• September 10, 2021

“The More We Live Life, the Less We Fear Death” – Dealing With Death

 “The More We Live Life, the Less We Fear Death” – Dealing With Death

Peter Farrugia. Photo: Christina Gatt

Peter Farrugia is a PhD candidate lecturing at the University of Malta in the Department of Youth and Community Studies. Peter’s main interest is in youth work and how it relates to youth psychotherapy and existential loss. Peter also studied theology and spirituality at the University of Malta and the University of Cambridge. Here, he shares his experience and views on dealing with death.

Dealing with death as a child

Peter was only five years old when he lost his grandfather. A few years later, he was sleeping at his grandparent’s house when suddenly, he woke up, in the middle of the night, with a sense of unease. “I have strong memories as a seven-year-old child in my grandparents’ house. In that moment, I came to a sudden realisation of death; death of all the people I love and my own death too. I couldn’t stop crying. It was an existential moment which I was not prepared for.”

In the light of his own experiences, and through his work with young people, Peter believes that talking to children about death can be beneficial: “By talking about death, we can address the taboo. Death is a reality, after all. An interesting study focusing on pediatric cancer showed that children were completely aware that they were going to die. However, they didn’t talk about it because they didn’t want to upset their parents and the doctors. Children are extremely intelligent, so lying or trying to protect them is presumptuous on one level and counter-productive on the other. We owe it to children to develop more sensitive ways of bringing them into this inevitable, and potentially quite a beautiful element of the human experience – death.”

Dealing with death as something which is part of life

Peter shares his experience of the death of another grandparent – his grandmother – who died only a few years ago. “When my grandmother passed away I was the only person in the room with her.  I was holding her hand when she died.  It was a very profound and transformative experience for me; something that turned into a joyous experience which in some ways revisited my earlier childhood memory and transformed it. There is a quality of beauty rooted in love, in acknowledging the transience of human life and how valuable every moment of life is; how life is a gift from the universe to the universe, and we are all participating in this giftedness of Life.”

The experience of accompaniment during his grandma’s death transformed Peter’s views on death. “I don’t think I did anything when my grandma died, to make that transition from the head to the heart. It just happened. It was a profound experience. I’m sure that my formation facilitated the experience. As a person with spiritual life, I think it was an expression of the Divine which took me into its mystery. I’m grateful I was open to it.”

“Death is not a permanent ending”

Peter continues: “When somebody’s life ends, it is not dissolving into nothingness. There is something very powerful about what the person has shared and received during life, which lives on. That is what I received from the experience of my grandmother’s death; that endings are strange things and that there isn’t this finality that some people feel about death; that death is a permanent ending. The same goes for beginnings. Where do we begin? At conception? But we are also linked with the story of our parents, our grandparents, all the way to the first spark of Life in our universe. So, if it is so complicated to think about when did I begin? I think we should have the humility to say that it is also very complicated to say when do we end?”

Accepting Death

As a society, we are usually bombarded with messages that exalts youth and beauty and shy away from death. Yet due to COVID-19 death became something that we hear of every day. Peter describes how one theory in the area of death studies focuses on the fear of death. “We live in a culture which glorifies youth and life. Many theorists in the cutting edge trans-human and post-human movements are very much into the idea that we should live forever. The idea that death is an enemy to be conquered. However, we have never been so bombarded with images of death as much as we are today.  In my work with young people, I perceive that they are more exposed to death and violence, through news or fiction than ever before.”

“We need to balance the very natural fascination with death with what it means to die and with the experience of the death of others; with this fear of the unknown and this cult of youth and life. I don’t know whether we are running away from death or whether we are negotiating a new relationship with it. It is a very exciting place but also a very complicated space to be in, both for young people and for the rest of us.”

The Last Things

Peter believes that the Church has somewhat set aside the discourse about the last things (death, judgement, hell, heaven). He thinks that the Catholic Church can find new ways to talk about life and death, by building on what was done in the past. “I am drawn to the historical relationship of the Church with the concept of the last things through the memento mori, the remembrance of death. I think that the memento mori also works in a more secular space. As a Church, we need to appreciate that people are seeking new ways of experiencing spirituality. It would be very strong of the Roman Catholic Church to be open to engaging with non-Catholic and non-Christian people as well. It is not only about talking to the faithful It is also about talking to those who are challenging the faith of their family, of their past, and to the people of no faith who can benefit from these important spiritual lessons.”

“The memento mori, the remembrance of death – the fact that we are mortal beings and that one day we will die – puts a powerful focus on life. It helps us realise how important it is to live every moment, in the here and now, to the full. It helps us to be open to living the mystery of being alive because life is transient. Life is not a permanent experience. This is one thing that the Church could do. It could remind us gently and lovingly that what we have is the here and now, that God is already present in our life. By bringing us into an awareness of the present moment, the Church can do a lot to deal with the anxiety of death. This is so because that anxiety of death comes from projecting ourselves into an unknown future or by dwelling upon a painful past. So, I think the remembrance of death (memento mori) is a beautiful gift from the ancient teachings of the Church.”

Dealing With Death In A Positive Way

Peter suggests three ways that can help us deal with death in a positive way. “Firstly, the key to dealing with death in a positive way is to bring ourselves into the present moment instead of running away. This we can do by getting rid of the many distractions and deflections that stop us from living authentically. Secondly, there is prayer. Centering prayer can help us return to the ‘breath’: The ‘breath of life’ which God imparted to Adam, in that beautiful metaphor, at the beginning of Genesis. In Hebrew, ‘ruah’  is cognate with the Maltese word ’ir-ruħ’ and ’ir-riħ’. Thirdly there is therapy. One might benefit from professional help in dealing with death or difficult grief. The important thing to remember is that the more we become present in this moment, the more we become alive and less afraid of death. By being alive there is no anxious fear of death, because we are too busy experiencing life. The worry and anxiety fade away in the face of what it means to simply exist.”

Dealing with death
Peter Farrugia. Photo: Christina Gatt

Dealing With The Fear Of Death

Sometimes, when people are dying they are afraid. Peter sees this as a natural fear: “I think it is perfectly natural to be afraid in this situation. This is a process, in which the person has to adjust to a new kind of reality. Therapeutically, we would explore the moments of worry or anxiety. Then we look at what is left unfinished, or simply accept that life has beauty in its incompleteness. However, it all comes down to being in the here and now. This even if we have no control, rather than fantasising about the future. It is about renouncing control. Rather, the illusion of control, because in reality, how much control do we have over so many things in our lives?”

“Dealing with death is a difficult topic for a lot of people. Some of the earliest human rituals enacted by our prehistoric ancestors, of religious or spiritual significance, were burials and memorialisations of the dead. This shows that there has always been this fascination with death and the afterlife. You can also see this fascination in children. Children will wonder how someone who used to talk and interact with them has suddenly disappeared from their life.  This has a jarring effect because, on some level, we immediately think that this is also going to happen to us and to those whom we love. In the face of the dead, we also see ourselves.  That can be very terrifying for people who aren’t capable of living in the moment. Also, for those who cannot accept the inevitability of their own demise. It is most helpful when we become aware that life is a gift. When this happens, we develop a sense of gratitude for this great gift of being alive. Not holding onto dear life and not trying to control it, but simply and gently allowing ourselves to enjoy life for what it is.”

Read more:
– The Death Of My Younger Brother
– The Art Of Dying Well

Suzanne Vella

Suzanne Vella has a Masters' Degree in Theology, a Diploma in Spirituality and a Diploma in Digital Marketing.

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