Stephen Jenkinson wants to teach us how to die well. It’s a skill he believes we have forgotten in our culture. Though not a physician — he has master’s degrees in theological studies and social work — he served for years as program director of a palliative-care center at a major Toronto teaching hospital, where he provided counseling at hundreds of deathbeds. In his job he heard over and over from colleagues that “everyone has their own way of dying,” but he says he rarely saw any evidence of this. The default manner of death was for the dying person to endure — to not die — for as long as possible.
The other mantra he heard is “Everyone knows they are going to die,” but in Jenkinson’s experience the opposite is true: the vast majority of people are caught off guard, unprepared even after having been given a terminal diagnosis. Doctors are so accustomed to holding out the chance of survival, Jenkinson says, that they often encourage hope where there is none — and thus discourage patients from dealing with the difficult business of death. It’s an approach that arises from compassion, but for Jenkinson it doesn’t allow the end of life to be what it should be: an important event, like being born or getting married. “We end without any ending,” he writes. “We are gone without any leaving.”
In his most recent book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, Jenkinson describes a visit with a minister who has terminal lung cancer and is still preaching sermons every week. “Are you talking about your illness in your sermons?” Jenkinson asks. “Oh, no,” the minister replies. “Too depressing.” Jenkinson points out that when Jesus knew his death was approaching, he didn’t keep going about his days as if nothing were wrong. He gathered his apostles for the Last Supper. He fed them. He told them he was about to die. It’s a defining moment in Christianity — and a stark contrast to the modern expectation that dying patients should ignore the inevitable, stay positive, and, as Jenkinson puts it, “not let them see you sweat.”
The documentary Griefwalker, produced in 2008 by the National Film Board of Canada, accompanies Jenkinson on visits with the terminally ill and also shows him paddling his canoe and working with his wife, Nathalie, on their Orphan Wisdom Farm in Canada’s Ottawa Valley. In the film Jenkinson talks about the truism that patients fear pain most of all. Even in the absence of pain, however, Jenkinson has witnessed a deeper fear: the fear of dying. We might think that everyone’s scared to die, but Jenkinson believes this anxiety is not universal. He says it’s far more prevalent in our culture, which persuades people to resist and deny the inevitability of their own death. In one scene he talks to a woman with terminal cancer who has had a hospital bed delivered to her home but hides it away rather than use it. When he asks why, she says she doesn’t want to be reminded of what’s to come. Jenkinson advises her not to “put away” her dying for some future date but to treat it as a “prized possession,” because it’s the awareness of death — and not happiness or positivity or stoicism — that allows us to live fully in the time we have. If we think there will always be more time down the road, we put off both our dreams and our obligations.
Born in 1954, Jenkinson grew up in a suburb of Toronto. As a young man he traveled the U.S. with street preacher and storyteller Brother Blue. The two had met while Jenkinson was attending Harvard Divinity School, where Brother Blue — whose real name was Hugh Morgan Hill — taught a class on preaching from the pulpit. Hill was also a familiar sight on the streets of Cambridge, where he improvised stories and verses for passersby. Jenkinson began to accompany the older man on harmonica, and they took their act on the road, performing in bars and jails as well as on sidewalks. It was an apprenticeship that helped Jenkinson develop the calm yet powerful speaking style he has today.
On his farm Jenkinson operates the Orphan Wisdom School, where he teaches his concept of living and dying well. In addition to Die Wise, he is the author of How It All Could Be: A Work Book for Dying People and Those Who Love Them and Money and the Soul’s Desires: A Meditation. A quietly charismatic man who wears his long gray hair in braids, Jenkinson often travels for speaking engagements that coincide with screenings of Griefwalker. I met him for this interview on a sunny afternoon in a hotel room near Worcester, Massachusetts. The film had been shown the night before, and he was scheduled to give a talk titled “Grief, Then Gratitude.” Gratitude, for Jenkinson, is not just being grateful for what we have. It’s how we should approach all of life, giving thanks for the good and the bad, the beginnings and the endings.
Hoffner: How did you arrive at your views about dying, despite growing up in a culture that is, in your words, “death phobic”?
Jenkinson: I recognized that something essential was missing. At every deathbed and hospital room, I didn’t see sane dying. I saw sedated dying, depressed dying, isolated dying, utterly disembodied dying. Sane dying would require a childhood steeped in death’s presence, an adulthood employed in its service, and an elderhood testifying to its necessity. Sane dying is a village-making event: lots of people with plenty to do, the whole production endorsing life. What does our way of dying endorse?
We suffer from what I’ve come to call “grief illiteracy.” We have no language for what really happens, no ability to be a faithful witness, to do justice to how it feels to be dying in our time and place. There’s a remarkable book by historian Paul Fussell called The Great War and Modern Memory. He stumbled on the fact that there was a period of years after World War I in which there was very little literature or reportage from people who’d been at the front. Fussell concludes that the war was so without precedent that there was no language for the horrors these men had seen. And without the language, there was nothing they could say when they came home. Every city in Europe — and a good number in Canada and the U.S. — was haunted by the human wreckage of World War I shuffling along the street, suffering from shell shock. These guys literally couldn’t speak about what had happened.
I find that idea compelling because there’s a clear parallel in the work I did: there is no language, even among the most educated, that does any kind of justice to the immensity of a terminal diagnosis. It’s a kind of poverty that beggars description. People had no words to talk about their own experience, so they were talking about everything but. That’s what I mean when I say that most dying people spend their time not dying.
Hoffner: They try to be “normal.”
Jenkinson: The advice they get from most doctors is to live as normal a life as they can, given the circumstances.
Hoffner: Is that why you needed to get out of palliative care?
Jenkinson: I didn’t think I needed to get out, really. But I wasn’t organizational material — I’m still not — and eventually it showed. I don’t know by what machinery I ended up in the inner sanctum. I was a program director at the biggest home-based palliative-care center in Canada for a time, and I got to develop a center for children’s grief from scratch, with generous funding. I had a chance to wrestle the death phobia and grief illiteracy of my corner of the world toe to toe, one grief-addled family at a time. It was absolutely a burdensome privilege. How the hell did that happen? I’m not even a physician. The truth is I was the beneficiary of benign neglect, and I can get a lot done with benign neglect. I appreciated it probably more after I left.
Hoffner: What did you learn while you were there?
Jenkinson: I learned that when you ask the dying what they’ve done with the garden that was entrusted to them, a lot of them can’t answer. Not only that, but their dying turns into climbing the mountain of regret one more time. And they often have a few stones to add to it. And some of those stones come from the way they are dying.
Hoffner: You claim that a person can “die healthy.” How?
Jenkinson: Health is not the absence of disease or hardship or brokenness. Health includes all of that. It includes dying.
When people are elderly or dying, they are forced to identify themselves as no longer quite alive; their citizenship in the land of the living becomes iffy. And we, the living, conspire in that, because we ask less and less of the dying, to the point where we ask nothing of them at all: no alertness, no courtesy, no work, no testifying — nothing. This is all a way of engineering their failing health. It’s not the disease that ends their well-being; it’s our unwillingness to number them among the living. The same corruption occurs in rest homes. As soon as we say that the elderly and infirm can’t carry the weight of participating in life, that’s the beginning of the end.
In the dominant North American culture we talk about health as a possession, something you have and are responsible for maintaining. But I see our health as like a tripod, a dynamic thing: One leg is your relationship with all other human beings. It’s not possible for you to be healthy when there are people living under a freeway overpass in cardboard boxes. Your health is dependent on theirs. The second leg is your relationship with all in the world that’s not human. If you have only these two legs, you can try to live a good life, but it’s like walking on stilts. The third leg is what gives you a place to rest, and that leg is your relationship with the unseen world, everything not described by the other two. Having all three constitutes health. That’s where it lives. This tripod sustains you. You don’t exist as an individual without these relationships.
We suffer from what I’ve come to call “grief illiteracy.” We have no language for what really happens, no ability to be a faithful witness, to do justice to how it feels to be dying in our time and place.
Hoffner: You’ve said that our culture is dying.
Jenkinson: First off, I should reserve the word culture for a certain human achievement that is in scant supply on this continent. I wouldn’t say that the dominant culture is dying, exactly. Real culture doesn’t seem to die; rather it morphs and changes, or goes dormant or underground when necessary, sometimes for generations. The dying I’m talking about is more of a terminal swoon.
The dominant culture of North America is not being killed by global warming or too few whales or anything like that. It just doesn’t know how to live, how to take up the task of loving life, even how to grieve its own grievous history. This pseudoculture is founded on the idea of self-sufficiency, self-determinism, and the sanctity of the individual. Some say the first white people came here to establish religious freedom for all, but look at the behavior of these “freedom fighters” from the moment they hit these shores. They forbade the native people they found here the same freedom of religion that they themselves sought.
By the time the Puritans got here, disease had already spread through the continent from previous contact with the Spanish. So the colonists discovered a nearly empty land and called it a new Eden, a new Jerusalem. They came here thinking that this place was theirs for the taking. If that’s how you start out, Manifest Destiny is right around the corner: You don’t owe anything; all you have to do is reach out and grab what you want and maybe steal from your neighbor the land he can’t manage. Your only debt is to succeed. You don’t have a debt that is enduring, that can’t be paid. And that’s what’s killing the culture. Without a sense of obligation to what came before and to what is to come, you have no instinct to maintain or feed what has fed you. When you fail at that, do not be surprised if at some point you cease being fed.
Every new wave of immigrants is indoctrinated with the idea that the continent is here for them. As someone laughingly but sadly said to me the other day: “You know why there are no meaningful programs for poor people in America? Because there are no poor people in America. There are just two kinds of people here: rich people and those who aren’t rich yet.”
Hoffner: It raises the question of where the riches come from.
Jenkinson: You’ll never hear from a billionaire that it came from other people — not publicly, at least. They’ll say, “I was smart and saw the opportunity and cashed in on it. My money didn’t come from anywhere. I made it.” Listen to that language. Made it from what? “The sweat of my brow.” Do you owe anything for the money you made? “Hell, no. I worked for it.” But where’d it come from?
You can’t break out of this endless loop of questions until you say, “I took it from somebody. Or something.”
The dominant culture of North America is not being killed by global warming or too few whales or anything like that. It just doesn’t know how to live, how to take up the task of loving life, even how to grieve its own grievous history.
Hoffner: From the commons.
Jenkinson: From the ground. That’s where the billionaires’ money came from. From her. But if there’s no “her,” you don’t owe her anything. You can give away money for libraries and hospitals all over the world, but it’s blood money. That’s why a terminal swoon is underway: because we haven’t fed what’s fed us all along. Indigenous religion is often called “animism,” because it views the world as animate, as alive. But most of us are inanimists. We’ve been imagining the earth as a machine. Eventually the ability of the planet to feed us becomes compromised. The reciprocity broke down long ago, but the entropy in the system takes a while to show itself. From an ecological point of view, the world’s not going to just crap out. The thin membrane that makes our life sustainable is threatened, but the whole planetary enterprise is not in jeopardy. The question is whether there will be any humans left.
Hoffner: Can a younger generation that’s properly prepared build a bridge to what comes next?
Jenkinson: Something could change. The dilemma is that young people can’t make a culture by themselves, and neither can elders. Put them together, and maybe so. Culture makes sense only by virtue of generational, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Without that, you create a sort of cult of purity, in which everything negative or troubling or that doesn’t seem to fit will be magically expunged. Remember psychologist Carl Jung. They say he came up with this gem: “I’d rather be whole than good.” Wholeness includes a living memory of all this madness, and not as a cautionary tale but as a story of what happens when amnesia takes over. Why do you think healthy cultures have so many rituals and ceremonies? It’s because ceremony is the way they remind themselves of the mandate of being human. It’s no easier for them to be human than it is for you or me. But they have a culture that understands how difficult it is and provides a grand choreography of memory to bring that understanding back over and over again.
This is what funerals are supposed to do. It’s not easy to remember why we are here while you’re trying to make a living and have a life. But you’re not on the hook to remember it every waking day. That’s what the rest of us are here for. The promise of real sanity and culture is there as long as we don’t all forget at the same time. There will come a time when we’ve forgotten and you haven’t. As long as we have the diversity, we have the memory. But as soon as we start marching in lock step, it’s over. As soon as we all start believing the lie about being self-made and all the rest, it’s over, because by that mythology, those who aren’t self-made are failures.
Hoffner: Is it different in Canada?
Jenkinson: My country’s an accident, a reaction to the U.S. We didn’t want to be a part of this country, so we backed away to above the forty-ninth parallel. Canada is a country by default, in a way. It never really sought out the “nation-state” myth in its early years. The irony is that no one who immigrates to Canada is obliged to become a Canadian in a cultural sense. We don’t know what that is, really. We have no shared mythology. This doesn’t make us better at anything, just differently afflicted. But we don’t have to contend with anything similar to this mythology, which seems still to pertain here, of what constitutes being an American.
Hoffner: What changes have you seen lately in your work at the Orphan Wisdom School?
Jenkinson: Young people are starting to seek me out. I don’t know where they get the money, but they come to the farm. Some have stayed on to live and work there. I would never have guessed this would happen, and they couldn’t say why they were doing it. I think the reason is this: They spent their late teens and early twenties looking to burn everything down, because nothing worth saving had been passed on to them from my generation. I’m fifty-nine, and in me they might see an older person who isn’t satisfied with just diagnosing the malaise. Neither do I promise a way to fix it. What I do is plead for an alternative that seems sane and doable. I was interviewed by a pair of young men a couple of years ago. I had a sense they were prone to the anarcho-ecologist take on politics. The culture that had given them life was in its terminal swoon, and they knew this, but I don’t think they knew what to do about it. It seemed like they were looking for an elder. There’s no magic age to qualify, but I suppose I’m in the neighborhood. I invited them each to imagine that his mother was dying. What did this ask of them? What was their job? To push her over the edge? To hide at an all-night rave until it’s over? Or to reject despair and truancy and be a faithful witness to her dying, so that they could become trustworthy elders in their later days?
We all must be in training to become elders.
Hoffner: Why do you call your retreat center the Orphan Wisdom School?
Jenkinson: Being an orphan means not knowing where you are, ancestrally speaking, and not even knowing where to start looking. It doesn’t mean having no ancestors, nor does it mean that you get to choose the ones you’d prefer. If you understand yourself to be the descendant of a tidal wave of involuntary immigration, people fleeing the old country, you can’t imagine how anything of merit might come from where you’ve come from — a place worth leaving. So when you go looking for merit or enlightenment or the grandparent you’re sure you deserved, you kneel at the feet of someone who doesn’t look like you. It’s like saying, “What of value can possibly come out of my mouth?” It’s self-hatred, which is how the orphan who’s never claimed feels. It’s toxic, and I deal with it all the time. I’m trying to redeem that self-hatred with “wisdom.” You’re an orphan, yes, but there is wisdom in that misplaced, unclaimed tradition. But you’ve got to claim your own clan. Enough of ripping off Native Americans, Africans, and everyone else. Imagine instead that it is your own elders, your own ancestors, who need claiming, who need a home among us as much as we surely need them among us.
A woman came up to me after the film screening last night and said she used to study with a well-known teacher from the East, but now she’s with another teacher, also well-known, from Africa. And where is this woman from? Germany. She looks for wisdom anywhere except where she’s from. When I invited her to consider the ultimate brokenness of that arrangement, do you think I made a friend? No. Now she wants to be an honorary African. I’m sure someone will take her money and give her that for a weekend. I’m not saying it isn’t understandable. I’m saying it accelerates the theft from other cultures, which deepens the orphanhood. And there seems to be no bottom to it.
I teach classes and workshops at Orphan Wisdom School, but I won’t seduce you into thinking I can give you the “solution” in a weekend. I don’t have a balm for anyone’s unhappiness. I’m not someone who traffics in reassurances or fixes.
Hoffner: So you try to deal in truth?
Jenkinson: That’s not for me to say. It’s important for me to do what I do and not overly describe it. I’ve got to be a practitioner of it — something I learned first through studying the parables of Jesus, of all things. I realized that, when expressed properly, the teachings don’t function as symbols or metaphors. They don’t point elsewhere. They don’t describe. They are an incarnation of what they are advocating. Real parables, real stories, are not cups to empty of meaning and then discard. Their telling is the meaning. When I worked in the death trade, I was called the “angel of death” more than once by patients. Those people recognized that I was bringing more than the news of a terminal illness to their houses: I was bringing death there, in the way I spoke and carried myself.
If you have an opportunity to pass along a rumor to the people you’ll never live long enough to meet — a rumor that human beings are capable of beauty and a kind of grief-addled wisdom — then it behooves you to do so, even though you’ll never be the beneficiary of your own labors. I am the beneficiary of people who were willing to pass that along before me. That’s basically the Native American teaching of the seven generations, as I know it — the idea that if you’re making a decision, you keep in mind the consequences it will have seven generations from now.
You exist as a consequence of people seven generations ago who were willing to proceed as if a day would come when you and yours would be in the world and they’d be long gone, and you somehow picked up an ember of that and safeguarded it until it caught a spark. And maybe that turned into your life’s work, but you can’t claim to be the author of it. You’re on the receiving end, and your job is to have the humility of a broken-down jalopy. So you’re not going to make a lot of claims for yourself, but you can say you have a sneaking suspicion this has been around before, and you’re a part of some kind of tradition. All of this could come from being a faithful witness to your days, to the corner of the world in which you were granted life.
Hoffner: You had an encounter with a Native American at a speaking engagement in Ontario recently.
Jenkinson: I had said yes to that gig on one condition: that it be for the general public, not just palliative-care professionals. There’s a significant Native population in that area, and sure enough maybe a sixth of the audience was Ojibway — or Anishinaabe, as they call themselves. Afterward some people lined up to talk to me, including a tough-looking Native guy with a severe brush cut, scars, and some missing fingers. When he got to me, he said, “My people have a name for someone like you.” And I was thinking, Here we go. So I said, “You do?” And he said he couldn’t find the word in English, but it would be something like a “great rememberer.”
Hoffner: Who would you say are your influences?
Jenkinson: Anyone who claims to know his or her influences probably doesn’t. I think our influences are a lot subtler than we think. For example, I was born nine years after the closing of Auschwitz and the bombing of Hiroshima half a world away. When all those soldiers came home from World War II suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before we had a name for it, North America created the suburbs for them. I grew up in the unacknowledged presence of these wartime horrors: Auschwitz on one side, Hiroshima on the other, and the suburbs in the middle. That’s an influence on me.
As a child I was read to every night. Before I even understood the words, I was carried along by the momentum of the human voice. The pageant of the story has its way with you, even if it’s not in a language you can comprehend. Story is a sublime practice that makes us recognizable to ourselves.
These days I admire the songwriter Leonard Cohen, my countryman and a polestar in the firmament for anyone who has faith in human eloquence. Eloquence is a conjuring; it’s magic, and Cohen is a servant as well as a practitioner and repository of that magic. He’s a patron saint of the Orphan Wisdom School, unawares. I don’t know what kind of life he lives, but it’s inconceivable to me that those songs might come from a duplicitous nature. In a country that appreciated its artists, he would be a national treasure and wouldn’t have to work five minutes in his life unless he was so inclined. As it is, he’s been on the road for years trying to make back all the money his manager stole from him.
I met another of my influences at Harvard. As a young man I was on fire with learning about the historical Jesus. I didn’t come from a religious background, but I applied to Harvard Divinity School and got in. I was determined to be a preacher of some sort. I didn’t know what else you could do with that kind of education. At the divinity school I met a fellow who was the living incarnation of a stereotypical televangelist: powder-blue suit that didn’t fit so good; too-tight white shirt that was popping its buttons. He was in charge that year of vocational counsel. I told him I planned to get a master of divinity and become a pastor or minister. He asked me the name of my sponsoring congregation, and I said I hadn’t worked that out yet. Then he asked my denominational affiliation. I told him I didn’t have one. “Son, where do you go to church?” he asked. I said I didn’t, and he asked, “Well, where did you go to church, then?” No answer. So he said, “Let me understand this: you propose to go into the ministry, and you’ve never been to church?” “Yes, sir,” I replied. “Well, I nev-uh,” he said, just like that. I was three questions into my vocational interview, and I was done.
My career as a preacher came to an end at that moment. I was counseled to register for a master of theological studies — a layperson’s degree — instead. That same week I met a preaching instructor whose name was Hugh Morgan Hill, but everyone knew him as Brother Blue. He was a vibrant speaker in the African American church tradition. He said I should be in his class. I told him I’d already been counseled out of the master of divinity program. “Nobody needs to know,” he said. On my way to his first class I picked up a harmonica. The class had already begun when I got there, and Professor Hill was in full flight. He was a great storyteller and performer. For some reason I started to play my harmonica along with what he was doing, just improvising.
The next week his wife phoned and asked if I’d come with him to a church service — and bring my harmonica.
I performed with Hill on and off for seven years. It was an unofficial apprenticeship. We traveled all over the U.S. and Canada. This was the era of school integration, remember, and there were race riots in some cities, but since we were together, we were OK. He was a holy man from the ghettos of the American heartland. Virtually everything he did in the world was self-initiated. He never seemed to have a job description. He carved it out every time he stood up to speak. I learned from him the importance of proceeding without the green light, the red carpet, the Get Out of Jail Free card. I was emboldened by his example when I was working in palliative care, because I realized that if I was going to serve these dying people well, then I couldn’t wait for anyone to ask me to do it. And if I’m going to serve the era I’ve been born into well, then I can’t wait for approval and recognition. I’m going to have to proceed without it. If it comes, it comes; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That, and a lot more, is what I got from him.
Death doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life. The centrality of death gives you the chance to live, because it says, “Here’s the bad news: it’s not going to last.”
Hoffner: How would you characterize your spiritual path? Do you have a daily practice?
Jenkinson: “Daily practice” isn’t a term I use, so my first answer would be no. What I do principally is farm. The farm is everything. We have quite a few animals, and they all have to be tended. When you enter into that contract of disarray called the “domestication of animals,” you might not know what you’re signing up for, but you soon find out. Your job is to compensate the animals for what you’re asking of them: that they not run away; that they reproduce on your doorstep; and that they more or less submit to the knife or the bullet when the time comes. That’s the story of domestication. And your job as a farmer is to make it close to a fair deal.
If I have a practice, that would be it: to try to hold up my end of that bargain. And I do the same with the plants on my farm. Crops can be just as easily enslaved and abused as animals — and typically are.
We have our daily rounds on the farm. Whatever general mayhem arises, you’ve got to respond to it. Right now we’re in a season of heavy change. At night it can be very cold, and there’s no forage in the fields or in the pasture. If you’re asking animals to reproduce, you’ve got to make sure they’re well fed.
I think this is what you might mean by “spiritual”: the willingness to be cognizant of these situations and to carry the thread of grief that’s stitched into them. Domestication darkens the doorstep of all involved. Learning to farm means never escaping from that grief. Just because you’ve figured out what the animals need in order to procreate doesn’t mean you’re the boss. It means you’re pleading with them to do so. And feeding them well is part of your end of it. It’s a subtle exchange. I believe the animals know at some level what’s going on, but they know it from an animal’s perspective, not from a human’s perspective. There’s a kind of uneasy statement of intent that flows back and forth. On a farm the connection between death and life is clear, but in most of the culture a deep understanding of death doesn’t enter into people’s choices or their manner of life or how they educate their kids or what they say yes or no to.
North Americans need a great awakening. What we thought was so isn’t so; what we once believed to be true isn’t true and never was. Here are some of the lies we’re told: There’s enough for everybody; we’ve just got a distribution problem. As long as we pay the sticker price for something, we’re entitled to have it. We get a vote in anything of real significance or importance. Dying is a rupture in the natural order of things.
With any luck at all, before you’re thirty-five or forty you wake up and realize that none of this is so. It never was.
Hoffner: And you think we should know the truth from a younger age?
Jenkinson: The biggest single reason our culture views death as unimportant is that we don’t practice any childhood-ending rituals. When there’s no initiation into adulthood, death cannot assume its rightful place in a culture. The cultures that are still doing initiation are few and far between and generally keep their heads down whenever Westerners come around.
Hoffner: What does initiation do?
Jenkinson: An initiation is a person-making event, which means the cultures that practice initiation don’t see children as people. Children are hugely important. They are a privilege and a joy and bestow richness by their presence. But in these cultures they aren’t understood to be full-fledged human beings, because a human being is a participant in the back and forth of life, such as I was describing on the farm. Children are not capable of that. A child’s job is to be self-absorbed. And for them to become adults, that self-absorption has to be killed off, because nobody gives up childhood willingly, certainly not here. Hence you encounter fifty-five-year-old adolescents everywhere you go.
Childhood gets killed off in initiation ceremonies. Overtly that is achieved through isolation and fasting and darkness, but covertly it is by the purposeful and skillful introduction of the child to her or his personal, meaning-burdened death in a ritual guided by older people whose lives have prepared them for such moments. Through the ceremony, the awareness of death, its meaning and justice, is granted to kids. It’s not what they were seeking, but it’s granted to them. It’s like a nuclear bomb goes off, and childhood does not survive the radiation. It cannot, because childhood is predicated on everything lasting as long as we want it to, and nobody who loves us ever leaving, and so forth.
Hoffner: What’s the benefit of killing off childhood?
Jenkinson: If the initiation is successful, you come out of it able to see the centrality of death in life, which is the beginning of your capacity to participate deeply in the indebtedness that is the basis of all real culture. This is not macabre. It’s not fatalistic. It doesn’t legitimize people committing suicide. I sometimes get those responses from people who’ve had no initiation. Their objections arise from the idea that life is not supposed to be burdened by the awareness of death, but everybody who’s been through an initiation knows that death doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life. The centrality of death gives you the chance to live, because it says, “Here’s the bad news: it’s not going to last. And here’s the good news: it’s not going to last.” You can choose how to take that. You have the opportunity to sink both heels into the soil and say, “Here I stand, and while I do, there are things I can do.” The news of your imminent demise is enabling, when all is said and done.
Hoffner: Do you think initiation is a birthright?
Jenkinson: Truly, and it’s one that we fail to give our kids in North America. We have no choice, because our parents failed to give us our birthright when it was our turn. This is, in my view, a rather recent misfortune. “Recent” doesn’t mean centuries; it goes back farther than that. But it’s still relatively recent in human history, and it isn’t universal. Initiation isn’t entirely gone. I’ve quietly begun to put together what I think is a sane response to this failure to deliver to people their birthright. As we start trying to perform initiations again, we discover that uninitiated people are stymied, despite their best intentions, because they have yet to be rewired. The great torment of our times is that a lot of people are waking up to the fact that something is missing, but it’s actually not missing in the world. What’s missing is their ability to see the world. They’re not observing it with two functioning eyes. And it’s not that they can’t see an object in their field of vision; it’s that they can’t see the field.
It all comes back to initiation, frankly. In a consumer culture there is no initiation. There’s just voting with your money or your attendance or your time or your approval. As consumers we demand the seller prove to us that we need whatever’s being sold. But I don’t have anything to sell. People are steeped in doubt, and I’m offering wonder — the ability to be full of wonder in an environment that sucks it out of you. When we look outside here [gestures toward the big-box stores and the highway outside the hotel window], it’s grim. It just is.
Hoffner: You almost died yourself as a very young boy. Tell me about that.
Jenkinson: At the age of three and a half I lay dying of spinal meningitis in a hospital. I remember it distinctly. They gave me a lumbar puncture with no anesthetic. I was very fortunate to have tasted the possibility of death so young. From that moment on, my definition of health included what I couldn’t do. Now, at the age of fifty-nine, my legs aren’t as strong as they once were. My health includes this fact. I had to pay my dues to be able to say all of this to you. How? Partly by living this long. I’ve traded in my youthful vitality for something I could never have had as a vital youth: this grief I’ve been telling you about. By definition, youth is pretty much a grief-free zone. There’s a prejudice that says, “No grief for young people, because they haven’t been around long enough.” It’s a lie, but I haven’t met too many young people who are willing to let grief become their companion. We leave that to old people and then call them “broken down” or “depressed.”
Hoffner: Your feeling is that everyone, kids included, needs to attend deathbeds and funerals. How did you counsel parents on this when you worked in palliative care?
Jenkinson: Parents were sometimes concerned about bringing their four-year-old to see his grandfather drooling in bed, and they’d ask if I thought they should. My response was always “Why wouldn’t you?” Most would say they were afraid the child would be traumatized, because Grandpa looked rough. But why is that automatically traumatic? Then they’d say they wanted the child to remember Grandpa the way he’d been in life. In other words, his death was not an authorized memory. This is instruction by omission. If we don’t expose children to death, the thinking goes, they’ll be OK. You can feel the anxiety behind that. It’s like saying, “I don’t trust this world to have its way with my kid.” So for the first four or five years you pad your children with bubble wrap — but at least it’s your bubble wrap.
When school boards bring sex education into the curriculum, many parents object, saying that it’s not the school’s business to teach their children about sex. If you think that causes a stir, try to get death education into the curriculum. It makes the sex-ed controversy look like a walk in the park. I know, because I’ve tried.
Hoffner: So people want to edit their memories of their loved ones.
Jenkinson: Right. There’s a revised standard version of Grandpa. And if you think I’m exaggerating, pay attention the next time you go to a funeral. You’ll probably encounter a dewy-eyed collage of pictures of the deceased. Ask yourself: What pictures didn’t make the cut? You know the answer, don’t you? The ones taken at the end stage — if there were any pictures taken — because your life does not include your death.
What traumatizes children is not the deathbed or the graveside but the dissonance. Kids intuitively understand that something momentous has taken place, but they cannot discern what it is from the adults’ behavior, which is calculated to diminish the enormity of it. That’s what traumatizes them.
Hoffner: Kids can always tell when adults are acting strangely.
Jenkinson: The adults are pretending they’re OK. Meanwhile the child wants to know why we are standing solemnly around this box with all the flowers on it. The kid sees this schizophrenic scenario of people acting fine in the face of events that plead with them to act otherwise. And children come to think that their own sanity, their own well-being, is predicated on pretending to be OK.
When someone we love dies, we should be devastated. We should be wrecked. But it’s not practical for everyone who knew the deceased to be wrecked at the same time. The immediate family could be utterly wrecked while the distant relations and work colleagues and the rest take care of anything that could seduce the wrecked people from being wrecked, like writing thank-you cards or keeping up the illusion of being OK and such. Let others take care of that. And the ones who are wrecked learn from that experience what to do when it’s their turn to help someone else.
Hoffner: Are there movements or trends that give you hope?
Jenkinson: No, I have no hope. In the Griefwalker film there’s a scene in which I’m teaching a room full of young physicians. I’m writing two words on the blackboard: hopeless and hopeful. It seems as if these were the only options. But then below them I write “hope-free” — and that’s me. I’ve been a long time getting to “hope-free,” but now that I’m here, I don’t require hope as fuel to get me anywhere. The chance that all my efforts will fail is nearly 100 percent, by which I mean they’re not going to grow legs and turn into a movement. But that’s not my desire. I want to do something right now.
Hoffner: So hope is . . .
Jenkinson: Methadone for New Age people. Don’t get me wrong: having it is understandable. And a lot of people are quite sure they need it. But I’ve seen what hope does to some, especially those who are dying. It obliges them to become hardened. It seems mandatory, but in reality holding on to hope is a denial that everything born must die.
Here’s how hope works on people: It’s for the future. It’s addicted to possibility and utterly unattached to now. People can’t know that they are dying and still be hopeful. Either you’re well-informed and you let your days be guided by that wisdom, or you’re hopeful. But I am not going to traffic in hopelessness either. I’m not depressed. I’m not despairing. I’m just trying to be a faithful witness to the story.
Grief is not sadness. There’s sadness in grief, but grief is not exhausted when the sadness goes away. And it does go away, because you can only drag yourself around and rend your clothes for so long. Sadness has a shelf life, but grief endures. It’s not something that happens to you; it’s something you do. You can grieve, but you can’t “sad.” Of course, most of us choose not to grieve. We decide to stay busy, to join a protest, or whatever. It’s understandable, but none of these is grieving.
In the film the director says to me, “This grief you speak about so often: is that what happens when you realize, often belatedly, that you’ve been—” and I finish the sentence for him: “on the take.”
Hoffner: As in taking a bribe to look the other way?
Jenkinson: Yes, but if you’re lucky, something comes along that ruptures your artificial sense of well-being, which is preventing you from really living. If you’re lucky, something like that will show up — you don’t go looking for it — and you’ll never be able to see anything the same way again. In our current day the moment of awakening is not joyous. It’s not welcome. No relief comes with it. It’s a moment of blistering realization that your entire existence as a Westerner has been a massive assault on the natural order of things, that you’re on the take. The first impulse is to fix it: go vegan, plant trees, get out of the cash economy, retreat into the woods and wait for society to collapse. The whisper underneath all that, the unwelcome news that is much more devastating, is that your favorite pin-up ecologist or indigenous tribe is on the take, too.
Grief is not sadness. There’s sadness in grief, but grief is not exhausted when the sadness goes away. And it does go away, because you can only drag yourself around and rend your clothes for so long. Sadness has a shelf life, but grief endures.
Hoffner: So there’s no way out?
Jenkinson: No, everyone has the same dilemma. It can’t be otherwise. But once you realize this, you can become better. Your better self is born of grief. Grief is the amniotic fluid for your humanity. That’s how it works. The guilt will pass, but the grief will not, because it is composted into something much more life-loving — but not human-hating. There’s no hating, no resigning, no withdrawing or running or transcending. Stay here. Stay long enough that the grief can have its way with you, and you begin to realize that this grief is a wisdom, a recognition that human beings are maintained by the death of other living things.
Death — not a symbolic or hypothetical end, but real, kick-ass human death — can raise up into the light the fundamental realization of how much had to die to keep you alive over your lifetime. Can you add it up? Dare you? Could you bear it? Maybe not, but it’s good to think about. And the other question before you when you’re dying is: What will your death feed? What will it keep alive for a time? The dying people I worked with almost all spent their time not dying, refusing to let their death become something nutritious that could feed the world that had sustained them. Even in death we’re stingy! It’s unbelievable: six feet under, and still nothing can get to us, because we’re sealed in concrete, formaldehyde, and all the rest. That’s the outward sign of the refusal to die, as if it were beneath us, as if we should get a vote. Did the chicken get a vote before it ended up in your sandwich? What about the wheat and the carrot? Vegetables may not have eyelashes, but does that make it OK to consume them? The whole point is that, if you’re a human being, you can’t get off the hook of your obligation to life. You’re on the meat hook if you’re an omnivore, the green hook if you’re not. You’re impaled on it, and you can’t climb down. But you’re not guilty, because it can’t be otherwise.
And that’s just the food chain. What about all the parts in our electronic gizmos? What about the energy we consume just by being alive? Trying to have a “zero carbon footprint” is a refusal to be a part of the story, as if you could exist without anyone else. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use fewer resources, but the idea that we’re going to be able to break even if we do everything right is a fundamental obscenity. You’ll never break even on your debt. Real human culture is made by people who’ve glimpsed this fact and are proceeding accordingly, without trying to deny it.
Once you come to this realization, which can all but kill you, the rest of your life can be lived in response to it, not in flight from it. You can live your life as someone who has an enduring obligation to that which has kept you alive.