For the last year, the entire world has been grappling with death in a way that has not occurred in most people’s living memories. In the United States, our death toll from COVID-19 has hit half a million people, a number difficult for most of us to comprehend. (For reference, that is nearly the population of Kansas City, MO). For many, this has been a deeply personal encounter with death. Perhaps they became infected and found themselves near the brink of death, or work daily with those who have, or have family or friends whose lives were cut short by the virus. But for others, these deaths feel far removed. Perhaps they don’t know anyone whose life has been taken by the coronavirus. Some people pay no attention to death and infection rates and are irritated restaurants are shut down and feel unjustly forced to wear a mask. They refuse to see death, to see suffering beyond their own experience.
Death looked different this year. Too often it occurred alone in a hospital, saying last words on iPads and telephones, loved ones unable to be present in person due to restrictions. Sometimes it was too late for words, for “I love you” and consolations, but physical presence not available either. Countless healthcare workers and chaplains dragged themselves home at night with the musk of death still lingering, wondering all throughout 2020 if the virus would get them next, if they would bring it to their family. They scrubbed virus and death from their bodies before hugging their children – if they even allowed themselves that. Funerals looked different, too: smaller gatherings, limited ability to travel, refraining from hugs, faces covered. What does it mean to mourn when the rules of the world change? How much do we need to go back and properly mourn this year?
Is there any other time in recent history when our culture has truly needed to be awake to death and allow ourselves to grieve, yet found ourselves so unable to do so? Christiana Peterson’s Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics is prescient, published in 2020 but written pre-COVID. It is a much-needed voice for our time. She aims to help us as a culture grapple with death and grieving, using not only lessons from the mystics but her own personal stories, tracing humanity’s relationship with death and grief from the Middle Ages to now.
Reading this book, I was startled by how important it is to be honest with ourselves about death and realized how much as a culture we work to shelter ourselves from it, which takes away the very ability to be honest. Peterson begins her book with discussions around Black Death, which decimated the global population in the 14th century. As she reflects on the impact of the plague on the world, these lines chilled me:
Most of us in the Western world are not accustomed to the disruption of our normal lives. Our responses to such disruptions, both on an individual scale and on a societal level, might reveal our psychologies. How would we respond if our cities were permanently altered? If our architecture and schools and churches no longer looked the same. What would these disruptions do to our thoughts about death?pp. 15-26, Awakened by Death
Images immediately flooded my mind from this past year of empty schools, closed churches, shutdown theaters, and quiet streets. How did she know?
It seems we humans can only tolerate death in small quantities before frantically racing to distraction. We cannot stand any permanent disruptions serving as reminders of our mortality. From my vantage point in rural Ohio, I witnessed communities around me try to erase the threat of death by acting as if everything were normal. I wonder if it is all a show of bravado to hide unconscious existential fears. We know we will all eventually die, but are still afraid of death, struggling to admit our fears. Peterson writes,
The fear of death, when left unchecked, is so absorbed into the fabric of our lives that we don’t even see it. And yet, we will do everything we can to maintain our structures of comfort and ease. Sometimes we will even hold up our own security and comfort above the suffering of others.p. 97, Awakened by Death
I think “sometimes” is a generous word here, but might our unconscious fear of death help explain what frequently seems like careless, even unconscionable, behavior on the part of so many of us in the face of others’ suffering?
Peterson traces our increasingly distant connection with death and the negative impact this has on our psyche, even while our longevity improves. She comments:
In a culture like mine where I am so far removed from the painful realities of so many, fear of death expresses itself as neurotic anxiety. Neurotic anxiety is ‘characterized by worries, fears, and apprehensions associated with our self-concept…driven by how we compare ourselves to those in our social world.’p. 141, Awakened by Death
Painful truths. As I read her book, I reflected on not just how our culture avoids and denies death – recently evidenced by being in the middle of a pandemic when well over 3,000 deaths from a virus per day barely feels like news – but on how I avoid and deny the idea of death. Granted, I am young – 30-something with a toddler, my parents above me still alive, sheltering me from the idea of my own demise – but there is much about death I have not faced and do not want to think about. But my neurotic anxieties are present.
Peterson urges readers to confront our own fears of death so that we might live a good life and die a good death. Here she circles back to the profound wisdom of the mystics:
By ‘cultivating awareness of our own death’ [quote by Ernest Becker] we begin to recognize our vulnerability, our weakness, and our powerlessness. Is it possible that death can become a spiritual discipline, one that, if practiced, can form and inform the rest of our days? Is it possible that if we practice dying, we will be freed from fear to live in new life?p. 236, Awakened by Death
By awakening ourselves to death, might we free ourselves to truly live? As I finished Peterson’s book, I wondered how dying to my own self might enable real life.
This review originally appeared on Englewood Book Review’s website. I obtained a free copy of the book for reviewing.