Death is a friend of life

The Self-Unseeing (by Thomas Hardy)

Here is the ancient floor,

Footworn and hollowed and thin,

Here was the former door

Where the dead feet walked in.


She sat here in her chair,

Smiling into the fire,

He who played stood there,

Bowing it higher and higher.


Childlike, I danced in a dream;

Blessings emblazoned that day;

Everything glowed with a gleam;

Yet we were looking away!


At some point in life, I expect most people will wonder what life’s all about, what it means, what’s the point? For philosophers, answering these questions can be life’s pursuit. For others, these questions may only become significant at certain points in life, such as with the death of a loved one.

I have just returned from a 4-day course with Iain McGilchrist, author of the ‘Master and his Emissary – the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’. For reasons which I will explain later in this post, I was keen to hear Iain’s thoughts about life, death and dying. So, at the very start of the first day, when he read Hardy’s poem, ‘The Self-Unseeing’, and said that Hardy was unique and had he not existed there would be a Hardy-shaped hole in the Universe, I knew it had been worth battling the snow and dreadful motorway conditions in the worst freeze that the UK has had for years, to get there.

In a recent discussion that Iain had with Jordan Peterson, Peterson said that death is a friend of life (in Iain’s words, a friend of being) and a necessary stage in life.

We all know we are dying from the moment we are born and of course many cells in our body die and are replaced during life, so a different Jenny Mackness stands before you today than did yesterday, last week or a few years ago.

But Iain McGilchrist’s view is that life is literally on its way out in relation to the way in which we live our lives and behave as social animals in today’s society. Birth, sex, the body and death are all suffering. There is a declining birth rate and sex is also on the decline. For example, 20-40% of young men express no interest in having a sexual partner. Sex has been objectified through the internet and robbed of its power through explicitness. There has been a death of ‘flirting’ and hysteria about ‘touching’ to the extent that teachers are afraid to touch the children they teach and nurses are similarly cautious about touching patients. There has also been some research to show a declining mother-infant relationship. (Schore, A.N. 1994)

Likewise death is no longer talked about. In Victorian times, death was talked about, but sex was not. Now it is the other way round. Doctors used to be present at death, as depicted in this painting.

The Doctor, Sir Luke Fildes,

Now death is often surrounded by machines. Unlike elephants and other animals who know how to mourn death (, Iain McGilchrist believes that we no longer honour the reality of coming face-to-face with death, as we did in the past. Elephants seem to know and understand the reality of death.

The reason I was interested in this, is that my mother died just over a month ago. I have attended this Field & Field course twice before (each time writing up and sharing my notes), but this time I went with the specific purpose of creating a space in my life, to come to terms with the confusion I have felt about my mother’s death.

Although my mother required 24-hour care at the time of her death, she was not surrounded by machines and we were able to ensure that her wish to die at home in her own bed was respected and realised. Neither did she die alone, but was surrounded by those who understood that ‘death is a friend of life’.

I did not think of Hardy’s poem at the time of my mother’s death but a friend of my mother’s sent me Tennyson’s poem, Crossing the Bar, which we read at my mother’s Thanksgiving service

… and a friend of mine, sent me this beautiful music by Brahms, which we played at her service.

Iain McGilchrist’s stress on the importance of poetry, music and presence at a time of the death of someone you love, or indeed of anyone, resonated with me. I am fortunate to know at least two people who really understand this. As many testified at her death, my mother was unique. Had she not existed there would be a Betty-shaped hole in the Universe.

Reference: Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: the neurobiology of emotional development. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ.

12 thoughts on “Death is a friend of life

  1. Kay Oddone March 7, 2018 / 10:04 pm

    My sincere condolences on your loss, Jenny – and what a beautiful reflection. Thank you for sharing.

  2. jennymackness March 8, 2018 / 7:09 am

    Thank you Kay for your kind message. My mother was 92 and had suffered from dementia for eight years, such a cruel disease, so in her case I think death definitely was a friend of life.

  3. Nancy White March 8, 2018 / 8:31 pm

    Wow, Jenny, this is beautiful. Thank you so much!

  4. Brynna Kaulback March 8, 2018 / 11:41 pm

    This is beautiful, Jenny. Losing my mother a few years ago was one of the great griefs of my life. I’m sorry to hear of your loss, but love the way you write about it. Moments ago I finished reading “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanith. He spent a good part of his life trying to understand death, and this book is about his own at 36. A touching story. Living with an awareness of death, as he did, can also make life more vivid. Thanks for sharing this. Brynna Kaulback

    Especially to you from my iPhone Brynna G Kaulback


  5. aarondavis1 March 9, 2018 / 11:34 am

    My sincere condolences Jenny. Sadly, death seems to be a topic of reflection at the moment.

    Your post has me reflecting on the death of my mother. Although it maybe a part of life, I am not sure I was willing to accept death. I naively thought she would be around seemingly forever. I remember missing our last moment together:

    My last real one to one chat happened when I was least expecting it. With my step dad out picking up my brother and sister from school, I had a few moments with my mum. All of the sudden the tone of the conversation changed from being chatty, talking about this and that, but nothing in particular, to being more serious. I am not sure if it was something that I said or whether it was something that mum was just waiting to say, but she learnt forward from the couch and told me that I was a great brother, an amazing son and a fantastic husband and that I should not listen to anyone who says otherwise. In my usual manner, I tried to dodge these compliments. Like my mum, I just don’t like being pumped up. However, it didn’t occur to my till much later that these were mum’s last meaningful words for me. Although we had a few more conversations, none of them were as deep as this moment.

    I am not sure how I thought she would pass, but no-one and definitely no movie prepared me the change and transformation associated with cancer.

    I find your mention of music interesting. My sister and I played Miley Cyrus’ The Climb over and over in our last night with my mother as she lay there slowing passing. I remember the track playing randomly on my phone in class one day. I had to check myself, let alone somehow explain why I had Miley Cyrus on my phone to a bunch of teens.

    Thank you Jenny for sharing.


  6. jennymackness March 9, 2018 / 12:49 pm

    Thank you, Nancy, for taking the time to ‘visit’ me here and for your comment.

  7. jennymackness March 9, 2018 / 12:52 pm

    Thank you Brynna. I have looked up the book you mention and it has made me think of an essay by Peter Singer (in his book, Ethics in the Real World), where he asks the question, ‘Does what happens after you die, make a difference to how well you lived your life?’ I would think that in Paul Kalanith’s case it did, in a very positive sense.

  8. jennymackness March 9, 2018 / 12:58 pm

    Aaron, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings. This sentence that you wrote in the link you have shared – “Sometimes the helter skelter nature of life means that even though we are there, we are not always aware of those significant moments that occur around us each and every day” particularly resonates.

    I find myself, in these weeks after my mother’s death, wishing I had known what I know now, before she died.

    But I found Iain McGilchrist’s words helpful. He told us:

    “Life and death are inseparable aspects of the same thing – we are living in a process.”

  9. Chrissi Nerantzi March 12, 2018 / 8:25 pm

    I am really sorry to hear about your loss Jenny. Your words touched me deeply. There is a lot to think about and re-consider. What does really matter? Sending you lots of love. Thinking of you. Chrissi

  10. jennymackness March 12, 2018 / 9:36 pm

    Thank you Chrissi for such a lovely message. I really appreciate it. Indeed, what does really matter?

  11. Keith Hamon March 13, 2018 / 2:45 am

    Jenny, I came to your post by way of Frances Bell’s post, and I’m glad I did. I recall most vividly, and now with utmost appreciation, the passing of my wife’s mother and grandmother, both of whom died in their homes in the Bahamas, where death has not been so institutionalized. Both times, the family gathered about–in Ma’s den and in Mom’s bedroom–to sit with them, to speak with them, to kiss them for an hour or so after their leaving. It was a blessed, liminal time that connected us to their lives and to each other in ways that still resonate through the family. It is so difficult to see the spirit in a hospital bed surrounded by machines and so easy to see it at home. It was their last–and one of their greatest–gifts to us: to pass within reach and to share that passing with us. I am so grateful.

    Thanks for saying.

  12. jennymackness March 15, 2018 / 6:56 am

    Keith, many thanks for sharing your experience. I think you describe exactly what Iain McGilchrist was talking about when I heard him speak a couple of weeks ago.

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