Q&A with Sue Brayne, author of Living Fully, Dying Consciously

1. What is Living Fully, Dying Consciously: The Path to Spiritual Wellbeing about and why did you write it?

I wrote this book because I believe that the only way humanity can become more consciously aware on our impact on the planet is to accept that life is finite.  Developing spiritual wellbeing is about accepting our mortality and making the very best of life that we possibly can while we still have breath left in our body. This in turn, helps us to develop resilience and courage so we can learn to adapt to the global changes and challenges that we are all facing. 

Personally, I believe humanity is being called to break through centuries of entrenched social, political, colonial and religious programming so we can choose a different way of life that really cares how we live and die. Even when we experience life as a long, hard, even brutal road, in reality, we are here for such a short time. Once we grasp there is a beginning, middle, and end to our life, it can really help to put things back into perspective.  

2. You write that our entire life is a psychological and spiritual preparation for death. What do you mean by that? And, how can a person prepare psychologically and spiritually for death?

The moment we are born is the moment that we step into our mortality. It’s just a question of when our journey through this physical life comes to an end. Some of us stay alive far longer than others, that’s all.  When we accept that life is fragile, it becomes incredibly precious and our desire for connection with our beautiful Mother Earth become more acute. We also begin to see life as a series of experiences. It’s how we relate to these experiences that matter. When we let them, each of our experiences helps us to go beyond our limitations, fears and anxieties, and we see our life as this extraordinary path of learning. I believe we take this learning Home with us when we die, to add to a far greater universal wisdom. So, our entire psychological and spiritual preparation for death is about becoming real about life and what it’s really for.

3. Why do we have a fear of death and where does it come from?

Those of us from Western cultures fear death because we have never been taught to accept that death is an organic part of life and that life is a profound spiritual journey. Rather, for centuries we in the West (and, sadly, increasingly in Eastern cultures now, too) measure success solely on the external through the labels we wear, the amount of money we have in the bank, the car we drive and the size of our house. We are conditioned into believing that owning ‘stuff’ will stop us from ageing and dying. Guess what? It doesn’t!  

It really is time to break through this conditioning so we can reconnect with who we really are and the importance of owning the unique life we have come here to experience. I believe that when we grasp this, we start to lose our fear of mortality, and begin to open up to something so much greater than us which guides us – when we allow it – from cradle to grave, and beyond. I also believe that when we break free from the grip of social expectations and conditioning, we come home to ourselves and we connect to our voice – our true voice – which is authentic, compassionate and loving. 

4. What advice would you give to someone who has a fear of death? How does your advice change depending on whether or not they believe in an afterlife?

In my experience of talking to many people about death and dying, it can help when we have a faith in something more than just ourselves. Sometimes this is a religious faith. Sometimes it’s a spiritual belief. Sometimes it is a blind trust in something that doesn’t have an identity.  But, irrespective of what these faiths, beliefs or trusts may be, those who have stepped beyond themselves – often following extreme hardship or horrendous trauma – to be of service to the world in a selfless way create profound meaning in their life. This is accompanied by a sense of accomplishment, completeness and peace, which they take into death.  So, I don’t have advice for anyone who is fearful of death. Just the observation that those who accept their mortality with humility are much more able to let go with joy. What a lovely way to die.

5. How did you get interested in these topics

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware that I was going to die – even as a very young child. This knowing has led the way in all the choices I have made, from training as a nurse back into the 70s and completing my MA in the Rhetoric and Rituals of Death, to running workshops, retreats and Death Cafes and writing books on death and dying. This complete acceptance of my mortality has been my constant companion. In fact, I can’t imagine what it’s like not to accept that every day is another step towards the end of my physical life. This is not about being morbid; it’s a joyous acknowledgement of how extraordinary life is while I still here to experience it – even during the really hard times. My hard times have not only shaped who I am but also deepened my connection to my mortality.

6. You provide mentoring to people to connect with their purpose and to explore how their life journey is unfolding. How would you work with someone who is grieving or lost a family or friend to a tragic unexpected death or suicide?

No-one escapes grief and loss but certainly some people experience more tragedy than others. Everyone deals with grief in their own way. It depends on their own life experiences, their support networks, whether they have a faith or not, and if they are sitting on unprocessed grief and trauma, often stemming from childhood. Having said that, grief, shame and guilt rips off the boxing gloves when we are confronted by tragedy and hurls us into a bare knuckled fight with extreme emotional chaos. There is no magic healing potion for this and there’s nothing anyone can say to make things better. Grief is a profoundly raw process – sometimes a life-long process – to come to terms with. I believe this must be respected. 

Yet, I also believe that grief can turn into a gift. Personally, my own experiences of grief have helped me to see things differently. However painful, it’s deepened my understanding of the human condition and has made me far more compassionate towards the suffering that we all experience during our lifetime. Therefore, rather than being terrified of grief, I now see grief more as a travel companion. I can’t ‘get over’ the losses, failures and deaths that have impacted my life, but I can accept that grief, loss and pain are part of what it means to be alive. Consequently, in whatever way grief, loss and pain have arrived in my life, they are, and always will be, part of me.  

7. Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what supports your beliefs? Is it simply faith or do you rely on something more such as personal anecdotes related to the afterlife? If you don’t believe in an afterlife, what supports your beliefs?

I have my own personal beliefs of the afterlife, although I don’t like referring to it as the afterlife. To me it speaks of duality, which feeds our belief that we are separate entities aimlessly wandering around on this planet trapped in a game of chance.  

I believe the veil is thin between the seen and unseen worlds. I am acutely aware that whatever lies beyond the veil is a potential, benevolent, Loving force which wants to make itself known to us. It speaks to us through our intuition, inspiration, instincts and imagination. It whispers to us in our dreams and makes itself felt through visceral sensations in our body and those extraordinary coincidences and synchronicities which leave us open mouthed in amazement. 

Sometimes the veil parts and we are given glimpses of what awaits us through near death experiences (NDEs) and mystical visions. I have not had an NDE, but I have had a life changing mystical experience which I recount in my book. I know what happened to me was as real as any physical experience I have ever had. I was taken to a place where I was surrounded by a Love that is beyond words, and I know I will return to this Love when I die. So, no, I am not afraid to die. And, while I don’t want to rush the rest of my life, Yes, I am really looking forward to going Home!