Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Living, Loving and Dying

A few months ago, I shared here on Digital Doorway that my mother had died suddenly from a massive and unexpected stroke which occurred while she was giving a piano recital with some of her music students. Five weeks prior, my father-in-law suffered a major heart attack, dying in his easy chair after enjoying dinner with his beloved wife and a few friends on the Cinco de Mayo. Their deaths reverberate in our lives still.

In the weeks between those two significant losses, my wife lost an uncle and a cousin, and not long ago my step-son lost his step-brother on his father's side. Just yesterday, we learned that a dear friend with whom we had lost touch was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer on a Thursday this past August and died the following Monday, surrounded by family. Meanwhile, one of our very dearest and oldest friends is struggling in her eighteenth month of ovarian cancer and we're not sure we'll ever see her again---in this life, anyway.

Losing loved ones and watching others grieve as they mourn their losses puts life into perspective and allows for a different view of one's personal priorities. As a nurse, I have walked many patients through their own illnesses and the process of facing their own mortality, and there are those whose faces are as clear in my mind now as they were when I was providing their care.

In the course of our lifetime, we see dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths acted out in movies and television shows in the name of entertainment, some quite realistically. Meanwhile, the news media graphically report famine, war, disease, natural disasters and violent deaths, and this regular diet of death can at times inure us to the reality and potential tragedy of lives lost. Film and television depictions of death can move us to tears, and can at times even help us to process our own personal losses through the artifice of cinematic drama.

Still, there is nothing more realistic than holding the hand of a dying person and looking in their eyes as they face the great unknown. Five years ago, we were all at the side of my step-father as he died in his own home from pancreatic cancer, and it was an honor to be his midwife in that very beautiful and graceful process.

As a father and husband, I occasionally experience fear regarding the loss of my wife, son or daughter-in-law, and I know that I will likely one day face the death of my father, my mother-in-law, and perhaps even my siblings or other family members. At the time of a death of a loved one, it has often seemed that I simply could not walk through the passage of grief that had opened up before my very eyes. When a dear friend of ours was murdered in 2001, it seemed as if our lives had ended, and indeed our lives as we knew them certainly had come to a resounding close.

However, even in the midst of terrible grief and loss, the urge to survive---and even to thrive---persists, and we somehow manage to renew ourselves again and again. I am personally on that path of renewal, and while I have no doubt that death will make its presence known at some point in the future, there's nothing else to do but focus on love, acceptance, and the knowledge that strength will come from a powerful wellspring, whatever one may choose to call it or however one might acknowledge it.

My own death holds no fear for me, but the great mystery of that passage and its ultimate meaning is strong. For now, I focus on the meaning that death and loss have given to my life, and the relative unimportance of the myriad trivial issues that clamor for space in my mind.

We the living can continue to live, and the dead want nothing more than our happiness. I choose to embrace my life and my happiness, remembering the saying that living well is the best revenge. I am not a vengeful person, but we can all take revenge on the violence, fear and panic that seem to so often encircle our world so vehemently. We can resist the fear. Our loved ones who have passed on want this for us, and while we can't live for them, we can live with them---in our minds, in our thoughts, and in our hearts.

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