The Feminine Aspect of Death

We have been conditioned to conceptualize death as prototypically masculine. Death is powerful. It is in over-control. It cannot to be denied. It is the ultimate bogey-man, a phantom who will, inevitably, hunt you down, maim and kill you. Though death is almost always seen as masculine, it has a feminine aspect as well.

A great paradigmatic shift is taking place. The masculine anchor in Western civilization is sinking. The buoyancy of a more feminine world-view lifts this culture to a new awareness. Men are more likely than women to use logic as the means to an end of an ethical problem. Women will more likely use communication as the means to solve ethical dilemmas; they will “talk it over.” Men are more conceptual, using concepts to figure out ethical dilemmas. Women are more contextual, using the data of the situation to figure them out. Men emphasize fairness, rights and rules; women emphasize responsibility, relationships and experience. Women, in general are more concerned about not doing bad, not hurting others. Men, in general are more concerned about doing good, doing what’s “right.” Men confront. Women protect. May there continue to be a feminization of medical care! For more insightful information on these differences please read Carol Gilligan’s book, In a Different Voice. It is empirically based on results from the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and the Development of Girls.

Nurses view patients dying differently than doctors do. Liaschenko and Davis report in the Journal of Medical Philosophy that nurses focus on the patients’ suffering while doctors focus on a “cultural tradition of morality in which a universal standard always assumes precedence over the particularities of a situation.” Nurses view death as “the end of life.” Physicians view death as “the enemy in any circumstance.” Nurses accent “care” while doctors accent “cure.” Doctors tend to be technology-centered while nurses are person-centered. Doctors maintain “scientific objectivity” while nurses are much more likely to practice “hands on” care. Doctors tend to view suffering as a “problem to be solved, molded and manipulated” while nurses view suffering as a “lived and shared experience.” In summary, the main distinguishing difference between physicians and nurses is the difference between “the absolutist and the contextualist ethical perspectives.” As nurses introduce a more feminine aspect to medicine, they foster the feminine aspect of death.

Great truths often can best be expressed in myth. A myth is not the literal truth, yet it contains the truth. The words of a myth can only point to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. But our tongues must wrap around the infinite to make it finite so our minds can take hold and find comfort in the holding.

At depth, there are many great polarities which help to define existence: Self-other, love-hate, freedom-destiny, and male-female. These polarities are not just polar opposites; they each participate in the core of the other. They help define each other. They are mutual. These depth polarities help clarify the greatest and deepest of all the polarities, the polarity that rests within the ground of being, the polarity of being and non-being, the polarity of life and death.

Love, which can be well defined as “overcoming separateness” cannot exist without a separateness to overcome. The word “exist” itself is founded on the concept of “standing apart.” In Greek “ex” means “from” and “ist” means “to be.” So “exist” means “to be from” or “to stand alone or apart from or in comparison to something else.” Everything is defined by what it is and what it is not. At the ground of being is non-being. Without non-being being cannot exist. Non-being forces being to express itself. Simply stated, “You can’t have one without the other.”

Likewise, without death there can be no life. Plants grow from dirt which is the residual of prior life. So life and death are not just consecutive, they are concurrent, intermingled. Without cells dying constantly in our body we cannot repair, heal and replace ourselves. The life span of a white cell in our blood is only 72 hours; a red cell, three months; a cell in the lining of the intestine, two weeks. If the constant deathing in our body could be heard, we would rumble all the time. Death-in-life vibrates, hums, at the core of our being. It hums all of the time. We cannot live without death. We can say, with good depth of truth, “Death gives us birth.” This is one of the feminine aspects of death.

Seeing another feminine aspect in death, we can say, “Death is the mother of love.” When we know a loved one is about to die, we love that person even more dearly, less for granted and much more desperately. When we, ourselves, are about to die, we listen carefully, poignantly and passionately to the last playing of our favorite song, our favorite reading, the sound of our loved one’s voice. Could anything not mortal be so sweet?

Imagine a poet, walking alone along a dimly lighted street, sees, displayed in a brilliantly lighted jewelry store window, a flower, on a pedestal, encased in a solid ball of glass. “So beautiful!” he muses. “It is far better than I, because it will last forever. But it is stuck, trapped in eternity…dreadfully isolated. I wish it could break its bounds, share its fragrance and die, returning again to the soil as the gift of life from whence it came…like me!” And so, found by the poet in each of us, love is born in mutual mortality.

In the beginning there was nothing. There could have been sound or maybe a motion but there was no wind and no sea. A long, lonely cry came out of the center from where there was nothing. The spirit of the East, where someday the sun would rise, came to the center bringing hope for newness. The spirit of the South heard the long, lonely cry and came to the center bringing caring and warmth. The spirit of the West heard the cry and brought “letting-go” to ease the pain of the long, lonely cry. And the spirit of the North heard the cry and came to the center bringing courage in adversity. When the spirits came together, they met each other. They gave each other bodies and that is how us humans were born.

Non-being forces being to express itself. The soul afraid of dying can never learn to live. Death is integral to life. Death is the mother of love.

All this is myth.