Yes, I got quiet. No, I didn't give up (again). Far from it. Over the last year I have taken up a new sport: existential rockclimbing (aka supporting the bereaved).
So, I have always been drawn to the mystery of death. As a child I would read books on murder and ghosts (with tears of fear rolling down my face), and then would ponder the greatest of questions: what the fuck happens after we die? What does it mean to stop existing? What is this thing called death?
Of course these questions influenced my early career path: detective or ghostbuster? I chose the latter merely because I felt it was the more mysterious of the two. Yes, Sherlock Holmes was a boyhood hero. But investigating death (that greatest of mysteries) rather than the precipitating causes of death, seemed like the avenue with the greatest glory, and the greatest for personal discovery. I may not be murdered (or know anyone who has been), but I am sure as hell going to die one day (gulp).
I need not go into the tale of the intervening years, other than to say that my experience with personal loss has been great. Whether that has been the loss of someone close to me: my brother, my ex-wife (lost to divorce, not death), the death of a number of beloved pets; or my loss of purpose: leaving parapsychology behind after my existential epiphany on the pointlessness of existence. Many of those losses have had a profound and permanent influence on my psyche, and are no doubt responsible for the position I find myself in today. C'est la vie!
So, after some training, I took up a volunteering role with a charity organisation, supporting the bereaved, the pre-bereaved (those anticipating a loss) and, perhaps the hardest of all, those coming to the end of their lives. Now don’t misunderstand anything. Everything is still pointless. Has been since the day the universe decided to spunk its junk into the nothingness, and will be until the last particle draws its final breath. And no, I didn't suddenly find religion or a purpose. Far from it. I see it thus: the smallpox vaccine was first developed when a doctor (and scientist) noticed that milkmaids infected with cowpox did not develop the far more devastating disease of smallpox. This observation prompted the first vaccination: taking a small amount of the deadly virus and using it to prevent the full blown disease. Well, my life history has provided a similar inoculation to existential pain and loss. I feel it of course. But I also feel as if I could take the pain of the universe inside myself. Like a bleak Russian doll, with space inside for an infinity of pain. A black hole of misery perhaps, but also existential armour. Laugh or be the butt of the joke yourself!
So I have supported quite a number of individuals over the last few months. In bereavement there is great consideration for wording. Counselling can be a scary word, for whatever reason. To give just one, I might suggest a certain medical connotation, and already in my experience I have found that the bereaved can have very strong opinions towards the medical profession. Thus I provide support to the bereaved. And what does that entail? Very generally I listen, in a safe and confidential space, to the pains of somebody going through the very worst moments of their lives. Perhaps they have lost their wife, having been together for longer than my own lifespan. Perhaps their loved one died horribly in pain after suffering cancer for many years. Perhaps they died suddenly, with no warning at all, and no chance to say goodbye. Perhaps they wished upon their loved one that their suffering would end (only to now regret that wish, lest it was the very cause of their demise). Perhaps they longed for them to stay, no matter what their condition or suffering: “please don’t leave me. I do not want to be alone without you…”
Existential rockclimbing: I walk into the room. I have very limited information about this person. I have the most basic understanding of what they want. Who they have lost, or will lose in the future. But of course, we are all unique. Our relationships are all different. One man’s relationship with his wife is not the same as another’s. So if the client’s pain and loss is the mountain in my analogy, then finding ways to scramble up it with them is the activity of rockclimbing. Together, we are here to do work. To understand what the person has gone through, to talk through the hows, the whys, the wherefores of it all. To explore every nook, every cranny, to cross every crevasse and traverse every pathway, dead-end (pardon the pun) or not. We are explorers into a territory that few travel often, and that journey can be a difficult one. Or should I say, can be a very difficult one for some.
My clients are of course a self-selecting sample. You must seek out my support. And for every person that is offered help by the organisation that I volunteer for, many say they are coping okay with their loss and pain. Perhaps they are coping. Or perhaps they don’t know what they are doing and they don’t know what it means to ask for help. Well the offer of support is always open to them, even if they say no. But those who come to see me are asking for help. And I see it thus: I imagine Jesus bent over and crooked under the great weight of the wooden cross. Bleeding and whipped along the road. Exhausted, and in pain, he stumbles as though to fall. Seeing his trial, a stranger in the baying crowd pushes through and tries to help. He takes the weight of the cross upon his own shoulders. If only for a moment, Jesus is given some small support in his task. He will still be executed on the hill. He will still have a spear thrust into his side. He will still die. But to assist someone with their great existential pain, if only for a moment. Well, everything is pointless. But assisting another in their time of greatest need. Working with the diseased when you, yourself, are inoculated against that particular virus. Like Spock in the engineering room: “he’ll die, exclaims Kirk!”. He’s dead already, is the retort.
My clients continuously surprise me. Some need one session, some need many many more. Bereavement is different for everyone. Some reconcile their grief and loss. Some are never ever ever going to come to terms with their bereavement. Not really. They will go through the rest of their lives in a kind of shadow world. But I believe that support does help, if only for a moment or two. And for me, there is something so very exhilarating about the process. There is something that is so very intellectually stimulating (whilst not in any way feeling like an academic process). I am at the existential coalface. It is possible to make a mis-step. To say the wrong thing. To put your piton in the wrong crack, and cause a rockslide from which an avalanche may proceed. It hasn’t happened yet (that I can tell). But I think the possibility is always there at the back of your mind. Let’s not be too dramatic. The worst has already happened, so there’s little I can do to make it worse. On the other hand, sensitivity and empathy are needed. Existential pain can be just as hard to bear as the greatest of physical pains. And the kind of support I provide is perhaps one way to help mitigate or alleviate that pain. Perhaps it would have gone away eventually (though I see clients who have been ruminating on their loss for a long time without a change). No, I am convinced some need a little existential vaccination. A safe and secure place to work through their pain and confusion. Not necessarily to a resolution, but at least to understand their thoughts and feelings, and to understand that everything they are going through is normal. With love comes loss. And to that problem there is no solution.
So I am now an existential rockclimber. And never before have I done anything as thrilling, or as caring. But I don’t do it for those aspects of the experience. I do it because I can. You cannot burn a spent match. I say to the universe: bring-it-on!Go Top