This past Friday, while enjoying a great chat over lunch, I received a text from a dear friend. The text read, “my mom’s gone. My mom is f’n gone”.
My heart sank, and I physically gasped. I read the text several more times to make sure I understood what she was saying. I didn’t know what to say back. I sat there in what seemed like still time, staring at my phone.
When it finally sank in…I realized my friend’s mom was gone. She died and died quickly and unexpectedly.
My mind had so many questions – how did this happen? I’ve always known my friend’s mom to be vibrant, active, energetic, and far from being sick. The pain I was feeling for my friend and her family was tangible – it always is in times of death. Her mom was a special lady – she always cared for others and was the true definition of community and love. She’s a big part of the reason I love my friend dearly because her mom’s heart shines through her in so many ways.
I wrapped up lunch and headed to the hospital to be with the family. On my way to the hospital, I took one last call for work. I told my colleague where I was going and why. He said, “Oh, man. We’re entering into a new window of life, aren’t we? We start with going off to college, then marriage, then children, then we see death more and more, and that’s the window of life that’s open for us at our age, isn’t it?”
At the moment, I agreed with him – but as I kept driving and had time to process our conversation, and I realized, this window has been open for me for a long time. It’s a window that’s always open, for me, for everyone. It doesn’t get opened or shut at any given time in life… it’s always there. Death is always there because it’s not a life event or a time in life that comes and goes – it’s always there.
My window started when I was three. I remember sitting on my Dad’s lap when my grandfather died, and I remember how upset my Dad was. In my high school years, I lost a friend in a car accident. My only figure of a grandfather died of liver cancer. Then again, in my college years, I lost my grandmother to breast cancer. I have more deaths I could mention, several more in fact. And all of them rocked my world beyond belief – I have no doubt death shaped who I am today. My “death window” has always been open.
The topic of death is uncomfortable, and one of those topics that can make an entire room look at the floor and avoid eye contact when mentioned. Should it make us this uncomfortable?
I’ve learned, the answer is yes, and no.
Wrestling with death is something we either do consistently by trying to control it (creating anxiety), or we completely ignore it (wasting our life being complacent).
Some people describe death as morbid. Some describe it as beautiful. Whichever side you’re on, I urge you to consider it, at a minimum, It’s not a topic to avoid, ignore, hate, or be scared of.
Yet again, I was forced this week to get a little close to the face of death. When it’s this close and real, you can’t help but reflect on what it all means and how it plays a part in our lives.
What came up for me this week is – I’ve learned a lot from death, and I wanted to share in hopes it helps someone face the pain of an acute moment or one that is, for all of us, inevitable.
What I’ve learned from death is;
- It’s definite but not the end. The more we can understand this, the more it can relieve the complete and disturbing fear of death. Even if you’re not a believer of any kind, you can appreciate that beyond death, there is something we all don’t understand – we know this is true because even when someone is gone, they somehow show up. I read this weekend on a friend’s FaceBook post (talking about her mom’s recent passing), “somehow it just made me think Mom was around me.” She was talking about her interaction with a complete stranger she’d never met. That stranger made her feel her mom was right there with her giving her comfort. If you’ve ever lost someone, you know this experience. They just show up at the times when we seem to need it the most. And when that person shows up, there’s nothing to explain it. Some people may not notice or see that person, but I know I have, and you will too if you slow down long enough to pay attention. Even if you don’t experience the physical manifestation of the person, there’s something to take comfort in; they’ll always remain in your heart and your soul. Smells, music, flowers, recipes, clothes, pictures, and the list goes on and on. You’re constantly reminded of them because they don’t leave your heart. And if you’re a believer, well, that’s an easy one. You’ll see them again, and you know it. And it will be a glorious day when you get to reunite with them.
- Don’t fear the actual death, but fear it’s definiteness because otherwise, you live complacently. In his book, The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene says, “Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency.” If we can wrap our heads around just how short life is and how we have limited time, we won’t wait to write that book. We won’t wait to reach out to that person we’ve not spoken to in a long time. We won’t wait to breathe the fresh air of the mountains. We won’t wait. When we know it’s short, and we know it’s fragile. We won’t wait.
- It’s terrible and painful but has traces of beauty as well. On the surface, it seems awful, no doubt. But there’s something about the last breath that we can appreciate knowing the peace is there and with that person. We know where they’re going, and that’s a beautiful thing.
- Nostalgia becomes tangible in a matter of seconds. When a person we love leaves us here on earth, those who have lost begin to reach way back into their memories, way way way back. They pull out stories that’ll make you laugh and cry, and sometimes you laugh and cry at the same time. As mentioned, I’ve been through death. I’ve seen it time and time again. And something beautiful always happens after people have a moment to realize that death has visited. Nostalgia kicks in, and all the fantastic times and smells and little things someone used to do come to life. It’s by far one of the most beautiful things that happen with death. Seeing a family sit around and bring up all the things they once knew and loved about the person they lost is beautiful.
- It shows the amount of love a person had and gave. When someone dies, it brings out the love. People hug when they’re not used to embracing — someone who never cries sheds tears in mourning for that person because they loved them deeply. Love is expressed in ways that are never shown at any other time in life. We see what that person did when we were not looking. Things come up that surprise us in such a beautiful way. A few years ago, my uncle suddenly died – he was struck by a driver while walking on the road. At his calling hours, a man walked in that none of us knew. I figured he was from my uncle’s church, and I went to greet him. I asked how he knew Rick. He said, well, I would take Rick places and give him rides when he needed them – I met him randomly when I decided to give him a ride one day. He said Rick, and he had some of the most wonderful conversations about life, god, and what it meant to have a community. It still baffles me to this day the number of people my uncle shared his love with. I had no idea, but when he died, I learned this about him, and it was comforting.
- It shows what someone gave during their lifetime. I remember when my grandmother died – I knew what I lost. I knew the times I had with her and the things I loved about her. She gave me all her love and comfort in times when I needed it the most. But listening to how other people experienced her was unreal. She did things I had no idea she did – and she did them for other people and didn’t make a “thing” of it. It was clear she had a specific life and relationship with so many people, and all of them were in unique ways.
- It shows what someone did with their life and death brings out the best in the person who died. With my friend’s mom’s recent passing, I heard one massive thing about her that I’d never forget. She cared about her community. Everyone who knew her knew they could come to her, and she’d take care of them, whether it was when their family member died or when they needed money. Some people just needed a good home-cooked meal. It didn’t matter the need; what was clear is whatever it was; she would give it if she could. She showed everyone around her what it was like to be communal and love your brothers and sisters equally.
- There’s never going to be a day or a time when you’ll feel like you’ve said and done all you can say and do with that person. No matter how many times you tell someone, you love them. No matter how many times you hug and kiss them, it’ll never feel like enough. You’ll ALWAYS want to say one more thing. Hug one more time. Hold their hand just for one last touch. It’s never enough. But that’s okay. That means you loved them deeply. But it’s also good to know because you can and should try for sufficient. You should work as hard as humanly damn possible. Don’t avoid telling someone you love them. Don’t avoid hugging them, kissing them, and holding their hand. Do it as much as you can because it’ll never feel like enough.
- You’ll never be ready. It does not matter if someone lives until they’re 102. You’ll never be prepared for them to leave. Taking comfort in this is hard, but a way to is to know that if you’re never ready for them to leave you, it’s because you’ve found true love. True love doesn’t ever want to die – experiencing true love isn’t something everyone gets blessed within their life. Be grateful for the fact that you’ll never be ready because you’ve been lucky enough to feel real love. When my grandmother died, my cousin said, which I’ll always remember, “Feeling this level of pain means you two loved each other beyond belief, and that is a special thing you’ll always be able to remember.” She was right.
- The little things someone did become big things. One small thing my grandmother used to do is hold my hand while I sat on the edge of her bed, and we’d chat right before I’d go up to my room. When she died, I took that with me in a big way, and what was a little thing, became one of the biggest things in the world to me. What I would give to hold her hand again – and I can’t wait to do it again someday. It was the smallest most beautiful thing on earth. When she died, I held her hand as long as they let me because it was the one thing I didn’t want ever to forget or lose. Little things become tremendous things…and this is so huge to realize in life.
- Death makes us want to be better people. My friend said this weekend, “my mom was so good and giving to others. I need to teach my daughters that”. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s already been teaching them because her mom passed that on to her, and she’ll naturally pass that on to her daughters too. But contribution is part of the Six Basic Human Needs. It makes sense why this one would be so important to pass along to others. The contribution is what makes us feel fulfilled. If I had to guess, I’d imagine my friend’s mom was very fulfilled because she contributed to her family and her community in big big ways.
- Death brings us together. A few years ago, my uncle died. He was such a unique soul, and it showed because of the number of people from different walks of life came together like I don’t think I’ve ever experienced and probably never will again. He touched an entire community, and when he died, he brought us together. He also brought my family together. We’ve not had a family reunion in years where I saw cousins I had not seen in person in probably close to a decade (my great grandmother had eight children, so there’s a lot of us!). When we got together, it was so clear to us why we call ourselves a family. It was like we never stopped seeing each other. My uncle giving us that moment was beautiful.
So how can you take all this and have it be something that rather than disturb you, it fuels ou for good? Here are a few ways;
- Meditate on death. In his book, The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene says, “We must begin by meditating on our death and seeking to convert it into something more real and physical.” He says, “Normally we go through life in a very distracted, dreamlike state, with our gaze turned inward. Much of our mental activity revolves around fantasies and resentments that are completely internal and have little relationship to reality. The proximity of death suddenly snaps us to attention as our whole body responds to the threat.” What this means is, if we go through life never really manifesting the actual reality of death, we can turn into so-called sleepers. Never respecting that we’ll die. Shying away from it because it’s a scary, maybe demented thought. But ignoring it only puts us in a state of “going through the motions.” It can also mean that we don’t respect the fact that those around us will die as well. Would you treat yourself or your spouse differently if you knew you or they were dying tomorrow? Because guess what, it could happen, and meditating on that snaps us to attention. Would you act differently? Likely you would. So pretending it’s not happening means you could lose sight of the fact that you could lose yourself or them at any given point. Meditating on death gives a healthy perspective and respect for life and the limited time we all have here on earth together.
- Contribute. A lot of us walk around confused as to why we feel so empty. Much of it is because we’re not contributing. We’re not tapping into one of the six basic human needs to feel fulfilled, which is a contribution to the world and other humans. William Hazlitt says, “Our repugnance to death increases in proportions to our consciousness of having lived in vain.” If we are living in vain, it means we are living in no purpose. But many of us don’t even understand what it means to have a purpose. But what gives us meaning is to contribute to others, not to ourselves. A small act can go way further than we give it credit. One of my favorite moments of this year so far is being there for a friend who has cancer and her being there for me when I was stung with anxiety and felt captive to it. I also love it when I sent my two college-aged cousins packages in the mail. These things are not for me, but they give me purpose, which makes me feel fulfilled – I’m contributing. I also felt on top of the world when I’d raised money for a great cause. All of these things are things that can be contributions. They don’t have to be on a vast scale; they need to exist and be recognized. Otherwise, yes, we’ll grow bitter and fear death if we feel like we’ve not done anything with our life or we’ve not had a purpose, or we’ve not contributed. And if we think this way enough, anxiety and fear of death start to become our north star, and we act as such without even realizing, which takes me back to the first point – meditate on it – give it life and don’t ignore it.
- Embrace death. In other words, don’t shy away from the power of death. In his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer says, “A wise being completely and totally embraces the reality, the inevitability, and the unpredictability of death.” Embraces. When’s the last time you even came close to the idea of embracing death? It’s hard, no doubt, but if you did, would you live differently?
- Let death show you how to experience life. Death’s inevitability can show us life and all its beautiful experiences. The end helps us experience things; perhaps we would otherwise overlook. Michael Singer says, “You have to understand that it is your attempt to get special experiences from life that makes you miss the actual experience of life. Life is not something you get; it’s something you experience.”
- Relax at the moment and take it all in. Thinking about what you should have done or what is to come is just torture because what that means is you’re regretting what has happened or anxious trying to control the future. If you can’t appreciate right where you are in the very moment you’re there, you’ll feel the pains of regret or be captive to the worry of what the future holds. In Tim Ferriss’ book, Tools of the Titans, he shares the details of his interview with BJ Miller. BJ Miller is a palliative care physician at the University of California at San Francisco and an adviser to the Zen Hospice Project. He helps people die with dignity, grace, and beauty. He also almost lost his life at a very young age when he was in college. Basically, he’s an expert on death. BJ says, “One way for us all to live until we’re actually dead is to price those little moments.” I have learned this in a deeply visceral way. I’m not perfect at it. Sometimes I get too worried about the future or wish I would have made different decisions. But every day is an attempt to see the beauty in the sunset. The ducks on the lake. The breeze. The sun on my face. My boxer dogs wiggle butt for days — my husband’s call on the way home, which he’s done since we were dating. Nearly every day for fifteen years, this man has called me on his way home for work, and this is something I look forward to. I love it. I am grateful for it, and I don’t take it for granted. And when I do, I meditate on the reality of us dying — not someday dying and but any day dying.
Honestly, all this is new to me. It’s something I’m still learning and will continue to learn until I die – which could be today, tomorrow, or next week.
Death was a topic I had to face because my anxiety required it. When I had crippling anxiety, I needed to explore why. What I found was, I was afraid to die because I felt like I had not done enough with my life. My life coach asked me, “Why not start now”? He was right. I didn’t need to worry about what I had done or will do because I can’t change the past, I can only start living for the now, and I can attempt every day to live a meaningful life. I took charge by realizing that having a relationship with death could be a healthy one and not cause me to panic and run and hide.
This has to be one of my biggest life lessons. And when I started reading more about the concept of fearing death, I began to realize it’s not dying that should be feared; it’s the fearing death that should be feared because it can paralyze you.
I also learned we could trace this back in history as being something to live by. Ancient philosophers, better known as the stoics, specifically meditated on Memento Mori — (Latin: remember you will die). Stoic, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” It was clear he actively reminded himself to live a full life now, and not wait.
So I will continue the stoics’ urgings – live now, don’t wait, and let death be a way of leading with intention and don’t let your life “just happen.”