The Death of a Loved One.

I have been asked to write a blog dealing with the death of a loved one. As I have grown older, I have suffered the loss of many a friend and relative. That is a price that we pay for living too long. There are other prices but perhaps none as steep as this one. A friend of mine has joked about my rather cavalier attitude towards death. She has summed up my comments as “Well, we are all going to die sometime.” I realize that my comment and attitude is not very consoling. However, for me it has been a convenient shortcut to simply acknowledging death and moving on. I have also noted that it seems hardly a week has gone by in my last twenty years that I have not witnessed the death of someone who has been a friend or relative. I doubt whether my life is much different than others unless I am a more astute observer of death or unless I am simply less caring.

I read the book “On Death and Dying” many years ago. The stages of grief that were identified as something we all go through upon the loss of a loved one are perhaps interesting and even useful but in some ways are very similar to my comment in that knowing the stages may not be very consoling. It is one thing to have an intellectual knowledge of death but an altogether different thing to have a personal emotional experience of death. For instance, despite all the deaths I have witnessed including my parents many friends and most of my relatives, I have never experienced the death of a life partner. I have gone through a divorce after 16 years but a divorce is not the same as death. True, it encompasses a degree of pain and loss and suffering but I cannot quite equate that with dealing with the loss of a close personal partner that one has lived with for most of their life. I think this would be a very different experience. Whether or not it was expected or unexpected would have some influence on how one dealt with it but maybe less than one would think. The aspect of “expectedness” is another intellectual concept which does not deal with the emotional relevance of death.

One day I was coming in to see Karen, my spouse who loves to sleep late. She is normally a very late sleeper and I am not usually too concerned when she sleeps in. However, it grew quite a bit later than usual and I decided to “peek” in to see how she was doing. When I looked at her prone body, she did not appear to be breathing. I immediately put my head to hers to see if I could detect any breath. I could not. My immediate reaction was to panic and shake her. I started crying. Suddenly she turned over and asked “What was wrong.” I was beyond relief. In that single moment of thinking she had passed away, I had experienced a degree of pain, sorrow, suffering and loss that I have never emotionally experienced before. Karen and I have been living together since 1989 and going together since 1983. I know that someday we will part and on an intellectual basis, I have accepted the inevitability of it. However, I suddenly found that I have not accepted the inevitability on a personal emotional basis and I wonder now if I ever will be able to.

I have to say I do not cry very much but I did that morning. I seldom cry at funerals but I cried at my Dad’s funeral, Sister Giovanni’s funeral and a few friends whose services touched me quite a bit. I have cried every time I have read or seen a production of the “Little Match Girl.” I have cried over the song “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” There is something that evokes sorrow in me that has more to do with loneliness than death. I have never seen any scales of loneliness related to the death of a loved one but I might assume that some correlation did exist. I have a 98 year old Aunt and God-Mother who is one of the most positive older people I know. She has lost two of her three sons and her husband of over 60 years. She continues to love life and other people. I asked her three years ago how she keeps such an attitude when she has seen almost all of her friends and loved ones pass away. Her reply was that she simply makes new friends. I am sure she loved her sons and husband as much as the next wife and mother but she simply chooses to move on. I contrast this with a comment that I heard about Thomas Jefferson who felt that at the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he was no longer a part of this life. The following is a quote by Jefferson on aging:

1815 February 5. (to John Vaughn). “…nothing is more incumbent on the old, than to know when they should get out of the way, and relinquish to younger successors the honors they can no longer earn, and the duties they can no longer perform.”

I see a vast difference between Jefferson’s attitude on aging and my Aunt’s attitude (at least as reflected in this quote.) My Aunt has not gotten out of the way. She still performs duties and tasks to help others. Indeed, that Christmas when I was talking to her, she was leaving after dinner to serve meals to the elderly at an “Old Folks Home.” I jokingly asked her if she was not “Old” and she pensively replied “Why I guess I am, I just never think about it.” She lives in the present and maybe that is the elusive secret of happiness or satisfaction. Osho says that for too many of us the only thing that exists is the Past or Future. We are either so busy trying to recapture memories of “better” times or else we create possible futures that we hope will bring us “better memories” than we had. I have noticed that all of the great religious leaders have stressed the importance of living in the present. Jesus said:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:25-34

Buddha noted: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” I could give writings upon writings that speak of the need to live in the present but would this help you deal with the loss of a close personal partner? Good advice seldom deals with emotions. What then to say to anyone who suffers a loss of someone they have lived with, loved with and known for most of their lives? Perhaps nothing! Maybe this is just the time to be with this person. I would suspect that the feelings of loneliness would be almost overpowering. Is it any wonder so many people seem to die shortly after the death of a long term partner? What can you really say in the face of what this person is going through? Almost anything will sound cold or trite. Just feel for a second what this person must now be feeling.

Most of what we desire in life can summed up as: Fame, fortune or power. We strive to accomplish as much wealth, attention or power as we can. We think these three goals will bring us the happiness and security that we all seek. Deep down inside we are all insecure insignificant beings who feel that somehow money, fame or power will bring us the significance that assuages our sense of loneliness and inadequacy. But it never does. The nearest anything ever comes to doing this for us, short of an emotional and spiritual awakening is the love of a close personal partner.

I would not trade all the fans, all the Facebook friends, all the media glory, all the TV fame, all the money in the world or the highest office in the world for the love of my partner Karen who intimately knows me and cares about me. Karen brings me coffee, bandages my cuts, asks me how I am doing and what is wrong, cuddles with me for no reason, walks with me, consoles me when I am feeling inadequate, supports my stupidity, tolerates my quirks and even my sometimes meanness and poor dispositions. How many of the Rich and Famous have anyone in their lives like I do? Those of you who have or had had a long time personal partner or loved one know what I am talking about. How to lose such a partner and go on with life? I am sorry if I do not know the answer or the secret. Give up or trudge on? Can you make a difference for others? Can you help share the pain and help others deal with the pain you are now feeling? What can you leave the world after your partner leaves you?

If you have had a partner like I have, you have experienced the greatest gift in the world. That this gift will someday be taken away from you is inevitable. That it will cause you great pain and sorrow is perhaps also inevitable. In the end, we come back to the beginning. Life goes on. You were loved and you were needed. There are others who are not loved and who could benefit from your love. There are others who are not needed and who could benefit from being needed by you. The biggest gift we can ever give others is the gift of ourselves. When a gift has been taken away from us perhaps it is time for us to find a way to give a gift of ourselves.

Time for Questions:

What is your experience with death and dying? How have you handled the death of a loved one? How have you helped others who are going through this pain? What will you need when you lose your partner or a close loved one? Can you share any experiences with others who might benefit from your experience?

Life is just beginning.

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