Letter to a Dear Friend who is Facing the Death of a Loved One

My sweet friend, what a year it’s been for you as someone so close to your heart has been living with cancer. A number of times, you’ve asked me to share insights from my own journey. And I admit, I often haven’t know what to say. There are so many nuances to cancer. And even more nuances to relationships.

Over the months, I’ve found myself considering what practical advice I can pass along. Are there helpful tips on “what to do” or “how to cope” that I learned from being the main caregiver for my life-partner? How can I encourage you, comfort you, or simply empathize?

With your beloved signing up for Hospice the other day, I imagine you both feel the layers of this shift. Regardless of the timing, it seems clear he may leave his body in the near future. I see this as an opening. To me, there’s now permission to say hello to the likelihood of death from a new vantage point. And this is where what I have to share really begins . . .

Willingness to “have” it all

There are so many facets of my experience, and yet when I think of the 12-week time period between Kate’s diagnosis and her death, there is one main understanding we shared that offered us much stability and peace amidst the whirlwind and questions marks: I would now call that “havingness.”

This word is one that our primary spiritual teacher, Michael Tamura, uses often. Before Kate died, I thought we had somehow arrived at acceptance – she might die soon, so we better get used to that quickly. But I also knew it felt different than that. Then months later, I realized it wasn’t our ability to “accept” Kate would die soon that had people curious about how we were handling it all so well. It was our willingness to HAVE it. To allow it and to be with it and to truly know we are okay with “what is,” exactly as it is.

Though I imagine my experience and Kate’s had some similarities, they were obviously quite different as well. So I’m speaking for myself when I say that, first of all, I had to be willing. I gave myself permission to be okay with Kate staying alive in her body, and to be okay with Kate leaving her body. The dichotomy wasn’t her living or dying. It was living with her body, or living without her body. Once I was able to genuinely “have” both of these possibilities – not from a place of “Oh well, what choice do I have? I better accept things and get used to the idea of Kate dying,” but from a place of it all being truly OKAY – then everything shifted.

Holding it all as sacred

The other day I hiked on Mount Shasta, thinking of you and your dear friend. A few words began repeating over and over in my mind as I looked at the pine trees and boulders and melting snow: “Hold It All. Hold It All.” And this quickly expanded to “Hold It All As Sacred.”

Of course, what I mean by “hold” isn’t about grasping or longing or attaching to your experience. It’s about havingness. HAVE it all as sacred. Have what is, just as it is, without needing to or trying to change it. Hold It All As Sacred. Yes, all of it. Hold as sacred the intimacy of silent glances and the laughter at nothing in particular. Hold as sacred the phone calls when he’s in pain, the words you know he doesn’t mean, and the words you know he does. Hold his gratitude when you visit, your helplessness when you want to make his suffering stop. Hold his pleasure in hearing you read that poem. Hold the tumors, the morphine, the impatience, the patience. Hold It All As Sacred. The waves of guilt and the wellspring of forgiveness. The I Love You and the I’m Sorry. Hold every time he’s ever smiled, hold the dreams he fulfilled and those left unfulfilled. Hold It All as the most holy, sacred experience of living.

All resistance disappears

To me, this is the “havingness” that allowed me to truly feel a deep, inexplicable inner peace with the fact that the love of my life would be leaving her body soon. I felt the sacredness of a bigger plan, one that I couldn’t explain in logical human terms, but one that I could “know” beyond words. Does this mean I was unaffected by the fact that one day Kate would no longer be here in the physical? That I’d no longer be able to hug her, look into her eyes, hear her laugh? No. But it did mean that I could embrace her soul’s journey and evolution. I could give her spirit the room it needed to choose life without a body. I could be supportive of her as an eternal soul regardless of the fact that we both preferred her Kate Asch personality would stick around on earth for another few decades.

The depth of havingness for me is that all resistance disappears. I find that when I focus on acceptance, I sometimes “accept” things even when I don’t want to or when I resist them. It’s the place of “Okay, fine, I guess I can (begrudgingly) accept that.” With havingness, I’ve learned to let go of the energy that pushes something away. And believe me, I’m still learning. But the peace I feel when I “have” it all – when I can Hold It All As Sacred – has been life-changing.

In addition to having both the death of the body or the survival of the body, another very essential awareness for Kate and me was being able to have the pain AND have the joy. Again, this began with a willingness and permission to have joy despite physical or emotional pain.

I find that when we or someone we love are in a challenging place, we often don’t let ourselves “have” joy. It might feel as if it dishonors or ignores reality. Or we might wonder what others will think if we are too buoyant when we’re facing hard times. But the truth is, we can allow BOTH joy and suffering at the same time. “Havingness” offers us a way to do this: Am I truly okay with this suffering, as it is, without resisting it? Am I truly okay with this joy, as it is, without resisting it? I would love to share more with you on this because I know you, too, have asked yourself if it’s appropriate to be happy amidst so much suffering in our lives and the world.

Opening space for miracles

Once I could be okay with each end of the continuum, with Kate staying in her body and leaving her body, then I became “neutral” – not neutral meaning that I was apathetic or didn’t care. But neutral meaning that I wasn’t as emotionally charged or assigning “good or bad” to the details, like believing that Kate staying in her body is good, and her leaving it is bad. When she and I could “have” both, it opened up the space for anything to happen because we were no longer holding on to or rallying for a specific outcome. I believe miracles come from THIS place. And a miracle, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean a physical body-level healing. The miracle can be in the body dying, too. Because dying is simply a new form of living.

And so, my friend, I offer you these words with the hope that they will somehow speak to your heart. There is no right or wrong way to experience the physical death of someone you love. For me, the beauty of my own journey began when I become willing – willing to open to the possibility that it all really is okay. More than okay. Divine, in fact. And that while Kate’s non-physical life would continue to be sacred, my physical life would continue to be sacred too. All of it.

With love,

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/Anegada

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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