While my dad was dying, and since he died on Wednesday, I heard some phrases and sentiments repeated, including
- Everything happens for a reason
- He’s in a better place
- He fought a good fight / I’m sorry he lost his battle
- It’s never easy to lose a parent / It’s only going to get worse / You’re going to need a lot of support to get through this
I know these words are truly meant to be comforting and helpful guides and balm. I know they’re sentiments and ideas that really comfort the people who are saying them to me, who have their own deeply felt experiences with dying, death, loss and grief. And for that reason, I welcome them and am grateful for them.
All the same, these ideas aren’t comforting to me.
>> I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, and it seems like such an easy thing to say, a way to give meaning to any act or event and therefore render it non-random, understandable, part of a benevolent plan. I think some things are random, don’t make sense, and are not under the control of a plan. Yet I know that other people firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, and they are sharing that perspective to help me because they care and want to offer an idea that brings solace to them. It’s given as a gift.
>> I don’t know if Dad’s in a better place. I really can’t imagine where he is, if he is anywhere, or what it’s like. My feeling is that he’s OK wherever he is or isn’t, that death isn’t bad — and maybe that’s my own cheap comfort (after all, life is awfully painful, miserable and desperate for many people on earth).
I suppose I get this idea that “death is OK” from witnessing other deaths and endings every day: seasons cycling, this moment ending and the next beginning, one breath ending and another beginning, relationships flaming out or waning out and relationships igniting or flickering, hopes dashed and another vision of reality coming along afterward, etc. I see that endings aren’t catastrophic, and endings can lead to beginnings. But really, I don’t know.
I feel, without certain evidence, that love is elemental, universal, and completely available, and that that’s as true before death as it is after death: love is death-less. So I feel that Dad is loved now as completely as he was always loved. For me, both of these ideas or feelings — that endings are OK and love is all-available — apply as much to beings who are alive as beings who are dead; they don’t give me additional comfort when someone dies. Knowing that people who are alive suffer, fear, hate, and can be entirely miserable leaves the door open for the same to be so in death. But who knows?
>> I don’t see death and dying as a battle or as something to be fought. On the contrary, I see it as something to make friends with. To allow and accept.
I don’t mean that one can’t try to be well through medication and other treatment for illness or injury, through protecting oneself physically from harm, through fitness and healthy eating, etc. Life can be good, and even those for whom it’s not may have the hope that it will be (while there’s life, there’s hope, its said), and feeling well and healthy is lovely.
But life being good doesn’t make death bad. One’s limited emotional, physical and spiritual energy, when one is dying and not able to feel well, could go toward maintaining a sense of well-being and connection, towards a practice of equanimity, towards spirit-feeding actions rather than striking out against a perceived enemy, which seems depleting to me.
In my Dad’s case, he used some treatments (surgery, a few rounds of chemo) but when it was clear he was dying, when he wasn’t healthy enough to do the things he likes to do, he didn’t fight death. He took its hand.
>> So far, losing a parent feels … natural. I’m not sure if that makes it easy, but it makes it not-hard. I do deeply feel, as the poem I posted a while ago began, that everything that can be lost will be lost. My father is one of those things. Sooner or later, I will be one of those things and so will you. That’s life-death.
I can dwell on the loss of the particular — the impatient, active, avidly curious, thinking, faithful person my dad was, his laughter to the point of gasping, his rasping cackle, the way he got ‘tickled’ by things, his way of asking penetrating questions about life and listening to my responses, his availability to travel and visit, his eagerness to hike and go someplace new, his eagerness to try new things generally, his handwriting, his love of surprise, his way with restaurant servers, and so much more — and of course I miss those things about him, the Dadness of Dad.
(The best articulation of this I’ve ever read is John Updike’s poem, Perfection Wasted: “And another regrettable thing about death / is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, / which took a whole life to develop and market”).
Yet, though that brand of Dad magic is gone, somehow it’s an integral, completely grafted part of me now. I carry my dad within me. Not just since his death but for most of my life I’ve been accumulating pieces of him and incorporating (good word — “to form into a body”) him into me. And everyone who knows him has been doing the same thing, not as “imitators and descendants” but as apprehenders and appreciators of my dad. So, oddly, it’s his presence that comforts me still.
So, I am comforted, in a way, not because I think Dad died now for a reason (I don’t — we all die, it’s ordinary, it’s a given once we’re born, it’s what happens), or because I know for sure that he’s in a better place (I have to admit that I don’t), or because he fought valiantly against his mortal foe (I’m thankful that he strived to be well and active until he couldn’t, and then he seemed to seek silence and sleep); I’m comforted because I feel that Dad can access love now, as he always could, and because I can access his love and his particular form of magic in myself, in others, in the world I still live and breath in, for now.
I’m also comforted by friends, family, strangers online, and by the very people who say these ultimately uncomforting things to me, because behind whatever the words are is the generous gesture, the desire to love by giving me what is most comforting and meaningful to them. Thank you.