Article by Peter
Published in the Weekend Australian, 16.10.1998
Looking back, the most significant event in my life was when I stood beside my 13-year-old son’s coffin. It was indeed a shocking experience to be confronted by the sight of the dead body of someone so young and so close. Shocking to my very core.
Two things in particular stick in my mind from the time of my son’s death. My ex-wife had wanted to see the body and the undertaker led us out to the little room in which the coffin stood on trestles, set up for our viewing. I remember looking at the body, which had been prepared to look serene with whatever skills an undertaker uses. What struck me immediately was the lifelessness of the corpse. This was obviously the dead body of someone who had abounded with almost frenetic energy when he was alive. There was a wail from beside me as my ex-wife put into words exactly what I had seen. ‘He’s not here, he’s not here,’ she screamed several times. After leaving the funeral parlour we drove aimlessly around the small coastal town, finally parking on the edge of the river estuary. As we wandered out on to the tidal mudflats, she looked up at the greying sky and shouted out his name several times. I looked up at the sky and clearly remember thinking, ‘No, he’s not up there either.’
I had experienced the death of both parents previously, but the death of one of my children, particularly one so young, completely shattered my nonchalant view I had of being alive. What my son’s death at such a young age did for me was to intensify the sense of urgency to find the meaning of it all – after all, I saw how short life can actually be. Here I was, my father dead, my son dead; I was still alive, in my early forties, and I was obviously living on borrowed time – as I saw it. And I knew that I was not even really living yet – there was fear, hesitancy, and that feeling of invisible shackles from which I yearned to break free.
After the initial shock and gut-wrenching grief of the first hours after his death, what was evident, even then, was that a large part of the grief I felt was really the fear that death had struck so close to me! That one day I, too, would die. As the days and weeks passed I found a largely unspoken sympathy directed towards me because of my son’s death, and I became aware of a certain personal emotional investment in continuing my grief. This grief was however to remain simmering just below the surface for some two years. I would often find myself feeling guilty, but eventually it became obvious that this was senseless, as I explored all of my actions and could see that in no way was I culpable. I realised some of the guilt was associated with the question: ‘Did I give him too much freedom?’ And the answer was always that it was better to have given him freedom than to try and tie him down. For the last six months of this period I would walk the beach near where I lived for hours and hours, miles and miles, trying to make sense of why he had died. In the end I wore out the question and accepted the fact that there was no answer – he was simply no more in my life. He was dead! And for me to live my life in misery and guilt was senseless indeed.
During my investigations into death over the past years, I have become aware that the most shocking thing for we human beings is that we are able to contemplate our own death. It is amazing that, of all the animals on the planet, only we human beings, with our ability to think and reflect, know that we have a limited life span and, further, that we could die at any time! We know this, we can talk about it and think about it. We see other people and animals die, and we see our bodies aging and dying. The animal instinct to survive is evident within us humans as the emotions of fear and aggression. However despite our protests and emotional angst we know that death is an inevitable fact. This is the fact of the situation, but we have avoided this fact largely by making ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What happens after death?’ into great religious, philosophical and scientific questions. All that the religious and spiritual meanings of life have offered us is that they point to life after death – that’s where it is really at! ‘When you die, then you can really live!’ or that we are ‘eternally here’ anyway!
I had realised two things when I saw my son’s dead body – the living being I had known was no more, and had not ‘gone’ anywhere else. After that my inherent belief in an after-life was to dwindle and eventually die, to be replaced by an acknowledgment of death as a fact. Acknowledging the fact of death has had a curious effect on how I experience time. Knowing that death will come, it will just be another event to respond to the moment it occurs. It simply makes no sense to fear a fact – it is how it is, it is a fact. This frees me from the fear that I am running out of time – that I am in a hurry to fit everything in. I desire no ‘remote control’ to fast-forward time, slow it down, replay it, or change channels.
I am now free to actually be here; the fact is that before the sperm hit the egg I wasn’t here, and when this body dies, I die, since I am this body. What else could I be? Having no belief in a past or future life enabled me to tackle the issue of my behaviour, my actions, my feelings and emotions, my experiences and, of course, my happiness, right now. I have no second chances at living, this is it, so I have to be the best I can be now
In the end, by fully acknowledging the fact of death, and rejecting belief – finding out the facts for myself – I have found that I am now free of the psychological fear of death.. After all, to believe is ‘to fervently wish to be true’. I was then able to come to my senses both figuratively and literally. To begin to find the delight ... the actual delight of the physical sensual world.
Peter's Text ©The Actual Freedom Trust: 1997-. All Rights Reserved.