Image: A nice graveyard in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo by me.
I remember telling people in the past, on a couple of occasions, that I couldn’t imagine losing my parents, that I was afraid I’d completely fall to pieces. My impression is that I'm not the only person who has these fears. Now that it’s happened (two parents, two deaths, one five years ago, the other now), and I haven’t (yet) crumbled irrevocably, I thought I might share some thoughts. This is a direct despatch sent to you from the land of Grief, which I'm in right now.
The first thing I discovered is that accompanying someone at the end of their life is an exercise in giving up control. You realize that you don’t have a say in any of the important things that are happening: you can’t make your loved one well again, you can’t speed up or slow down the course of their passing, you don’t know how it will all unfold.
This is actually a good life lesson, as we control much less in our daily lives than we think we do, and the attempt to regulate things is a huge source of stress and worry.
So, Lesson #1: Let go. Live day by day. Do what needs to be done in the moment.
Lesson #2: Weird things happen with one’s sense of time during the accompaniment of a dying person, their death, and the immediate aftermath. Time becomes very elastic. As I write this, I simply cannot believe that it was only two weeks ago that I stood by my mother’s bed and said goodbye until next time, under the impression she was (at least temporarily) getting better. It feels like a couple of months at least. There's a yawning gulf between Now and Then.
The flip side of time suddenly appearing to be a subjective notion is that one lives intensely in the moment. I’ve been noticing things I’d never noticed before. Colours seem brighter. The sky looks bigger. The clouds appear to be giving me messages. This is what I imagine it’s like to be on LSD, but without the expense and unpleasant side effects.
None of this is bad, quite the contrary. Life takes on a whole new aspect, one gains fresh perspectives.
Lesson #3: Weird things happen with one’s physical self too. In a word, you’re exhausted a lot of the time. It’s an exhaustion that is beyond physical, although it has a physical component. I keep thinking of the phrase “bone tired.” It’s like that. It’s a tiredness that goes down to your bones, to your inner self, to your soul. Being made to look Death in the face is destabilizing. So, be destabilized. Don’t fight it (see Lesson #1). There are important lessons being learned. Do what you need to do: go for a walk, read a book, sit in the dark, go to bed.
Lesson #4: The most important thing people can do for someone who is grieving is simply to be there. I’ve sometimes read or heard “instructions” about things to say or not to say to someone who is grieving. God, we live in such censorious times! We’re always being told what to do!! What it comes down to is this: the simple fact that you’re there—at the end of the phone line, on Skype, in person at the funeral—means you care. Unless you say something completely idiotic, whatever you say will be fine. It’s not likely to be remembered, in any event, as this is a period of time whose essence is beyond words. Just show up. Everything else is froth.
Lesson #5: Although this is a difficult roller coaster of a ride, it’s also one of the most important times of your life. The lessons Death teaches you, if you let it, are invaluable. I know this from the first time I went through this, and I'm learning it again now.
So I go back to Lesson #1: Let go. Be passive. You can’t do a damned thing about any of this. Understanding that, you’ll come out the other side a more focused, transformed individual.