It’s rare to get to middle age without having experienced the loss of loved ones, and I’ve gone through more than my share. Twice in the past few years, I was in the room when two people dear to me died. In fact, my presence had been requested . . . and maybe there was a reason for that. I was present for the passing of my beloved father-in-law at the age of 91, after his lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease. Then a few years later, I was present when my dear friend Thomas Steinbeck (the son of esteemed writer John Steinbeck) passed away at the age of 72 after a long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In both cases, I was the only one there who had any sort of medical background, and although I hadn’t practiced nursing in more than 30 years, I was comfortable taking control of this emotional time for all the loved ones involved. Death can be scary, even for those who’ve been exposed to it often.
Thankfully, nobody I know has died as a result of COVID-19, but there are many people who have lost loved ones. We can never be completely prepared for loss, and even if someone has endured a lengthy illness and the passing is expected, the experience can be both painful and transformative. Most often, we don’t know exactly when a loved one will pass, but at other times, we have a sense that time is running out.
While hospital and nursing-home visitations are not allowed now because of the virus, we are able to support one another virtually. Also, we can prepare ourselves psychologically by doing some reading. For example, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says that the reason the moment of death is so very potent with opportunity is “because it is then that the fundamental nature of mind, the Ground Luminosity or Clear Light, will naturally manifest, and in a vast and splendid way” (p. 110). What happens at this time is that we are finally liberated, or move on to the bardo (or intermediate state) between living and dying.
While preparing for the eventual loss of loved ones, we might spend time wondering if there are certain things we want to tell them or write to them. We might reflect on their roles in our lives, and how life will be after they depart. Being by someone’s deathbed might also lend itself to contemplation, and musings that we might not normally think about at any other time.
It’s common for people to experience denial when it comes to the impending death of loved ones. Even though I knew these two men were passing, I admit that there was a certain sense of denial about their mortality. With my most recent losses, there were certain things I wanted to tell them because they were powerful role models in my life. I wanted to thank them for all they’d done for their loved ones, as well as humanity at large, but there were also times during their more lucid moments when I yearned to have them answer some deep philosophical questions. However, for some reason, I refrained from posing those questions. Looking back, I think I didn’t ask them because I didn’t want them to realize I knew they were dying. The ironic thing is that they both did know they were going to pass soon, and because of their generous spirits, they would have told me anything I wanted to know.
In fact, Thom told me a few weeks before his death that he didn’t have much time left. While I knew he was struggling with his breathing, I was in denial. I told him that he’d survived the Vietnam War and a number of health challenges, and he would survive this setback as well. While this stance served me well at the time, looking back, I think he was giving me an opening to talk to him as if he were dying. He was a Buddhist and saw death as just another life transition. The only time this came up was when the hospice workers working with both these men told their wives to give them permission to “let go” and pass.
There are lessons to be learned from all our life experiences, and the death of these two loved ones taught me a lot. I’ve learned to be more authentic than I’ve ever been in the past, and it also taught me to be more mindful in the future and carefully “listen to the messages” the dying are imparting to me. Had I done so in these two cases, I might have had a final confirmation of what I meant to these men, although in some ways I already knew because they were the types of individuals who were always open and forthright with respect to what they believed in. Knowing that hearing is the final sense to go, I did take the opportunity to tell both of them how much they meant to me and how much I loved them, and for that I am grateful.
When faced with death, the meaning of life becomes so very important, as we remember that it’s foolish to sweat the small things. And most important, it’s wise to listen and pay attention to the messages offered by those who are passing because we may be surprised by how much we can learn. Remember, life is fleeting and precious . . . and should be treated as such until the very end.
What death teaches us:
- It is more than a physical event; it is a time for transformation.
- Life is precious.
- It’s important to be authentic, say what comes naturally, and act compassionately (hold the hands of the dying, apply a warm cloth to their foreheads, and so on).
- It’s helpful to create a calm and loving environment and be totally present.
- We must send off those who are passing with love.
- The dying are in charge, and the rooms where they pass are sacred spaces.
Writing to Cope with the Loss of Loved Ones
There are many ways to deal with the loss of those you loved. One way is to journal about your feelings or share the journey of their lives. When writing about loss, we reflect and learn a lot about how these individuals lived. We come to see how they might have died in the same way they lived. Were they afraid? Were they joyful? Did they surrender to the process?
Finding the time and courage to write can support the healing process and be quite cathartic. Whether you journal; or craft a letter, a poem, or an essay, writing can help send you on a voyage of self-discovery and awareness. As a dear writing colleague of mine who passed away a few years back used to say, “If it hurts, write harder.”
In my book and its companion journal, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life, and Writing for Bliss: A Companion Journal I discuss the importance of getting your feelings on the page and how writing is a way to give voice to your emotions and thoughts. Also, after a loss, we might pose many questions, and writing can help us examine some of the answers. If you don’t like to write, you might want to consider Conversation Cards for Meaningful Storytelling as a way to share stories about your loved ones with those left behind. Both of these make wonderful Father’s Day gifts for the men in your life who have stories to tell!
For more information on how writing can heal, check out https://dianaraab.com.
This content is brought to you by Diana Raab.