Julia Samuel: Confronting death can help us see how to live

The author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass considers how we can deliver a kinder world post-coronavirus.

Julia Samuel
Julia Samuel for Penguin Perspectives
Image: Tim Lane/Penguin

I have always believed that we shouldn't avoid thinking about death, that we should examine it as much as we do other aspects of life, but I have rarely succeeded in getting others to share my view. Now however, Covid-19 has done it for me. It has blown away our collective denial that death happens to other people, and our magical thinking – that even thinking about death might make it happen, so best avoid it. It has brought our mortality up close and personal. This is frightening yes, but also enriching. It heightens our humility and we value the preciousness of love and life itself. A 72-year-old client who was hospitalised with Covid-19 told me: 'I didn't really think I was going to die, but there were moments I wondered if I could keep fighting. Just breathing was such a struggle. But I thought of all the people I love and turned to hope….now I treasure every day. I love just being in the garden…’ As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: 'The first wealth is health', and health is invisible until we are ill. Recently I have heard more often than ever before how grateful people feel for being safe at home, for being able to hug their family, and how they value and miss their friends. Being safe is no longer an assumption we take for granted, it is a blessing and now we give it the respect it's due.

Before the pandemic busyness was an epidemic; we'd self-importantly declare we had 'back to back meetings' and 'hadn't had a moment to ourselves'. But lockdown has altered time. For most of us it has slowed. Busyness is an anaesthetic that blocks feeling, that allows us to avoid painful truths. It takes time to allow ourselves to open up emotionally, to let our awareness of what is going on inside us emerge. 'Time out' has given us the opportunity to know ourselves and ask important questions about who we really are, what we believe and what gives our life meaning. This may mean we value more all that we had before, or give us insights into possible new ways of being and living.

'Lockdown has altered time. For most of us it has slowed'

We all hope that we can make a different world when we come out the other side. I, like most people, would like a world that is more equitable, where community, connection and humanity trump individualism and greed. It will, I hope, mean that we remember, that when we feel powerless, helping others is the best antidote. Small kindnesses like dropping food for a neighbour matters, and leaves you both feeling better. Seeing Captain Tom walking round his garden and raising £29m reminds us that one person can change the world.

The crises of 9/11 and 2008 brought a collective promise to deliver a kinder gentler world which did not materialise. It is a profoundly complex promise to achieve. For there is a battle between our evolutionary drive; the survival of the fittest and our biologically wired altruism. The pull to save oneself over the need to belong and protect our tribe. Change tests our beliefs and values, and requires the courage to make a decision and then follow it with action and endurance to see it through. But in order to make informed, good decisions we need to face up to the losses, to learn from them and confront the truths they reveal. Although our future is unknown, our past experience always informs and influences us. As my client said: 'I've folded a lot of my past pain into my heart.' We never lose what we have lived through but when faced it can be a source of potency and growth. It calls on both leadership and the commitment of every one of us to deliver that growth. It is harder than we would like and takes longer than we would choose. But it is possible.

'For altruism to win we need to ignite hope'

For altruism to win we need to ignite hope. Hope is the alchemy that turns a life/community/world around. Hope is not just an emotion, although emotion supports it. Hope is a path to construct a way forward and it needs three elements: the capacity to set realistic goals, the ability to work out how to achieve them, including the adaptability for a back-up plan, and finally self-belief.

When any one of us looks back at our life, what has mattered to us most is our love and connection to others. In addition, now, we will look at it through the lens of before and post the pandemic, and we will want to be proud of our contribution, however small, to a better world.

Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.

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