A recent conversation I had with a colleague, after sharing the three books I’d just read, went something like this:
“Why have you been reading so much about death?”
I remember looking out over the St. Croix River as the sun went down, and saying something like,
“Because I need to know it’s possible to heal from the worst thing you can imagine happening and still be a whole person despite being shattered.”
I’ve read several books [and articles and blog posts…] about about death and grief since losing a long-time job nearly three years ago – that, coupled with a drawn-out illness – pointed me toward searching for something solid to grab onto amidst the uncertainty of the uncontrollable. So, death and dying seemed logical I suppose – death (in myriad forms) is one of the only certainties we have in this human life. Maybe immersing myself in stories about death and grief was a strange way to seek comfort, but those topics drew me in, I think, because I wanted to know people can go through heart-wrenching and hellish situations and live to tell the tale.
It was comforting to hear how a person’s definition of “okay” can shift as an experience with loss is navigated, and that the grief that accompanies a loss (no matter the circumstance) doesn’t actually kill you, even if it seems like it will. It was even comforting to hear that if you are actively dying, there is still a sort of joy to be found in the process, as Eva Saulitis wrote about three weeks before her death at the end of a long journey through breast cancer:
This is nothing like I thought it would be. This is more peaceful, more beautiful, more natural, more heartbreaking, at times more difficult, at times more easeful, than I imagined. The words pop up in my mind, and I hesitate to write them. I don’t know if I’ll feel this every moment, or if this feeling is fleeting like the last light in the sky.
There is no comfort in denying the realities of a mortal life. I am quite sure there is freedom in opening to uncertainty, and there is ever deepening mystery in accepting that loss, death and grief are a part of a full life, as odd as it seems to say so. The older I get, the more I learn — and the more I learn, the more I don’t know. And the more I don’t know, the more I am convinced that embracing the ‘unknowable’ is one of the places where true learning and wisdom arise.
There is comfort in knowing you aren’t alone in the experience of grief and loss, that it’s a normal and necessary part of life, from a loved one’s death to a cherished pet’s to a job loss to species extinction to contemplating your own mortality. There is comfort in accepting that being okay doesn’t look the same for everyone, nor should it. There is comfort in the belief that healing doesn’t always mean finding a cure. There is comfort in allowing loss to be part of the fabric of a joyful life. There is comfort in taking the expectations you have about what joyful living should look like and laying them down to return to earth, the place we all return to, someday.
Lay it Down
Did you know sunflowers
follow their namesake’s every move,
especially when it starts to sink
taking light along,
bathing delicate necks
in shadow? Even the garden pests,
the ones eating holes in the bean leaves,
translucent bodies humming
are tiny arcs of living and dying
going round and round and round
until time comes for the sunflowers
to drop their gaze for good, necks exposed,
into the sweet darkness of another season
come and gone.
Tell me, did you really think
they could grow forever?
Some of the books:
Becoming Earth, by Eva Saulitis
Come of Age and Die Wise, by Stephen Jenkinson
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander
To Lose the Madness, by L.M. Browning
Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Underland, by Robert Macfarlane