Facing down death: short reflections on death, love and happiness.
Abstract: This paper discusses the profound personal and natural resistances surrounding thinking about death and the way in which death is an experience of the irrational and absurd, an existential given beyond reduction to a mental illness. It examines some of the author's relationship, feelings and dialogue with his father, a nuclear missile engineer and the implication of the absurdity of a strategy of seeking peace through creating an apocalypse. He examines the case of his therapeutic work with 'Ian' and the effects on him of the latter's secret suicide pact. He discusses the invisible power of destruction and existential dread, the uncertainty of life after death. Reviewing ideas from a recent book on the secrets of happiness, the author points to the three philosophical, spiritual and meditative strands in which death transcendence may be achieved.

Key words

Death, bereavement, realism and illusion, humanitarian practice, the truly 'MAD', the circularity of understanding, suicide game, 'hard wiring' for life and death, human happiness, love, peace, living fully with meaning.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Death (Analysis)
Existentialism (Analysis)
Love (Analysis)
Happiness (Analysis)
Author: Hills, John
Pub Date: 01/01/2010
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2010 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 288874131
Full Text: I have called this article 'Short Reflections' because I cannot think of a better link to the different thoughts that have occurred to me over the years about death and its implications. Approaching a subject of such complexity is difficult not least because it is surrounded by the fierce guard dogs of anxiety, panic, terror, sorrow and depression that are too ready to drive away the would-be thinker. As a Buddhist aphorism puts it "Like a fish which is thrown on dry land, taken from his home in the waters, the mind strives and struggles to get free from the power of Death" (The Dhammapada, 1973).

To think about death is to think about its opposite and what makes for a 'good' life, that branch of ethics concerned with what best brings meaning and happiness to living. As Richard Schoch points out in "The Secrets of Happiness" (Profile, 2007) it is a subject which has exercised philosophical and spiritual minds for over 3000 years. The 4,000 words here (1) will hardly suffice. As psychotherapists, 'life and death' questions are implicit in all the stories we are told, the dramas we witness and the unfolding of our own life cycles. Death and the threat of it transfix families like no other.

This is not a 'meaning of life' monologue: again, better try elsewhere (Eagleton, 2007; Revel, 1996; Needleman 1998), though perhaps this essay might contribute to a continuing dialogue about this existential mystery. For sure, you will have your own thoughts and experiences. A recent health scare pushed such thoughts further up the agenda of my attention than I particularly desired.

Death and a DSM IV Diagnosis

If 'Death', 'the Grim Reaper', or however we externalise it, was ever bold enough to apply for a psychiatric diagnosis, many DSM1V categories would fit. "Psychopathic Personality Disorder" under the 1983 Mental Health Act would be an unequivocal 'diagnosis'. 'Death', after all, can operate randomly and unpredictably without reason or consideration for the feelings of its victims. It can devastate on a huge scale. Death is dangerous. It should be locked up securely, well away from humanity.

I was first introduced to its disturbing nature at an early age in a dream I had under a dentist's anaesthetic. Chloroform had been poured on a white cloth over my mouth. I was convinced I was going to die. The terrifying beauty of the dream it induced haunted and intrigued me for many years. I wanted to understand the influence it exerted on my emotions and mind but, above all, on my fluency of speech. And here is the paradox: we desire to banish death awareness furthermost from our active attention, yet not to 'face down' the power of its terrifying beauty is to restrict our availability to the deepest life forces of humanitarian feeling. All humanitarian practitioners in the health and caring services are enriched by tuition from this relentless despot.

Advancing along the life cycle is to bear witness to the death of parents, grandparents, children of the family, friends, fond colleagues and mentors. These experiences leave diminishment in their wake. Depression, sorrow and aloneness accompany the good remembrances of bereavement. Patients who die or kill themselves during the course of our work leave us with similar feelings. The definitive finality of this 'parting of partings' is deeper than language can adequately serve and permeates the vocabulary of the bone, sinew, heart and mind, the total systems of the self. Each part has to reconcile itself. Depending on the context of knowing the other, death can seem a hopelessly absurd or persecutory outcome. How fragile our rationality and sense of justice are at the interface with death. Somewhere inside there is a deep craving for comfort and consolation in the desolation of death's infliction.

John Bowlby's trilogy 'Attachment, Separation and Loss' (Bowlby,1969; 1973; 1980) is not just a work on the science of mind. It is also an articulation of the most complex, universal drama of human relational experience. This is about living and understanding an existence in which love and care nourish, give meaning and belonging but do not endure in physical, relational permanence. The personalised patterns its signature leaves on the psyche of the survivors, building on the accumulations of the daily, unrecognised influence of family interaction are central to mental health and well-being.

Cultural Anaesthesia

Though in contemporary society, we know more about the processes involved and talk and write more openly about death's sufferings, they still incur a powerful cultural anaesthesia. Death and its visibility remain uncomfortable to a Western, consumer-driven audience. Such avoidant attitudes would astound earlier cultures such as the Greeks and Romans. The Chorus that accompanies the drama of Oedipus is explicit about the deeper humanitarian message of the story:

Like a shadow thrown in the dust is the short life of man: The sunlit generations pass into the night, and happiness, like a bird in flight, flutters and is gone

(Sophocles, 1997)

Hindu, Jewish, Chinese, Islamic and Buddhist, Christian and Animistic traditions, whose roots go deep, also wonder how we have made the subject practically invisible, confined to the comfortable safety of news broadcasts. It is a mere seventy years since public violent death and its consequences were visited on most cities in Europe on an unequalled scale. Footage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are a sanitised version of warfare; occasionally a dead body or shots of distressed, innocent bystanders, though nothing to risk traumatic reaction for the viewer.

Bowlby (1980) describes the individual mind's processing of incoming experiences as 'selective' or 'defensive' exclusion'. Like the blinking mechanism of the eye, it is a protective reflex, overridden with difficulty by actively directed consciousness. Culturally, too, we are shielded from visions of death and the imperfection of existence. The father of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, in preparing him to inherit his kingdom apparently protected him with wealth, power and comfort. In his late twenties, the prince travelled the kingdom and witnessed an old man, a decaying body, a sick man and an ascetic. What he observed precipitated a crisis of self-belief and identity. He became fully aware of the life cycle inevitability, the impermanence and imperfection of existence. So, through 'disbelief, asceticism and meditation he began a search for better constructions to his observations and release from the striving and anxiety of living and being. The state of inner peaceful resourcefulness he discovered through this labour of dissolving his experiential self became known as 'enlightenment'. 'Buddha' means the 'enlightened one' though this has a wholly different contextual meaning to the Western descriptive term of the 'Enlightenment' applied to the revolution of rational, scientific empiricism.

This is a wonderful parable both for psychotherapy and the personal journey through change, suffering and disorientation to stillness of mind, body and feeling. One of the goals and accomplishments of human well-being, alongside care and truthfulness, is the achievement of peace of mind. This is deep in our being, even if not articulated. Like Buddha's father, we also have a strong desire for the persuasive warmth and comfort of the world of manufactured ease; but also, like the son, do not to wish to replicate the 'script' and to seek the freedom of non-attachment. This is a paradoxical complement to Bowlby's schema.

'The House that Jack Built'

Those working daily in the humanitarian services-in palliative care, accident, emergency and intensive care, psychiatric care, medicine generally, emergency services and the military-know the cultural discrepancy and cognitive dissonance of these different worlds: one of order, ease, and denial; the other of disorder, anxiety and the tragic. Humanitarian work is always a profound challenge to our sense of reality, to our own susceptibility to trauma and distress; a discomforting invitation to replace our beliefs with disbeliefs. Disillusionment is never as benign as Dorothy's discovery that the "Wizard of Oz" was really an old guy with a microphone, a curtain for concealment, and virtuosity for chutzpah.

Growing up as part of the post-Hiroshima, 'baby boomer' generation, 'death threats' in the form of nuclear warfare hung over us in the terror of the Cold War. At primary school we used to compose playground ditties such as one a friend adapted to the tune of "Scotland the Brave"

In the late-1960s, Jack Hills, my father, a naval armaments engineer was posted to work on Polaris the British nuclear deterrent bought from the US and located in the beautiful landscape of the west of Scotland. A completely dependable loyal father who loved his family before anything else, he had a house built on the other side of the Gare Loch from the naval nuclear submarine base at Faslane for our 'nuclear' family. From my bedroom window, I could watch the occasional comings and goings of the menacing shapes of the submarines, like mythical sea monsters moving out of their lairs, each one capable of destructiveness beyond the wildest human imaginings.

At the time I could not understand how he could work on such a weapon that threatened the continuity of the life of my brother and me, to say nothing of my jazz and blues collection. Like the Vietnam War example quoted in 'Change' (Watzlawick, 1974--"in order to save the town we had to destroy it") this was a little more grandiose ("to create peace we must be willing to annihilate creation"). You will not find this 'MAD' (2) * strategy listed in DSM IV. I believed he should resign or seek a transfer, certainly not be complicit with such a system. He had different views about loyalty and responsibilities.

I loved my father, but that did not prevent us having huge rows over this issue. I sought to balance my conflict of loyalties and beliefs, an equilibrium that shifted to many different positions, to put it mildly. His belief in the normalcy and continuity of family life struck me as naive, absurd and yet, strangely, as heroic as building a synagogue outside Auschwitz. Down the intervening years in which I have become both father and grandfather, I have come to understand his belief as a simple affirming protest of life, a 'facing down' of death through the lived continuity and community of family life.

My father's ultimate defence of his position was that if humankind could think of no better way to resolve conflict than total annihilation then it stood condemned and deserved no better. My response was to join the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1980. There are many other collective threats to us now. Nuclear weapons remain one; terrorism another. We can also destroy creation's extraordinary being through economic apocalypse, or consuming our way to extinction.

Awareness of the Ontological Dimension

The personal dread of death is the ultimate fear of the unknown and the relational loss of strong, secure attachment figures, Since we have no 'evidence base' for what is beyond existence we are left with many hypotheses, religious and folk stories, the work of 'mediums', and lurid imaginings. As Hamlet, the archetypical troubled young man put it:

Death is the central mystery of life. It is a boundary and context marker for the person, relationships, the family and the community. It is an absolute, inherent fact of being, a shared fate which joins us in a silent, often unacknowledged, universal act of solidarity. We construct very personal meanings and beliefs about death and its presence in our life, even if these beliefs are unclear and unformed. Such beliefs are always subject to change with time and experience. They are linear and circular. T.S. Eliot (1959) expressed the paradox of self-reflexivity:

To be a source of strength and enrichment, our self-reflexivity takes into itself, as much as it can, the factual possibility of our ending. This is a huge, demanding and life-long task. Our nature is ontological as well social-relational, and psycho-biological; that is to say we have ideas about being a 'being'. This dimension in systemic descriptions of socially costructed management of meaning is significantly absent. Why? Well, it raises a hornet's nest of troubling uncertainties. "To be or not to be that is the question", as Hamlet put it. He was reflecting ontologically, about the meaning of 'being' a being, about his relational conflicts, the suppressed passions around these and what to do about it all. Yet, can a theory of systemic therapy exclude thinking about 'being'?

Ian's 'Game' with Death

Having qualified as a family and systemic psychotherapist I joined the NHS in 1988 working first with children and adolescents and then adults. Early on I was referred a quiet, retiring 50-year-old countryman. I'll call him Ian. For many years he had suffered from severe panic and anxiety attacks. The local community psychiatric nurse supporting him thought I might be able to help.

He spoke of waking in the morning with unbearable feelings of emptiness and panic. As he did so, he pressed hard into his gut to show where the pain was located and its intensity. Briefly hospitalised for panic attacks and depression, he was on fairly high levels of medication. Ian's only family relative was a sister who lived locally. His main companion was his dog. I got a few more details about him and tried with difficulty to build an alliance.

We set up a further meeting a fortnight later. It was quite difficult to pinpoint exceptions to his anxiety or to get a clear picture of his attachments besides that for his dog and his obvious preference for a reclusive, unattached existence. He did not wish anyone else involved in the work.

The second session did not reveal anything I felt I could get hold of and little response in the way of alliance, despite my efforts. I was at a loss quite what to do. I checked out any feelings of suicide, which he denied. We made another appointment for a few weeks ahead, but Ian did not attend. Contacting my CPN colleague revealed he hadn't seen Ian either. A few weeks later, however he contacted me to say Ian had been found in his car dead. He had chosen a secluded place in a local forest to end his life. There was a note beside him that simply stated his intention to finish his life. It was first dated 'February', then crossed out; then 'March' substituted, scored out, and finally 'April' (when our third meeting was scheduled). This had not been scored out.

I had seen him in February and March, so this to me had clearly formed part of the dating of the note. It felt like an angry "Well fuck you, then. Call yourself a therapist?" communication. As Ian was overtly passive with his emotions, some of this was my own self-reproach. I was unaware of the high stakes in the fatal 'game' he was playing with me, as an auxiliary representing 'hope' and 'the possibility of change'. I failed dismally in both departments. Being at the end of a chain of others who had done likewise, was no consolation, nor was excusing the fact that he had deliberately hidden the rules of the 'game' from me. Ian's action was completely in keeping with being an intensely inexpressive, private person. Was it even his right to chose to end his life this way? I didn't know. The 'game' was ultimately with himself and the meaning of his life.

I felt distressed by his fate, mixed with anger at him and feelings about the failure of the antennae I thought I had developed for the 'unspoken'. Ian's was a small story of human tragedy in the immensity of the narratives of the tragic. It passed by unnoticed except in a brief newspaper article at the time and by now, in all probability, only remains as a family story. It remains with me as a reminder of the edge at which personal meaning and decision is sometimes in a fine homeostasis. Hamlet also looked at the options as closely as Ian and identified with the destructive, releasing side of death "to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them....and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to ".

Novelist Tim Parks suggested (Guardian, Review, 13th September 2008) that there was a personal, family impetus behind Gregory Bateson's theory of connectedness of systemic checks and balances. "Perhaps having been brought up in a family always engaged in public polemics and torn apart by the conflict that led to his brother's suicide (another older brother was killed in the first world war), Bateson was looking for the sort of mechanisms that can prevent tension from blowing up into tragedy".

The medicalisation of distress, important as it may be as the main treatment highway of mental illness, does not always have flexibility in its thinking about the many divergent travellers and their many personalised routes to and from well-being and meaning.

Death; the Mentor of Compassion and Destruction

The co-existence of death and life as co-creators of meaning teaches us to think differently about many things, including the full nature of what we understand as mind and rationality. Death's threat may come suddenly and without warning. All the systems of our instincts, reflexes and thinking are geared to resist, defend and protect ourselves, and others to whom we are close. Death's threat can activate both the necessary narcissism of self-preservation as well as the complex altruistic social dynamic of sacrifice. However, both are subject to the rigour of a dialogue both inner and socially directed--to self-reflexivity, in fact.

Death-awareness can free compassionate and social feelings of solidarity for the suffering and fears of others. For this to happen, however, there has to be an openness to tolerate some of the disturbance and unbearableness that accompanies its tuition, and the experience of feeling understood. Otherwise, there is the possibility of following the 'Hamlet continuum', to 'take up arms against a sea of troubles' and join with the destructive, elemental energy that death brings with it. 'Arms' is the term for destructive weaponry and the main holding instruments for the enfoldingness of love.

Identification with destructiveness can be an exciting, compulsive and addictive release. Such 'adrenalised, reactive thinking', realised through action, has dynamic energy and strength as any toddler in a tantrum or parent seeking to contain it knows. As therapists we witness the awesome power and control with which 'Arnie or Annie Anorexia', 'Bobby Booze' 'the Cocaine Tarantula' or 'the Slash and Burn Giant', work in adults (as well as children) as they try to 'defeat' the rest of the person and their systems. The energy within them does not always concede graciously or at all. Knowing about repeating patterns, personal or family scripts, even when understood, does not always lead to change.

So, these are the two bi-polarities of death's potentiality: the destructive, toxic and harmful; the compassionate, ingenious improvisation and empathic attunement. These are key elements in our development and repositioning of self, to move beyond the natural narcissism of our own lives and outlook into a compassionate union with the other. Narcissus could see his reflection on the pond's surface as well as to the wondrous variety of the pond's ecology beneath, if he chose to look.

The cybernetics of self-reflexivity consist in seeking to harmonise as best we can these different tensions and tendencies. Like a high wire act, we balance by learning and unlearning; by giving up and taking on; by moving between 'inner' and 'outer', listening to the dialogue of others and the dialogue with ourselves, by being both 'social constructionists' (exchanging personal belief and meaning) and 'existential realists', (building constructions around the inherences of the human condition). The trick, if we can make it happen, is to maximise well-being.

There must be some way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief Bob Dylan

Richard Schoch's book describes more fully than I attempted to do (Hills, 2002) the ways in which the global philosophical, spiritual and artistic heritage of humanity assists in the search for meaning and the 'facing down' of death.

There are three basic approaches; One is the rationalist, humanistic traditions of the Stoics, Epicureans and the British Utilitarians J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham (psychoanalysis would fit somewhere here as a self-referring sect seeking to hypothesise the irrational).The second is represented by the devotional traditions of religious spirituality which embrace the 'giving over' of self to a relationship with the "love supreme" of the sacred-as the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane described it- and the ethical based actions that accompany such personal transformation. The bhakti yoga strand of Hinduism, Islamic (islam means 'surrender') Christian and Jewish devotional worship rituals embody the transformational narratives of these traditions. Thirdly, there is the contemplative, ascetic route represented by Buddhism, Zen and the Christian contemplative tradition. Here, through long discipline and training in stillness, the 'self gradually dissolves the many parts of itself that crave, desire, fear, and seek dominance, attention and recognition into an emergent 'non-self'. These three pathways are not necessarily incompatible with one another, though they seem very different, drawing as they do on different aspects of personality and being.

My understanding from my own and others' experiences is that we are 'hard wired' for our own demise, but more actively 'hard wired' to avoid death until and unless the situation is without discernible, sustainable hope. The resolution of these contrary tensions was alluded to in the 1959 BBC television interview "Face to Face" by the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung.

Jung suggests this operating paradox is an essential facet of the mind. This is not self-deception, just the way we organise our truths according to our need for mastery over the processes of living in the pursuit of happiness.

The rationalist, stoic, humanistic approach to an acceptance of death can be paraphrased in the following summary of mine:

'Suffering, loss, death are all part of the fabric of existence and part of your nature. Why bother with what it all means? Why get worked up about a fate you can do nothing about? Better use your thinking to work out what best makes you and other human beings happy, solves problems and ensures the continuity of life. Examine your beliefs as if they are fearful prejudices.'

The mysticism of the ascetic, the contemplative, the poet, the artist and the shaman all seek to penetrate the boundary between death and existence. Many different narratives and works of art celebrate the mysteries they discovered in their searches. Whether it is the passionate poetry of Sufi wisdom, the enigmatic koans of Zen masters, the ecstatic writing of Christian mystics or the Jewish poetry of the Psalms, Songs of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes: all resonate in global consciousnesses. They enthral and engage our curiosity--we are like children looking through the glass screen in the therapy room to see if the team can be detected. What they discover and leave us are resources of unparallel richness and beauty helping to face down death until the time it finally faces us down. The question in the end is less about the meaning of life and more about a life of meaning. The American philosopher Henry Thoreau put this better: "I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived" (Thoreau, 1854).


Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Separation. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

The Dhammapada, (1973). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

Dutta, K. & Robinson, A. (2005). Rabindranath Tagore: The myriad-minded man. New Delhi: Rupa Paperback.

Eagleton, T. (2007). The Meaning of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliot, T.S. (1959). Four Quartets. Faber, London.

Hills, J. (2002). 'Death, Family Scripts and Systemic Existentialism", Chapter 7. In J. Hills (Ed.) Rescripting Family Experiences; The therapeutic influence of John Byng-Hall. Chichester: Whurr/Wiley.

Needleman, J. (1998). On Love: is the meaning of life to be found in love? Harmondsworth: Penguin Arkana.

Revel, J-F. & Ricard, M. (1998).The Monk and the Philosopher. New York: Schocken Books.

Schoch, R. (2007). The Secrets of Happiness. London: Profile Books.

Shakespeare, W. (1998). Hamlet. Wordsworth Press.

Thoreau, H. (1854). Walden. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (2005).

Watzlawick, P., Weakland J. & Fisch R. (1974). Change. New York: Norton.


(1.) This revised essay was first published in "Context" (101) the publication of the Association for Family Therapy in February 2009 on theme of dying and bereavement.

"I wrote it following the recent death of my father which released me from a great deal of latent psychological energy about elements of our relationship I had not described in the public domain before. I had also just been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

It was intended to think about death on the human life cycle of family relationships but also as a personal, existential meditation on death and suicide-a bridge between the two major approaches to psychotherapy which have helped build my professional understanding. It drew on my interests in the liberal arts, spirituality and the themes of death, happiness and love (without reference to Woody Allen!)"

(2.) MAD'--Mutual or Mutually Assured Destruction

John Hills was educated at Manchester College Oxford (BA) the University of Kent (MA) and the Tavistock Clinic in London where he trained in Family Systemic Therapy and Live Supervision. He taught Family Systemic Therapy at an Intermediate Level at the Tavistock for nineteen years. He has worked in the mental health field for 38 years, initially in child and adolescent services but since 1991 in adult psychotherapy services in Canterbury. One of the first family systemic psychotherapists employed by the NHS, he was the founding editor of Context magazine published by the Association for Family Therapy which he oversaw for eighteen years and edited as issue of The Psychotherapist (23) and a book "Rescripting Family Experiences" (Whurr 2002) He is the current Vice Chair of the Association. He has done a lot of therapeutic work with Looked After Children and their systems of care. In September he presented a workshop with a team of colleagues from a Mental Health Team in Canterbury at the AFT Conference in Cambridge entitled "Sanity, Madness and the Family, 50 years on-a Collaborative Team Approach". In October he gave his first presentation to the Society for Existential Analysis called "Heart of Darkness: Lightness of Being-Towards a Resolution of the Existential Crisis of Family Life" He is the lead vocalist and harmonica player with the Kamikaze Blues Band which gig in Kent and London.
The sun of the first day
   Put the question
   To the new manifestation of life-
   Who are you?
   There was no answer.

   Rabindranath Tagore Shesh Lekha (Last Writings) 1941

Hark hark the pipes are calling,
   Looks like the H-Bomb's falling ... ...

But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered
   country from whose bourn
   no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear
  those ills we have, than fly to others we know not of.

What we call the beginning is often the end
   And to make an end is to make a beginning.
   The end is where we start from....
   We shall not cease from exploring
   And the end of all our exploring
   Will be to arrive where we started
   And know the place for the first time

   Four Quartets

It is quite interesting to watch what the unconscious is doing with
   the fact that it is apparently threatened with the complete end. It
   disregards it. Life behaves as if it was going on.... It is better
   for old people to live on, to look forward to the next day as if he
   had to spend centuries. Then he lives properly. But when he is
   afraid, if he doesn't look forward he petrifies..he dies before his
   time. Of course, it is obvious we are all going to die and this is
   the sad finale of everything, but nevertheless there is something
   in us that doesn't believe it apparently, but this is merely a
   fact, a psychological fact"
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.