“Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Some of you know I returned to Jacksonville early last year to be close to my aging parents. They weren’t going to move to Texas, so I needed to move here. And I’m glad I did, because it gave us time to reconnect. Except for a brief sojourn in St. Augustine back in 2001-2002, I had been living in Texas since 1984, only returning to Jax for holidays and family events, so it was the first time the three of us had spent any real time together in years.
Now, I don’t know if I’m just practical or weird, but instead of pretending that my parents weren’t going to die at some point and that I wasn’t going to have to deal with it, I decided to start looking at what might happen when they did. Okay, I actually started studying death and dying back in Texas. Partly because it’s a fascinating mystery but mostly because I don’t like feeling afraid. I figured the more I knew about death and dying, the less afraid of it I would be when my parents and other loved ones died, and when my turn came. Knowledge is power, right? At least it satisfied my curious mind. But the mind is one thing and the heart is another. I knew that I couldn’t expect to get through the experience of their deaths with just an intellectual understanding, so I began probing it from an emotional standpoint.
As I explored and imagined how it might feel to lose my parents, I was given the grace to understand that I could either let their deaths rip me to shreds and leave me feeling orphaned and lost, or I could allow the experience to positively transform me. I sensed that I actually had some choice in the matter. I couldn’t control death or how and when it came, but I could have some say in how I experienced and responded to it.
So I asked God to let the experience of my parents’ deaths make me a better, stronger and more loving person. I set that as my expectation. I claimed that as my experience.
Of course in the meantime I tried to talk about death and dying with my parents, both so I’d know what they believed, and so that they could hear what I had learned. Like so many people, they were uncomfortable talking about it. I got lots of dramatic eye-rolling and very little useful information. In fact, all I ever got out of my father was, “Well, I don’t want to be burned to death!” This was his colorful way of saying he didn’t want to be cremated. I’d remind him that you had to be dead before they cremated you, and he’d smile. He never told me what he did want, but at least I knew he didn’t want to have his body cremated.
This phase of worry and contemplation ended on December 15, 2015, when my father fell and hit his head, causing massive bleeding in his brain. I learned that no matter how much you read or think about a subject, you cannot know it until you have a direct experience of it. But I also discovered that learning about it ahead of time can shape that experience for the better. In fact, the Boy Scouts’ “Be Prepared” motto isn’t such a bad idea when it comes to dealing with death and dying.
As I held my father’s hand in the emergency room for four hours, I had a profound sense that I had done it before – that I had sat vigil with dying people hundreds of times. It was like, Oh, this is how it happens, this is how you are leaving, well, alright then, I’ll walk with you to the threshold. It was a very natural thing to do – to stroke his hand, and tell him that he was loved, that he’d done a great job taking care of me and my mother, that now it was okay for him to go, that I was glad that he would no longer be in pain (he’d suffered from a headache for 17 years), and that because we had gone over everything, I would be able to handle our family affairs. (I may have fibbed on that last one a little – I’m still figuring stuff out.)
He was unconscious the entire time, but I knew that he could hear me. I also knew, or rather I learned that night, that I could not do the work of dying for him, that he had to do it himself. We all have to do it ourselves, and we can only witness another person dying. My nature is to try to jump in and “rescue,” so I was especially struck by this realization that I could not “rescue” him or anyone else from dying or replace them and do it for them. But I found peace in this, as if dying were the most normal thing in the world, and I didn’t have to worry about him or where he was going.
My father slipped away a few minutes after they got him settled into a hospital bed. I’d told him that I was going down to my car to eat a sandwich I’d brought, and that I’d only be gone a few minutes. When I walked back into his room, it felt incredibly quiet and peaceful. I looked at him and realized that he’d stopped breathing. I told him, “You snuck out on me! Good for you! You did it!” I said this because down in the ER, I had explained to him the easy way to leave his body (he’d always been one to do things the hard way), so I was happy that he’d done it the easy way. The position of his body and the peace in the room told me that he had left without effort, with just a simple out breath. When the nurse came in a minute later, I told her he was gone. As departures go, his was as peaceful as I could have hoped for, and I am thankful for that.
I won’t lie to you, it’s been hard since he died. I had to make the decision to put my mother in memory care two days later, and worrying about her has been more emotionally consuming and draining in many ways than my father’s death has been. At least I know he is out of pain and at peace. In fact, I think he’s drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with his buddies from college and our early-1960s days in Daytona Beach. But it still makes me sad that I can’t grieve him with her, the person who was the closest to him, because she doesn’t remember that he’s dead (it’s pointless to shock her with the news over and over).
But grief, I am finding, is not a huge, monolithic wall. At first you think it is, because so much is happening all at once, and there’s so much to do, and all of it seems important, but grief actually has big holes in it, so you can sometimes smile and laugh and feel okay even as you go through it. I still miss my father being in his body, I still cry, and I still have moments of disorientation and bouts of unreasonable anger, but I am able to move through them without attaching to them or getting stuck in them. I let the process happen, I let it flow, I allow myself to feel what I’m feeling when I’m feeling it. I trust that God is giving me all the grace I need to honor my intention to become a better, stronger and more loving person.
I found tremendous peace and the strength to deal with the death of my father by contemplating death and dying ahead of time, and I expect that it will also help me with my mother’s death. I don’t find death and dying morbid or scary, but neither do I like or welcome it. I prefer to use death as a reminder to live my life fully, and as a compass pointing me toward God and my soul’s true home. I keep my eye firmly on the bigger cosmic picture while navigating life here on earth. Your path will be what’s right for your soul’s evolution. It may not mirror mine, but it doesn’t have to.
How we experience death and how we grieve and mourn is unique to each of us. There is no right way to do it. There is no wrong way to do it. You’re going to do it the way you do it, because that will be the right way for you and your soul’s journey. Are there things you can do to make the experience less bitter and painful? I certainly think so. So along the way I will share what I have learned, studied, and stumbled upon in my own journey in hopes that it may help you on yours.
Death is important, and I believe it’s something we should all look at and talk about before we have to deal with it. But as important as death is, I believe life is even more important. I think you will find that while I can help you deal with death and dying through my work as a Celebrant, my passion is life.
So I will be busy asking questions like these: How can we use the transformative power of death to enrich our lives? Can we use it to rediscover our dreams? Revive our faith? Remember our deepest intentions? Can we use the death and grief journey to remake ourselves as better, stronger and more loving people? Can we allow the light of love to fill the holes in our hearts when the can opener of death rips them open? I say we give it a shot, and I will share with you what I discover in the process. I hope it may help you in some way. And I hope that you will share with me your own experiences with death and dying and living, so that I may learn from you.