Death has no respect for the differences we have created among us; we will each be touched by it. While our mortality is known, it is hardly something we actively wish to participate in. Though always tragic, death seems to have been a more normal experience in previous generations. With an increase in life expectancy, medical advancements, and older generations more likely to live outside the home, we can easily grow distant from death. We can hold it at arm’s length, until we can’t anymore. Death is as normal as birth. Yet, birth is celebrated and death mourned. At birth we say hello, and at death we say goodbye.
I have had clients express, and have myself experienced, the feeling of being ungrounded and unhinged by death. Those left behind often report feeling disconnected from the events of the world, as if the one who died took a part of them with. For a period of time people check in, give their condolences, share memories. Slowly, but often not slowly enough, people stop asking. There is an expectation that death is something to get over, something to move on from. We are to be sad, of course, but we are expected to say goodbye and let go.
I believe that the discourse of “getting over” and “letting go” has contributed to the shadowy mystics of death. How might we begin to de-mystify this universal experience? Is it possible that we can more actively live in the prospect of death, celebrate a life that has ended, and say hello to those who have gone instead of goodbye? I believe we can.
Living actively in the prospect of death.
Rather than holding death at an arm’s length, or becoming all consumed by the prospect, what would happen if we actively lived in the truth of its occurrence? “Live like you aren’t promised tomorrow.” You’ve heard the quotes. Yet, it usually isn’t until we are directly faced with the fragility of our lives and the lives of those we love that the promise of tomorrow is challenged.
I have never been more attuned to the sound of my father’s voice, the warmth of my husband’s hand, or the smell of my daughter’s hair than when reminded of such permanent loss. If we actively choose to accept death as part of our life, we don’t have to wait for the prospect of loss to value the gift of living. No, we aren’t promised endless tomorrows, but this just adds to the value of each life and each day.
If we actively choose to accept death as part of our life, we don’t have to wait for the prospect of loss to value the gift of living.
Celebrate a life that has ended.
I do not mean that we should not be sad. Our tears should be held as the highest symbol of love. How wonderful it is, to have known a love worthy of those tears. Whether it is a higher power, the universe, or science, allow yourself to question why things happen. It is in this questioning that we become more intimately involved with what or whom it is we are questioning. Yes, we will cry and question and grieve, but we should also celebrate the gift of knowing someone so worth knowing.
Celebrate with those that knew them, no proper celebration happens alone. Tell stories, hold rituals, travel to their favorite places. Some feel the freedom to participate in these celebratory acts soon after a death, and then the pressure to let go sets in. Don’t let it. Invite the celebration to follow you into each new stage of your life, which brings me to my last point.
Our tears should be held as the highest symbol of love. How wonderful it is, to have known a love worthy of those tears.
Say hello again.
Michael White, an Australian social worker and founder of Narrative Therapy, introduced the “saying hello again” metaphor in grief counseling. Often clients who have lost a loved one speak of their struggle to let go. Instead of letting go, what if the result of grieving was to restore what has been lost? When someone has died, the pressure to let go can actually complicate grief and trigger depression. Rather than saying goodbye and shutting the door, what if we invited our memories along with us? I have found that when allowed to reclaim a relationship with someone who has died, we are gifted a valuable lifelong resource. The following questions can be useful in accessing this resource:
“If you could see yourself through the eyes of your loved one right now, what would you see?”
“Consider a special memory you had with your loved one, what parts of yourself are you awakened to when recalling this memory?”
“If your loved one was here to witness this moment right now, what would they say? What would they do?”
Allow yourself the deep, other-worldly experience of being connected to someone who has gone. Give life to the memory of the person you loved, and say hello.
Every experience of loss is unique, and with this comes distinct challenges and varied journeys. We do not have to walk these journeys alone, and I suggest seeking out support, therapy, or other local resources if you are struggling.
Feature Image via Liz Ballmaier