What We Can Learn From Nelson Mandela's Death

06/12/2013 12:40 GMT | Updated 04/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Nelson Mandela has died. A man, a family, a whole nation and people around the world had been preparing for this moment for some months. Yet when the news broke, when death finally became a reality, a lot of people felt shocked.

Public events such as the one we are witnessing now are an opportunity to acknowledge feelings we may hold around mortality - our own and that of others.

A death, even when expected, can be shocking, deeply painful, filling us with disbelief. This is natural and it is an integral part of the grieving and bereavement process, which we need to go through. How can we make sense of it and lighten the burden?

Language is important with descriptions like 'has gone home, has departed, has passed on' implying a continuous process of passage through life into death. Life and death are closely connected. We all have a beginning and an end.

Celebrating a life can lighten the pain of loss - sharing special moments of meaning, private and public. Mixing numbness, heart break, tears of pain and the longing to hold, talk, see, hear the other just on more time with pride, joy and gratitude for what we have experienced with and because of the other, who has gone.

Our Own Mortality

We all are in a process of dying. We all have our own story and relationship with the passing of our own life. What would you feel, if you knew how much time you have left? Frightened, angry, helpless? Or grateful for knowing, and relieved for having time to say good-bye? How would you prepare for your death, if at all? How would you cope with this knowledge mentally and emotionally?

What if your death was sudden - now, tonight or tomorrow? Are you ready? What would it take to be ready? Would you want to be ready? Do you care about being ready?

The Mortality of Others

What if someone close to you was dying, or had been given a terminal diagnosis? What would you feel? Guilty, helpless, useless, angry, numb, frightened, indifferent? What would you do? Spend as much time with the person as you can? Avoid them? Carry on as 'normal'? Pretend as if nothing has happened, for fear of upsetting them (and yourself)?

Taking Stock

The passing of Nelson Mandela, as that of any public or private figure, can make us pay closer attention to our own life journey: where we have come from, where we had hoped to be by now, and where we actually find ourselves.

Someone else's death can give us a time frame against which to appraise our own lives. What have we personally experienced since the moment of Nelson Mandela's release from prison? What have been our 'struggles' (public and private)? What have been our hopes and disappointments? What will be our legacy?

The values against which we review and possibly judge our lives may hold interesting clues. Have we done 'right or wrong', 'good or bad'? Have we been 'successful or have we failed', 'what has been the point'? What, if anything, would we have done differently, and why? Who would care, if we died now? Who would be there for us in our final hour? Who would we want to be there? Who would speak about us after we have gone, and what would they say?

Often public events and deaths get a mention in the therapy room, even if people are coming for a different reason altogether. It might have something to do with therapy room being a space of open, free and confidential thinking and feeling; where we might allow ourselves to delve deeper into the recesses of our own psyche; make connections inside; speak out aloud these discoveries, which may hold seeds for meaningful insight and change.

As we observe the passing of a person and an era, we may be able to grasp the gift they have left behind.

Karin Sieger

MA (Couns.Psych.), Reg. MBACP (Accred)