Article
Change
Life & Death
7 min read

How to face the space of death

Loosing family and friends across a life, leads Natalie Garrett to navigate the space of death we all face. Part of the How to Die Well series.

Natalie is the marketing coordinator for the Centre for Cultural Witness. She is an Anglican minister based in Gloucestershire and a trained actor.

An experimental image mixes distance people with watery paint-like filters of green .
Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

Death is something I’ve thought about quite a lot. As a bereaved friend, granddaughter, niece and daughter. Also, as an Anglican priest who has pastoral responsibility for those who are grieving and who conducts funerals. And as the mother of children who live in a vicarage and hear a lot about Mummy and Daddy doing funerals, too. Death is a part of our life in a way it doesn’t seem to be in a lot of families. 

My first experience of death was when my grandfather died; I think I was about six. My memories of it are mostly about how the adults behaved. I remember, with uncharacteristic clarity, the evening when Grandma came to tell us that Grandad had died. I don’t remember what she said but I remember the feeling in the room. I remember it feeling as if someone had sucked all the air out, as if we were floating in a strange and uncomfortable space. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my mother not knowing the rules of engagement for this situation and feeling scared by that. 

And in my experience, over the many years since then and in many different situations, I think most people faced with death for the first-time experience that same fear of not knowing how to be in the space of death; “I don’t know what to say”… 

While I was a student, I had a friend who was the only Christian any of us knew. He also had cancer and didn’t have long to live. He made the choice do what people his age who didn’t have a death sentence to carry around with them were doing and went to Uni. He was one of the bravest people any of us had ever met. And at his funeral, a whole load of us from Uni turned up to pay tribute to this amazing young man who had touched so many lives by the way he had so courageously lived with death. 

I could hold that space that I had been so afraid of all those years ago; I could give form and shape to the place of that which we must all face but which we all avoid so passionately in our western culture.

One of my daughter’s godmothers died of bowel cancer. She was one of the most faithful Christians I’ve ever known. When she was diagnosed, the whole church prayed for her healing. But the cancer grew and the chances of survival shrank. But wow did she use her last few months, weeks, days well. She wasn’t afraid of dying so she talked openly about it to everyone and the healing that came from how she lived then was powerful and widespread. She was an incredibly organised person and wanted to make sure she tied up all possible loose ends, like selling her house. She told with such joy about the conversation she had with the estate agent who came round to value her house who asked all the usual questions, “So are you looking to move soon? Where are you going?” I can only imagine his face as she answered with complete honesty about where she knew she was going. And I remember, with a powerful mixture of emotions, the conversation I had with her when I went to say goodbye. “I’ll see you there.”  She said as I closed the door behind me. 

Several decades after that visit from my grandmother, as a grown up and now a Christian, I had the privilege of conducting my grandmother's funeral. Grandma had been such a huge and influential part of my life and it was unthinkable that I should lead the service and not be allowed to be a grieving granddaughter – but it was even more unthinkable to risk someone else doing it, in case they didn’t do it “well”. I visited her in a Chapel of Rest, a couple of days before the service, so that I could say what I needed to say and cry as much as I was able. As I led the service and thus guided my family through the process of saying goodbye to the matriarch of our clan, I could hold that space that I had been so afraid of all those years ago; I could give form and shape to the place of that which we must all face but which we all avoid so passionately in our western culture. Because as a Christian, I know something, I know Someone, bigger than death. 

Death seems to be the final taboo of our culture, the most intimate and unmentionable part of life. Which means we’re not very good at death. And a good death is a beautiful thing. 

There’s a famous story in the Bible when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died. Jesus isn’t there while Lazarus is ill, in fact he isn’t there when he dies – he turns up four days later. In the Jewish culture of which Jesus was a part, there were all sorts of rules to comply with around death and one of the traditions was to gather the local community, including professional mourners to weep and wail, to encourage the expression of emotion.  

Lazarus’s sisters were angry that their good friend Jesus hadn’t been there when they needed him. They were angry that their brother, Lazarus, had died. They were angry and needed someone to blame. I think we can all relate to that. When someone we love is suffering, when someone we love dies, a natural part of the grieving process is anger. And that anger is often directed at God, whether we believe in him or not. 

When Jesus arrives, he generously receives their emotional rebuke, allowing them to give voice to their pain. And then he goes to the grave where Lazarus has been lying dead for four days. And in the shortest verse in the Bible, we are privy to his reaction. Jesus wept. Even God is distressed by the reality of death. Death was never meant to happen; death was never part of God’s good plan for humanity. And it makes him weep. He turns up, unafraid of the raw reality of death and bereavement. 

Of course, in that situation, there was a reprieve – Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And the mourning turned to celebration. But of course, although we never hear about Lazarus’s final death, he did die, just like all the rest of us.  

Death is the one thing we all have in common. Different cultures react to death differently. In some cultures, the entire community stops doing normal life and gather round the bereaved. In our culture, all too often, we pretend nothing has happened. We are determined to keep death in a box, packed as far deep as possible so we don’t have to look at it. Death seems to be the final taboo of our culture, the most intimate and unmentionable part of life. Which means we’re not very good at death. And a good death is a beautiful thing. The Christian friends I’ve known who died untimely young deaths have shown me that. People who are not afraid of death, people who know what’s going to happen after they’ve died can pave the way for us to walk into the place of death and find beauty there. 

As we face death head on, we stare into the place of what’s really important. Everyone says glibly that on our deathbed we won’t be wishing we’d spent more time at work. But let’s not wait till our deathbed to work out where we need to spend more time. Let’s learn how to live well now, not hiding from the only guaranteed fact of our future. 

At Lazarus’s graveside, Jesus made the rather elliptical claim:  

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”  

When Jesus died himself, naked and nailed to a cross, he took on the greatest enemy of life. And he won. As Jesus rose again on the third day, he claimed victory over death. As Christians follow Jesus through this life, they do so in the assurance of eternal life with him after death. Wow, that’s the place of hope. That’s the place where you can look death right in the face, unafraid. 

The Christian message of hope is a life raft in the cold, choppy waters of bereavement. It gives form and shape to something we don’t understand and don’t want to have to navigate. It gives us courage to accept the truth, when we really don’t want to. Knowing that there is something, Someone, who is bigger than death. And knowing that death – either my own or that of someone I love – isn’t the end of the story gives me the capacity to walk confidently and unafraid through my life towards its inevitable end. And into what’s next. To quote my friend, I hope I’ll see you there. 

Article
Change
Identity
1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 

 

How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.