Come, Walk With Me…

1 Jan

Pain demands to be feltWhen a friend of mine shared with me recently in an email that her mother “decided to die on Christmas Day” I took some time to respond. Given the situation and the rate at which the woman’s condition was deteriorating, it had seemed that weeks before, the possibility of death occurring sooner than later was imminent. My friend was her mother’s caretaker, and each time we spoke I was reminded of my own mother’s role. She is currently caring for my grandma, whose husband, ironically, would be celebrating his birthday this New Year’s Eve.

As I write this I’m struck with wrenching sadness. Unexpected. I let the ache fill my chest, and I suppose there are a few things happening for me all at once. The reminder of my grandpa’s death puts front and center the eventual passing of my mom. The thought of her absence leaves a gaping hole in my heart. I imagine too, her pain in being with her dad when he died, having taken care of him for over a year, feeling helpless to give him comfort as his body failed him and longing to have him argue with her in their typical sparring way that would so often leave her upset and fuming but would now give her reassurance that he was vital and energetic. It’s not my pain, it appears, that I’m afraid of then—it’s hers. All the same, I suppose I am afraid of not being able to take it away from her, afraid of the lack of control I’ll have?

But my friend’s words were poignant. Despite not knowing that her mom had chosen to make Christmas Day the day she would take her last breaths, she thought it. She gave her mom credit for a decision. Her mom was a strong-willed, demanding woman. It fit. Was that my friend’s way of making sense of an event she couldn’t easily wrap her mind around?

the most precious giftsThe reply to my friend was short. What could I say? I’m a therapist, and I know she needs to grieve. I know too that her process will be hers alone, distinct and beautiful in its own right. But I wasn’t sure of myself in this situation. I calculatingly expressed my sorrow for her…for her mother’s death. I remember pausing before I typed the word “death”, wondering if it would be more appropriate to say “passing.” But what difference would it make? I scanned her email before deciding on the former, hoping to glean a sense of rightness of fit from the context and her tone. I couldn’t. If she were in the room with me I’d just be with her. I’d reach out and hold her hand…hold her if she was okay with it. But I couldn’t do that across a thousand miles and a keyboard. I typed those words instead, worrying with every key stroke that it sounded trite, overly sentimental, and empty. Except it wasn’t, at least not to me. It is what I would do. But I proceeded to get on my own case about worrying so much about my words. Back and forth I went until I decided to land on the fact that this wasn’t about me. I expressed that she was in my prayers, in my thoughts, that I was having a difficult time articulating what I wanted her to know, but that I was there for her, whatever she needed. When a person dies, what do you do?

Death.

Last year I read Staring into the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin Yalom. I’m not sure what led me to it. Perhaps it was on the recommended reading list in my psychotherapy journal. It very well could have been a discussion I had with a friend about how we comprehend death. Or maybe I was interested in better understanding the fear that so many of us have about dying. It seems our fear of death is often underlying the fear we experience in other areas of our lives. We desire connection and belonging, and we will, upon introspection about our behavior, lash out defensively and in anger when underneath such explosions is fear of isolation and rejection. Isolation—could this be the illusion linked to death? How are we to know  if we’re unwilling to ask questions about death though, of The fear of death follows from the fear of lifeourselves and of others? If death were within our awareness, willingly, would we all be walking around on automatic pilot so often? Going through the motions? Living with such an astoundingly depressing, in my opinion, lack of intention or sense of our own mortality. If we were really mindful of death, wouldn’t we be more conscious in life? If we asked ourselves what our thoughts are on death, wouldn’t it incite us to live more generously? Feel more passionately? Or, maybe by asking ourselves about death, we’d just be living in a perpetual state of anxiety.

If you are a follower of my blog, you’re aware of my penchant for mindfulness. It’s my belief that we all need to wake up and become active observers of ourselves and others, refrain from pushing away what is and away from pain, pay attention to what influences us and how we act, and pause long enough to respond rather than react. When someone dies I think the discomfort is less about the loss and more about the emotions that well up inside of us. And we try arduously to shove them away. I’m reminded of something a friend of mine said to me this week: “I’ve been holding back tears, and I’m not a person that cries,” she stated as she explained that her co-worker was leaving. This was a women 10 years her senior but who felt like her older sister and was her best friend.

The Tragedy of LifefIn this instance I felt sure of what I wanted to say. “What is a person who doesn’t cry? Non-human?” It’s possible this statement could have easily been taken the wrong way by someone other than a friend, but it was important to me that I convey to her that crying would, it seemed, be a pretty normal reaction to what she was experiencing. “Your sadness could be showing you how important she is to you; do you want to ignore that?” I said.

If we were more comfortable feeling in general, would we be more comfortable with death? If we more often said to the tears filling up the caverns of our insides, “Come, walk with me,” instead of “No, go away!”, would death be more easily experienced? What about before the death?

How do we manage what I would presume most of us will only experience once? Death isn’t like a meal, when we know we’ll have another. “This one just wasn’t satisfying,” we might think. “But I have lunch in a few hours.” No. Death means done.

At the same time death might mean an awakening of sorts, to our own fragility, to our meaninglessness, to meaningfulness, and to relationships we cut ourselves off from either purposefully or just through an abandonment of attention. Paul Auster in his book, The Invention of Solitude, becomes a son to his father and makes it possible to become a father himself, only after his father’s death. What if both had, if even obligatorily, run through the gaping holes of each other’s hearts and been vulnerable enough to get to know each other before? Would it have mattered?

forwardYalom (2008) quotes a woman in Staring at the Sun for whom it mattered immensely:

“I lost my beloved father two years ago and I have experienced previously unimaginable growth since. Before then I’d often wondered about my own ability to confront my finiteness and had been haunted by the idea that I too, will someday pass from this life. However, I have now found in those fears and anxieties a love for living I didn’t known before” (p. 116).

My current assignment for the course I’m involved in is focused on “Difficult Conversations” in healthcare. In palliative care, communication of what is often perceived as difficult has received much attention, primarily because of the intense discomfort that many physicians feel when they must bring it up to patients and family members. Little training is provided for healthcare workers during their education and practicums, at least not the type that provides them with confidence. Emotions can’t exactly be blueprinted. An “if”/”then” flow sheet for telling a patient that they will not recover, won’t cut it. So we come back to having the ability to be comfortable in our discomfort, to experience our own suffering as we face the suffering, but don’t assume the suffering or the decisions, of others.

As I conclude I am brought back to my most recent conversation with the friend I can be ultimately raw with, whom I can divulge what others might, quite possibly contract with horror in hearing or seeing.  He read me a passage from the book he’s absorbed in, which just so happens to be about dad’s…and death. I’m struck by the convergence in these last few days of my school topic, his readings, my friend’s mother’s passing, and the squelching of friend’s tears stemming from a loss.  All seem to be beveled in a tangle of  fear. They are Time to Growconnected. We are connected. I have with this friend what I imagine to be quite rare, a frequency that a mere fraction of could stabilize the air between life and the anxiety of death. Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, eloquently captures the essence of this strange marriage of the aloneness of death and its revelatory harmony:

“When we finally know we are dying, and all sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense…of the preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”

The healthcare workers who sit with the dying and who reveal to their families the brevity of the life before them, the aging, the caretakers of those in their final days,  the dying who have accepted their impending endings, the dying who haven’t, the dead who had no choice, and those of us who fear what will come– might we face death with life, with breath, and welcome it to walk with us? For isn’t it always with us anyway?

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3 Responses to “Come, Walk With Me…”

  1. Thomas January 2, 2013 at 1:33 PM #

    Death, inevitable, unyielding and undefeated.

    I speak only for myself, a retired paramedic who has watched/helped a mother bring their newborn into the world, seen the tears of joy and heard the uncontrollable giggle they almost all have as they say “hello” for the very first time. And don’t forget the proud father who acts tough until he looks into the eyes of his newborn and starts babbling like a little baby himself.

    I speak only for myself, a retired paramedic who tried his hardest to plug a hole in a 13 y/o boys chest, put there by an almost point blank shot of a 12 gauge, by accident and by his little brother. To plug that hole and keep the kid breathing until we could get him to a doctor. Doing this all the while knowing that the doctor will be able to do nothing.

    I’ve seen and been there for both sides of life and death. I had the privilege of saying congratulations to mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles…., I’ve had the duty of telling Mothers and Fathers, sisters and brothers that I’m sorry for their loss as well.
    DEATH is what you’ve brought up though. Death, inevitable, unyielding and undefeated.

    I’ve changed Kori, that’s what people do. This blog, it’s made me think of things/events I thought long gone, in the past and never to be thought of again. I find myself a little confused at how I feel right now. I’m choked up at the thought of all the families I’ve told “I’m sorry but your (son, daughter, sister…) is DEAD. Like you said, very little training for healthcare professional’s on dealing with this situation. That’s the one thing I do remember though, what was taught to us I mean. “Never say, they have passed away or they’ve gone to a better place” why? Because there can be no confusion. You must say “DEAD”. So that’s what I did. I gave them a shoulder to cry on, a face to yell at and take their anger out on but DEAD is the word I used. I was devoid of emotion. That’s how I dealt with death. Inevitable, unyielding and undefeated. I no longer cared or thought about it.

    I’m rambling now, see Kori? That’s what your blog about death just did to me. I’m rambling and typing without any real thought. LOL, is that a thing now? Emotional typing?

    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is thank-you for writing this little blog. It’s made me realize a few things. Good things. Things I’m not going to post. I just got choked up about death Kori. To me this is a good thing.

    Your blog touched me.

    Thank-you.

    • kpropst January 2, 2013 at 3:50 PM #

      You said, “DEATH is what you brought up.” You put the word in caps, Thomas. Caps. That’s how ‘big’ it is. And how could it not get you thinking about life, the beauty you have experienced and been blessed to be connected to, and the immenseness of meaning you felt when you could give someone the feeling that they were everything even in the midst of tragedy.

      You’ve touched me with your willingness to share. You’ve made real to me again the conclusiveness of death itself but also its enduring power and intensity.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Finding the good at the worst possible time « Look Twice, Save a Life - January 4, 2013

    […] Come, Walk With Me… (peakofmind.wordpress.com) […]

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