A good friend

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.

Right now

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?

14 thoughts on “A good friend”

  1. Thank you, Ursula for sharing this… I am currently reading “How We Die” by SB Noland . It only brings more questions but questions that need to be asked.

  2. I live with death all the time. It is my constant companion. Think about it everyday to remind me I only have now. What can I say and do to give and gratefully receive. When I said good-bye to my long time and close friend Charlie of 47 years as he boarded a van to the Portland airport last November, I wondered and even guessed if it was the last time I would see him. On January 17th, he was on his way two Paris when he died. Death never surprises me, but the lack of shock does not lessen the intense hurt and grief that I feel when I loose those I honor, respect and love . Death is inevitable for all us and it WILL happen, perhaps, in the next second, to me and will to those I love and respect. I take no one and nothing of good for granted.Therefore death is my constant companion, and yes, my friend, because it reminds me of who and what is precious and who and what I need to stand up for.

  3. First I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend, I read her obituary and thought oh no she was my age and seemed so active. It scared me, as I had just gone to the Dr and she had told me to take better care of myself. Then I saw that you had posted how sad you were at the loss of your friend and it made me even sadder. You have both been in my thoughts since!

  4. Sudden death is true bullshit. I agree with that. More than 10 years have passed since my brother died at 36, and I’m still pissed. I respect impermanence more, however, because of his passing. And my reverence for the quotidian to-and-fro of a life fully lived grows every day.

  5. I think a conversation about death is something we all should attempt to have. As we get older we will experience grief in so many different ways and this weight will be lifted by sharing these feelings. I survived the sudden death of a man who promised me undying love and safety, when I felt ready to accept it, all while going through the fear and anxiety of the end of my 20 year marriage. These events brought me to my knees and I was forever changed. Beyond grief stricken. And now my ex-husband is dying of cancer. The slow death. I am not sure how I will handle that phone call, but I imagine I will be better prepared for this new grief which will surely be deep but different. I loved your comment when you stated you wished you had listened to the meaning behind your friends words and had not been so flippant in your response. I imagine you, like I, felt that had we of turned left instead of right, they may still be alive. If we had just changed this one moment in time, said this one thing, they may still be with us. I feel your pain.

  6. Sometimes, it seems, acceptance of things unchangable may be the path to understanding. Peace with the acceptance.

  7. I lost my closest friend three and one half years ago, and the pain was so raw and deep that breathing in and out was paralyzing. I collected all my photos of her with the intention of sharing them at her memorial; only to leave them in a pile on my living room floor for months not to be shared with anyone for the memories were mine and only mine. I sat amongst my memories daily.

    Then one day, some months later, I put one of the photos in a frame and prominently placed it where I could see it daily. Then a week later, I chose another picture to frame and display. A day later, I repeated the action. This became my healing ritual: look through the photos still heaped in a pile on my livingroom floor, choose a beloved memory, relive it and frame.

    My dear friend is with me throughout my house today and throughout my life always.

  8. As the many sayings go…. Live each day as if it were your last! I never expected my husband to go to sleep one night & not wake up at the tender age of 49. We still had so much to do & we were supposed to be enjoying our grandkids together! We were supposed to enjoy retirement! So do all the things on your bucket list, don’t wait until it’s too late & stop to smell the roses along the way!

  9. Because it seems more people I know and love are sick and/or dying these days, I find myself saying “I want to die first so I don’t have to suffer the loss.” I’m not sure that is true because I love life, too . But, losing a friend or loved one is so painful…whether it is a drawn out period of time or sudden. When we love, it’s what happens. I am so sorry about the sudden death of your friend. Rennie and I used to laugh because every conversation we had would lead to talking about death. It is a constant companion and makes life more meaningful. And consequently, as natural as it is, the pain of death around us still hurts.
    Could go on and on but just words. Love to you.

  10. Sadly, I am now facing Death square in the face, old friend !! My battle with Atherosclerosis has reached a point where the Doctor advised me to “get my affairs in order”. Thankfully, I have a brother who is a now retired “Chief of Staff” who trained at Mayo Clinic to explain all of this insanity to me !! I think I have come to terms with my mortality after an emergency Open Heart 5 way bypass a year and a half ago…but I must admit..when the Dr. tells you that your time on this earth is nearing it’s end…it does have a different impact on you !! I cried that night..I’ll miss out on seeing my Sons marry..I’ll never see my Grandchildren..and well you know the rest. But it’s not just about Me..it has a Domino effect..the grief my children will have..and family and friends. But the more I thought about it..I told my son..I want you to celebrate…have a party..laugh !! Because those who know or remember me well enough, know me to have a sense of humor that doesn’t quit !! I would love to be remembered for the smiles and laughs I’ve given out after all these years !!

  11. Thank you for sharing so beautifully from your heart. I find myself wondering why it’s so hard to grasp the idea of death. We know it will happen and we’re mostly shocked when it does happen. Are the feelings different in other cultures? How do I live accepting, knowing, being comfortable with death by my side? What does that even look like? More questions than knowing.

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