Death by Proxy – What we can learn from Nelson Mandela's Passing

Nelson Mandela is dying – a family, a whole nation and people around the world are preparing for the end of an era. What is the relevance of this inevitable event to counselling? 

Therapy or counselling can often help us dare think the unthinkable, and to say out loud in the presence of another what we dare not say elsewhere. This can be a liberating experience, allowing us to address feelings and beliefs which often make us tongue-tied.

The passing of Nelson Mandela’s life (however slow or fast) can remind us of various aspects of mortality.

Our Own Mortality

We all are in a process of dying. What would we feel if we knew how much time we have left? Frightened? Angry? Helpless? Grateful for knowing, or relieved for having time to say good-bye? How would we prepare for our death, if at all? Would we ‘sort out’ our affairs, finally fulfil dreams we have always had but could not afford or did not have the time (!) to make come true? Or would we use the time to really acknowledge feelings we have around dying, such as fear of accepting the inevitable?

What if our death was sudden – now, tonight or tomorrow? Are we ready? What would it take to be ready? Would we want to be ready? Do we care about being ready? We all have our own story and connection for the passing of our lives.

The Mortality of Others

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

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. 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 the therapy or counselling 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 (like a ‘light bulb’ moment) and articulate and speak out aloud these discoveries, which may hold seeds for meaningful insight and change.

Someone else’s death sometimes gives 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’? Who would care if we died now? Who would be there for us in my final hour? What, if anything, would you have done differently, and why?

Public events such as the one we are witnessing right now can be a useful opportunity to get in touch with the feelings we may hold around mortality – our own and that of others. It can be a chance to give ourselves permission to change, reprioritise or enjoy aspects of our lives more fully.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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