In dim light and thick air, when heavy emotions wet the atmosphere as life leaves the human body, there is an exquisite holiness equally awesome to the moment when a mother in labor crowns and the head of new life appears. Both moments, death and birth, bulge with Life.
Call me crazy, but I consider it the most blessed share of my work to have been present with so many people at the time of their dying and death. Being present with my own parents of course put this appreciation of the death experience to the test. But even the unique and horrid pain of personal grief has not diminished my sense of death’s blessedness.
I once spent hours in a closed off hospital utility room of a busy urban ER with the family of a suddenly deceased Native American patriarch as they undressed his body, washed it for burial, and redressed it again. Such a sudden death ushers in unique dynamics but also shares common threads with those who walk with their loved ones across days or even weeks of steady decline towards lifelessness. Every death, no matter how it happens, holds a kind of holiness if we are able to open ourselves to it.
What I have observed is this: death brings life into focus with such crystalline clarity that no other experience, not even birth, offers such vast perspective. At death, whether sudden or crawling slowly toward it, we are faced with our own fate and that of all life. No matter how great or small, wealthy or poor, beautiful and strong or mutilated and ugly, death places us all in front of the same mirror.
Standing there, in that moment, we are given an opportunity to wonder about our own lives and what, if anything, we are living for. What is it that we hope others will say about us as they grieve our absence? Although we can never know the full extent of the impact or distance, how far will our own lives ripple out in time, and what unanticipated influence will our lives have on the human ecosystems in which we lived? Death inserts and begs such questions whether or not we dwell on them.
The aftermath of death too, littered in the wake of grief, thins the veil between a strange holiness and us. Grief hits us like a hurricane, all at once, whether we have had time to prepare for a loved ones death or not. After the initial drenching grief comes at us in waves of unequal duration causing us to bob up and down beneath its surface. It lasts longer and wreaks havoc on some more than others. But grief, so far as I know, has only one source of healing: gratitude.
Time may thin the variety of pains associated with grief but its capacity to pull us down beneath its surface is a hazard to those who have not opened themselves to gratitude. Gratitude for life in the presence of death, and gratitude for the gifts and benefits of loving the particular person who has died, coagulates the bleeding of grief and protects the wound so that it can heal even while leaving some scar tissue. Finding a way to bracket grief and declare gratitude in the presence of death begins healing.
Facing our reflection in the mirror of death, and touching gratitude even in the midst of its presence, is a uniquely powerful encounter with Life, and for those who perceive it, the author of Life.