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In the time of Covid-19, how do we address our fear of death?

Anita Roy | Updated on April 24, 2020

Towards life: Stephen Jenkinson seeks to change the phobia of death in modern culture   -  ISTOCK.COM

Author Stephen Jenkinson’s writings on death are a salve when confronted with the fragility of being alive

There is only one item of news on the airwaves, only one subject to talk about. The language of the media and government is bullish and militaristic: Lockdown, fight against, front-line. With all these overtones of imprisonment and war, no wonder we feel embattled.

The last few weeks have witnessed a surge of activity, as people rushed to stock their shelves, scrambled to reschedule events, meetings, performances, and, in fact, reconfigure pretty much everything so that it could happen online. Humanity went a’WhatsApping and life migrated to Zoom.

Except, of course, that Life — with a capital L — did the opposite. In the absence of humans and their cars and their planes and their endless rushing about, the natural world has blossomed into life. More birdsong, more nesting, more animals, more wildlife, clear skies. Less pollution, less noise, less dust, fewer cars, empty roads. Undisturbed, with only itself to interact with, the biome has burgeoned.

As humans have rushed inwards, indoors, into their computers and out to the virtual world, the great outdoors has rushed into the space left by our absence. Roadside verges, left uncut by the quiescent council, put forth wildflowers. Unkempt grasses are full of undisturbed anthills, and busy with spiders, untrampled, unnoticed. Birds are so riotous in the trees, it feels like they’ve been biding their time all these years for this grand finale (or is it a grand overture ushering in a new era?). Waiting in the wings — ha! It feels (and I know this is not the case everywhere, not by a long chalk) — but it feels, here in this quiet corner of rural Somerset, on this small British Isle, more like peace than war.

We are into week four of lockdown, and the ‘peak’ is upon us. More than 17,000 people have died of Covid-19 in UK hospitals, and over 1,70,000 worldwide. There’s no shortage of grim news. There’s no shortage of grief and heartbreak. It seems impossible to now live in a world where the announcement that ‘only’ 700 people died in the last 24 hours is seen as a good thing — a flattening of the dreaded ‘curve’.

People are struggling to carry on their daily lives, to act as if all this is normal. To hang on to ‘normality’ in the face of such extraordinary upheavals tells us a lot about how ingrained our habits are, how difficult they are to let go of. In all of this craziness there is a voice of sanity that I turn to often (though, truth be told, I’m only able to take him in small doses, because it’s powerful medicine, this), and that is writer and teacher Stephen Jenkinson.

Jenkinson’s book Die Wise (2015) is exactly what the subtitle says it is: A manifesto for sanity and soul. If ever there was a time that the world needed both, it is now. Love in the time of Covid-19, you might call it. Jenkinson, now in his mid-60s, worked for most of his adult life in “the death trade”, as he calls it, much of it as director of palliative care in one of Canada’s largest hospitals, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He has literally seen out of this world thousands of people.

He shares in his books and performances the wisdom distilled through these experiences, leavened with a wit and joie de vivre all his own. The past few years he has been on the road with singer-songwriter Gregory Hoskins, on performances that he terms “Nights of Grief and Mystery”.

Turns out Jenkinson is an even more compelling storyteller than he is a writer.

“Our culture is a death-phobic thing to die in, probably irrevocably so,” he writes in Die Wise. “Many of the unbidden, unexamined thoughts and feelings we have about dying come from there. The darkness around is deep indeed, and it is only by enormous labour and courage and well-crafted speech that we are going to make our dying mean something more than what it has meant. That is the least of what we owe to those we will not live long enough to meet.”

If ever there was a time to stop and to wonder what it means to be human, to be mortal, and live in a culture that insists that we shouldn’t die, it surely must be now. I keep reminding myself of the extraordinary fact: All these people that are dying today, every single one of those “less than 700” will die anyway, one day, and that includes you, and that includes me.

It’s a sobering thought: But it’s also a liberating one. If taken in the right spirit, it is immensely energising. Perhaps it is time to slow down to as near-stillness as you can manage — at least for a while — and wonder how to create a future post-pandemic that will not only honour the lives of those who have died, but also build a better world for the ‘loved ones’ for whom we are the dearly departed.

To hear Stephen Jenkinson’s talk on the days that we are currently living through, and how to make sense of this crisis, I would hugely recommend this podcast from the Orphan Wisdom school that he heads: https://soundcloud.com/orphan-wisdom/stephen-jenkinson-stranger-days

Anita Roy   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Anita Roy is a writer, editor and environmentalist; www.anitaroy.net

Published on April 24, 2020

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