Life & Death...& life & death...& so on…

<Nov. 2008>

For the past 13 years, almost anything of any significance that's happened in my life (hmmm – maybe we had better drop that “almost” qualifier) has been seeded by death of one kind or another.

Now don’t desert me, Reader – I’m one of the most ALIVE (& joyful!) people you’re liable to meet; this is not some sort of funeral dirge, alright? Hang in there with me…

The realization that this is so has only come to me in the past 24 hours, although I guess it’s kind of been sneaking up on me for a while.

Last night I attended a showing of the new NFB film ‘Griefwalker’ & listened to Stephen Jenkinson (the movie’s subject) speak about some of his experiences & learnings in the world of palliative care. A week before this, I’d attended a workshop he gave in Peterborough to a crowd of 140 or so palliative care professionals & volunteers.(1)

For some reason, I keep being drawn – over & over again – to the profound experience of people’s deaths. And it isn’t a downer – or at least not wholly so, by a very long shot. It’s deep & opening & rewarding & quite special.

It all began 9 years ago, when my Mom was dying. I hung out at the hospital with her pretty much 24/7 for a while there and was with her when she took her last breath. This was an unexpectedly rich experience. It took me by surprise on a number of levels.

Then, right after I “lost” my mother, a new man came into my life. It kind of set the pattern that Helen Keller articulated when she said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.”

Two years later my dear friend Irene was killed in a car accident. She was only 40 years old & an incredibly dear, generous, special soul. Her death brought some key new people into my life – people with whom I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to rub shoulders. I’m very grateful for that!

Only a year-and-a-half after Irene’s death, her brother Henry was diagnosed with brain cancer. After a valiant fight, Henry died on Christmas day 2005. I was there with his wife & sister when he took his last breath.

Again, to my surprise, there was much more to the experience than I could possibly have anticipated. For one thing, it was a great honour to be present at Henry’s death. It was an honour to count a man like Henry as a friend; it was very much an honour to be welcome at his deathbed.

Of course, a profound experience like that is bound to change you, at least a little.

Two-and-a-half years after Henry’s death, two more friends were diagnosed with cancer. I spent three weeks with my friend Barb while her partner died, at home, of liver cancer (I wrote about this in the “Near Death Experience” essay).

Again, two & two added up to a lot more than four.

Now, I know I said in the opening paragraph that my death-inspired experiences began 13 years ago, then proceeded to explain only the past nine.

The death that took place 13 years ago was that of my marriage. This was most definitely a death – &, at the time, a huge personal tragedy for me. It was the death of a whole way of life…and for sure, nothing has been the same since.

I’ve been re-born any number of times since that death.

In a sense, I think I could even argue that the end of my marriage was born out of an even earlier birth & death from six years before, when I’d thrown myself into environmental activism.

The death? The death of my innocence, I suppose, or my complacency, at the birth of my incarnation into an environmental activist - when the realization dawned on me that the existence of clean air, clean water & a clean & healthy planet could no longer be taken for granted. As a mother, concerned about the future for my children, I was galvanized into action.

That signalled a new life of purpose for me.(2)  I can’t say I have no regrets – but this is a hugely rich life I’ve worked my way into.

It takes a lot of distance, sometimes, to develop a full & accurate perspective on the events of our lives, doesn’t it?

Stephen Jenkinson, palliative care dude, says in ‘Griefwalker’ “The crucible of making human beings is death.”

I’m pretty sure he’s onto something very big there.

He has plenty of other challenging, insightful & provocative things to say.

Such as, for just one, that we live in a “death-phobic” culture.

Is this not screamingly obviously so?

We fear it, we hate it, we deny it, we shunt it aside; we prolong life to an absurd & even inhuman degree (at both ends of the life spectrum). We do not teach ourselves & each other how to die – or how to die well – &, Jenkinson maintains, in so doing, we fail to grasp that we cannot truly live unless we do it in full awareness (even embrace?) of, our eventual death.

Endings & beginnings & endings & beginnings…all of it an endless circle of life & death – but with so much potential richness & meaning obscured by our refusal to live it with clear vision.

Our denial – our many, many ways of practicing denial in this culture – as individuals, as families, as communities, as a society & a “civilization” – keep us all from living fully – from recognizing & tapping into our truly astounding potential as human beings.

But hey! I’m writing elsewhere about how transformation is not merely free, it’s only a breath (or a thought, or choice) or two away. We needn’t remain “stuck” in any of these unhelpful beliefs & mindsets & behaviours.

Life, after all, is about change, growth & evolution ... is it not?

Karen Kaiser Clark said, “Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.”

I can’t put it any better than that.



(1) Stephen Jenkinson’s Web site is here. If you go there, you can get on a list for his e-mail newsletters & learn more about ‘Griefwalker’ & the great resources you can order from him.

(2)  Fortunately, not all relationships will necessarily keel over as the result of one partner’s embrace of a new raison d’être. Relationship breakdown is a complex matter, I’ve come to believe, generally involving a constellation of circumstances, not one single factor, event or “reason.”