A phenomenological and psychological approach to death

A phenomenological and psychological approach

Since it entered the world, death has been a great mystery

Article in Spanish

It has always been frightening because it indicates a limit, an insuperable and invincible pass. For this reason, man has always looked at death with a question that challenges human resistance. Hence, apparently contrasting attitudes towards the end of life can arise: fear, contempt, revenge, confident abandonment, despair, hope, or all together in a continuous alternation. If Francis calls it "sister" it is also because the questions that death poses to us can make us discover (or rediscover) the meaning of life.

In what I personally consider his two main works, Logotherapy and Existential Analysis and Theory and Therapy of Neurosis, Frankl, founder of the third Viennese psychotherapy school, explains well how the conscious approach of death can help to recover the meaning of the whole life, with what he defines as attitude values. When the inevitable knocks at the door, when an incurable disease advances inexorably, what I have done, what I have been, stands up and remains, is not lost, remains for those who are leaving and for those who remain. In this way, a value is realized that transcends the circumstances and limits of human nature. 

In the same way, accompanying a loved one to death poses questions of meaning to family and friends; what has been or was, what was done together, what could have been done, but was not, are all elements that can be answered only in a dynamic necessarily of meaning, with an attitude, precisely, transcendent. Through death, the ego returns to address a You that, depending on the philosophy of life of the subject, can transcend in a vertical sense, God, or in a horizontal sense, others, or in both directions.

Denial of death out of fear

These are possibilities, but the human psyche is not so simple and there are countless stimuli that it can receive, from outside and inside, to influence the key to interpret the last moments. First of all, his inner experience, with possible feelings of guilt, uselessness, frustration. Then the social and cultural fabric in which one is immersed.

The first reaction is fear. Because we do not know death and we recognize that we are made for life. Even those who wish for death do not really wish for it: no one wishes to die. The desire for death is the projection of a desire for change. I am in an inescapable situation, of psychic or spiritual anguish, or of physical pain that is not contained, not soothed; I wish to die because it seems to me the only way to relieve my pain. Jesus, too, was afraid of death, even though he desired it as an instrument of salvation.

This fear of death provokes different attitudes, psychological and social

The proximity of death, mine or a loved one's, can lead to denial as a way of escape. The relative who does not approach the bed of the dying, the patient now terminal, who stubbornly denies the inescapable. But it can also lead to more complex situations: requiring disproportionate or futile therapies, such as a transplant in a person who can no longer tolerate surgery, or forced hydration and nutrition in a cancer patient who slips into a terminal coma. It should be kept in mind that for some years now, in hospices, at the moment the patient goes into terminal coma, hydration is suspended, leaving, if necessary, some sedation. 

The physician is thus faced with situations that are in some ways new because the progress of science has led to them. And the doctor himself is called to propose to the patient and indirectly to his relatives proportionate and useful therapies, that is justified and suggested by prognostic expectations. New questions, therefore, to which even the spiritual director, whether lay person or priest, is called to know how to respond when questioned about them.

The current drama of Covid-19 sometimes induces physicians to make gestures that, while leading to the patient's sudden death, are nevertheless necessary (such as removing the C-PAP [Continous Positive Airway Pressure] helmet from the patient whose alveoli can no longer respond to the increased supply of oxygen, which would only bring further suffering), causing serious stress to the psycho-emotional balance of the health care worker.

Ariès, in his book History of Death in the West, speaks of domesticated death, meaning it as accepted, accompanied, by the individual and the family and society. His are historical and literary references, but also in our personal history we can see how the example of a peaceful acceptance of death, not to hide it, but to bear it with modesty and gentility, is a teaching. The funeral banners that were used up to decades ago have had their day, as have the weeping women, often hired, who accompanied the coffins. The composed grief, the farewell in the hope of a goodbye, mark the death of the Christian as a testimony of a meaning that goes beyond death itself. It is in fact in the death and resurrection of Christ that the death of every individual finds its true and ultimate meaning.

Children and Fairy Tales

One category of people from whom we try to hide death in our times is children. There is a fear of trauma, of excessive fright. And yet, especially at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, we had a set of cultural factors that led to a more familiar treatment of the last moments of earthly life. I'm talking about fairy tales.

Fairy tales are not written for children, but for anyone who has the capacity to grasp their meanings, always placed on multiple levels, and thus become an instrument of poetry and communication of meaningful content. The sweetening of some fairy tales by Walt Disney productions has not facilitated this. But if we go to reread the authentic fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers, we realize the rawness of the situations. Death is always present. Especially and precisely in the lives of children.

Why do children like them? Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are devoured by the wolf; Snow White's stepmother, before poisoning her with the apple, sticks a hair clip into her skull (and she still doesn't die), suffocates her by tightening her corset to death (and she still doesn't die); Thumbelina is abandoned by her parents and death is always beside him, he will be saved by his cunning; Cinderella is so despised by her stepmother and her daughters that only her wisdom allows her to existentially endure the situation without letting go (for a certain period of her life Catherine of Siena found herself in similar circumstances). Why do children like these situations?

First of all, the child feels that he or she is being made a part of the adult world, because the fairy tale belongs to the adult world. Secondly, because death becomes the catharsis of life, explaining situations that would otherwise be difficult for children to deal with intellectually. Thus Tolkien in his learned essay On Fairy Tales can, drawing the conclusions of his thought, speak of eucatastrophe of the history of mankind, in reference to the birth of Christ, and of eucatrastrophe of redemption, in reference to the passion, death and resurrection of Christ himself.

Young people and suicide

One category of people to whom death frequently provokes an attitude of love and hate together are young people. As we were saying, no one really wants to commit suicide; it becomes desirable only when physical, psychic, spiritual pain and/or anguish appear inescapable and without solution, or when a cultural inducement is created that makes risk enjoyable and therefore extreme risk even more so. In certain cases mors et vita duello conflixere mirando. This was noticed by a Pope who was particularly attentive to these issues: John Paul II.

During one of his trips to the United States in the eighties, a girl asked him how to overcome the temptation to commit suicide, which affected so many of her contemporaries. John Paul II did not get upset, he looked her in the eyes and simply told her: "You have to resist!". One might have expected an apologia on the Christian meaning of life, a catechesis on eternal life; instead a simple: "You have to resist!". How much human and spiritual wisdom in that answer. With four words, Wojtyla meant that the resources to answer that crude question are within the person and it is within us that we can find them, thus emphasizing the greatness of the human person and, therefore, of human life.

Wojtyla himself dedicated two World Youth Days to the theme of life: Santiago de Compostela (1989: I am the way, the truth and the life) and Denver (1993: I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance).

The destinations of the pilgrimage were metaphorically opposite; Santiago, the capital of classical pilgrimage, the destination of the long and difficult "camino"; Denver, the heart of postmodern America. To weave the plot that united the two destinations, the theme of life in its intertwining with death, the grain of wheat that, if it dies, bears much fruit, in that dynamic of the gift that has been the pivot of Wojtyla's preaching: "Servir; ser vir: ser hombre para los demas! ("To serve; to be vir: to be a man for others!").

The Deception of Sin

Really today death is hidden or impudently exhibited and brought into everyone's homes, for ideological reasons or for murderous fanaticism, such as the heinous beheadings carried out by the followers of Isis. The root of all this, I think, we can find it very simply in the deception of original sin: the desire to take possession of life (see in vitro fertilization) and death (see euthanasia), without knowing what life is and without knowing what death is. Because in reality both life and death find their full meaning only through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, the Incarnate Word.

But those who reason honestly, beyond any ideology, know how to understand the merits and anthropological limits of today, so much so that M. Houellebecq was able to title one of his articles that appeared in Le Figaro: Une civilisation qui légalise l'euthanasie perd tout droit au respect.

Massimo Bettetini

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