“Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; you just have to live.” ~Natalie Babbitt
I stared at my reflection in the mirror as my face contorted into a painful grimace, tears streaming down my cheeks. My throat constricted to keep the sobbing at bay. My grandmother was dying, and this is how I coped with death: by falling apart.
I was lucky; this is the way death is “supposed” to go. Grammy was 96 and had lived out her old age in comfort.
While I knew I would miss her kisses and the way she generously dished out advice, it would be selfish to insist on keeping her here, as if that were an option. Grammy said that she was ready and that this plane held little thrill for her anymore. The inevitable end was here, and yet I was still a giant mess.
I’d recently been through a wonderful and dizzying period of self-discovery and growth. I’d dug my self-confidence up from the basement and lifted her to the heavens. I had gotten a handle on all my self-sabotaging behaviors, like drinking wine to escape. I even wrote a popular course to help others break bad habits, gain a sense of purpose, and start living big.
I finally felt like my real life had begun, like I knew who I was, and my need for validation from others had finally dropped away.
Yet my present breakdown was glaring evidence that we’re never done growing. We’re always evolving to higher and higher ground. We will never “arrive” and there is no final destination in this life, except for death.
In the coming days as I wrestled with my grief, I was presented with the following three uplifting truths about death.
1. Death is the ultimate deadline.
I’m a True Blood fan, but from watching the show and seeing how vampires handle the understanding that they’ve been granted everlasting mortality, it occurs to me that none of them really accomplish all that much.
Take the case of Eric Northman, who was a Viking when he was turned into a vampire. He’s been roaming the planet for 1,000 years, give or take a few hundred. You’d think that with all that time to dream, plan, and accomplish he could be a motivational speaker, prolific author or artist, or a talk show host with success that rivals Oprah’s. So what is he? He’s a bar owner.
Death provides humans with the ultimate deadline. Behaviors that hasten this deadline, health-destroying habits like sloth and overeating, are a means of living suicide, of acting dead, and distracting us from fully living.
When we’re presented with evidence of our own mortality, so many of us wake up and decide that we’re going to cast aside these old habits, figure out what would make us feel happy and fulfilled, and then go do that.
2. We can’t enjoy life in the absence of darkness.
Imagine the most glorious spring day of your life. You’re walking around outside, enjoying the perfect temperature that supports your physical comfort. The sunshine makes you feel perky and happy, the trees are blooming, and you feel hopeful and alive.
Now what if the only weather you’d ever known was like this spring day? Most of us would immediately say, “Yes, that would be great! That’s the only weather I’d ever need to know.”
There are people who live in climates like this year round and they appreciate it, but the reason they can appreciate it is because they know there are places like London where it rains a lot, or places that are cold and windy and dark for much of the year.
If all we were ever shown was perfection and we never witnessed a contrast to that perfection, we wouldn’t have a frame of reference for knowing how perfect it is.
We can’t enjoy life in the absence of darkness. We need a contrast—of sickness to truly enjoy and appreciate our health, and to endure rainy days to fully appreciate the sunshine. We need to know that death exists in order to truly appreciate life and to fully live it.
3. Grief is fleeting.
As I stood in front of that mirror, my throat feeling closed off as I tried to keep back the sobs, it occurred to me to physically open up into my grief, to relax into it and to receive it into my body rather than continuing to resist it.
I knew that physically resisting my grief was painful in my chest and throat. I became curious to know what it would feel like if I allowed the grief to come to me.
I leaned into it. When I stopped resisting it and I breathed my grief into my lungs and tried to let it fill me, a most curious thing happened: my grief escaped me.
When you let it in, grief comes and goes. When you resist grief, and when you close your body physically to the experience, then grief hovers around you in an attempt to gain entry. When you invite grief in, it will come and set a spell, and then it wanders off while other emotions visit with you.
When you lose a loved one, grief will come back to visit with you, again and again. But if each time grief comes knocking you allow it come in, over time, grief will come back less and less frequently and for shorter and shorter periods of time.
Eventually, when you think of your loved one, rather than thinking of loss, you’ll honor their memory with a smile.
Photo by Hartwig HKD