Sue Brayne – Working Our Fear of Dying

Is it possible that our fear of death prevents us from living fully? For over 20 years Sue Brayne has been helping people to transform their relationship with mortality as a therapist specializing in trauma, as well as through her end-of-life research, workshops and books on spirituality, consciousness, and dying.

In my experience of being with the dying process, I think what happens is that the veil gets thin between the known world and the unknown world. I’m not sure it’s about life. For me it’s about consciousness. Continuation of consciousness, because life, the life of that person who we understand who they are, is dying. There’s no question about that; the life force is leaving them. But this sense of consciousness or merging with consciousness, is the continuum. That’s what I find fascinating about being with the dying. It’s, the feeling of, “Oh, wow, this is an incredible experience.” And a lot of people say it’s a humbling experience. They call it a privilege to sit with the dying. – Sue Brayne

Johanna Lunn: This is the When You Die podcast. If it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. 

With me today is Sue Brayne author, podcast host, and therapist. For the past 20 years, Sue has been helping people to transform their relationship with mortality through her end-of-life research, workshops, and books on spirituality, consciousness, and death and dying.

She is author of Living Fully, Dying Consciously: The Path to Spiritual Wellbeing, The D-Word: Talking About Dying: A Guide for Relatives, Friends, and Carers, and a wonderful book for children, Granny Mo – Is Teddy Going to Die? For many years, she worked as a therapist specializing in trauma, life issues, bereavement, and grief. Sue is host of Embracing Your Mortality podcast, and hosts death cafe’s regularly on Zoom. Her website is suebrayne.co.uk. 

Sue, I am so happy to be talking with you, again. I think you’re one of my favorite people to have these conversations with because you have such a broad view on living and dying. And it’s a view that I think we really need to explore. Well obviously, the When You die Project does believe we need to explore our humanity and all aspects of it. So, welcome, and thank you. 

Sue Brayne: Well, thank you, too, it’s lovely to see you again.

JL: I think today, we’ll go a lot of places, but I want to talk about what is, to us, your new book. I know it came out in 2020, but because of COVID, it might have just come out last week. It’s hard to get people’s attention these days. The book is titled Living Fully, Dying Consciously: The Path to Spiritual Wellbeing. The thing I love about this book is that it is the whole enchilada. There’re lots of areas of life and death that we can drill down on and that have a lot of rich things to reveal. I think it’s partly your background, and having spent so much time hosting death cafes, and your own curiosity that you’ve brought forward. All this rich material of asking this question, why are we afraid of living fully? What is that about? So, I’m just going to throw that at you.

SB: Okay, I’ll catch anything you can throw. I think it’s a huge question. I think we need to look at the Western relationship with death, really, because I’ve been out to the East, studying Buddhism and various other Eastern traditions, and they don’t have the same angst about death that we do. But I think that’s because their belief system, their religious belief system is part of their life. It’s daily. It’s just part of their lives. It’s like eating and drinking. Whereas we segregate it. We keep it on a Sunday, or whenever we feel like we want to partake in any form of sacred union. So, it isn’t really part of our tradition or culture. And increasingly less so because we’re now really a secular society, especially in the UK. My thought about that, through all the journey that I’ve been on, is to try to understand this thing called the human condition. My Western understanding of it, obviously, is how can we communicate, or commune, with each other, and with nature and all that is, without embracing something greater than us? Because if we don’t have a respect for something greater, we believe we’re in charge. And we are not. I think that’s where the tragedy is unfolding. I can only talk for the UK, but our whole society is beginning to collapse, because I think it’s been ego-driven, and without any form of spiritual underpinning. I think it was Elisabeth Kübler Ross who used to talk about four quadrants: the physical, the spiritual, the mental, and the emotional. But if you only focus on the physical, emotional, and mental, you’ve got a three-legged table. The fourth leg is missing. So, it will collapse. Because the spirituality, the consciousness, holds the whole thing up. And I see that everywhere, that sense of a collapse happening. And I think my only hope is that through the collapse, we turn to a greater understanding of our place, our true place in the world, which is about being a custodian to this planet. That’s what we agreed to do when we came here. And we’ve completely negated that. My hope is that people turn more to respecting nature. But we’ve got this huge dichotomy with massive organizations and institutions and businesses that are continuing to rape the planet. The trouble is, do you and I want to give up our nice comfortable way that we live in order to stop raping the planet? And this is a massive conflict of interest. So, we’re in this place at the moment of massive conflict and chaos. And I am aware of this paradox, that we’re nowhere near finding any form of resolution, as yet.

JL: Right. So that is the macro view. It’s the two sides of the coin: on the one side, we are terrified of death, and on the other, we are terrified to make a statement about our life, what it is to live. I can just speak from my own life experience. I think for the longest time I felt that I wanted to live the way that I really wanted to live, which was more harmoniously with nature. To have some simplicity in my life. To be able to see the sunrise in the morning and the sunset in the evening. I love nature, but I have a daughter, and she needs to be raised, and she needs to go to school, and she needs all these things. And a house in the city.  And once you get plugged into a big corporate salary, then you’ve got that thing going, “Oh my god, if I quit this job, then who am I going to be?” And I remember when I left broadcasting I was sitting on my best friend’s sofa, and she said, “You should do it. You’ve got to go. You’ve got to get out of here. It’s a hamster wheel, it’s eating you up.” She was also on that hamster wheel, by the way. But it’s okay for me to go. I said, “You have to promise me that if I become destitute, I can sleep on your sofa.” And she said, “Absolutely.” I said, “Okay, I will have some place to sleep.”

SB: That’s where we go to, isn’t it? It’s a real fear that I will not be supported. If I give up on the system that has held me in place, in my gilded cage for all these years, if I give up on that, I will not be supported. It’s a fear of lack. We’ve been programmed to believe that. But I think human beings are fantastically resourceful. I will put a person against the wall and say, “Right, here’s the problem.” Amazingly, they’ll think of something. It may not feed into the system, they may not end up earning millions of dollars or pounds or have a fantastic label on their head that says, “I’m the CEO of a big company,” but they may actually find the creative inspiration to do something really different and innovative for the community, not just for themselves and their family. And I think that’s what I’m seeing. And I think that’s what COVID has done: it threw people back on themselves. They lost their jobs, or they were furloughed, or whatever it was. And suddenly the creative juices started to flow. And amazing things have come out of that. Do we ever hear about these people? No, we don’t. But incredible, innovative ideas have taken root because of us being thrown back on ourselves. And that’s what gives me hope.

JL: And, you know, I think you might feel that when you’re able to sit at the bedside of someone who is dying, knowing that sense of presence and life is so vivid. One person described it as when someone is dying, and I think this is true, their consciousness expands out, so that it’s almost like walking into somebody’s spiritual body in a way. That’s that kind of electric feeling: when you walk into the room of someone who’s dying, it’s very awake. Even when it’s difficult or labored, there’s a lot going on there that is very, very alive. That’s a paradox that life could be so present in the face of death. I think, as someone who has had this experience, that it’s given me more confidence that there is something greater than just the physical material world. I’ve also had other experiences. But there’s something that death can teach us, but our fear of death keeps us away from the gift.

SB: In my experience of being with the dying process, I think what happens is that the veil gets thin between the known world and the unknown world. I’m not sure it’s about life. For me it’s about consciousness. Continuation of consciousness, because life, the life of that person who we understand who they are, is dying. There’s no question about that; the life force is leaving them. But this sense of consciousness or merging with consciousness, is the continuum. That’s what I find fascinating about being with the dying. It’s, the feeling of, “Oh, wow, this is an incredible experience.” And a lot of people say it’s a humbling experience. They call it a privilege to sit with the dying. And I don’t think it’s because they’re watching somebody dying in a linear sense. I think they’re being moved by the whole of what consciousness possibly means, within the context of that person dying. That their consciousness is continuing as a stream, as the Buddhists teach. That sort of stream of consciousness continues. And I find that absolutely fascinating.

JL: Absolutely. Well said. Yes, I think I am using the term, “life,” from that point of view, that consciousness has vitality to it.

SB: Oh, yes. It’s got qualities. too. It’s so difficult to put into words, because we don’t have the vocabulary. It’s beyond my ability to communicate what it’s about. It’s so awesome. I think the only word is just, oh, my God, this is, “Awesome.” But when you’re open. I mean so many people are closed down because of the grief that they’re feeling about this person dying. But I argue this case in the book, that whatever happens, love is always present. Because if you’re grieving and falling apart because your treasured person is dying, but you have the courage to sit beside that person and hold their hand, through your grief, that is love like no other love, because you’re putting them first and yourself second. And I think that’s what I call the greater love. I think there are two (again, terrible vocabulary around this) loves: there’s the sort of, “Lesser love,” which is human love, which is lovely, but it’s always got conditions put on it. Like, “Don’t leave me, if you do, I’ll die,” and all that kind of stuff, and fear of being abandoned. Fear is all about being abandoned. That’s human love. But this, this greater love is unconditional. It goes way beyond this human love. And I find it so rare to experience it. I think you only experience it, possibly, when a baby’s born, and you go beyond yourself and feel, “Oh, wow.” And when somebody dies, “Wow, what happened there?”

JL: Amazing. And do you think that there are any mini versions of that throughout the course of a life? Do we experience this in more mundane ways? Or is it really just the two great portals?

SB: I think we can, some of us, really connect with life, don’t we?  We go into nature, and we have these incredible experiences. Cuddling a tree or sitting beside the water and letting the elements speak to us. And those take us out of ourselves. I think we can get it through breathwork, through Holotropic, breathwork. And incredible things like that. People are having an amazing experience nowadays with guided psilocybin experiences that are taking them way out of it. I’ve experienced all of that, and more. I’ve even had a mystical experience which took me outside of myself. But it’s something about that sitting with the dying, being present with consciousness in its process of transformation from physical being into who knows what, that stream, for me is utterly unique. And other people may disagree with me on that. And fair enough. But that’s my experience. 

JL: So, let’s talk a little bit more about the cultural fear and anxiety and guilt that seem to be so pervasive right now in our culture, and that prevent us from being in the stream.

SB: Wouldn’t it be great if we all lived in the stream and we just went, “Oh, we’re just passing through. We’re going to make the best of this, you know, we’ve been going, and we’re going to leave the body behind,” and off we go again. Also, by the way, I can see him, I know who my next incarnation is going to be. I think that’s just completely cool. And I know where I’ve come from, you know? I’ve been passing on the baton, which is how I look at my end of life. It’s that I’m passing on this consciousness baton to somebody else who’s going to incarnate carrying my collective consciousness that I carry to pass on. That would be a good way to live, wouldn’t it?

JL: I’ll just throw in another element here, because I love this quote, and you use it in your book. It was in a very popular film in the 70s. It’s from Chief Dan George, a Lakota. “It’s a good day to die.” I remember seeing that in the film in the 70s. I think it was with Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man. It was almost played comedically. And then, when the sun sets, he says, “I guess it wasn’t a good day to die.” But there’s something about having your business all taken care of, that you could die today.

SB: The most important thing for anyone is to make peace with themselves, however hideous their life may have been and whatever shame and guilt they’re carrying. It’s about how do I reconcile that and recognize that all I’m having is a human experience. And it’s the way I relate to that human experience that matters. And that really is communing with yourself and finding somebody to help you do that. And it can take years, and it can take less than that. But it’s a willingness to engage with it because there’s nothing more closing down than fear. Fear is guilt and shame. Yes, it is. And that is where the big, big ice blocks are in our consciousness and in our ability to connect and communicate. I don’t want to throw insults at any organizations, but I think you know, the last 2000 years, plus, the church did a jolly good job on making us feel guilty for being here or being alive. Some of the teachings are very dodgy around that. And as you know, the church put the priest in the middle of our relationship with God, when we, as the indigenous people (we’ve all come from that originally), we had a direct connection with God. And then the church said, “Oh, no, no, no, you can’t do that. You must go through the priests. And we’re going to put all the teachings into Latin, so you don’t understand them, and off you go.” Okay, that was a long time ago, but we’re still carrying that. The patriarchal conditioning. That’s no decrying men, by the way, but it’s this patriarchal conditioning that we’ve all grown up with. I actually grew up with it as a child, you know. I was born in the very early 50s. And there was an expectation that you went to church and did your mea culpas. Even though I didn’t even know what I was mea culpaing about. I think when you’re entrenched in that, that you are a bad person, just because you are, it’s very hard. It’s so shaming, and it’s really tough to ditch that. I think waking up these days is about going to go there. I’m not going to do that anymore. I am going to consider my own relationship with the divine, whatever that means to me, and take responsibility for my belief and how enact that in my life. But we have been extremely programmed. I don’t think we should underestimate how programmed we are in the West. It’s very different than the east.

JL: I love that in your book. There are a lot of different exercises to work through a lot of the things that you’re talking about. And I think that is one of the things I love about a book that really includes death, living, and dying in one place. That really there are tools here to discuss and to experience and to release all that ingrained stuff. So, is there any exercise that off the top you could think of that you might want to share with us?

SB: I worked as a psychotherapist for quite a while, and I specialized in trauma. Let’s face it, everybody’s traumatized on some level, by just being here breathing this air, this physical body’s traumatic enough for the Spirit who has to incarnate into it. You cannot deny that. And I think the most important thing is to instill inside you a safe place. And that is to imagine a beautiful place. It doesn’t have to be real, you can make it up or it can be real, wherever you feel a beautiful place. So, I mean, for instance, mine. I’ll give you an instance. Mine is in a wood, with dappled sunshine coming through the woods. And I’ve got a lovely hammock strung between two trees. And my cat, who died, is in the hammock. And I go there whenever I need to feel safe, or I’m in a situation that I don’t particularly enjoy. It just builds this sense of core, this sense of it’s okay. It’s self-soothing. And I’ve got a stream running through it. And it’s all green and verdant. I’ve got champagne on the side, and a little nibble, if I want it. Some people want to walk beside the beach or the sea or wherever it is for you. If you’ve been very traumatized as a child, it’s hard to go inside, because there isn’t that safety core. So, it’s about finding an object, like a teddy bear, that you can cuddle, that you can feel safe with, or an object that you feel an attachment to. This is about attachment. It’s about attaching to something that makes you feel safe. And practice it all the time. It’s like going to the gym. The more you practice it, the more real it becomes and the safer that you feel. For me, I find yoga helpful, because it makes my body feel strong. And when my body feels strong, I feel strong inside. Some people do Tai Chi or some form of movement. It doesn’t have to be vigorous. Some people kickbox. But you know, it might be I don’t know, just going for a very gentle walk mindfully. But it’s working with your body, because guess what, the body is home. Not the house! It’s the body. Without your body, you’re not here. This body enables you to be on this planet alive, having your experiences. And we forget that. We think it’s our physical home. And it isn’t. It’s our body. We need the physical home to give us the safety and the structure to feel safe, obviously. But home is the body. And that’s why it’s important to enable yourself to feel strong and feel safe.

JL: I think we might have the whole body thing a little turned around in this culture, because so much attention is paid to how you look and how you dress. And the whole shebang. I’m trying to decide if COVID sort of softened that a little bit. But I don’t really think so. The proliferation of how to cut your own hair videos on YouTube came in handy, but…

SB: The thing is that we live in this celebrity culture, and everybody wants to be famous, now. Everybody wants to be an influencer. And they think if they’re famous, they’re safe, because everybody’s looking at them. But of course, that isn’t true. So, the more you try, the more people look at you, the more you feel insecure. And if it’s all external, there’s nothing internal going on in this internal body, which is where we build ourselves, from the inside out. Never from the outside in, it just doesn’t work. 

JL: Right, right. Good point.

SB: Oh, and by the way, in my experience of being with the dying, people who do not have a strong call, as they die, can have a really difficult time, because it’s very scary. Letting go is scary. But if you’ve got an inner call, and you’ve really worked on yourself, and you know who you are, it’s not scary, because you know what’s happening to you, healthily, and with engagement.

JL: That’s a wonderful point. Fear, you’ve often said this, and so many people have, it’s the fear of the unknown, because we don’t know, we don’t know what happens when we die. So, we are afraid of what we don’t know. And letting go, even in just the smallest ways, day-to-day, it’s hard to let go of something. I have a regular seasonal practice of cleaning things out. What clothes do I not wear? And I always think, “Oh, no, it’ll be good for next season,” and I just can’t let it go. But I haven’t worn it in however many years, so why can’t I let it go? And it’s the smallest thing, and it’s the most insignificant thing. But the bigger thing of letting go of body and image and breath and loved ones and pets or companions, those things, those are big letting go things. So, what you’re saying is about really knowing your home base, your body, your strength, how air passes through your lungs, all those movements, things that are ways that you get to know the parameters of your body. And if you meditate, then you get a broader sense, perhaps, of the parameters of your body. Then you have a different idea of what you’re letting go of.

SB: Yes, and I understand that a lot of people have huge problems with body image. And I get that, because that’s been fed: that we’re never good enough or we’re never young enough. We don’t look a certain way, and God, just let me get the Botox and everything will be fine. But if you can change that relationship about the body image as the external thing, we see the true essence is true. I mean, and it’s hard to self-love, when you’ve had a crappy time and when you’ve had a crap childhood. It’s really, really tough. But if you can change your relationship with that, to say, “This is my home, while I am on this planet, therefore, I need to have some form of relationship with it internally, not just externally.” I think if we change the perception of it, and realize that, yes, it’s about this is home. Otherwise, you shed your body and you go. I find it interesting and curious about this thing called Spirit. I think it’s the spirit, I’m still working out the difference between soul and spirit, it could be the same, it could be two completely different things. I’m, fluid with that. But whatever it is has a fantastic tenacity to stay in the physical body. It does. It wants the physical experience, no matter how crap things are. I’ve heard so many people talk about horrendous experiences, but they’re still alive. People who’ve been horribly tortured during wars, or brutalized in their childhood, but they’re still here. And I find that absolutely amazing. This utter desire to stay in a physical body, alive. The work is how do I integrate and make myself home again, when I’ve been brutalized? But I don’t want to die. It’s huge; it’s such a big thing.

JL: Really, you are talking about self-love here. This is at the heart of it. I think we must love ourselves. Warts and all. Make friends with whatever our stuff is. Then let go. 

SB: Yes, I think for some people self-love is too big a call, and I totally understand. You’ve been so brutalized that that’s gone. But you’re still alive, and you’re willing to be alive, and you’re engaging with life because you’re still in your body. So, how do you find a way to make this home feel as safe as it possibly can? That is by creating safe spaces in us. By finding objects that we can connect to like cuddling a teddy, or having a cat, or a plant that you love, or something that soothes your soul, your troubled soul. Because I think the spirit is unafraid, is never corrupted. Never. I think that is just the divine spark of life. And the soul, even though I just said it, I don’t know whether it’s the same or isn’t. But right now, I’m feeling more within this conversation, that the soul is the lessons that we have to learn in life. And that maybe carries the karmic seeds, a ripening that we need to deal with. Goodness knows how it all works. But I think that self-love for some people, it’s too much to even mention those words. They can’t go there.

JL: So, what does all of this have to do with dying consciously?

SB: Oh, gosh, it’s so big, isn’t it? Well, the only person that we have an intimate relationship with is ourselves. We think we have intimate relationships with other people. And we do, but you know, we can only believe their stories. That’s all we can do. They tell us their stories, and we must believe it or not. We know our own story, whether it’s unconscious or it’s conscious. We are the only intimate relationship that we have with ourselves. We can tell everybody else our story. They can believe it or not. But it’s different. I hate using the expression dying well, because I think that puts an onus, again, on people to do something at the end of life. And then they feel, “Oh, I haven’t done very well, because I didn’t, you know, I’m not dying well.” Or they’re not dying well, and I feel it’s my fault. They haven’t had a good death. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on around that, which I think is quite unhealthy. But we take responsibility for whatever’s happened in our life, and we start to know that we’re going to die one day. Then I’m taking my dying process incredibly seriously. I’m 70 next year, and I look at my life now as a preparation for that. It could happen tomorrow; it could happen in 10 years. I hope I’m not going to be here in 20. I don’t want to be 90. That’s no decrying anybody else who is 90, but that would not work for me. So, how am I going to die as consciously as I possibly can, and with a sense of peace, because I’ve made huge mistakes in my life that still cause me anxiety at times? And whenever it bubbles up, you know, you’re walking down the street and the bubble comes up, or you’re doing the laundry, or whatever, and that bubble comes up, and where does that come from? And so, when it does come up, I just feel it, and I just recognize it, and I just say, “Hello, you again?” You know? What can we do together, do better? How can we put this to rest you and me? Not me and somebody else, but me and myself. And that’s how I’m preparing my for my death. I don’t feel morbid about it. I just feel incredibly excited at the prospect of dying consciously. Incredibly excited by that and being as alive as I can be. And I want to feel that transition. I want to think, “Oh, my God, this is what it’s all been about.” So, it’s about relating to yourself.

JL: Beautiful, beautiful. And I also 100% agree with you that the idea of a good death is too much to put on people. Which is why I like that term, a conscious death, because it can mean so many things. It can mean that you’ve done all your advanced directives, and you have your will in place, and you’ve cleaned out your house. It’s just some way that death is part of walking with you in life. Because this moment will never happen again, or this sunrise we will never see, again. Those kinds of things. And that does change the experience. I know how many times I’ve been on autopilot in the course of the day, just rushing through all the things that need to be done. And then whatever it is, it kind of snaps, and I think, “Oh, this moment right here, just cut the speed and be with it.” I think that can be a helpful, contemplative reminder to stay more present.

SB: What helps me is understanding that this is my life story. And that the only person who’s ever lived it is me. I now look at people as walking stories. When I see people walking around in the street, that’s their story. Nobody else is ever going to have that story but them, and that’s what makes us completely unique. Nobody’s going to live the life I’ve had. They may live a similar life, but never my life. And it’s the same with you. You’re living your life; nobody’s ever going to live your life for you. It’s not possible. So, in whatever context you might find yourself in this life, having whatever human experience that you’re having, it’s unique to you. And when you die the book closes. That’s it, the story is finished. And how do you want to finish your story?

JL: Oh, Sue, it’s so good talking to you. I really appreciate this. And I love the full perspective that you bring with you in this wonderful book, Living Fully, Dying Consciously: The Path to Spiritual Wellbeing. Who knew that life could be so rich or so challenging?

SB: For me when I came here, I think if I had, I wouldn’t have signed up. I’d have said, “No, I think I’m gonna stick disincarnate, thank you very much.” Looking at me first. It’s hard work here.

JL: It certainly is. Well, thank you.

JL: This conversation is brought to you by the When You Die Project. From existential afterlife questions to palliative care and the nuts and bolts of green burial, if it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. 

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