This story ends with me lying flat on my bed, visualising death. With tears streaming out of my tightly shut eyes, I attempted to rustle up the bravery to complete a Death Meditation without hesitation.
The practice asked me to picture my life, the people I love most and the hopes I have for my future. It then got me to imagine someone I care about in their final moments and attempt to confront the idea that I would eventually lose them.
I couldn’t do it. Dread and anxiety pulled me out of my (sort of) meditative state and my body shot up like I’d been punched in the gut.
That’s the entire point of this piece, I guess. So, let me take you back to the beginning as I attempt to explain why.
When I was 23, one of my closest friends died. Prior to that point in my life, I’d lived a ridiculously privileged experience. One where my only encounters with loss fit neatly into the linear timeline of life we’re told about when we’re young.
You know, the whole idea that you’re born, you live a rich and meaningful life, you grow old, and then you pass on from this world.
But the loss of my friend took a sledgehammer to my naive perception of life, fairness and quite frankly, pain. It jolted me awake, and I was not ready for the reality waiting for me when I woke.
You see, as is the case for many people, no one ever taught me how to deal with tragedy. I had no idea how to process death, especially unexpected death, and I was clueless about where to put my grief.
I remember sitting on my bed, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “I’m going to have to do this with almost everyone I love”. The weight of that thought was unbearable.
So, rather than face it head-on; rather than attempt to work through the eruption of emotion I was experiencing, I squashed it all down.
I tried to push every difficult truth and every heartbreaking memory out of my mind, and I put on Happy Feet, instead. No, seriously. I would press play on Happy Feet — yes, the animated film about penguins — whenever I felt overwhelmed.
Now, I recognise that the general rule here is that there is no right way to deal with grief. People are different and they are going to work through the cavernous lows of their lives however they need to. But there might be a wrong approach for some of us, and I imagine that’s the case with the route I took.
Because I’m still squashing down those feelings eight years later.
Mary Hoang, Founder and Head Psychologist at The Indigo Project, understands this conundrum of mine (and many others) well. So well, in fact, she’s written a book about it.
Darkness is Golden is an exploration into the painful parts of our lives that we tend to glaze past. All those cobwebbed skeletons, as Hoang puts it, of trauma, disappointment and hurt that we’d much rather shove into a corner than pull apart.
When I spoke with Hoang over the phone, she explained to me that after working as a psychologist for 10 years she realised that there was a theme to a lot of what her clients, and the broader community, were struggling with.
“It was just real human life skills that we all need,” she told me.
“But sometimes we get the ‘what to do’ without the ‘how to do it.’”
In a sea of Instagram captions telling us to go easy on ourselves in difficult times, there’s rarely ever any guidance offered around how to do that.
“Ultimately, it can make people feel even more insecure when they try to love themselves and they don’t know how to,” Hoang explained.
“They end up kind of going round and round in circles with the same habits and patterns in their lives that they can’t seem to break.”
She went on to share that plainly, there is no way to fully love and understand yourself without taking a “look at our darkness”.
In acknowledging our most challenging moments, rather than painting a smiley face onto them, “we’re learning how to accept and honour and appreciate ourselves,” she explained.
But there is only one road to get to this place of acceptance, and that’s one that asks you to confront difficult emotions and memories by “sitting with them, being with them, [and] getting into a relationship with them….”
It sounds grim, but the simple truth is that ignoring your darkness doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, as we’ve explored on Lifehacker before, studies suggest that suppressing icky feelings only strengthens them.
The thing with death is…
Struggling to confront uncomfortable feelings is a pretty widespread thing, but when it comes to handling death specifically, our toolboxes are particularly lacking.
This is not a global issue, though. It’s a mostly Western one.
“My view on the way Western society deals with death is that we just don’t,” Hoang told me.
“We deal with it when it’s right in our faces and someone has passed away, or we ourselves become ill, or someone that we love becomes ill or has a serious injury, and then we start to realise that life is not endless, and that there is a preciousness and fragility to life.”
She explained that on an evolutionary level, we understand we will die one day, but we’re hard-wired to fight for survival — so our fear of death often takes a backseat.
According to terror management theory, Hoang highlighted, the fear of death in many Western communities has a way of feeding “into this desire for us to act like life is forever” as well as attempting to create identities for ourselves that we believe will outlive us.
Comparatively, other cultures have much less ego-centric values which allow them to hold a remarkably open and respectful relationship with death.
Hoang explained that in Buddhist teachings, “there is this philosophy that everything is changing all the time — this concept of impermanence — and it’s taught from a very young age.”
She shared that these teachings speak to “cycles of life, and about community, and about the life and death of all things”.
Dr Paul Koudounaris, author of The Empire of Death, spoke with Lindsey Fitzharris of The Guardian a few years back and touched on the learnings he took from the some 70 countries he visited when exploring death rituals.
He shared that in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, ceremonies are held where the bodies of ancestors are taken from their coffins for people to clean and dress. And while he stressed that Western approaches to death certainly vary, non-Western practices tend to be more intimate.
“Eastern philosophy often asks us to stay very present with what it is, and to understand that suffering is a part of life,” Hoang offered.
“Death is also a part of that as well.”
This is where the concept of a Death Meditation comes in. Hoang explained to me that these meditations are often used in Buddhist cultures as part of a communal ritual when someone dies. Rather than hold a funeral alone, there are cases in which these ceremonies last a number of days.
Beyond a respectful means of honouring someone’s life, Hoang said that acknowledging death and taking your time with the grief process is likely to help you through the experience, too.
“The research shows that when we face death, that we learn that it is actually scarce. And therefore, we learn to have an appreciation for it,” she said.
“I said in the book — it’s kind of like [how] you appreciate the time with a loved one or a friend more when you know that they’re just about to go away for a long trip, [and] you enjoy the last couple of scoops of Ben and Jerry’s more when you’re at the bottom of the ice cream tub.”
Choosing not to look at death and squashing down the feelings that loss and hardship bring can feel like a suit of armour, protecting your broken heart from further cracks. But what life experience, research and Hoang will tell you is all that armour does is “let fear get in the way of us moving forward”.
The only way to heal a broken heart is to hold them gently, see them clearly and give them time to feel the pain that’s been inflicted on them.
I may be years late on this, but I can finally say I’m giving that a shot now.
Darkness Is Golden is available to buy now, details on the book are available here.