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DESPAIR

After my sister died, I stopped answering the phone, too fearful to learn that someone else I loved had died.

I was a mess. My feelings were in a constant state of flux between denial, anger, and despair. Acceptance was nowhere near the horizon because the horizon was no longer there. I was no longer there. I had retreated somewhere deep inside myself in an effort to heal, but that damn phone kept on yanking me back.

The first of many calls we received over the coming weeks and months was to let my husband and I know that the daughter and grandson of one of my husband’s former co-workers had been killed in a fiery car crash. Soon after I learned that a good friend’s father had passed, then another dear friend’s mother, an uncle’s mother and a niece’s cousin. After that, another dear friend’s uncle and a co-worker’s grandmother. And at some point in the midst of all this, I watched in horror as bodies and lives were being shattered on live TV on the day of the Boston Marathon, in my home state.

It felt like being a kid and having a bigger kid hold your head underwater to see how long you could last only now anytime I was allowed up I barely had time to catch another breath before being pushed back under again.

I had always been good at holding my breath. Underwater backward somersault competitions and handstands and submerged tea parties were everyday occurrences at the lake when I was growing up, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Now every time I was forced back under I had added weight attached to me. I would sink straight to the bottom never entirely sure that I would resurface since by that time I lacked the strength and the will to push off and rise and had grown overly fond of the silence in the depths of my suffering.

“Despair is a necessary and seasonal state of repair, a temporary healing absence, an internal physiological and psychological winter when our previous forms of participation in the world take a rest; it is a loss of horizon, it is a place we go when we do not want to be found in the same way anymore.” – David Whyte Consolations

Not only did I not want to be found in the same way anymore, I did not want to be found, period.

But there came a day when something inside me changed. It was a lot like when I was pregnant with my son. After one miscarriage, then the birth of my daughter, then another miscarriage, when I learned I was pregnant again an irrational defiance took over and stayed in charge a little too long.

I remember feeling compelled to challenge death. I took risks that I shouldn’t have believing myself to be invincible for having somehow survived what I’d been through.

Until one day when I was more than four months along. I was nearly finished painting the entire house, climbing up and down the scaffolding on a daily basis, when I looked down at my daughter in her playpen in the backyard from the peak of my roof while dangling from a ladder hooked over it. I was swatting away a bee while stretching as far as I could reach to paint the last of the peak before nearly having a heart attack when I realized how insane I was behaving.

This was like that, only this time I wasn’t challenging death so much as I was challenging my understanding of it.

I had long been fascinated by the idea of having a home death and a home funeral when it came my time or time for someone that I loved. But I never dared to investigate it honestly before.

After having so many people close to me or close to other people that I cared about die, I suddenly felt compelled to explore it. I felt emboldened – as insane as that sounds – believing I’d been hurt so profoundly already that confronting it head-on couldn’t possibly inflict any more pain then I’d already experienced.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming to ground in our wish not to be here.” – David Whyte Consolations

So I signed up for a workshop nearby to where I live, and although I was trembling when I pushed open the old heavy wooden door of the Unitarian Universalist church, I entered.

And I stayed.

Somehow, through tears I told a group of perfect strangers what I’d gone through with the death of my sister and since, explaining how desperate I was for there to be some other way than the way I’d been forced to follow. I’d been inside too many funeral homes and suffocating incense filled churches to know that that was not what I wanted for myself or for those that I loved.

What I learned there changed my views of death profoundly and somehow made me a little less afraid to come out of hiding and rejoin the land of the living.

But when I exited the church early that afternoon, my phone began to ring. Forgetting for a moment my reluctance to answer it, I did, only to be told that someone else very close to someone we loved, was in a horrible car crash and was on life support.

He would pass one week later from his injuries, on the very same day I stood in a hospice room watching my uncle – my godfather, leave this world that was coming apart at the seams.

Soon after that, a sister’s brother-in-law passed after a massive heart attack at forty-two years old.

Not long after his death, I learned of yet another uncle’s passing, this time a great uncle who was like a grandfather to me. I felt as fragile as a glass ornament hanging from the bough of a branch in a hurricane, desperately trying to hang on when all I wanted to do was let go.

The phone never ceased being the bearer of bad news, informing me of yet another death, another dear friend’s father passing, then another uncle, and a close neighbor’s dad.

In the midst of all this pain, I was sure that my shattered heart could not possibly be broken any more than it already was, and so, was brave enough to attend a Death Café for the first time.

I was welcomed with open arms and open hearts, and I left feeling hopeless but in a good way. No longer would I long for a future I knew I had no control over that had only ever left me feeling powerless. Instead, I would abandon all hope and allow it to die so that some sort of action could begin.

I had heard the expression “life goes on” at least a hundred times, but until I abandoned the ridiculous expectation that I would somehow be spared any more suffering, life did go on – just without me and I now found that despite the risk I didn’t wish to be left out anymore.

By the close of the year – almost exactly one year from the death of my daughter’s good friend, I learned that Nelson Mandela had passed. His was the last in too long a line of deaths, eighteen not including those helpless young souls that perished in Newtown, Connecticut or the innocent victims of the Boston marathon bombing, that I had been touched by in twelve short months.

A whole year had passed but the seasons were not the only things that had changed. I had changed, profoundly.

“The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying a profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even strangely, in paying attention to despair itself, and the way we hold it, and which we realize, was never ours to own and to hold in the first place.” – David Whyte Consolations

Life taught me so many lessons about death during that year that it was hard to keep up.

I learned that death does not end our relationship with the dead. My sister would always be my sister, and I am still visited by her in my dreams.

I learned I could be courageous enough to face death without the hope of the outcome being any different, and that nature’s final victory is necessary and natural and will come when it comes, and I don’t have to fear it but accept it.

I also learned to think about death as change and accept the peace it offers as it simultaneously feeds new life.

And I learned that the dignity we seek in our death can only be found in the way in which we’ve lived our lives. That yes it’s a great idea to live every day as if it were my last but also live every day as though I will live forever through the memories I leave behind.

Over the course of that long emotionally exhausting year, I became obsessed with death. I stood no chance had I attempted to fight it, so I didn’t.

Every time my children left the house I imagined they would not return. Every time I saw or talked to a loved one, instead of thinking about how that day could be my last, I imagined it might be theirs, and in doing so, I began to cherish everything and everyone around me even more.

I no longer take life for granted. I have a much healthier respect and a greater appreciation for everything in my life now. Death has taught me to relish life.

Now, when the phone rings, my first thought remains that I might be receiving bad news, but now I feel more prepared, and I am as ready as I am ever going to be for that inevitable eventuality that awaits us all.

 

PART III of III

NEXT WEEK: DESTINY

 

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

4 Replies

  1. Linda

    Amy what you wrote here is so beautiful. I felt your pain and your hope. I love you dearly linda

    1. Thank you, Linda. I love you dearly, too. My greatest hope is that this blog may be helpful to others, so I’m incredibly grateful to know that it is being received so well.

  2. Jeff

    Keep up the awesome writing! Love you!!

  3. Missed this post, just reading it now.3/19/18 I think u should b a counselor. Feel better about death all ready. Keep up that writing

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