Wednesday, November 18, 2009
The Denial in Dealing with Death
Elizabeth Mull left a comment on another site: Death tends to disturb people. No shit! I am reminded of a time when a friend of mine told me that her mother had died. I don’t think I was very supportive or exceptionally sympathetic. What I was, however, was scared. This friend was my age. Her mother was my mother’s age. If someone my age could lose her mother . . . I was scared and, because I was scared, I simply couldn’t deal with my friend’s loss. As a result, I wasn’t a very good friend to her. This year, with ten deaths in seven months, I have had more than sufficient opportunity to learn how to be a friend to someone who is suffering a loss. First and foremost, be present. Even when you can’t be there in person, be there in spirit. Send a note, food, and offer to help. If the other person doesn’t respond, don’t take it personally. Reach out again. Express your compassion in whatever words you can. Nothing you say will make an immediate difference but know this: saying nothing is more hurtful than saying the wrong thing could ever be. Remember, the first and foremost piece of advice and know that your words are your way of being present. Listen to and allow the other person’s grief. Each person grieves in their own way. Grief is different for different people and sometimes it is very messy, even ugly. But grief, like all emotions, needs to be honored. By listening to the other person’s grief—whether face-to-face or over the telephone or even via email—the grieving person comes to know that their pain is valid. Honoring grief is a grace that few know how to offer because we forget the simplicity of offering our presence. The Bible verse “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son” is so often repeated for a reason. It is the presence of holiness given in sharing grief through compassion, the mutual (com) feeling (passion) of loss, that is a sacrifice of grace. This is a sacrifice, one offered in relationship to another. The Buddha taught the first Noble Truth: Life is suffering. We can choose to live in suffering or transcend it but we cannot deny it, cannot avoid it, and cannot define another person’s suffering from them. But we can do what the Buddha did, what Jesus did—we can sit with suffering, we can weep at what we see, we can touch the suffering world with our presence, even when all we are doing is listening. So be present. Even if all you can do is say, “I’m here. I’m listening.” I wish I could express how much blessing there is in knowing that a grief is heard in some way, that someone is listening to our tears. And the importance of this, of listening to someone else’s grief, is beyond words. All of us who are blessed with a long life, or even a long enough life, will come to a moment of profound pain, of inimitable loss. To go through these things alone . . . No. I’m sorry. Even the thought of going through the past few months alone is too unbearable. Because I know now that when someone says, “I have had a loss” what they are really saying is “I need to know that there is still love in the world.” Let me repeat that: When someone, anyone, says they are hurting what they are saying is that they need to know that there is love in the world. You can be the love in someone’s suffering world. You can be the manifestation of compassion, be the evidence of the unseen love in the world. Your love is there in a simple touch, a shared tear, the small acts of listening, of expressing even the most meaningless words. Because, as intolerable as loss and suffering may be, it is far more intolerable to believe that there is not enough love or compassion to have to go through life alone, unheard, untouchable. By denying another person’s suffering, by saying nothing in the face of grief, is to turn the other person into a leper. And hasn’t the grieving person suffered enough already? Haven’t we all suffered enough already? Now, this moment, be present, listen to the grief and give what compassion you can. Be a light in the midst of too much darkness.