We Buddhists talk about death a lot.
For me, that’s the main attraction – there’s no shying away from the truth in Buddhism. I’ve always known death. I’ve always said that Life is death and death is life. When I was 14 months old, my sister was born terminally ill and died 18 months later. In 4th grade, my father underwent major surgery which he again underwent in 6th grade. I guess he’d had symptoms for a couple of years. Maybe he didn’t want to imagine himself unwell. Who knows? In any case, he did what men so often do and didn’t go to the doctor. He died at 46 when I was 13. If he’d have gone to the doctor earlier, he would have lived longer.
The way I see it, my father wasn’t one for facing facts. For whatever reason, for some people the truth is too hard to bear. Maybe we’re all like that – it’s just a matter of extent. Maybe that’s what the Buddha is teaching us. Maybe he’s teaching us that we need to face the truth. We can’t see what we can’t bear to see. How do we see what we can’t bear to see?
The story of my sister’s death isn’t as simple as it seems. The story of my father’s death isn’t as simple as it seems. For anyone who’s experienced these types of things, it’s never as simple and straightforward as we like to imagine. We like to create edges around things, fill in the contents and label them. We like to see what’s inside our jars, put a lid on and write what’s inside. We read the jar label imagining the flavours and textures. But it’s completely different when you live and breathe it. It’s a bit like a reading a book. If you’ve lived it it’s completely different to getting a theoretical perspective. For us Buddhists, we read books about death – about bardo, life, death, books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But death from the inside looking out isn’t like a book describing something. It’s too close. It’s not orderly. It’s not contained. It’s visceral.
I need to go back a bit so you understand where I’m coming from. Let me start with my sister.
In the UK, there was the terrible winter of ’63. In ’64 along with a lot of others, my parents and brothers moved to Australia. The boys were toddlers. I came along in ‘66 (the first born in Australia), my sister in ‘67. There was no extended family in Australia. Just us. Phone calls were expensive, rare and made brief by Telecom. Letters took weeks to arrive. Travel was a long-winded experience. It was in the olden days – the days of the hideous White Australia Policy and when women couldn’t get a bank loan. It was sexist, racist, patriarchal, brash, isolated.
One day when mum was pregnant with my sister, she said to her friend Hazey, Something’s not right. It must have been early in ‘68. In those days there were no tests for situations like this. It just was. When Bridget was born it was clear my mother‘s intuition was spot on – correct but cursed. Bridget was yellow, looked odd, the mouth was too wide, the tummy the wrong shape. My mother’s father was a GP and when the diagnosis of biliary atresia came through he said it was a 1:1m disease (turns out it’s about 1:10k disease). The bile duct is missing – a slow torturous death of toxicity.
As an adult, I discovered that my sister coughed and spluttered a lot and bad spells triggered hospital visits. I found out because I did a psychotherapy course. One participant coughed and spluttered constantly which always made me feel on edge – so I asked my mother about it. My ex coughs and splutters. Throughout the relationship it bothered me at my core in a way I couldn’t explain. He couldn’t understand the problem. It’s not like he could help it. It created tension that was no-one’s fault.
Life for Bridget was a bumpy ride of maladies, coughs, splutters, fear, fears, operations, hospital. She overcame meningitis. For 18 months, they tried to solve the riddle of how to save a child’s life with such a low likelihood looking for a miracle. The medical fraternity weren’t communicative and family-friendly back then. They heard about a magical surgery in Texas and seriously considered sending us there (imagine lugging a family of 6 to Texas in ‘68 – cumbersome to say the least). No‑one wanted to face the facts. No-one wanted to see the truth. In the end, my mother was too exhausted from it all. The family were too exhausted from it all. Reluctantly, my parents gave up and went with nature. Death befell us.
I hated my sister. It was basic logic. Before Bridget I had a mother. I thought that if Bridget died mum would be mine again. If only I knew that it doesn’t work like that. The death of a child is searing. Unfathomable. Excruciating. Unbearable. The world goes numb and colourless. Lifeless. My father went to bed for 2 days. My mother was left with 3 young children and her grief. She vacated.
I once did a 26 day silent meditation retreat. My lunch rota buddy stopped appearing at about Day 15. She was in the middle of a psychotic episode. She worked at Border Control and had recently turned away a boat-load of refugees. On vipassana retreats there is no talking, no looking at anyone, no acknowledgement of another’s existence. My rota buddy thought we were the walking dead – the drowned refugees haunting her because she couldn’t persuade her bosses to allow these vulnerable people to live in Australia.
This is what it was like after Bridget’s death. People in the depths of grief become the walking dead. There’s no communication, interaction. No love. It’s blank for years.
It’s blank for years and years and years.
My father didn’t thaw for about 5 years. My mother started thawing in her late 60s after I encouraged her to write her life story. The grief never ends.
For a while I worked in cord blood banking. The umbilical cord stem cells are harvested for a leukaemia treatment. It took a while to understand why the work was so important to me until I realised – the babies give life, not death.
3 weeks after Bridget’s death in May ‘69, my mother’s beloved father died of emphysema. 1 year later, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer but had no will to live and died in ‘72. Somewhere during that time, my father’s father died. He was very fond of mum. In ‘76, my father had his first major operation for bowel cancer. Given the severity he must have had symptoms for a good while. He had another operation in ‘79.
In January ‘80 we were visiting family in the UK for Christmas and my parents visited my middle brother in America on student exchange. My father promised he’d be around for another 6 months. On 17th March, my father returned from work in the morning. He’d left something at home and looked around in his desk. We left for school and work. He didn’t go to work. He sat at his desk and wrote letters to say goodbye – and left. My mother had no idea. She was baffled, enraged, despairing, bereft. We all were.
My brother was still in America. He returned to Australia 4 months early. A day after he arrived I shunned my brother. I wasn’t welcoming or loving. My eldest brother and I had become completely tight-knit – like an adult’s jumper gone through a hot wash which only fits a baby. The weave was tight. No stretch. No gaps. No openings.
My father’s mother said she saw a man at the end of the street who looked just like dad but couldn’t get close enough to check.
On my eldest brother’s 18th birthday on 3rd May we got the call at 2am. It was 6 weeks after he left. A week later the school holidays arrived and we stayed with Hazey’s family. They were very supportive. They knew us. They knew our situation. They were warm. There was love. We loved that family. I dreamt my father returned. That image of him appearing around the corner is still in my mind.
His passport shows he’d been in the UK all the time (maybe grandma did see him). We found out he died at St Christopher’s Hospice and had been there for 3 days.
If you wonder whether to ‘just disappear’ – don’t. We can make up many stories about why my father did what he did, but stories they are. They are only projections of our mind, our own imagination. We’ll never know what happened. It’s been almost 40 years of pondering. For me, he did it because he didn’t want to face the facts, know the truth, to see what was staring in front of him. But maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to know I’m wrong but he’s not here to ask.
In my early 20s, our GP wrote a letter of introduction to Cicely Saunders who founded the hospice. She was deeply Catholic. I spent 45 minutes with this extraordinary woman bawling my eyes out wanting answers. I felt she didn’t see my skin and bones. She saw inside of me, the state of my soul, a person in immense pain. She was strong but not hard, warm but not cloying, humble but not self-effacing. We were separate people and she was entirely present to my pain. Meeting her changed my perception of what a person could be like. It was a different way of being in the world. I’ve never met anyone else who had such strength of character and so much warmth and love. I have her photo on my shrine and hope one day to be like that.
I live in the UK these days. I got an email from mum on Thursday to say that Hazey’s daughter had died. Our mothers were pregnant with us at the same time. Hazey was my godmother. Her daughter and I were 4 months apart. We were on potties together. We grew up together. We loved each other. Sadly, try as we might we had little in common as adults. We tried to connect but were mismatched. Even so, I thought we would meet again. We both just turned 50.
Those of us with a troubled heart take different paths. As an adult my friend fell into the pits of addiction. For me, addiction is a way of not seeing, not facing facts, not wanting to know the truth. She had been an alcoholic for decades and it appears that she tripped and knocked herself out on the cupboard (the autopsy will confirm the hypothesis though the circumstances mean that finding out for sure takes a month or so). It would take a bit to die from hitting your head on a cupboard so maybe she was drunk at the time? She was in and out of rehab. She crashed the car last weekend, inebriated.
My friend’s death is a loss. Her brother and father are heartbroken. Her 11 and 13 year old daughters will live without a mother – just like me when dad died. Luckily, the girls were with the father when my friend was found. The only not terrible thing about the episode is that the police found her, not her family.
Photos and memories aren’t the same. It’s not enough. If you have symptoms, go to the doctor. If you’re an addict do something about it. People love you and they want you alive. Even if you don’t feel it or believe it, they do.
I’ve never known what a life would be like without the shadow of death. It’s difficult to understand why a career, education and long-term relationships are important. If death can happen at any time, why bother? People like me have poor outcomes across all the measures. Poor relationships, low education, low self-worth.
In therapy, I learnt Bowlby’s attachment theory. It’s not the Buddhist notion of attachment – the emotional hook that reveals itself when things don’t go your way. For Bowlby, attaching is where a child learns that relying on others is possible because someone can comfort in times of stress.
With so many deaths early on, there was no reliable source of comfort. When love is so seldom received, it leaves the door open for others to take advantage – some attention is better than none. And there’s no hope to learn to depend on others. Sometimes someone was there, sometimes not. Even if either of my parents were physically available, emotionally it was blank. This push-pull availability meant I learnt to connect to others with ambivalence. I don’t function well in relationships. Early on I understood that people come and go. I’m a woman and women are supposed to be good at relationships but I’m no good at reading people. My intimate relationships and friendships don’t last and my family relationships were strained until I met the dharma. I found it difficult to make friends at school and as an adult I always have problems with bosses and colleagues. I don’t have a career. Why bother with anything if it can end at any moment?
The good bit is that recently I found purpose in the dharma (in truth I’m a bit of a desperado). I meditate, practice, be with my feelings as much as possible. I wonder what bardo means – I really wonder. Each morning I recite The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. I try to apply these practical verses to daily life. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. In any case I never want to be like my father or friend. I never want to not face the facts. I never want to not see the truth. I start my sit by asking What am I not seeing?
So what’s the truth? Although I try to face facts and try to hear the truth, I don’t. It’s clear. What I’ve come to understand from writing this piece is this – what I thought was death isn’t death. Turns out, when it comes to death I’m an outsider looking in. It’s not death I know. It’s grief.
About the author Wendy Nash.
Wendy is Australian and has been living in Oxford, UK, for the past 3 years. She has been following Buddhism since 2003, took refuge with the Buddha in 2008 and in 2014 realised that although she had everything she wanted (good relationships, health and job) she was still unhappy – that’s when her practice really came into its own. She has been dedicated to the White Tara group in Oxford since 2015.
She thinks that life is better with a vase of flowers nearby and mugs of teapot tea.