Suzanne Retzinger MFT, Counselor
Growing up, I was never comfortable saying the word “Death,” as if talking about it would somehow make it happen. We don’t often use the word death. We say passed away, deceased, departed, checked out, left us, expired, gone to greener pastures, cashed in the chips, kicked the bucket. We don’t like to use the “D” word.
Death and grief are normal parts of life - a death occurs every 13 seconds in the U.S. – yet we don’t talk about it unless it’s upon us, or someone we love. Even then, we don’t talk much about death and grief.
Sometimes I find that people want to talk about death, but are afraid that someone will be upset or they'll be seen as a negative person, or maybe don’t want to feel painful feelings. Maybe some of you have heard people say, "Let’s talk about something more pleasant, or "don't be so negative,” or “let’s just put that behind,” or “aren’t you over that yet?” No doubt, facing loss can be very painful - whether it’s our own or a loved one.
Perhaps we need to understand that death is not merely a medical condition, or pathology or abnormality. It slows us down, allowing us to see life in a new way, and there are spiritual aspects that awaken us to something deeper. For me, death has been a great teacher.
One of the things I’m interested in is opening conversations of death and grief. The first time I witnessed an intimate conversation about death is when my mother was dying:
I’m standing in the doorway watching – Dad’s sitting in a chair by the head of the bed, leaning close to Mom who is lying in bed with less than a day left to live. They’re holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes, and having a conversation about her funeral – she says she wants an open casket – she wants her flowered shirt and new black pants on in the casket, and wants to be placed next to my brother who died when he was eight.
Dad tells Mom that he’ll read her father’s poem at the memorial, and she says she wants someone to read excerpts from “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman - “However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.” They talk about music that will be played and decide on the song “I’ll Be Seeing You. “
“In my phone book,” Mom says, “are all the names of the people to invite.” - as if they’re planning a dinner party rather than talking about death. Dad teases Mom about thinking she has control over turning her life on and off. They laugh. She died the next day.
Even though death is a normal part of life, we’re often at a loss of how to respond to the pain we see in people who are deep in grief. It can be intense. We don’t always know what to say when someone tells us they have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness; or when we have thoughts of our own death or that of a loved one.
To put it simply - we grieve because we love. Grief reflects the magnitude of our love, yet is not our love. The poet Rilke said: “Love and death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly they are passed on unopened.”
Even though grief is painful, there are also gifts that remain left unopened when we refuse to face our losses. In these gifts are clues to living well – to be more loving, more present, learning what matters most, and what is truly important in life. Facing this great mystery may be a key to living more fully.
When we lose someone we love, we grieve, and love is part of the equation for healing the pain of grief. The first healing center in ancient Greece was the temple of Aesculapius, where a statue of Venus - the goddess of love - stands at the center. Loving and then letting go is one of the toughest lessons of life, a lesson every one of us confronts at some time.
Of all the experiences we confront, the death of people we love is often by far the most painful and the hardest from which to recover. Our most intense emotional experiences and our greatest suffering are usually associated with loss and grief. It is when we isolate or ignore feelings of loss that we are most apt to become trapped. Grief can feel like “craziness” in its complexity and duration – there can be emotional suffering.
Rabbi Alan Lew, one of my teachers with the Metta Institute said, “We can’t talk about death – or living, without talking about suffering. All the energy spent in denying death, we deny life.” He goes on to say, “The world is disappearing before our eyes; if we saw everyone who was dying we’d all be hugging and kissing.”
How would the experience of grief be different if we came close to it without judging, or trying to control or manage it too much? What if we looked for the gifts from those who died, or those we will give to people we leave behind?
It takes courage to grieve. Sometimes we have to go to the darkest places in order to heal. I’m still learning what death can teach me about living.
In the past, people talked about the importance of saying “good-bye” to those who die. I’m not thinking this way so much anymore. Sure, we need some kind of closure, but rather than saying goodbye, these days I focus more on the gifts. I ask myself, “what are the qualities that I admire in the one who died? How can I incorporate these gifts into who I am, and continue to use these in the world?
The ones who go before us are paving the path for us, as we will pave the path for others. Look for these precious stones along life’s road; they are left there for us to gather.
Death separates the essential from the nonessential. How do we find the courage to face sadness and loss, regrets, and not step out of its way? If we find the courage to look in the face of one who is dying - whether it is our self or another - or simply imagine our own death, or that of one we love, then we’ll see that an essential purpose in life is the giving and receiving of love.
When we are able to look into the face of impermanence, give gratitude, and say, “I love you,” we will be in touch with all the wisdom we need for a life of meaning. We will not need to be rich or famous, or reborn, because in the moment of truly looking life in the face, we discover that we have all we need. When all is said and done, we discover that there are very few essentials in this life – perhaps there are only two – love and death.
Accepting our own humanity - vulnerable, frail and flawed, as well as hopeful, courageous and resilient – is one of the secrets of living life satisfied and ease of suffering. Suffering will not end any time soon in the world, but we can discover ease in its wake. We can live more fully with dignity and creativity, regardless of our circumstances and all the limitations of our humanness, by reaping the gifts left behind by those who went before us.
One thing I’m learning from death is don’t wait to have these conversations - conversations loud and soft, scary conversations, loving conversations. Please don’t wait to tell the people who are important to you that you love them, that you’re grateful for what they’ve done for you, or simply for being in your life.
We often put things off, but we may not get another chance. We don’t have to wait until we’re dying to learn the lessons death can teach. Have conversations with people who matter to you.