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Two days ago, I witnessed the death of the man with whom I have had the longest friendship in my life! I have known this man as a husband for 32 years, and as a friend, admirer and supporter for 28 years.

Joe passed away at the age of 94, and it is a source of much pleasure to his survivors that he lived a full and motivated lifestyle until the day he died. A retired General Practitioner, Joe had followed many different dietary regimes over the years. As medical knowledge increased and new theories of nutrition became public knowledge, so his eating patterns would change.

Dietary Regimes

In the early days of our marriage some sixty years ago, it was pilchards and sardines that formed a large part of his diet. Then came the days of a low salt regime. This was followed by a period of low fats and low carbohydrates. More recently, he explored the Banting Diet, and his latest routine was starvation! The past year Joe and his wife Felicity eat but one meal a day and that repast was in the evening. For the rest of the day, only fluids passed their lips.

Working Out

Not many people manifest more discipline than Joe did in his senior years. Until a couple of days before his sudden death, he was maintaining his routine of the past 50 years with a daily two hour workout at the local gym. He was the most senior member of Virgin Active who hosted his 90th birthday at the club as a tribute and gesture of admiration for their loyal client.

I well remember when we were still married and living in Parow in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, and the first Health Gymnasium opened on the Cape Town Foreshore. It involved a 25 minute drive from our home, and Joe together, with his friend Bill used to occupy their lunch hour with a work-out at Discovery Health. This regime was maintained until a couple of days ago.

Our Changed Relationship

I was privileged to share a very special relationship with my ex-husband. While our association as a married couple was characterised by some sense of competition when it came to my endeavours, as a friend, he was my most sincere admirer. He always encouraged me in my strange and varied missions! He was often the first to comment favourably on my blog posts and was always there to guide me in my numerous challenges, whether medical or personally motivated.

Trip to Amsterdam

Earlier this month the family was privileged to accompany Joe to Amsterdam where his thirteen year old grandson celebrated his Barmitzvah. He managed the flight, the social interactions as well as the loud music of the post Barmitzvah celebrations with good humour and aplomb. His family have been left with the fond memories of revelling in the achievements of a young man. We all danced and celebrated to mark this traditional milestone. As a raconteur, Joe did his bit by delivering a magnificent toast to Noam. A flawless tribute recounted without the use of notes.

Change in Sources of Information

During the last year of his life, Joe was challenged by deteriorating eye-sight. However, he did not allow this setback to cut him off from literature or contemporary ideas. By combining the resources of podcasts as well as using audio-books from the local library, he was able to maintain contact with both the news and the literature which were two of his lifetime interest. What might have been a setback became a further point of sharing for Joe and Felicity. Listening to audio-books became a combined activity, instead of the more traditional solo action of reading a paper book.

Regular Visits to the Library

Not only did Joe enjoy keeping up to date with local news, but he loved assisting friends and family members to pursue their interests. The local library allowed him to borrow ten books at a time. He was a regular visitor to the library and loved to take out books which addressed the interests of family members. He would pass on books about cooking to his daughters, advances in the social sciences to me, tomes on mountain climbing or cycling to his son in law.

More recently, when reading books requiring some concentration beyond his capacity, those books would be given to me to read. My job was to glean the essence of what was offered, and report back to him for discussion purposes.

Reajustment

I now have to become accustomed to living my life without the loyal and dedicated support of a man who always had my best interests at heart. I am grateful to have had this wonderful relationship for such a long time and am bracing myself to become more independent as I become accustomed to his absence. He will be missed not only by me but by his many friends and close family.

 

I was initiated into Mindfulness and Meditation through an academic route by undertaking a two year diploma course at our local university.   However, I have become aware of the debt that is owed to Buddhism for its unique and valuable contribution to our present understanding of the human condition, so have frequently attended meditation sessions at a local Buddhist Centre.  When I learned that this centre has a Bardo group which meets monthly, my curiosity was piqued and I had my initiation into a Death Café this afternoon.

Death and dying form an integral part of the Buddhist tradition, a subject which is openly discussed in the East, but a topic that is surrounded by taboos in the West and only vocalised under very explicit circumstances.   I have attended numerous meetings at this particular Buddhist Centre and meditate there regularly, but was feeling a little out of my comfort zone attending this gathering which was so boldly and openly being called a Death Café.   Curiosity and my need to experience novel events allowed me to overcome my trepidation.

Between death and our next rebirth the Tibetans believe we experience an intermediate gap; this gap is called the Bardo.    Whilst I do not have a belief in rebirth, I was interested to learn the Buddhist way of supporting people in the last stages of their earthly existence.   The term bardo can additionally be more loosely used for describing any space that occurs between two states.   The transition from sleep to wakefulness, or the interval between meditating and coming back to interacting with the present moment, are also considered to be states of Bardo.

A group of about fifteen people were gathered for the meeting which the facilitator opened with some guidelines for the participants. She informed us that there were other Death Cafés operating in and around Cape Town.   Each gathering followed its own procedures and there did not exist any ideal protocol or favoured procedure.   Without being prescriptive a Death Café is a space for the participants to share their ideas and emotions around their personal experiences of the death of loved ones, with participants acting as support for each other.   It is a space in which people are encouraged to talk about their own experiences, rather than to engage in deep psychological theory.   People from all religious denominations are welcome to the group which includes non-believers and sceptics, as well.  The usual rules around confidentiality were mentioned as well as the need for everyone to be given a chance to express themselves.

The rationale for people attending this Saturday afternoon meeting were many and varied, as were the ages of those present which ranged from a young woman in her 20’s, to others of middle age and a few seniors, as well.

Many of the more senior participants spoke about their difficulty in disposing of their physical possessions.   One lady spoke about how she had sold many hundreds of books, but still had many beautiful books, illustrated with beautiful Tibetan objets d’art which she never looks at, but she nonetheless could not bear to part with them.   A middle aged gentleman spoke about how his memorabilia were packed away in a large bin in his garage.   He knew he would never look at the contents but was unable to part with material of such a personal nature.   Someone else spoke about her elderly mother spending time sitting in her wheel chair in the garage.   Her redundant possessions were stored in this external area and she spent time sharing the space with her beloved possessions.

It made me wonder whether this attachment to objects was a characteristic of this particular generation.   With today’s move toward minimalism, maybe the present generation of young people will not have the same feelings about their possessions when they reached the end of their life!

I became aware of the value of placing my reminiscences into a digital format with my personal blog posts living in an electronic format which does not pollute any land space.    Whilst listening to these reports about hanging on to belongings, I felt pleased I had instructed friends and family some years ago to forgo giving me presents on the occasion of my birthday.   I had reached the stage where physical things had started to lose their importance.   I have everything I need.

Varied experiences of difficulty around the acceptance of death were articulated.   In one instance the daughter did not want to discuss the funeral arrangements with her elderly mother.  This lady had definite ideas around how this last rite should be commemorated and because of her daughter’s reluctance to speak about it she had written detailed instructions to be followed on her death.   In other instances participants mentioned the problems they had when elderly family members were not prepared to accept they were at the last stage of their life.   They refused to talk about arrangements around their death.

There were differing opinions on the terminology to use in describing the state of death.   Someone took strong exception to bereaved people talking about their next of kin as having “passed on.”   She felt the use of the direct terminology was important.   “People do not pass on,” she proclaimed, “people die.”   No euphemisms were permissible for this lady.

The constructive meeting ended with the facilitator giving us the chance to quietly attend to any strong feelings we may be experiencing and to consciously and mindfully accept their presence as an integral part of the human condition.   I may well attend a similar meeting in the future.   The discussion was valuable.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching