On Befriending Death: Letter of Intent
I knew my beloved Grandpa was going to die before anyone else did. I was eight years old. He was not sick. He was young and vibrant and beautiful. The day before he died, I knew. I didn’t know it in my mind, but I knew it in my body.
I had just said bye to him, after spending all day with him, and I was walking away from his house, towards my mother’s car, when I suddenly, inexplicably, froze, turned around, and ran back inside. I remember my mom yelling, “Vicki, let’s go, hurry up!” and my yelling back, “I have to say something to Grandpa!”
In my heart—in the very centre of my chest—there was a feeling I will never forget. A heavy, heavy knowing. I knew I had to—I absolutely had to—tell Grandpa I loved him. I had never spoken those words to him before. And I knew I had to speak them right then—it was my last chance.
I ran back inside and, there he was, sitting on the steps in the entrance, as though he'd been waiting for me. There was a look on his face, in his eyes. It was a look I had not seen on him before. I have wondered, ever since: Did he know, too?
I kissed his bald head and told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. I ran back to the car, we drove away, and I never saw him alive again. He died of a massive heart attack, in his driveway, the following afternoon.
This is one of those life events that shimmers in my memory. I remember the details of it achingly clearly. It was my first experience of death and it taught me that death is not this faraway place, this elusive “other,” this distant land; it is right here, brushing up against us, all the days of our lives.
The experience reminds me of this quote by Thomas Merton:
“Death is someone you see very clearly with eyes in the center of your heart: eyes that see not by reacting to light, but by reacting to a kind of chill from within the marrow of your own life.”
Yes, yes, yes.
Currently, I am very much immersed in the birth world and yet, and yet, and yet... death is all around. It has to be. It is the flip-side, the shadow, the yin. It is impossible for me to experience the beginnings of things, all of those celebrated firsts, without also being acutely, painfully, aware of the endings, all of those inevitable lasts.
(I once delivered a dead baby—one I had carried in my body for months—and there it was, in that hospital room, bed, in my hands: the interwoven threads of life and death. My baby’s birth date is also his death date. Death is not a distant land.)
We live in a society that treats death like a distant land. One we don’t care to travel to. But travel there we will, every single one of us. This is a fascinating thought—also a terrifying one.
I don’t want to fear death. But, I do. Even though I have spent most of my life conscious of its enveloping presence, I am still scared shitless of the Great Unknown.
Most of us are. This is why we don’t talk about death nearly as much as we should. Why we don’t prepare for death nearly as much as we should. And why the dying, in our society, are so often treated like...what’s the word I’m looking for?... outcasts? Yes, outcasts. We literally cast them out—of their homes, of their safe spaces—not because we are terrible, evil people but because we are scared effing shitless of death, and of dying.
I want to complete the Contemplative End-of-Life Care Program at ITM for many, many reasons. But the one reason that ties all of the other reasons together is this: I want to befriend death, a little bit more.
Introduce myself to it properly (hello, scary old friend). Spend time with it. Think about it. Discuss it. Demystify it.
I don’t expect to uncover any great answers, but I do expect (and hope) to become more comfortable living in harmony with the ever-present questions.
There is a great, gaping hole in our society where “death respect” should be. I’d like to be one of the few people who works/acts/speaks/writes/lives in a way that helps to fill that hole.
I’ll end with another quote by Merton:
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
I don’t know where it’s all going—my life, the lives of those I love, this world—but this present moment is pointing me towards befriending death, for myself and for others.
If I can warm “the chill from within the marrow of my own life” just a little bit, just enough to give me the strength (and the softness) to hold shaking hands, during the dying days, and help them to shake a little bit less, well, then, my breath on Earth will be breath well spent.