I first experienced death up close and personal when I was aged 30. Shortly after I got married, my mother-in-law was told she had cancer and was given just a few months to live.
At the time I was struck by Sarah’s fortitude and acceptance; she had not an ounce of self-pity, and being a good Irish Catholic she also had no doubts about her future in heaven. Her only concern was for her husband who would be left alone and grieving – “Don’t worry, Paul,” she told him just before she died. “When I see Jesus I’ll ask him to bring you up there with me as soon as he can.” She had not lost her sense of humour but there was no mistaking her sincerity either.
And sure enough, within a couple of years it looked as though Sarah’s wish had been granted; my father-in-law too was told that he had cancer. But having already lost the will to live he did not suffer long. The loss of my wife’s parents – they were both in their seventies when they died – taught me a lot about the benefits of religious faith and the importance of having a reason for living.
My 61 year old mother frequently required oxygen therapy in hospital as a result of her having developed emphysema. A week before my 42ndbirthday she was re-admitted yet again. I went to visit her and was not unduly worried. But when I arrived on the ward, it was explained to me that Mum had contracted septicaemia and I needed to alert the rest of my family because she would be dead within a few hours.
Mum had no idea she was dying and we were advised not to tell her. So we all chatted away like nothing was wrong whilst her body deteriorated and her pain intensified and her delirium increased. Her suffering was terrible to witness and I think we all felt some relief when her life finally ended. Mum’s dying taught me that we are rarely prepared for death even though we know it is an inevitable fact of life. Moreover, death can arise suddenly and violently without any warning – we cannot just assume that we will live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in our sleep.
Around 18 months later I lost my 82 year old father. Dad had enjoyed good health throughout his life and was reasonably active right up until the moment he learned that he had bowel cancer. The diagnosis proved to be devastating for him and he quickly sank into a deep depression from which he never recovered.
Often I would call in at the hospice and find Dad sitting morosely in his room or sobbing and shaking on his bed because he viewed the prospect of dying as not only unfair but terrifying. Why should this be? I think it was due in large part to him always having had regrets about the choices he made in life and feeling that he had been dealt a poor hand. Moreover, he would often repeat; “It’s easy to believe in God when you’ve had it easy!” I think this goes some way towards explaining his suffering.
Anyone who believes they still have things to accomplish in life will resist dying if they believe that death really is the end. Dad’s inability to accept his mortality was unexpected and seemed out of character; his mental anguish and complete loss of dignity during the last few hours of his life shocked me so profoundly I resolved there and then to live fully and die well when my turn eventually comes.
My initial response to the inevitability of dying was to make lists of all the things I felt I should do before it was too late. And off I went, trying to experience as many new things as I possibly could so as not to have any unfulfilled ambitions or regrets when lying on my death bed. Variety certainly helps to make life interesting, but it does not bring lasting happiness. How often do we imagine ourselves to be full of joy sometime in the future when we finally achieve our heart’s desire? Yet we tend to experience success as an anticlimax; the real thrills are obtained during the chase and in the struggle, whereas the pleasures we get from our accomplishments evaporate almost immediately and so we begin planning the next objective.
From the moment I understood this, my pursuit of new experiences evolved into a quest for truth and meaning instead. I discovered that real happiness comes not from without but within. We cannot fully appreciate what life brings until we have removed all fear and dependency from our minds.
Inner peace is a spiritual objective worthy of pursuit for anyone regardless of their creed. And whilst a firm belief in God can help to calm a troubled mind it is certainly not a requirement – the benefits of inner peace can be reaped by all who make a determined effort to meditate on life’s problems.