Sankofa #6

Sankofa #6

“God I am all ready but I am not in a hurry.” – Swee Ann

Several months after I arrived at Mt Martha Uniting Church (my first placement) I discovered that I was having difficulty accompanying a member who was dying. I felt uneasy. I told myself that I can’t feel this way if I want to continue my ministry as a Minister. What did I do? I took a course on Bereavement Counselling for two years. Before the course ended, I knew I had shifted because I was able to accompany a member and his family on his impending death. What was the issue for me? Simply put, I hadn’t come to terms with my own mortality. That I, like all humans, will die one day. Once I accepted that reality, death lost its sting.

Death is a certainty. You and I are going to die. Everyone you know is going to die. Everyone we love is going to die. I might die next week, tomorrow — or five seconds from now. You could seize up in cardiac arrest as you read this very sentence. I am not being morbid but a realist. 

According to Kate Manser, “Most of us navigate our lives as if death were the North Star, a fixed and distant point. We’re correct that life ending is a “fixed” certainty. We’re wrong, however, to navigate by the assumption that it is far in the distance. We build our entire lives on the wildly presumptuous notion that death is far away and that we’ll get to live to all eighty-seven years of statistical life expectancy.” Especially those who considered themselves young, death seems far, far away. But you and I know that “death is no respecter of age”.

We think we have time, so it’s no surprise we postpone enjoying life until reaching some unclear future date or state: after we graduate, get promoted, get married, have children, lose weight, have enough money, retire, or when we finally have time. Then we’ll travel, then we’ll write the book, then we’ll spend quality time with the kids and grandkids, then we’ll pause to mindfully sip tea on the veranda.

Death is paradoxical: an unknown certainty. Not something we can avoid. As certain as the sun will rise in the East and set in the West, death is inescapable. It is one hundred percent certain that we will die, but zero percent certain as to when.

Now some of you might be wondering why Swee Ann is musing over death. I guess I am trying to do what Charles Bukowski says, “Most of us don’t prepare at all for death — our own or others’ — and are terribly shocked when it happens.” He suggests we’d be better off to keep death in our left pocket and pull it out every now and then to say, “Hey you, how ya doin’?” and let it know we’ll be ready. 

Talking about preparing for the death of ‘others’, it’s not an easy thing to do, especially if the ‘others’ are our loved ones. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to see someone you love dying of a terminal disease or die suddenly. 

As the one universal human fear, death is inherently scary to a degree. It is impossible to eliminate our fear of death. Even the Buddha said, “All tremble at violence; all fear death.” What we can do productively is use that fear to our advantage. Fear makes people move; discomfort begets action. If we live with the goal of minimizing this fear, it conveniently becomes self-diminishing.

Not thinking about your death does not make it go away. Death is a universal human certainty. It’s healthy to talk about death, especially with our loved ones. It’s not easy nor comfortable but it’s very necessary. Do not procrastinate. There is no good time. This is the time!

Next week I will reflect more on how our faith helps us in living into death!

… in the meantime, blessed be.

Rev Swee Ann Koh

27th July 2022