The realities of life and death in our modern world

Yesterday I spent an inspiring day at the Festival for Death and Dying at the Connect Centre, Wells. It was wonderful to meet with so many people dedicated to helping others to talk more honestly and openly about death and dying, and how to do funerals differently.

To conclude, a group of us came together to talk about the day and what we got out of it. Relatively quickly the conversation turn to deep adaptation and how to hold the creative tension between talking about the reality of what is happening to our precious planet and at the same time being present for the individual needs of the dying. As we agreed, death is one thing, but the possibility of extinction is quite another.

It became clear that this is a path which requires careful and respectful navigation. A few people in the group did not want to engage with deep adaptation or the word ‘extinction.’ One person pointed out that she had been living with the fear of uncertainty all her life, quoting as an example her memory of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. She considered deep adaptation to be fuelling anxiety and distress in an already overly fear-driven world. This overwhelm, she believed, negated her intimate and very personal experience of grieving someone close who had recently died.

Others felt it was essential to hold the awareness that our planet is undergoing profound change, and everything that happens to us individually and collectively is now set against this backdrop. We acknowledged that many people are beginning to consciously or unconsciously grieve for what is happening to our natural world, and this is creating pain and suffering that many are struggling to understand or come to terms with. This led us into a conversation about the difference between pain and suffering.

Pain, we considered, was more immediate than suffering. For example, we feel pain when we experience the intensity of being emotionally hurt or we hurt ourselves physically. Our pain turns into suffering when we can’t let go. Yet, we agreed that our suffering can be the driver to take us beyond who we believe we are capable of becoming. One woman spoke about the death of her baby, and how the intense experience of loss and love sent her on a long, difficult journey of self-discovery that she never knew existed. She now has profound compassion for the human condition and a deep understanding of how she wants to contribute to her community.

Another participant spoke about chronic existential suffering she has been living with for as long as she can remember. She explained that, to her, it feels as if it is caused by the experience of life itself. There’s a sense of being achingly separated from something so much greater, which she described as universal love. She added that although she believes many of us experience this existential suffering every day, people rarely speak about it. Yet, this suffering again, leads us forwards. She said that without her existential suffering, she would not be working in the area of death and dying.

We all agreed that as our external world continues to chaotically unfold, people will need to come together in groups to talk about what is going on for them as they attempt to make sense of things they may no longer understand.

Therefore, I see the evolving role of death and dying festivals, such as this one yesterday, is not just to normalise the fact we are all going to die, but also to become the bedrock for where people can come and explore what really matters without the fear of feeling weird or being shut down by those unwilling to engage with the realities of life and death in our modern world. I, for one, treasure these opportunities.



One thought on “The realities of life and death in our modern world

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  1. Yes, that is indeed a good summary of the closing circle. Some of us who are not dealing with the immediacy of a personal grief are profoundly experiencing the grief at the very real threat of our extinction. This is also complex as there is guilt and rage about our contribution to the problem and the unwillingness of some to accept it. Denial is frustrating. Both griefs need to be held in gentle hands, but accepted in the circle as valid. Suffering and pain are different too. Suffering is spiritually much more equated with response to the human condition and mortal life. Buddhism says that attachment is the cause of all suffering and Sufism uses the metaphor of the reed cut away from the reed bed to mournfully sing the song of longing for the beloved. Pain IS more immediate. A healthy response to something we need to have STOP, or to pay attention. Acceptance was offered by some, and some deep wisdom from the griefTenders. It is clear that grief is not just about sadness and there needs to be room for anger too.

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