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The Pandemic, One Year On: 2. Becoming re-acquainted with death

Dr Zach Bush is one of the most powerful speakers I’ve ever heard.

His interviews with the podcaster and author Rich Roll are all worth listening to, but the edition from January 2019 was so powerful that I remember where I was as I listened to it. This is usually reserved for major news events like September 11th or the death of Princess Diana. It doesn’t happen often with podcasts.

The phrase “life-changing” is overused, but those two hours were life-changing for me in ways that are difficult to understand or articulate even now.

Bush helped to open a door for me to different ways of treating the sick, different approaches to health, different ways of being in the world, ways that are more aligned with our 100,000-year-old species history and with the natural world around us.

There’s a section towards the end of that January 2019 show where he talks about his experience working in intensive care units and end-of-life hospice and palliative care.

And those few minutes changed forever my view of death.

For years I feared death. It was a constant presence for me, a low-level anxious hum that accompanied me everywhere. My fears now have changed — I fear not experiencing life, but I don’t have any real fear of my own death, or the death of those close to me, and when I reflect on this transformation now, I realise that listening to Zach Bush talk about death played a big part.

Because of the movies we watch, the TV shows we watch, we have had a big divorce from the death process. You’ve probably not seen many people die, you’ve probably not seen your loved ones die, they’ve probably died in operating rooms or ICUs or before you could fly across the country to see them.

And so very few human beings are now watching this process of death, and it’s allowed death to be defined as an endpoint, or a contraction or a disappearance, rather than what I’ve actually seen it to be.

And what I’ve seen it to be is a massive expansion of consciousness, of reality, of awareness, and ultimately of love.

The most poignant examples of this are people that actually die biologically and we spend 15 or 30 minutes in ICU resuscitating them with drugs and shocking their chests like you see on TV shows. We have a dismal track record of pulling those people back. It’s not like TV, we lose the vast majority. About 6% of cardiac arrests in the hospital will actually be resuscitated.

So you have somebody who is now biologically dead and you’re artificially sustaining life, you’ve got them on a respirator and you’re padding on their chest and you’re pumping drugs into their vein to try to get their heart restarted.

They may have been isolated away from humans for quite some time, only touched by latex gloved hands, only people with gowns on come to see them, with masks on. They haven’t seen any human face close up, and they’re so isolated and lonely.

And they go into this moment on the other side, and then we start working on them, doing our code, and as the hero depicted on TV, you become that doctor that pulls somebody back from the other side of the veil.

And what he found there was startling.

They all told similar stories of the other side of biological life. The stories of the “white light” that we hear again and again were present, but it was more than just that.

Bush said there was one question that so many of those patients asked: “Why did you bring me back?”

They told their loved ones that in that moment, in that space on the other side, they felt completely accepted for the first time in their lives.

And so, Bush established his view of what death really is.

Death is not an endpoint. It’s a transformation moment, that’s an expansion beyond the limits of this frail biologic shell that we carry around. And the instant that we step out of that, we find out that the universe embraces us in every single second of our existence in complete acceptance of who we are. We are enough … at every second and every point of our existence.

I first listened to this more than two years ago, and I’ve found myself dwelling on it many times since then, especially as the coronavirus swept the world and brought death and the fear of death to almost everybody in the world.

It has been fascinating to observe myself being swept up in the fear of death again, and to feel myself recovering from that fear again too.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the past 12 months is not that so many people — approaching 3 million people — have died after testing positive for Covid-19. It’s that their final moments have in so many cases been stripped of the dignity they deserve at the end of their time on earth.

Funerals, wakes, vigils and other rituals around death have been around for as long as humans have been around. Marking the end of a life is a fundamental part of who we are.

Death is a core part of life. Grief is a core part of a happy life.

Perhaps, somehow, the collective fear of death has overtaken this.

Sterilised of the experience of death, we fail to understand how essential death is, and some of us behave, in some ways, like death is avoidable.

Tyrannised by this fear, we behave in some ways as if we can reduce our risk of death to zero, forgetting that the inevitably of death is what gives meaning to life itself.

The full interview with Dr Zach Bush is here, and the short segment on death, quoted in part above, is here.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.