FRED BRANFMAN'S JOURNEY TOWARD LIFE-AFFIRMING DEATH AWARENESS
Each of the major phases of Fred Branfman's life has been strongly affected by death, as he has spent a lifetime moving toward his present imperfect efforts to sustain a life-affirming death awareness.
Early Years, 1942-69: Branfman grew up in an emotionally violent household, and was exposed to behaviors before age 10 that caused him to have an unusually high sensitivity to his own death. His self-protective reaction was to go within and develop a jaunty and smiling but tough shell to ward off emotional pain. He was in deep denial of death, which helped him pursue a wide variety of adventures in his 20s, including living in Israel and hitchhiking through Egypt, living in a remote village in Tanzania and hitchhiking throughout East Africa, and working as a volunteer in Laos from 1967-69.
Politics, 1969-1990: Exposure to mass death produced the first major turning point in his life. Discovering in September 1969 that U.S. leaders were committing mass murder of Laotian peasants in a Secret Air War that violated the Nuremberg Principles propelled him into a 21-year political career. He learned of the bombing by interviewing Laotians refugees from U.S. bombing which had destroyed a 700-year old civilization on Plain of Jars in northern Laos. Shocked into action by realizing that the bombing was continuing to murder more innocent peasants daily, he set out to expose the air war and worked continually until April 1975 both, in Laos and Washington D.C., for peace in Indochina.
His subsequent work in domestic politics at the grass-roots, state and national levels was largely motivated by a desire to understand the roots of the evil that had killed so many innocents in Indochina for so little reason or purpose. ( Fred Branfman's C.V.; My Experience With Laos And The Indochina War )
Father's Death, 1986: His father's death marked the second major turning point in his life. Experiencing his gentle father's unconditional love, and reciprocating it, for the first time in his adult life; having to refuse his father's last request, "if you love me, put me out"; and then watching as his father angrily pushed away his oxygen mask and slowly passed from life to death less than a foot before his eyes, transported him far beyond the world of politics he had known for the previous 2 decades. It seemed entirely irrelevant in that hospital room that he had at that time been asked by the man many thought would be the next U.S. President to write his economic platform. Although he did not realize it at the time, his father's death set in motion deep internal processes which would lead him to quit politics four years later to the month. ( My Father's Death )
Spiritual Journey, the 1990s: Surfacing his hitherto unrecognized agony about his own death , and seeing it transformed into a deep love for life, produced his life's third major turning point in the summer of 1990. ( An Experience of Death and Life .) He quit politics overnight, and began a spiritual and psychological journey that has continued until the present day.
During this period he spent several months interviewing Jackie McEntee, a family therapist leading a transformed life as a result of the terminal illness which eventually took her life. He attended a college course at San Jose State, and many workshops, on death and dying. He interviewed many of America's leading teachers and writers about death, including about 40 who agreed to join the Advisory Board of the "Meaning and Mortality" project that he established in the mid-1990s. He read and wrote widely on the subject, including for Salon's August 1996 special issue on death.
He also traveled to India where he worked at Mother Theresa's Home for the Dying, visited Veranassi where people come to die at the end of their lives, and discussed the issue with a wide variety of spiritual teachers. He also visited the Plain of Jars for the first time. He visited the Muong Kham cave where 500 villagers had been buried alive by U.S. bombing, witnessed the many anti-personnel bombs still killing peasants and signs of devastation everywhere, and interviewed survivors of the bombing.
Psychological journey, 1999-2005: Developing an ongoing life-affirming death awareness practice after moving to Santa Barbara to study with author and psychotherapist Dr. Robert Firestone and his friends constituted his life's fourth major turning point.
During these years he did a great deal of emotional work, continuing to surface his repressed pain about his own death, learning to deal with painful feelings, and understanding more how his early childhood experiences with death influenced his adult life. He participated in dozens of talks where participants honestly and compassionately discussed how the death issue affects their lives. He lectured and led workshops, and formed a multi-generational group of folks in who met bi-weekly for over a year to discuss how their mortality affected their lives. He read and reread Dr. Firestone's ground-breaking writings on how death anxiety influences people's lives, and had many discussions with him. And he has interviewed a great many people who have had significant experiences in dealing with death.
These years saw Branfman slowly begin to develop a regular practice of "life-affirming death awareness", in which he seeks to feel his pain about his mortality as fully as he can, and see it transformed into appreciation and action for life.
He currently divides his time between Budapest, Hungary and Santa Barbara. He is creating a website and writing a book on the need to develop a life-affirming death awareness and, imperfectly to be sure, continues to attempt to do so in his own life.