alternating currents. My mother died of cancer, leaving my father, brother, sister and myself devastated. In adolescence, lost and stunned, my sadness turned into a deep rage that incinerated my image of God and the religion of my childhood.
In my need to become an adult, I repressed my grief, wrapped my wounded heart in denial and began to pursue normalcy and success with the devotion of a monk. But, during my sophomore year in college, this quest faltered. Depressed and disoriented, I spent that year drinking beer and becoming intoxicated in a frenzy of reading. Tolstoy’s words in The Death of Ivan Illych flashed like a lightning bolt into the recesses of my soul. Ivan died screaming after realizing that the conventional values he had devoted his life to were false and the impulses he had repressed may have been the real thing. In spite of my pursuit of normalcy and success these words lived with an inner force that has never left me. I was traumatized by death, yet driven by the knowledge that the fear of death was forcing me into life.
Understanding the influence of death in my story is necessary in order to prepare for my own. I’ve learned that life fully engaged in and reflected upon is the sine qua non of living with consciousness. And it is the understanding that comes from consciousness that opens me to fulfillment and joy-to the love of life.
As I was approaching my mid-life passage, my father died and I experienced his death very differently from my mother’s. Our relationship had been full of joys, sorrows and conflicts. Many of our conflicts had never been resolved and seemed to work themselves out in a series of my dreams after his death. This is the final dream:
I am in the kitchen with my sister. I hear a noise in the carport. I have to kick the garbage away from the door to open it. My stepmother comes in. She says, ‘Buddy, he’s back.’ I go out to meet him with tears streaming down my cheeks. I put my arm around his shoulder, saying ‘I am glad you’re back; there is so much I want to say to you.’ He says, ‘There’s more than one way to die.’
This dream gave me a message that was more profound than many of the ones I learned from him in our waking lives. It brought back the real questions I had to face: What is the purpose of my life? Why am I here? What am I doing?
Almost every day thoughts of my parents slip into my mind. The image of my father reminds me of the dream and that I must face these questions head-on in order to live a creative life. And, deep inside, I am afraid that if I avoid them, as Ivan did, my spirit will slowly wither. Paying attention is the surest sign of love and how much I love life is measured by how much attention I pay to the spirit supporting it. Being present to myself, listening to my inner voice and the integrity of my soul is my commitment to serving life in the most complete way I can.
Years ago I heard the Jungian analyst James Hillman quote an old African folk tale that said “when death finds you, be sure she finds you fully alive.” The simple truth of this statement became a turning point in my life and another reminder that giving in to the fear of living is dying a premature death. Therefore, as I focus on being fully alive, my inner work evolves into a profound part of this experience and a preparation for my death.
So, I have come to realize that I prepare for death the same way I prepare for life. I do my inner work which both nourishes me and connects me to my soul-the Self-the bridge to Eternal Reality. Inner work is listening to my dreams, journaling as a dialogue with my experiences, and active imagination-the art of listening to my soul. This devotion, which means it is both loving and holy, grounds my life in a sense of meaning and participation with something greater than myself.
I remember how much my mother savored life as it was slipping away from her. Her image reminds me that I must do the same thing, for I am dying too. Building on Hillman’s remarks, I try to live in a way that gives death no choice but to find me fully alive. Death reminds me that my spiritual task is to become fully alive-in the senses as well as in the spirit. If I fail at this task I will also fail to become the vessel for the creative force of the Divine that seeks to live through me.
Being fully alive requires consciousness, the kind that is built when we are living with our whole hearts and are listening to how our inner world is responding to our efforts. The mystics in every great tradition confirm that the path of self-knowledge is the road to meeting the Divine and coming into relationship with it.
The mystical path, like individuation, reveals that all life grows through the archetypal patterns of transformation: life-death-rebirth. From my perspective, this is the vehicle of creativity set up by the Divine. In this respect, creativity is the power that both results from and overcomes death. A few decades ago, Norman O. Brown wrote an outstanding series of books examining the experiences of illness. As he was dying of cancer, he avoided his pain medication in order to stay alert and complete his final manuscript. Norman had the courage not to allow his pain to make his decisions. I believe he had learned that remaining creative is the best way to close a life that has been devoted to creativity, and I like this model.
The powerful archetypal strength of death springs from the ground of our being. We cannot conquer or control it nor have we been able to invent a divinity that can save us from it. We must accept death as an indiscriminate force in life that threatens us through storms, fires, floods, epidemics and acts of chance. It steals our friends and loved ones away from us. Plus, there are plenty of examples of how we can see it at work in the tragedies of human carelessness and violence. And we must learn that our inability or unwillingness to seek consciousness negates life in a malignant way and brings despair, hopelessness, violence, disease and illusion-a living death, and sometimes an actual one-into our lives.
Yet, most of our great religions-at their mystical core-tell us that death can be overcome. The mystical traditions, like Jungian psychology, believe that the pattern of the Divine exists in each of us. This pattern has at its disposal the greatest of spiritual energies for the transformation and transfiguration of who we are. In Jungian psychology and the mystical traditions, that pattern of creative energy is discovered through self-exploration. Too many of our religions mistakenly taught that good deeds affect our afterlife rather than our search for wholeness, and that blind belief in creeds or literal interpretations of holy books is more important than consciousness.
A more careful study of the mystical core of our religious traditions reveals that it is transformation through the search for consciousness that leads to a full life. Living this process has a meaningful affect on the world, opens us to love, to the Divine, and determines our eternal essence. Blessed, you might say, are those who can and dare to make the decision to pursue such consciousness because-as the mystics say-they live with eternity every day.
Thus my discussion has brought me back to preparing for my death in the way I prepare for my life every day. During my journey, death has become a companion in my life. As I have learned to understand the process of transformation, the importance of suffering, sorrow and grief as the companions of joy and fulfillment have become clear. I must accept the grief in my life or forfeit my chances for joy. Our wisdom stories of awakening and transformation tell us that something dies whenever something new is born. When a new era arrives in our psycho-spiritual lives, there is a symbolic “slaughter of the innocents.” Other potentials must be sacrificed. Often we must let go of friends and loved ones, a familiar life and the serenity of knowing one’s place in a smaller arena. Accepting the grief for my own death has actually left me feeling stronger, more focused, and increasingly content with small joys I hadn’t noticed before.
For example, one morning in my early fifties I awakened weeping and had trouble stopping. Slowly a piece of a dream came back and I realized I was mourning for my own death and the fact that I will not be here much longer. Periodically this grief returns. It is teaching me I must let go of many things, including those I will not have the time, money or energy to do in the balance of my life. Yet, as I allow this grief to wash over me and find its place in my daily psycho-spiritual practices, I feel cleansed, lighter and more able to embrace the richness of the day.
Jung thought that death could bring completion to life, and that belief in an afterlife, which cannot be proven, still can help us live our own life to a fruitful completion (C.W. vol 8, The Soul and Death). Hermann Hesse (in C. G. Jung and Hermann Hesse by Miguel Sarrano), Edward Edinger (Ego and Archetype), Marie Louise von Franz (On Dreams and Death) and Edgar Herzog (Psyche and Death) think of death as a loss of identity in which our ego either returns to the collective unconscious or to the Divine in the image of the Self. In these cases, the accomplishments of consciousness and wholeness enrich the spirit and collective growth of humanity, which I am sure is true. But, the collective mythos or religious traditions of much of the world and history take the position that our identity is not lost with death. As a Jungian analyst, I think these traditions emanate from the collective unconscious; I tend to think they have some validity. I will continue to explore this topic of death in future writings.
Very little in my earlier conventional life helped me become fully alive. Nor would it have helped me prepare very well for death. Suffering, trauma, discontent and death were the forces that awakened me to the inner journey and the desire for a more profound experience of being alive. Today I trust that the journey that connected me to my soul in order to comfort and guide my life into fullness will do the same thing when I face death.
See also Spring 2007 newsletter: Individuation as a Journey of Grief, Grace and Glory
SACRED SELFISHNESS: A Guide to Living a Life of Substance. This is the book that fully explains my psychological/spiritual practices. Jungian analyst and author Murray Stein, Ph.D., says “Bold and grounded in lived experience, this book can inspire you to change your life. For the better!”
SACRED SELFISHNESS can be purchased wherever books are sold. In the Asheville, NC area, you can buy this book at Malaprops, Accent on Books and other fine bookstores.
Or you can buy this book online from amazon.com
FUTURE TOPICS under consideration are:1. “The Development of Spiritual Consciousness: Individuation and Mysticism”
2. “Body and Soul: Illness and the Healing Power of the Shadow”
3. “Living a Mythic Life: What is Your Myth or What Myth is Living You?”
4. “Weight: Is the Shadow Confronting, Comforting, or Protecting Us?”
5. “The Fear of the Feminine: How it Affects Our Lives and Relationships?”Are there other topics you would like to suggest for the future? Please let me know.
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris