I received some rather distressing news yesterday – a dear friend lost her mother to pancreatic cancer. Because I viewed my friend like the sister I never had (being an only child and all…), her mother was someone I cared deeply about – she was like a second mother to me. Always made the time to text me for my birthday, ask me how I was doing, and welcome me into her home when I visited. So hearing the news of her passing hit me particularly hard. Not just for what I lost, but what my friend lost.
It wasn’t entirely surprising, we all knew of her diagnosis and by the time they caught it – there wasn’t much the doctors could do other than make her comfortable and for family and friends to begin to prepare themselves for the inevitable. But there was always that hope. That 30% chance she would come out of it okay and that is what we all clung to in the end. Maybe she would beat those odds, it would go into remission, and live until she was 100.
Unfortunately medicine hasn’t come quite far enough to cure cancer – though it is certainly making strides in taking illnesses that were once certain death sentences into something that can be manageable, and in many cases, life-prolonging. Just the other day, there was the announcement out of Atlanta that they cured a child of HIV. Cancer can be managed and possibly sent into remission depending on when they catch it.
It will be nice, however, when we reach a point where we can turn any and all diagnoses (no matter when they are caught) into a cure. But until then, we must cope with the loss of loved ones to these illnesses. This can create a lot of anger, resentment, and frustration towards what we cannot control. Death is certain, but keeping those we love with us for as long as possible is something we all want to do.
Examining death and learning from this transition should be a healthy exercise. Too many of us are willing to stuff down emotions in order to be strong, not showing the “weakness” that comes with breaking down and crying. I must admit, I did that all day yesterday – tried so hard not to show how much pain I felt. To be strong. I know that this wasn’t healthy or helpful. I need to deal with my emotions and feelings on the matter so when I go to the funeral to be with my friend, I can actually be strong and help her through this trying time.
What is death? Once we learn about it as a child, we generally come to fear it. It is when our bodies cease to exist, when we lose all that makes us, us and we become nothing more than dust or ash. People romanticize it in books, movies, poems; some people desire it; some people work hard to stave off the inevitable no matter the cost. It scares us because we don’t know what it is. We don’t know what happens afterwards. Will we be remembered here? Will anything we do matter? What will we miss?
Perhaps not everyone has these questions. I know I do.
Through my yoga training and reading, I am coming to some realizations about life, and by extension, death. No matter what you believe, we are here in this consciousness, once. Whether you go to heaven, hell, purgatory, reborn, cease to exist completely – we are here as ourselves, once. So what we do matters. How we approach life and the transition into death matters. We don’t know what our actions do to affect others.
One of the books I am reading for the Yoga Teacher Training is The 11 Karmic Spaces by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, explains how throughout our lifetimes (or even just this one) we fall into these places where we repeat negative actions and expect to get different results from our behavior. We don’t realize how far reaching the consequences of the simple actions/behaviors affect the world around us.
When we cut someone off in traffic and flip them off – they may take that behavior and internalize it. Then they go into their day to take it out on their 3rd grade class where it creates an indelible memory for some of the students – adding to a belief that there is something wrong with them and that they are worthless. These students will struggle with self-esteem issues for the rest of their life. All from a simple behavior that compounded and carries through.
Think of it like the butterfly effect (just forget the awful 2004 movie).
Obviously this is a hyperbole – but think back on some of your more negative formative memories and ask yourself – could this all been because of something someone else did and I just happened to get the brunt of someone’s bad mood (multiple times)?
I know that that was the case for me. I had a 3rd grade teacher who made it her mission to “fix” me. And by “fix me” I mean verbal abuse me because I wasn’t good enough, pulling me out of class for petty things, and threatening to send me to the principal’s office for trying to be helpful. At that age, you don’t understand why you’re getting yelled at for minor things (such as helping people staple papers). Particularly if you respect authority figures. Yet it made a lasting impression on me: I have spent the past 20 years wondering what’s wrong with me to make her and other adult figures “mad” at me.
I had to realize that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything to them – they were just frustrated because they had a fight, spilled coffee on their shirt that morning, got some bad news – or someone else in their past affected them negatively in a similar way. I have/had to learn to forgive them even if they didn’t ask for it – or ultimately – deserve it. It’s hard and an everyday battle.
How does this relate back to death? I am learning to be more aware of my actions and become more forgiving towards others. I don’t want to have the opportunity to look back on my life, either from my death bed or someplace else and see that had I behaved differently – the thousands of lives I either knowingly or unknowingly affected were for the worse because I had a moment of weakness. Call me Ebeneezer Scrooge if you’d like, because Dickens had it right.
To sound cliche: the death of a loved one shines a light on our own mortality. We aren’t going to be here forever – so we need to make the most of it. Mourning the loss of a loved one is understandable. We will no longer be able to physically share with them our hopes, dreams, fears, what we love, what we hate, make new memories with them. But depending on your faith, they are there waiting for you in the afterlife, they are being reborn elsewhere – bringing joy to another family, or maybe there is comfort in the fact that they lived a good life and it’s done and over with.
It’s a similar belief to the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment: leave no footprint. While it’s impossible to not leave a footprint of some sort – at least try to make your negative impact minimal and maximize your positive impact.
I think it is important to remember that while the person is gone and elsewhere, that there is nothing wrong with death or the separation. They have begun the next part of their journey and that we should work to honor their memory by keeping them alive through our thoughts and actions. If they were a gentle soul, work towards learning the lessons that lead them to be like that. If they donated time and money towards charity, perhaps get involved in something in their memory. Keep talking about the good times with them to friends and family – keep their stories and love alive.
Understand that the separation, in the grand scheme of things, is temporary – even if you have another 50+ years to live. Each day gets better than the last. It will still be extremely painful to be without them at times – but you will reach a point where it no longer hurts to breath, where the tears don’t come unbidden, and where you can start to appreciate the beauty around you. But more importantly: remember that it’s okay if it takes weeks, months, years, to reach this point. Ignore what others say about moving on quickly – you have to move on in your own time. And your own time will always be different from others.
And that’s okay. You’re human and you’re in pain. We need to slow down and take it easy on ourselves – removing the pressure.
In accordance with my friend’s wishes, she wanted people to donate to Pancan.org in her mother’s name, Ann Pardoe, to help further research and prevent other loved ones from being prematurely separated from loved ones.