Death is “disturbing” and “unpleasant”
To be filed under 'Things I Don't Remember Agreeing To'
Hello. This post is about Death & Birds.
As you may have noticed, I’m fairly new to this (posting on Substack), and it’s been interesting to experience a cycle of: writing a post—feeling ok about it—publishing it—being deeply touched & delighted that anyone responds—becoming crippled by self-doubt, shame, anxiety and regret for exposing my heart to strangers—writing a post—feeling ok about it…repeat.
My most recent crippling involved an old friend, and constant companion—my Inner Critic, who kindly asked what I thought I was doing, writing about Death & Birds. My Critic pointed out that the two are entirely unrelated (“so you look stupid from the get-go”) and that no one is going to want to be consistently reminded of their mortality, so I should just stick to Birds (“and most people find Birds boring anyway, so, you should just give up”). Thanks, Critic. You’re the best.
I do actually appreciate what my psyche is trying to do, here. It’s identified that in publishing these posts there lies the potential for someone saying, “I think you’re wrong, stupid, dull, weird” or (my personal worst case scenario) “What you’ve said has hurt me”, and my Critic knows well the devastation that this kind of response would traditionally provoke—so, genuinely, thanks for trying to keep me safe, Inner Critic, your efforts don’t go unnoticed.
All of that was to say that this inner dialogue has had the benefit of me more deeply questioning what it is that I’m trying to offer here. Why Death? Why Birds? And why have they come to feel important enough that I (a classic introvert) am apparently willing to be (potentially) told that I’m awful by strangers on the internet?
The subject of Death is so often dismissed as ‘morbid’. I googled ‘definition of morbid’, and the first thing that came up was: “characterized by an unusual interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease.” Yikes. Did we really collectively agree that Death is “disturbing” and “unpleasant”?
Dying is something that we as a species have been actively doing, causing, and witnessing for millennia. And, yes, there are all sorts of ways in which one can die (some of which are indeed disturbing and unpleasant) but classing Death, in its entirety, as such is disturbingly narrow-minded. Death can of course be disturbing, it can be unpleasant, it can also be profound, it can be devastating, it can be beautiful, it can be (and, undoubtedly, is) transformational; both for the individual doing the dying and for those in proximity. Death can be complicated. Death can be a relief. Death can be friend, foe, saviour, teacher, poet, guide, parent or God; depending on who you ask, and how you look.
Dismissing Death as morbid is to do life a great injustice. When we allow Death, our own and that of others, to teach us that the temporality of life is one of the key ingredients to its beauty, to its sacrality, only then can we allow ourselves to perform the profoundly vulnerable (and deeply courageous) act of fully loving life—Death and all.
Death has been one of my greatest teachers and mentors. There was a time in my life when my relationship to Death was that of a crutch, it existed as a soothing thought, an ever present option if things got too much. Having a body, having to exist, having to feel anything from the neck down and having to move about the world while feeling utterly separate from it, all frequently felt like ‘too much’. And so, Death was a voice that softly said, “Hey, if it ever really gets to be too much, I’m an option. You don’t have to do this”. And that, for me, then, was comforting. I realise that what I’m talking about here is suicidal ideation, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that this relationship was a healthy one. I share it to demonstrate how it’s changed.
My relationship to Death now is one of deep friendship. Death has my utmost respect. When Death appears in my life I honour it, and I honour the sacred space that opens up around it. I honour the way that it cracks people open, how it offers them the opportunity to feel things that they haven’t been able to feel before. I know that my own Death is something that has been with me, as imminent, since my moment of birth. Sometimes, when I’m sitting in the garden marvelling at the chorus of birdsong, I imagine my Death sat next to me, also taking in life, also knowing that it will, at some point, no longer be available to me. Death’s gentle presence reminding me to absorb the experience, as deeply as I am able. Death, ensuring that my tolerance for beauty and love increases exponentially.
I realise that a lot of what I’m speaking to is, in fact, quite simply, presence—taught by gurus, spiritual teachers and apps the world over. Presence; taught to me by Death & Birds.
Feeding a hatchling Robin, smaller than your thumb, with a tiny artists brush, demands presence. Attending to anyone so small is an enormous task, and anyone so small, and vulnerable, and new to this terribly complex and complicated world deserves to be honoured and respected—and what better way to honour and respect (by which, of course, I mean love) anyone, than by being present to them.
That I am able to sit with eyes closed in my garden and identify the source of the individual birdsong I can hear is a joy so real I struggle to describe it (and is why everyone should subscribe to Shriek of the Week). There is something about this act that reminds my every cell that I am nature, I am not separate from it. Thank God.
My little self-doubt-fuelled enquiry led me to see that I want to share Death & Birds with you because they have both been such invaluable teachers to me in my ongoing pursuit to learn how to love more, how to fear a little less, and how to more fully embody this all-too-brief human experience.
A dear friend of mine was recently kind enough to remind me of this quote from Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘Sometimes’
I don’t know what God is. I don’t know what Death is. But I believe they have between them some fervent and necessary arrangement.
I strongly suspect that Life, and Love, are also in on this arrangement.
And, who knows, perhaps Birds, too…
As always, thank you for being here.
Thanks for reading Death & Birds! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.