On Leaving a Loved One

The other day while knitting, for diversion I picked one of the first movies that popped up in the first fringe netflix category I could find. It was Our Souls at Night starring the aged Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. They play long-widowed neighbours who finally decide to spend their nights together to relieve their loneliness. Because netflix doesn’t have any really fringe categories, of course a romance develops. Watching about a third of it was enough to get the idea.

In these months of terminal illness, I have at times asked Roy what he is thinking or feeling about his future without me, but he hasn’t wanted to talk about it much. I often mention him having another relationship once I’m gone, and we’ve made some good jokes about him bringing a date to my funeral. But I thought I should respect him not wanting to talk seriously about the time after me, and especially another woman after me, which for him feels uncomfortably close to infidelity.

Lucie, a kind friend who lost her husband to a sarcoma years ago, told me that she decided while her beloved was ill to simply make the most of her time with him while he was still alive. She knew there would be plenty of time to miss him once he was gone and to figure out her future when it came. She wanted to enjoy being with him while she could. I thought that was wise.

Susan and Roy summer 2017

A polaroid of Roy and me in June.

But not talking about it has allowed me not to think about it too much either. As I was watching that movie, Roy arrived home from work, and I turned it off. I realized why I had chosen it. And why I’d started reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of losing her husband. I’ve been thinking more about Roy, in particular Roy without Susan. It’s time I attend to him in some way. Unlike me, he has been quite selfless in his attendance to his beloved. He has demanded so little for himself. He has always stepped aside to allow my children and my family priority—reasoning that he gets more time with me anyway. He patiently learned to navigate the tricky territory of helping a fiercely independent person. He even learned to load the dishwasher such that it doesn’t require reloading! He’s been pretty sweet. And he never complains or says anything that might make me feel bad for leaving him—though I feel bad anyway. In fact, he often comments on how lucky he is. I think I’m the lucky one.

But I have no idea what to do about his future without me. How do I comfort him now for when I won’t be here? How can I know what he might need? Reading Joan Didion’s book and watching that movie are part of my way of trying to learn what he might need in a time of mourning or in the years to follow. Of course, neither book nor movie will tell me. For one thing, Didion’s book documents a pathological grief, not the healthier mourning I expect Roy to experience after these months of preparation. And the movie is really just about two older people who don’t want to be alone anymore. I’ll have to keep looking for sources of insight.

From my own years of experience after the loss of a spouse (mine was to alcoholism), the pain of loneliness has no cure other than what one is lonely for. I suffered through years of acute loneliness despite having friends and family and my children. My longing was for an intimate partner, for something those other relationships couldn’t give me. Of course, social time and work and fun all helped to divert me from that pain at times. But nothing could cure it. (Unfortunately, I ended up entering another unsuitable marriage in an attempt to end those years of suffering.)

Roy and Susan on train to TO.JPG

Roy and Susan on the train to Toronto a few weeks ago.

So what can I do for Roy? I recall reading not so long ago about a woman who, from her deathbed, sent out a plea for a new wife for her soon-to-be widowed husband. I have joked with Roy that I could help him create a new OK Cupid profile. (That’s how we met!) Or tinder. But realistically, as much as I’d like to, I can’t help him with this one. Without bitterness or self-pity, he says he imagines going on alone—but I don’t want him to be lonely. Neither of us have any idea when or if he’ll want a new relationship. Nor do we have any idea what woman would be right for him. He sweetly says that nobody could compare to me. But I say he’d probably end up with someone completely different from me—so there wouldn’t be any point in comparison. He says maybe he’ll get a dog. (Roy is not a dog person.) So we joke about what kind of dog would best replace me. We agree a border collie mix.

The only worthwhile thing I can do –aside from taking him shopping for some decent clothes– is follow my friend Lucie’s advice myself. I can make the most of this time together. I can do my part in making our relationship the healthiest, most loving possible, so Roy has a good model to work from for next time. Most importantly, I can love him all I can so he is left feeling full of love—enough to last him a good long time, until he is ready for someone else and s/he (you never know) for him. I definitely don’t want to leave him depleted and burnt out. I need to pour love like water from a big jug, over and into him until he is fully saturated like a sponge, overflowing.

So far, that’s all I’ve figured out. And once again, I see it’s the same conclusion as in so many of these posts. It keeps coming down to love. And more love.

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On Flowers

My sweet peas

The best part about being ill is the flowers. I received so many flowers from well-wishers after my surgery last winter and then for months afterwards, until the spring offered its own bounty outside the window. The flowers truly brightened my days, especially in the bleak hospital. I spent the hours I was alone there in the early morning gazing at their delicate forms, the tender pink and purple and brilliant yellow, the varying greens of the leaves. They brought me sweet joy in the midst of grief.

And then I spent much of the past summer, like every summer, enjoying the flowers outside. I have been especially blessed by the fragrant lilies in my tiny city garden: what a delight it was to discover them when I bought this house last year—I have counted about twenty-five gorgeous varieties, thanks to Joan, the previous owner and an amateur lily specialist. Now that it is autumn and flowers are scarce, I cherish the intricate seed heads the flowers have left behind on their stalks. They are stunning little miracles, each a beautiful design with its own ingenious seed-dispersion mechanism.

giant lily

One of Joan’s huge, fragrant lily.

I deeply love flowers. I love them not just for their beauty, but also for what they have taught me about life. Flowers, so ephemeral, have long been a core image to my understanding of life and death. I study not only their budding and blooming, but their wilting and withering too. Their lives are so brief.

For many years I have had the great privilege of living in an old farmhouse at the edge of a small town in the country. (I raised my children there, but since Nathan started circus and I took a job in the city, I have kept it as my country home—a precious extravagance.) This place is my nature sanctuary. When I bought it in the last year of the last century, the grounds had been planted partly as a mourning garden, partly as a bird garden, by the previous owner, a woman named Claire whose son had died in a motorcycle accident. (My only published short story, Claire’s House, is about her and the haunted house and her garden of grief) She put in perennial beds, fussy ornamentals, weeping trees to weep under, and many fruiting shrubs and seeding trees like sumac to attract birds. The giant willow that fills the front yard and the row of elderly maples along the road date back to the house’s earliest days as a homestead when the rest of the land was laboriously wrestled from the forest for the planting of field crops. The woods are still trying to take that land back, creeping past the fence in the dark.

So lots of the flowers I get to enjoy are Claire’s, now long dead herself from cancer. She favoured rose bushes and peonies, irises, phlox, and especially lilacs. I love the lilacs too; they are first of the spring’s heady parade of perfumes, followed by the girlish honeysuckle, tiny lilies of the valley, heavy-headed peonies. Last are the intensely sweet mock orange by the front porch, where I spent many of the early summer days this year recovering from chemo treatments. In July and August I am especially grateful for the bee balm that the hummingbirds fight over so furiously. The pretty pink tea roses that line the drive bloom from June to November if I tend to them, though this year they have been ravaged by the also beautiful rose beetle. Last summer it was the rose chafers, and before that it was the rose borer. Not to mention invasive raspberries. And even before that it was Claire herself who boldly came to dig up shoots. A year after I’d moved in, I found her driving the spade into the ground with her red suede boot. She was not one to ask for permission, nor to apologise. Her grief was all over this garden, so she felt entitled to it. And who was I with my two living little boys to complain?

Susan tiny

Garden gnome (me) and some of the phlox that Claire planted in the now overgrown garden. The mown lawn here is actually the overgrown driveway, which used to be gravel. And peeking out from under a blanket of grapevines is the overgrown shed that Claire stole from the barnyard.

Since acquiring the house, I have been purposefully re-wilding the acre or two left to it when the farmland along the road was sold off and sub-divided into housing lots for small bungalows. (Fortunately the fields in back with the old barn were not divided and remain a meadow, backed by woods.) I should be honest and admit that some of the re-wilding has been negligence: for years I was overwhelmed by single-parenting and going back to school and then getting an apartment in the city for work and not being able to get back to the house on weekends while my son was a teen and in trouble. Nature, like teenagers, can be very quick about taking advantage of a turned back, and the sumacs snuck in fast. I have been sad to see some of the more delicate perennials disappear under hardier, spreading plants that need a firmer gardener’s hand. But there have been gifts too.

yellow flower and insect

This and most photos in this post by Roy, who loves yellow flowers. My flower photos are currently lost.

The wildflowers I love even more than the planted perennials. I adore the violets and forget-me-knots of spring, the tall and elegant Queen Anne’s Lace, the daisies and black-eyed Susans reminiscent of my childhood summers. There are countless other flowers blooming in my unweeded lawn and the unmown lower meadow. I don’t know all their names—they have been lost now in our grass-obsessed suburban culture. How wonderful this world would be if we cared enough for these wildflowers to recognise and name them all, even the tiniest! And to give them space to grow and feed the pollinating bees and butterflies! Instead we mow everything down to a deathly monoculture of dull, dull grass.

tall flowers

Overgrowing the patio.

But here, I am spoiled with flowers.

So what is the lesson they have taught me? Flowers blessed with perfect conditions –just the right amount of sun and rain, just the right type of soil, the right temperatures during day and night, thanks to where they are planted or where their seeds were sown– will put out an abundance of perfect blooms. Sometimes they flourish unmolested. Sometimes they are attacked by pests and become imperfect. Sometimes they disappear overnight, grazed upon by hungry groundhogs or deer. And sometimes, even with the right conditions, some of the blooms are nevertheless misshapen or stunted or never open. Other flowers struggle against all sorts of challenges just because of where they are rooted: too much sun or not enough, flooding rain or drought, competing plants and weeds, poor soil, trampling feet, lawn mowers. I’ve seen some flowers, determined to grow in the lawn, shortening their stems after repeated mowings so the flowers can duck their heads below the mower’s blades. In the long meadow, some will grow taller, struggling to reach high enough for precious sunlight and passing pollinators.

sunny surprise tulips

Some tulips celebrating the spring sunshine!

Each flower also has its own life expectancy. Some bloom only for one glorious day, others for several days, or, like orchids, even weeks. I’ve watched tulips hold their buds tight for weeks during a slow cold spring, waiting for steady sunshine before spreading their petals wide. Each flower, if left uncut to its life cycle, strives only to complete its reproductive mission. Once its pretty fragrance and colour and form have attracted its pollinators, the petals wither and drop while the secret work of gestation takes place with the seed head and fruit forming at the flower’s centre. Each then has its own fascinating strategy for spreading its seeds to hopefully fertile soil. And then it is done.

magnolia print

I have watched the life cycles of so many different flowers in my garden over the years. Sometimes it has been my careless step that has crushed the fragile petals. Sometimes it has been my scissors that have cut the stem, fating the flower to a decorative, infertile life in a vase. Sometimes I’ve tried to be a good gardener and pulled the flowering weeds—often just as pretty to my eye as their cultivated cousins. Still, I am distraught when the roadside flowers are mown down in the country. These days I can hardly bring myself to cut or pull anything; they all seem so precious.

Flowers have reinforced the lesson that life isn’t and never promised to be fair. For some it’s easy, for others it’s not. For some it brings abundance while others struggle with scarcity. Circumstances can change without warning. The easy life can suddenly be beset by hardship; adversity can be happily resolved. And while some live long, for others life is brief, but perhaps still glorious. It is all equally ordinary, equally marvelous. And always changeable.

I’m sad that the season for garden flowers is over now. I don’t want to go back indoors. And I’m ambivalent about going back to store-bought flowers, which are somehow never quite as wonderful as the wild ones, pretty though they are. But if I live past January, I know I will start to yearn for those delicate blooms and have to give in, perhaps with my favourite, a humble pot of crocuses.

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On a Variation of Love

My son Nathan is away overseas on a touring contract. Right now he’s performing on a cruise-style ferry crossing between Stockholm and Helsinki every night. He was dating when he left, but he knew a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work, despite some strong feelings. At twenty though, he is capable of falling in love on short order. So it wasn’t long before he was dating a sweet young Finnish woman. Though this relationship was bound to end with this part of the tour, last week he informed me that it was already over. As we talked about it, he said he was coming to terms with the fact that it would be next to impossible for him to have a real relationship for the foreseeable future, since he is likely to be touring until he retires from performance.

This doesn’t really suit him; he was a boy who preferred the stability of a long-term girlfriend, and had always been strongly attached and faithful to those he had. However, since he is but twenty and affectionate and fun-loving, already he is telling me about his lively and varied dating life with other women crossing the Baltic. I wonder how to respond to this as a mother. I don’t want him to have a string of meaningless one or two-night stands, especially with risks of STDs and impregnation. I also don’t want him to be lonely, nor repeatedly heartbroken by short-lived romances.


His brother and I had been talking about how Nathan has the opportunity to meet so many different people, from so many different countries, in his touring lifestyle, and how interesting this could be. We noted how much he could learn about life if he listened to other peoples’ stories. For instance, Nathan told me about a cheerful new friend on the boat who shared the hours-long story of his harrowing journey from Syria to Sweden, leading Nathan (who refuses to follow the news) to reflect on the state of the world as well as on the human resilience. Certainly our relationships do not have to be extended to be meaningful or to teach us something worthwhile.

Not that I recommend them, but even brief sexual encounters can be meaningful. Just because we will not see a particular person again does not mean we cannot fully respect them. We can honour the intimate gift they are willing to share with us –a gift that, beyond pleasure, might include attention, comfort, acceptance– and give back. Though it is crucial to have appropriate expectations, it is possible also to bring love to such encounters.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in life is that I can bring love to all my relationships no matter what their nature. It is my spiritual practice to try to do this — though what I usually get is a spiritual lesson in humility when I so often forget or fail! Even a stranger passing by on the street can be given love with a simple smile (see my post on smiles for more on this!). In my last years as a teacher, I tried to teach from a place of love and met each new class with my heart full. This is a love charged with empathy for our shared humanity — all our suffering and hopes. That sort of love can be a part of one-night stand too.

So this is what I want my son to know and remember when I’m no longer here to talk these things through with him. Along with my usual exhortation to use condoms!, I want him to bring love to every encounter, whether he has fallen in love or not. Then these relationships, regardless of their duration, won’t leave his heart empty. Rather, they can be a source of joyful sharing, connection, tenderness. They may even be opportunities for learning and growth. I know he wants and I certainly hope he ultimately has a healthy, long-term relationship. But in the meantime, I hope this period of his life is not just fun and adventurous but meaningful. I hope he learns to bring love to every moment he shares with another, whether stranger, friend, or lover. I hope we all learn this.

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Ask Me Anything Invitation

question mark

It’s your turn! I’ve posted all my and Oliver’s answers to the college class’s questions about dying, so now I invite you to ask your own questions if there’s anything at all you’re curious about. You don’t have to worry about propriety or anything else: I won’t be offended. You can ask in a comment here or on the blog, or in a private message through facebook if you’re shy. I’ll keep the questions anonymous.

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Ask Me Anything Repost: Oliver’s Answers

Here are Oliver’s answers to the questions a class of college students in a course called Death and Dying had for him about his mom being near death. I was so proud of his courage, generosity, and thoughtfulness in writing this.
Oliver's birthday Staynor
What were your initial thoughts when you found out?
I thought about the kind of life she had lived up until that point – a life of striving to be kind, to be at one with nature, to be good to her body. It felt like a particularly shitty kind of irony that she would get such a ruthless disease.
Then I thought about all of the things that she would miss – my graduation, becoming a grandmother, mine and my brother’s creative, intellectual, and career accomplishments, guiding us through all of the stages of adulthood, being cared for and surrounded by love and family and nature in her old age. It was the single greatest moment of loss that I have ever felt, and I expect that they are the things that will make me miss her most.
I thought about all of the things that I wanted to do as soon as she was out of the hospital, all of the things that felt most important.
There was a lot of crying all around, and laughter, too.
How long did it take you to accept it?
This one might sound a bit weird and is where the story probably starts to diverge from what people are used to when they think/hear about dying people and their loved ones.
I think that once I had wrapped my head around her medical situation, acceptance seemed like the only path, so that’s the path that I walked. It’s hard to say whether that took minutes or hours, the order of things can get a bit scrambled.
Accepting it didn’t mean that I was done feeling sad, that I didn’t need to be close to her and my brother and the rest of our family, that I wasn’t still shaken by all of it. Accepting it simply meant accepting that there was no way she was going to live much longer, whether that meant weeks or months (at the time it felt like it might really just be weeks). I think that this was an important step because it informed my thoughts and my behavior from that point on – I wasn’t going to live in denial, or with some foolish optimism that things would just be ok. My mom was dying and I was going to make sure we got the most out of the time we had left.
How has your life changed?
I could answer this in two ways.

On the surface, my life isn’t terribly different, at least not yet. I finished my semester at school, I worked all summer, and I’m about to be back in school again for the fall. I see my mom and her family more than I used to, up from maybe once a week to two or three times a week, and sometimes for a day or two at a time instead of a couple of hours.

On a more philosophical level, I’ve had just about the most in-your-face reminder that a person can get that there are no guarantees in life. We all know that we could fall terminally ill or be mortally injured at any time, but it’s not useful to live in fear of that, so it seems like most of us don’t think about it too much, preferring instead to live life with the assumption that it will be long and fulfilling.

I don’t live in fear of death, but I do live with a renewed respect for it, or at least I’m trying. What does that mean, practically? It means that I try to be more deliberate in my decision making, especially when it comes to deciding how I’ll be spending my time. Whether it’s dinner plans or a year-long job contract, I try to give the decision the time it deserves so that I can make sure that my choice is one that will lead to fulfillment and enrichment. Knowing in my heart that I’m doing things that matter to me, right now, allows me to be comfortable with the knowledge that death may not be far off.
How did this change your relationship with your mom?

We’ve always had a strong mother-son relationship. In the years since I moved out (a little over 5 years ago), she’s also become one of my closest friends, so I don’t know if I can say that it’s made us any more or less close.

I obviously feel an urgency to spend time with her and our family, to have as many of the important conversations that we hadn’t already had, to revisit some of the things that have stood out as positive moments in our lives together. That reflection has probably given me the opportunity to feel some more pointed gratitude towards the many amazing things that she’s done for me in the years since my birth, or my conception, even.

bus - color corrected

Oliver and Susan last June in a San Francisco streetcar.

Do you have any regrets about your relationship with your mother?

Absolutely, though it’s hard to think of many specifics.We’ve had almost 25 years together and as much as people tell me how wonderful I was as a kid and how painless I was as a teenager, I know that I was far from perfect. Quietly stealing away from the house with my little brother when we were very young. Driving her to frustration and nagging by putting off chores or other responsibilities (she hated nagging/yelling – who wouldn’t?). Moments of blind anger or frustration as a teen. Some lapses of judgment that ended up bringing her (and my father) true parental distress.

I know I’ve probably expressed regret/apologized for all of those numerous times, but just for good measure – I’m sorry, mom.
How has all of this changed how you think about life and death?
To my mother’s dismay at the time, death was something that preoccupied me for what feels like the better part of my childhood (that kind of remembering can be deceptive, but I trust it here, I think). That preoccupation took a back seat to more pressing concerns as I started to grow into prepubescence, but I don’t think the reality of death was ever far away and remained a source of angst and distress if it lingered too long. Death (my own or a loved one’s) was probably my greatest fear. Now? As trying as this has been and continues to be for me and for all of us, the rest of my life hasn’t fallen apart. I think that for the first time, death, whether it be my own or someone else’s, feels like something that I can handle.
What’s your advice for other young people going through something like this?
Try and be honest with yourself, and with the people around you, if you can. Be honest about what you fear, your grief, your confusion, your happiness. Whatever it is you’re going through on the inside, this is the last chance you’ll have to share that with whoever it is you’re losing, and the last chance you’ll have to hear what they’re going through, too.
How do you cope with day-to-day struggles?
In pretty much the same way I always have. I think that I may be reading more books, watching more Netflix, and playing more games. Maybe that’s a bit of escapism? Processing all of this can be exhausting. I think it’s ok to need a bit of time where you can focus on other things, especially in a non-work capacity.
Is it hard to see your mother in pain?
Of course. This is the person who raised me and cared for me whenever I was sick or hurt. It’s hard not to feel frustrated that I can’t do much for hers, but I’m lucky in that, for the most part, her medications keep her comfortable.
What was your initial reaction to “the death project”?

She had hit such a stride professionally in recent years, it was nice to know that she had found an outlet for her creativity and insight, for all of the brilliant thinking she’d been taking the time to do about life and death.It’s also been nice because I haven’t had to explain to everyone what her situation is, or how we’re all dealing with it. I think that her being so open makes it easier for people to know where we’re at and how to interact with us, which is great because I’ve heard a lot of stories now about people feeling deserted in times of tragedy because people aren’t sure what to say. That would be hard. 

How do you think it has changed this process for yourself and those around you?

I think that it helps to have it all out there. It doesn’t leave much room for denial or false hope, and it’s a comfort knowing that anyone who’s heard about her condition has probably read some or all of the blog.

See my answer to the previous question for more on this.
Are there challenges that you face now that you didn’t before?
I don’t think so. Not outside of the obvious emotional ones, at least.
What are your beliefs about what happens to us when we die?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my mom about this, so I could write a lot here. I’ll try to keep it reasonable.
I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife, religious or otherwise. I don’t believe that our consciousness can survive outside of our brains, and I know that our brains don’t do much without oxygen and electricity and all the rest. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t believe in a “soul” in the traditional sense.

My understanding of those things is that they are necessary for a lot of us because without them, it’s very hard to answer questions like “why am I here?”, “why does anything matter?”, “where did I come from?” – the real existential kickers.

I’ve come to my own conclusions here, and they essentially come down to embracing as fully as possible the reality that the moment our consciousness begins is the product of all that happened in the universe up until that point and that over the course of our lifetimes, every day, every second, every moment, we are doing things that are affecting the course that the universe will take, however slightly. In that way what we do in this life lives on long after our conscious time has come to an end and the molecules in our bodies have drifted far apart.

What are your expectations for when she eventually dies?
All I really expect for certain is that it will be unexpected. It will be my first and only time losing a mother, though, so I can make a pretty safe guess and say that it will bring a lot of feelings, that it may be difficult to focus on anything else for a time, and that I and so many others will have lost something that can never be replaced.
How have you prepared yourself for that eventuality?
By doing my best to ensure that I don’t give myself anything to regret in the meantime. What that means exactly is probably best explained by some of the other answers here.
Can we really be prepared for something like that? 
I don’t think so.
How do you imagine you will relate to her once she’s dead? 

I won’t be relating to her, unfortunately. That’s hard to think about.

I will, however, be relating to all of the love that she has given me, all of the wisdom I’ve tried to learn from her, all of the memories I will have of her, to the people and places and things that will always remind me of her.

What is the last thing you would like to do with your mom before she dies?
Be close to her.
Other thoughts and feelings?
I love you, mom.
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Ask Me Anything #10: Staying Positive

This is the last question from the college class, and it’s an important one.

How do you stay positive? Don’t you ever think this is unfair, or ask why me?

I do believe that our attitudes are, to a considerable degree, a choice. I could certainly wallow in self-pity, but that wouldn’t be a very wise use of my remaining time. I’d much rather enjoy every moment I can! I have never thought this was unfair because I already knew that life is not fair. Funny that we never complain of unfairness when it goes the other way! I lived with enormous gratitude before I got sick because I knew I had more than my fair share of blessings in life. So when I got sick, it simply felt like random bad luck. And I still feel grateful for all the other gifts.

There is a lot of sadness in dying. I’ve done lots of crying, though the tears don’t actually last very long. Really, less than a minute a day, on average. (The rest of my time is pretty cheerful!) Those moments of grief or sadness come when I think of having to give up all I love in life, which is a lot, because I love so much of this wonderful world. This is indeed very hard. But I’ve realised I can turn this around, and instead of thinking of giving up all I cherish, I can think of giving it away, or simply giving.

All of life, but the end of life especially, is an opportunity to give, pass on, or share all that we hold dear. This can be material things, like our favourite clothes or collections, a car or money. It can also be our intellectual or creative accomplishments, such as our ideas or research, the songs we recorded or our poems or drawings, a recipe, or the code we wrote or websites we created, maybe even our comments on social media. I had a friend who died recently, and the mission statement she had developed over many years of caring for children was one of her special gifts.

But even more importantly, it can also be our interpersonal gifts, such as our love, enthusiasm, kindness, gratitude, laughter, listening, encouragement, and compassion. These are all the things we can continue to give to others as long as we are able, and that act of giving is an enormous consolation in the face of death. It is the near-magical transformation of loss into gifts. So instead of grief at giving up so much, we have joy in giving these gifts.

That also means that instead of being focused on ourselves and our suffering and loss, we focus on others and engage in an act of generosity. Not only is this a cure for grief, it is also, if practiced throughout life, a way to avoid regret at the end.

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Ask Me Anything #9: Fear

(This “ask me anything” answer is in response to a class of young college students’ questions.)

What are you most afraid of in dying?

This question came up a lot and in many different ways, and it’s been the hardest one for me to answer. I’m actually not afraid of death or dying. I wasn’t even sure what I’m supposed to be afraid of or why until a friend shared this poem, Aubade by Philip Larkin, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in on the fear of death. I said that I think what most people are actually experiencing is not so much a fear as a dread of death, which to me is different. I can understand dreading death, though I don’t. If you’re suffering from that dread, I want you to know that it is very much possible to overcome it and make peace with death, and I encourage you to start now. Your life will be better for it!

I have found comfort in thinking that so many have gone before me. I always want to add, And they survived! when I say that. Of course they didn’t survive, but I somehow can’t imagine that they aren’t all okay. Everyone of them passed through that gateway at the end of life successfully. I don’t believe there’s a chorus of howling, suffering souls on the other side. So if everyone before me –and that’s a lot of people when you think how many have lived and died on this planet since the beginning, how many are dying even just today– has managed to face death, I’m sure I can be brave enough to do so too. It’s important to note that many, if not most people do reach a state of peace before death.

I also think about how we have all been there before: before our birth and the development of our consciousness, we were in that state, and it was okay then. Some people believe in reincarnation, the continuous transmission of the soul from one body to another. I don’t feel particularly drawn to that idea, nor do I desire to be reborn and start over, or where I left off. But I know there was a time before me, and I am not aware of anything worthy of fear in that non-experience.

In trying to understand this question, I thought that possibly much of the common fear of death comes from religious teachings about a horrific hell. I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe anything bad will happen after death — even to those who might deserve it!

I think it’s possible the fear of death comes simply from not stopping to look it hard in the face. Perhaps being afraid of death is a bit like being afraid of the dark. Once we turn on the light or look under the bed, we see there is nothing there to fear. So I invite you to sit for a moment with death. Make friends with it. It has a lot to teach us about how to live.

Of course, many people are afraid of pain, and dying –the pre-death part– can entail some physical suffering. But there are now very good medications that can help with pain and other discomforts, so it shouldn’t be that terrible. (See my post on pain and palliative care for more on this.)

The harder part for most of us is emotional pain. Dying means letting go of everything we love in life. (In other posts, including tomorrow’s post on staying positive, I discuss sadness and grief.) Dying also means being confronted with everything we might have been trying to avoid, including relationship issues, unrealised goals, and all sorts of regrets.

Perhaps people fear being tormented by regret when they have run out of time. As young people, you are in the perfect position to avoid this one. You can make choices now that will allow you to live a full and meaningful life. Studies show that it is meaning, not pleasure or status-oriented accomplishments, that lead to life satisfaction. (This article summarizes some findings on this: Meaning versus Happiness.) See my earlier post on regrets, which has been revised and expanded.

So what are we so afraid of? I think possibly we’re not afraid of death: we just don’t want to leave life.

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