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my relationship to death and dying

by Judy
May, 8, 2016

For almost a year I’ve been writing in response to my mother’s death; tracking my own grieving process and all the responses that arise. I do think when someone you love dies – or even if you don’t love them and they die, be they writers, artists, politicians, it brings up one’s own relationship to dying and death; at least it often does for me.

For some reason, death has always played a strong “role’ in my life even as a young girl. One of the early memories I have is lying in the bathtub and trying to figure out what it will be like to no longer exist. I would play a game where I tried to imagine that there was no longer “me” in the picture – gone – and it was hard to do except with the idea of being asleep but never waking up.

I didn’t like the idea of no longer waking up or no longer existing and religion, even as a young child, did not give me any consolation.

I remember when I was about 13 years old and I learned of my uncle’s death which seemed to happen very suddenly. I was not particularly close to him at all, but I burst out crying to a degree that seemed incongruous with my relationship to him, but he was the first person that I really knew who died and no doubt this hit me strongly – the fact of death and loss.

Fast forward now and I am working as a College Aid one summer at Columbia Presbyterian hospital in New York City. I am working in, what was called, Harkness Pavilion, where the wealthier patients went, and there is a lawyer who is apparently in a coma that I am looking after. I always remember going into his room and he started to talk to me. He said: “I’m not used to this business.”  “What business?” And he said, “Croaking.” So he knew, he knew he was dying. I was stunned. And he was able to talk to a stranger while in general people felt he was totally out of it.

It seems I have been trying my whole life to come to terms with death.

In my late twenties I start doing volunteer work in hospices with the dying. I remember one man who is seemingly on his last legs. I massage his feet and we just look at each other with our eyes intimately meeting. No words needed.  A few days later, he is better and the contact is completely different. He is now very much intact and the personality and defenses come back. This made an imprint upon me; how different we are as we approach the end, as if the veils of defenses and social amenities get stripped away and we are naked before “our maker.”

Much later, when my brother is in critical care and it looks like he is going to die, he is showing such courage…making out his will in the intensive care unit, thinking of others. He is soft and loving, like all the outer layers of protection have melted. He later wrote about his experience, “More significant that the physical discomfort I endured was this experience of receiving a message of love and allowing myself to express my loving…I was moved not only by the loving that was offered to me; but even more by my own inner beauty that which was revealed to me: I was like an open, innocent child again declaring my love and gratitude to everyone.”

Clearly the experience of being so close to death has the potential to open ourselves up to what really matters.

There have been many deaths in my life, aside from grandparents, aunts, uncles and a few friends, I have lost now my father, brother and more recently my mother. Both my brother and mother didn’t seem to be afraid of dying. How could that be? It’s not that they wanted to die by any means; but they were not afraid.

My mother, who I was with pretty much nonstop over the last three years of her life, really did surrender to dying. This definitely leaves an imprint upon one’s soul. On almost a pre-conscious level, I feel its effect, like it gives me more strength and courage to live, as much as possible, an undivided life. Death and dying illuminates, if we let it, how we shall live. And when those close to you have died so graciously it also leaves an imprint.

I can still sense that I am in this process of being changed and re-changed by this awareness of death and dying; that it is informing me how I live, what choices I make, what I value and ultimately how I shall meet my “maker.”

Feel free to share your thoughts


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