A Death Fugue
“The strong states of emotional excitement into which some dying people fall would, from this point of view, reflect a struggle between the psychic energy (fire = affects, emotions) which is still held in the fetters of the body, and the energy (intensification) of pure psychic life which is escaping from the body. In the case of violent death (murder, suicide), this struggle even seems to produce actual “explosive effects,” as I once experienced myself. When I was about twenty-four years old, I lived in a rented room in the house of a sixteen-year-old girl and her nurse. One night I dreamed that a terrible explosion occurred. The nurse and I crouched behind a wall in order not to be hit by the stones and lumps of earth flying about. When I awakened I was informed that during the night the girl had committed suicide with sleeping pills. In cases of suicide the life energy has not been used up naturally. As a result, death is like a sudden explosion which dangerously disturbs the environment; for, as we know, an explosion is nothing but a sudden liberation of highly charged energy.” (von Franz, On Dreams & Death, pg. 84)
One such explosion in the field of my process recently gave rise to this reflection. Having spent a seminar exploring issues of suicidal ideation and crisis management and hearing a painful story of having a client commit suicide, I headed on with my day… only to come upon a scene of a suicide ten minutes later. I descended the steps onto the subway platform to find looks of shock and disbelief on the faces of the few standing there, all their eyes fixed down onto the tracks where a train was halted. Following the converging vectors of each gaze, I gasped at discovering a body horribly disfigured in the wheels of the subway. The train had just come to a halt as I entered the scene. I sensed that the body still held life. I was mortified.
I moved on with the day and the weeks that followed, doing my best to process the horror of the event and the fear and despair it unleashed. I began by processing my encounters with other suicides: an asphyxiation in a garage; an escape from an insurmountable gambling debt with a bullet to the head; a teenage neighbor who drove his car head-on into a tractor-trailer truck; an unknown man who set himself on fire with gasoline inside a BMW after attempting and failing to murder his girlfriend who he found sleeping with his best friend. It was especially this last instance, where I encountered the corpse, that I was gripped with horror and dread, helplessness and hopelessness, that corresponded to my experience on the subway platform. These encounters with death had a nightmarish quality I just wanted to wake up from, or get away from.
Turning inward, I found myself avoidant, and then reluctant to explore suicidal gestures within my behaviors. The challenge came to recognize that the external events were making my avoidance of the inner relationship quite obvious. Eventually I was able to locate some internal pockets of rageful boastfulness rooted in aggravation with difficult life circumstances. I discovered that during some particularly dark periods in my biography, a certain grandiosity in behavior would generate threats of suicide (though I never shared these with others). These were attempts to cover the deeper experiences of despair and hopelessness, emotions which my current the recent events gave me access too. Cowardice and fear of death in many ways sealed these deeper affects out of experience.
Gordon tells us that “death is truly the final test of the acceptance of reality.” (Rosemary Gordon, Dying and Creating:A Search for Meaning, pg. 25), and in many ways I have experienced the challenge of this investigation as an initiation into such an acceptance. What perspective needed to emerge if I were going to relate to the realm of death throughout my life and not just when it crosses my path or gets forced on me? For his frontispiece to Suicide and Soul, James Hillman quotes D.H. Lawrence from the work Phoenix:
Are you willing to be made nothing?
dipped into oblivion?
If not, you will never really change.
Each week since I witnessed the suicide in the subway, I pass the spot where it occurred as I traveled the city. A blanket of sawdust now covers the area, left after the corpse was removed to absorb the bodily fluids. While remaining quite inarticulate, I know I pray for the soul whose departure at this spot exploded into my world. I’d often find myself wondering how a sense of timing would play out in such a suicide leap. As the trains would continue to arrive into the station, I recalled a repetitive childhood dream which would occur when sick with a fever:
I’m crossing a boardwalk without railings through a dark swamp. Alligators are in the water. The sound of an approaching train comes at me until the sound runs through me. Suddenly I’m in a chicken coup, white feathers filling the air as if an explosion occurred.
I’d wake up screaming. As I continued to process my feelings, I found this dream was oddly relevant and perhaps for the first time in decades, it was getting some light shed onto it. The panic of the fever induced nightmare corresponded to the horror of death rapidly approaching with an overwhelming force.
While reflecting on the sawdust on the tracks, I was frequently struck by the juxtaposition of my own despair over the image and the matter of fact attitudes of the other commuters on the platform, who had no access to the story the sawdust holds. And I’d continue to wrestle with what the experience holds for me. Why was it necessary for me to participate in this story?
Then, about a month into this journey, I was approached to work with an individual, but was warned: she has been struggling with suicidal ideation, specifically jumping in front of a train. I now believe I had been unknowingly preparing to work with her.
Hillman claims ”an analyst cannot get on without a philosophy of death,” (James Hillman, Suicide and the Soul, pg. 61) and to begin to frame my emerging ‘philosophy of death,’ I’d like to engage some word play. Let’s consider the word that links philosophy and death: of. If we dig into the origins of of, that ever so common preposition that seemingly has no meaning whatsoever except to bridge us between the various things we wish to convey, we discover it is but a condensed version, or an elision, of off.
Yes, of is off of off.
Just as we might be over, under, around or about, when we note that anything is of such and such, we are implying that we are in some way off of it, or away from it.
And what is off of death if not life itself?
I’m beginning to recognize that life and death are tethered more intimately than I have allowed myself to admit. To see this fact, it became necessary to challenge the notion that death is only an inevitable destination. A new perspective opened up when I considered that life is subject to death, not only at the moment life gets extinguished, but at all times throughout the life cycle.
“We must not forget that there is a disintegrative process in nature and in the human psyche which is itself the opposite of the creative synthesis of opposites which we associate with the symbolic process. Ignoring the death-dealing, implacable, maiming aspects of nature and of ourselves is a perilous and suicidal attitude.” (Redfearn, “The Energy of Warring and Combining Opposites”, in Psychopathology, Contemporary Jungian Perspectives, pg 215)
Hillman adds that “it is not suicide which is the fundamental tendency to be prevented, but the disintegrating influence of individuality.” (Hillman, Suicide and the Soul, pg 27)
A trusted mentor repeatedly reminds me to always keep an eye out for the opposites when one affect or attitude is dominating the field. My efforts in my process has been an attempt to keep a look-out for Life’s opposite, to see with one eye toward the realm of the underworld. To foster such an attitude to my work, that the reality of death might remain at least a bit more in consciousness, points me forward with an attitude closer to that required for the Art.
“For Socrates the true philosopher is not frightened of death because he has practised facing death and has looked forward to it all his life. This is a strange idea for most of us, brought up to shun and fear death. But to be “half in love with easeful Death” as Keats was, is to add dimension of depth to one’s experience of the world.” (Cobb, Archetypal Imagination, pg. 211)
Lost Lamentations and The Figure of Death
“…what a lack of psychic hygiene characterizes our culture.” (Jung, Essays on a Science of Mythology, pg. 162)
My first personal experience of a death of a loved one occurred when I was in seventh grade and my grandfather died. At the time, I was a runner, and was running three to five miles a day. I noticed some soreness in my right hip the day he died. The day of the funeral, I fell to the ground when I tried to walk. Shooting pains emanating from my hip filled my body. I attended the funeral on crutches, and the following day I was hospitalized. After ten days in traction, many blood tests and a biopsy, I was sent home, leaving the doctors perplexed. At one point they were convinced I had bone cancer. Today I believe it was all psychosomatic, my utter inability to hold and process the despair and the grief. In many ways, I can now see how my unresolved birth trauma made this encounter with death overwhelming.
Lack of a grief process is something I’ve come to learn that I simply cannot afford, and it is another place to live in relationship to death. Each day we lose the small as well as the significant, I’m struck by how much our culture disassociates from this aspect of life. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to relate to loss. And when I reflect on the many wakes and funerals I’ve attended, I can recognize regularly feeling out of place and unrelated. The following passage captures a sense for me of what’s missing.
“I asked Mrs. O’Flaherty if keening, a unique ritual of wailing over the dead, was still done on the Aran Islands. This is what she said: “No, and isn’t it a shame, for I liked it very much, for the woman had such beautiful voices. When I was a girl and they began to stop the keening, I thought they didn’t respect the dead no more. I did like it very much, the voices in the Irish prayers were so very beautiful. The priests didn’t like it and made them stop it. It was about twelve or thirteen years ago and I was in the graveyard in Kilronan, and there was an old lady there and she did it, but the priest said something to her and she stopped it. That was the last time I heard it.” (Dennis Smith, Aran Islands, A Personal Journey)
While I do not remember her funeral, I have vivid memories of spending the last five hours of my grandmother’s life sitting next to her as she lay in my bed. She had moved into our house a month earlier with late stage colon cancer, and my mother was trained to provide morphine injections. The evening she died, she drifted in and out of consciousness, sharing a few words. Her last minute of life she became quite alert and seized with an uncontrollable panic, her body shook as she resisted the end with all her might. Her last words: “Don’t let me go.”
I’d very much like to close with an image that shows me in humble acceptance of these realities I’ve explored. Instead, fear and cowardice remain quite entrenched in anxiety when attempting to face death. I tend to relate most to a figure whose presence I felt during my grandmother’s death struggle. Rendered in the book Parker on The Iroquois, the tribal myth tells of the death figure who travels invisibly through the woods seeking his next victim. It is said that he grasps his victims by the neck and at the moment of physical contact, Death is no longer invisible. The dying person discovers his monstrous attacker is faceless.