Why Is This Happening?
As I write this, a longtime friend is dying in a hospice bed across town. This is the second recent death in my friend circles, and it has brought me into a season of contemplating death.
I feel a similar anger and injustice about them both, as if death is some unfair tragedy that only the unlucky among us will experience. And of course death is one of the most natural processes that we encounter, as necessary to the life cycle as birth. What begins must end, and we often don’t have control over how that happens.
I consider myself a person who fearlessly steeps in the existential quandaries of our lives. I’ve loved working with hospice patients, and I cherish the words of existential psychotherapists and philosophers. Yet here I am feeling wronged by death, baffled by its finality, horrified to witness the process of a body shutting down.
A Symphony of Grief
Emotions are not rational; they arise and fall away on their own. Grief does not follow a linear path. The classic stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance flood my system at unexpected intervals. I also feel pain and guilt, and at times I question, could I have done more? Should someone have done something to prevent this?
I’ve watched these cycles play out among my friends. Scapegoats have emerged from the group to receive the blame and anger, subjected to questions of whether they could have done more. If this person had done things right, maybe the death wouldn’t be happening, the group ponders, or maybe it wouldn’t hurt so badly.
Before long, a new wave washes up, and we shift into acceptance, love, and a sense of strong community. Individuals crest on different waves in their own grief cycles, and we harmonize together like an orchestra finding balance in its symphony of expressions.
Staring At The Sun
Death still shocks us; we cannot live every moment wholly aware of it. “It’s like trying to stare the sun in the face: you can stand only so much of it,” writes Irvin Yalom in his book, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the terror of death. “Adults who are racked with death anxiety are not odd birds who have contracted some exotic disease, but men and women whose family and culture have failed to knit the proper protective clothing for them to withstand the icy chill of mortality.”
Yalom writes that “though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.” It’s so painful to contemplate that it actually causes us to “love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.”
Yalom offers multiple ideas for soothing death anxiety. One of my favorites is the concept of rippling. It refers to the fact that we create, without knowing, “concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations,” Yalom writes. The effect we have on others is in turn passed on to more people, “much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level.”
Rarely do we fully know the impact that we have on others, and yet we can all think of people throughout our lives who have profoundly influenced us, even though we never shared this with them. “The idea that we can leave something of ourselves, even beyond our knowing, offers a potent answer to the those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one’s finiteness and transiency.”
Rippling doesn’t necessarily mean that you leave behind your image or your name. “Attempts to preserve personal identity are always futile. Transiency is forever.” Rippling instead means leaving behind something from your life experience – a piece of wisdom or comfort that passes on to others, whether or not you are known as its source.
In This Together
Our need to belong is powerful and fundamental. We have always lived in groups with intense relationships. Dying, however, is lonely. It not only separates you from those around you but also from the world itself. There is the kind of loneliness that comes with isolation from others, and then there is the existential loneliness of realizing that we enter and leave this world alone. No one else can fully witness our inner world, and when we die, it is lost forever. Our memories, our unique experiences – we take them with us.
Connection is paramount. We can offer no greater service to someone who is dying than our sheer presence. Yalom implores us to “get close in any way that feels appropriate. Speak from your heart. Reveal your own fears. Improvise. Hold the suffering one in any way that gives comfort.” When we empathize with our loved ones and stay with them, we alleviate this burden of isolation. By simply being present with one another, we feel less alone.
“When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.” – Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying