Coping with Death

By Devi

Benjamin Franklin once remarked, 'Only two things in life are certain: death and taxes'. Yet, we prepared for neither, when the time comes. When death comes knocking at the door, few of us are prepared to face it with composure. Death is a face we don't want to think about - either one's own or that of loved once. How does one cope with it?

Religion, through the ages has tried to give people comfort and courage in the presence of death, to teach spiritual resignation. What one needs is an emotional strategy, something which will enable an individual to manage bereavement, cope with loss creatively or constructively and not in bitterness. Should grief be expressed or suppressed? Should it be articulated or should one bear it with stoicism? What about children? Should they be exposed to grief or be sheltered? These questions need to be pondered.

When a person suffers the loss of a beloved person, the immediate response is one of numbness, of a sense of inner vacuum, followed by a feeling of utter futility of all activity in life. This is nature. Almost every one who has suffered a loss through death goes through these stages. But, one must also realise that time is the greatest healer and this phase of rejecting of life is temporary. However intense the grief - it does lessen with the passage of time, though the sense of loss does not diminish. It is better to accept this benumbing grief instead of trying to suppress it. In ancient texts, both Eastern and Western, we read of an unashamed expression of grief. In fact our ancestors publicly wept and mourned their dead, knowing its cathartic value. Today, people are afraid to acknowledge their grief either to themselves or to others. Bottled up emotions find welcome release in tears. However, sorrow is such a personal emotion that it is up to the individual whether he/she wants to express it or grieve in private.

Thought it is commonly believed that people are afraid of death, in actual fact we find many instances of people bravely facing the prospect of death not in a comforting distant feature but as an immediate prospect. Radha, a friend of mine had learnt that she had brain cancer and that she did not have long to live. By the time I had come to know about this sad fact, she had already had one operation and the prospect was bleak. Yet, I remember meeting her at a neighborhood department store, at a friends wedding, in a bookshop, and at a various times, her now bald scalp (she had lost all her hair due to chemotherapy) gaily covered with a scarf matching her dress, smiling and chatting animatedly. She continued teaching almost till the last month of her life. Visiting her was not a sad affair at all. Her conversation was lively, she was genuinely interested in what was happening in our lives, She was the personification of 'grace under pressure'. Our memories of her are not of a person ill, sick with the fear of death, but of a courageous cheerful woman.

It is amazing how, though we know that death is one certainty of life, we go on as if we are immortal! We waste time in trivialities, sometimes in better recriminations, pointless jealousies and quarrels. It is only when the date of death is announced (Much like the date of an examination), that the significance of time passed and time to come really strikes us. We realise how much there is to be done and what little time there is to achieve our goals.

Some of the instances of sudden death we hear about are particularly poignant. I recall the case of Jeanne Mody, the author of children's books. Suddenly one day she got the shocking news that her son, daughter-in-law and daughter, all died in a car accident. Her husband was bed-ridden. One can imagine what she must have gone through. She couldn't even break-down because she had her sick husband to think of. She wrote that it was only her faith in God, her acceptance that his ways are unfathomable, that helped her to bear her loss. She kept herself mentally and physically occupied and devoted herself to the care of others. I know of another woman in similar circumstances who had turned against God as it were, who are consumed with such bitterness that their sorrow was a corroding emotion. In contrast, one of the most heart-warming examples of coping constructively with the death of a beloved person, is that of three children who lost their parents in a air crash. Naturally the children were grief-stricken. As the weeks passed, they coped by sharing precious memories of their parents and making a pact to honour their parents by excelling at college and in their chosen careers.

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