Why does death still surprise us, especially sudden death? My friend Maryann went to the hospital for minor surgery and her heart stopped on the table even though she was flying to Florida the following Sunday, just got a raise and had clothes in the dryer. How can life just end?
We somehow accept slow death more readily. Our loved ones have closed accounts, given away possessions, stopped accepting new projects, said goodbye. We see how they suffer. Their care consumes and exhausts us. Through a shroud of grief and guilt, comes some relief. But sudden death brings no release. Only shock.
A safe distance
Recently, I went to a conversation about dying. A skilled facilitator wrangled a giant circle of people, all eager to make sense of death. She asked each to say a word about death and most said things like celebration, journey, joy, transition. I wanted to say bullshit. But I didn’t. I said impermanence because I’m reading a book called, The Five Invitations, Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski, an author who cofounded the Zen Hospice Project, and he used that word. “Mostly, we imagine death will come later…’Later’ creates the comfortable illusion of a safe distance. But constant change, impermanence, is not later. It is right now.”
Impermanence is not really about death, more about life. But, someone already said grief, which was what I wanted to say, which was what I felt. At the end of the conversation, she read a passage reminding us that from the moment we are born, death walks beside us. Our constant companion, who we ignore like a beggar on the street. So, as the facilitator intended, the conversation made me think.
The last thing Maryann said to me was, “You are a good friend.” It was in response to my assurance that my boyfriend would drive her to the hospital the next morning so she didn’t have to take the bus. If I really felt our mortality, I might’ve driven her myself (or, in hindsight, stopped her from going), even though I had to work. I might’ve heard the meaning behind her words and recognized their sanctity instead of blowing them off with a flippant remark about how I owed her for feeding my cat. But it doesn’t matter what I might’ve done. What matters is the impermanent now.
Can I really grasp that death is my constant companion? And, if so, how might I live differently? How might you?