Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation. – Rumi
A (wo)man with outward courage dares to die; a (wo)man with inner courage dares to live. – Lao Tzu
I’d never really lost anyone close to me, until a few summers ago. It was Christmastime, and I was talking in our parents’ hot tub one night with my sister about prayer – does it really work? As skeptical as my sister was feeling about it, she said, “Mom has always prayed for us… and we’ve had a pretty protected life. No one in our family has ever died of anything but natural causes.” We sat stunned – how is it possible that in a family of our size the only people who have passed away are both our grandfathers? The next day, that all changed.
This isn’t a post about my cousin, Audrey. I am not sure I’ve processed her death enough to write that post just yet. But she died of what we thought was a heroin overdose. Days later, I learned that she was most likely murdered by her fiancé. But because she had been in and out of jail and rehab, the police at the scene had her pegged as an addict, and no one was willing to reexamine her case, even after a coroner’s report revealed bruising and bleeding identical with domestic violence. The irony of my sister’s and my conversation the night before wasn’t lost on either of us.
So, with Audrey in mind, it’s hard to write this piece about death being a natural part of life, and I know for many people, this is just a fanciful notion that life’s tragedies hasn’t afforded them. I know, even with this one grief I’ve experienced, I have no idea what it’s like to lose a parent, a child, a lover – but I still believe it to be true. There is no avoiding death. Without it, life wouldn’t be so beautiful, pure, sweet, or precious. I don’t wish the pain of loss on anyone, but it’s coming for us all anyway. We might as well learn how to deal with the inevitable. My way of coping is to use the concept of death as a bridge for remembering the brevity of life. And embracing the here and now.
In one of her dharma talks on presence, my teacher, Tara Brach, talks about her common practice of walking her beloved dog in the woods and suddenly picturing that her dog is no longer there – as one day she won’t be. She said that this helped her come back to the present moment with a newfound perspective. When I heard her say this, I was taken aback. Isn’t that just neglecting the present moment through fear of the future? Is she really teaching people to think about the horrible things that could happen, rather than to seek peace in the life that’s right here? Then I realized – she doesn’t imagine her dog dying to push herself over the edge into some emotional breakdown, but rather to remind herself how sweet these moments are with her precious friend. It’s not a practice of anxiety. It’s almost like a prayer in itself. Try it next time you find yourself caught up in thoughts when you’d rather try presence with someone you love.
Life is really all about cycles. When I started writing this, it was pouring cats and dogs outside. Suddenly the rain has stopped and the sun is even coming out. The storm doesn’t last forever. The day wouldn’t be so special if it weren’t for the impending and necessary night. What would be the point of being old and wise if we didn’t get to be young and dumb? As the Bible (and The Byrds) say(s):
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
None of us has the power to stop or delay these cycles of life – although we certainly will try every anti-aging formula on the market. The good news is: we’re all in this together! As my first noticing on the spiritual journey revealed for me, we are all connected and none of us is separate: And yet the feeling of separateness is what leads to the greatest suffering, perhaps all forms of suffering. The pain of losing loved ones, heartbreak, or life transition can really be boiled down to the pain of feeling separate. If we saw the longing for connection as proof of its possibility, perhaps we would settle into the truth of our connected souls.
Perhaps the fear of death is so strong because it is really the ultimate form of separation. It’s so final, so mysterious and yet so undeniable. When I was little, I used to think I would be the first human to never die. I was so sure of my specialness, I deeply believed that if I ever had an X-Ray, they would find that I was made of different stuff on the inside – stuff that simply couldn’t break or expire, and I’d always be. Eventually I did have X-Rays and CT scans, and sure enough, I’m made of the same stuff as everyone else. I had to grapple with my own mortality, and my ordinary-ness, and so do we all, sooner or later.
But what if we realized we were never separate to begin with? My spiritual practice connects me fully to this truth – we are all one, scoops of water from the same ocean. It’s the lie of the ego to keep us stuck in separation, so our concept of death is just another one of the ego’s tricks. Now I don’t claim to know definitively what happens when we die – I was raised to believe in a Heaven where I’d be reunited with my loved ones, including my dog. I think this is one topic we all have to admit we are completely clueless about. But my views have opened in the past year or so to be what I call “reincarnation curious,” which feels more free and correct to me right now. So I’m going to go with that.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not walking around in my daily life free of attachments and at one with the reality that everything around me is fleeting. I lie awake at night sometimes in a cold sweaty panic that something is going to happen to my parents – a familiar fear I’ve had since I was a child. Now I’m a grown woman, but sometimes at night that same anxiety can flood my thoughts. Or, if it’s not my parents dying, it’s my husband, one of my siblings, my precious nieces or nephew, my grandparents, aunts and uncles. The reality that life could take away one of these dear ones is sometimes too much to bear. But it is a comfort to me to remember that – if I didn’t feel this connection with these people – I would truly be worthy of grief. My love for them all is proof that we are connected forever. And I’ve learned that this connection never really goes away. I recently told my mother-in-law who lost her husband a few years ago, I believe time is a construct, but the moments of love between people truly go on and on forever in both directions. Those rare, pure moments when we are able to be truly present with anyone (because everyone is a Dear Loved One) prove to me that Heaven and eternity are real in the here and now and death is only an illusion.
I just think, if we truly love, we have to be willing to be unafraid to live with abandon and experience the fullness of life. If we’re going to cry at someone’s funeral, we ought to be real with them while they still have ears to hear. We have to be present with the people who are still here while we still have breath in our lungs. We have to stop thinking about all the things we never said or did, and pick up the phone (or the pen) and say and do them now. This is the greatest way we can honor the dead – we can live.