by Jerry M. Ruhl, Ph.D.
Imagine that you are attending a cocktail party, replete with brie and a moderately good chardonnay. Once everyone is assembled and chattering, you get everyone’s attention by hitting your wine glass with a spoon. Assuming you are about to toast the host or hostess, everyone quiets and turns your way. You startle everyone in the room by saying, “We all are going to die.”
There is shocked silence. No one can believe their ears. This person has surely lost it, some whisper. This person has surely been working too hard. Then there are a few nervous giggles. Most cannot help but smile because death is such an emotionally-charged subject. There is collective agreement to pretend it’s not there. A person who brings up death in a context other than heroic efforts to overcome it, risks being shunned. It’s true that one does not have to be a crusader of death. Life is hard enough without having our noses rubbed in our mortality every day. However, there is an approach to death which does not push it away as something that should not be, but rather accepting it as the natural goal of life.
The psychiatrist Carl Jung suggested that we should strive to “achieve” our death. Whenever one sort of experience is upon us, its opposite must always be close by. Death is closely associated with ecstatic experience. The word ecstasy comes from the Greek and means “to stand outside oneself.” The ego becomes fearful of such experiences and thinks, “Save me from that!” The ecstatic experience is never conscious; it occurs outside of consciousness. When ecstatic possibilities arise, the ego may attempt to extinguish them as quickly as possible. When we are in great suffering, we can be sure that the ecstatic is too close for comfort. It is possible to witness and allow such experiences in others.
There are certain people who seem to have been born destined to have a particular relationship with death and dying. Perhaps they come into the world with their loyalty divided between heaven and earth, or maybe it is the result of trauma or illness. The experience of the death of a parent, a sibling, or a friend can shock and shift consciousness in profound ways. We call such people wounded healers. One of the unique features of such people is cultivation of conscious knowledge that they are going to die. Of course we all know in the abstract we are mortal, and since we are part of the human race that applies to us too. However, there is “knowing” in a compartmentalized way that no one gets out of here alive, and then there is knowing in a conscious way.
Death comes to us all — yet we do not fully believe in death. It is our inevitable future, one of the few constants of an inconstant universe — yet death is a mystery. Maybe all living beings, including humans are not designed to fully comprehend death. Certainly, our minds tend to slip over the reality of our own deaths, as if the idea were teflon coated. Recently, I have been surrounded by death, immersed in the experience of inevitable loss. Friends are dead or dying, clients are losing loved ones, even animals are expiring. Something in me is drawn to and fascinated by the strangeness of it all. Since I was very young, I have looked on death as the final frontier, the ultimate challenge, a place beyond which understanding ceases.
Death brings up such profound questions:
Where does the profound richness of life go when someone dies? Does it dissipate out into the darkness, snuffed out like a flickering flame? Does it leave the body and go we know not where? I have had too many experiences of the dead and dying to believe that aliveness simply dissipates.
When one is touched by death in a profound way on a regular basis it can contribute to a form of secondary post-traumatic stress with symptoms that make us feel moody, tragic, isolated, and depressed. Or, it can bring gravitas to our personalities, leading us into real wisdom.
People can heal and live, and people can heal and die. Healing is different from curing. Healing is a process of leading forth, wholeness, integrity. A wounded healer is one who leads forth the wholeness in others. People can heal physically, heal emotionally, heal mentally, heal spiritually. All people are wounded. People in palliative care treatment cannot cover it up the way the rest of us do. When fear is taken away people are empowered to deal with whatever they need to deal with and seek meaning in the events of their lives.
Healing is not always about getting better so much as letting go of what isn’t you. We don’t necessarily need to be more, often we need to be less. We need to let go of illusions. People can live miserable lives for long periods of time, so extending life isn’t always the highest goal in palliative care.
I would also suggest that a healer is not a person who has pat answers. In fact, people turn to wounded healers for comfort precisely because they will help hold the most profound questions rather than providing simple and generic answers. For the most important things in life — the things that involve awe, surprise, and mystery — there are no simple answers. Witnessing involves helping others hold such moments. To suffer, in its original meaning, means to allow. While we can do our best to minimize physical suffering it may be most helpful to allow what someone is feeling and not try to talk them out of it. This is to witness. This is wisdom.