Dealing with Death - Embracing the Final Rite of Passage

This blog began as a place to share victories over tough life circumstances, but I didn’t have death in mind as a teacher. It’s the one thing we don’t want to touch as a culture, and so when it comes we are all unprepared. This final rite of passage is inevitable, but we spend our entire lives acting like it isn’t. We build, amass, and work like we don’t already know we can’t take any of it with us. I’m raging at death as my parents begin to stumble closer to Parkinson’s and age. I watch nervously as their friends begin to come forward one by one with cancer or heart disease or some other painful teacher. I am stunned into silence when a parent in my community loses a child or a spouse much too young. Cheryl Conlee has looked death in the face more times than she can count this year, and she’s learned a few things. Here is her story:

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Today, my sister has been absent from my life for a year.  I still hear the phone ringing in my head.  I remember sitting with her at the funeral home, holding her hand, as if I could reach out and touch her now. I have pages and pages of anger, rage, sorrow, and despair in my journals, but I haven’t written anything publicly since my sister died.  Something told me to get this one out there. I know it’s uncomfortable. I know it’s the thing we want to avoid. But understanding and accepting the life cycle is the epitome of mindfulness. And mindfulness, to me, seems to be the way through grief. It teaches us that we are okay in THIS moment. And that our loved ones are too.

My year began with loss on September 23, 2017.  That is the day the earth lost a great man and I lost a mentor. Then, the losses kept coming. Seventeen days later, my sister passed away unexpectedly, alone, presumably “healthy”, leaving behind a new wife and a 10-week-old baby.  In April of this year, a good friend’s mother, who I adored, passed away after a very short battle with cancer. Shortly after that, one of my mother’s friends, passed away after a short illness. The day I was leaving to go to my wife’s home for a memorial service for one of her childhood friends, I got a call at 6:30 am, that a 48-year-old coworker of mine was found dead by her husband, leaving behind her husband, a step-daughter and nine year-old twin boys.  She was an absolutely charming person to be around. Forty eight! Let that sink in a moment. Think about yourself at 48. Or your parents, if you’re not there yet.

Most recently, a man I cherished, someone I would also call a mentor, someone that had a grandfatherly role in my life, passed away after a short battle with cancer.  He was 87-years-old, and to be honest, he was more at peace with his passing than any of us. Regardless, he is gone, leaving a huge hole in many lives. I’ve been to more wakes, visitations, memorial services and funerals in the last year than I even care to think about.  The wife of my last friend to pass said that she liked to think of her husband’s passing as him “completing his life cycle”. That comment helped me at the wake. But then I got to thinking, as I always do. I can accept that phrase for an 87-year-old man, but I have a hard time processing it for a 48-year-old woman, a 22-year-old athlete, or a high school football player.

My mother is 83 -ears-old.  One day she will complete her life cycle.  But my sister? No! There is no way I will ever believe she was “done”.  She was not ready. She was not finished. She had so much more to give the world, as did my coworker!  These are tragedies!

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When we hear of someone dying unexpectedly in an accident, we feel sad.  We feel for their families and friends. But we still have a type of “distance” with their deaths.  But when we hear of someone dying unexpectedly of “natural causes”, it shakes us to the core. We could have avoided or prevented the accident that took our friend’s life.  We would have been smarter. We would have been more careful. But when a body fails……well….that could just have easily been us! We want to know what happened. We want to know the cause, the symptoms, anything, everything!  We need to KNOW the bottom line!

But we can’t.  Not for certain.  Though that confounds the human mind, we will probably never know….not for sure.  Everybody is different. Every BODY is different. External factors will not affect two people the exact same way.  We can all nourish our bodies. We can eat healthy foods. Manage stress. Exercise. Do yoga. Meditate. Pray. But in the end, we will all still complete our life cycle.

People talk about “the mystery of life”.  Typically, they are referring to birth, creation, Genesis, the Big Bang, evolution.  But the biggest mystery for me, I think, is the end. I think it was my dad’s, too. I was raised to always “pay my respects” when someone died.  Attend funerals, send flowers or a card. It was instilled in me as a child. My sister and I used to ponder my dad’s morbid curiosity with funerals, cemeteries, and death.  So, I guess that’s why I have more curiosity about the end. Not necessarily the idea of not knowing what is on the other side, but more the how and the when. Will I be ready?  Or rather will I be prepared? Will I have my affairs in order? Will I have done all the things I wanted to do? Will my 13 year old house remodeling actually be complete???? Probably not….

I used to say that with all my heart problems, I would probably get hit by a bus.  I’m still a VERY cautious pedestrian in traffic. The point is….we don’t know…. We don’t know the how, the when… or the why.  And I’m not trying to act like I’ve got it all figured out or that I’m at eternal peace with any of the deaths I’ve been grieving through this year. Some days I’m fine.  Some days I’m a mess. It’s different for everyone. There’s no “how to” manual to deal with the loss of a life. That’s why it’s so important to live without regrets.  Apologize when you know you should. Hug people when they (or you) need a hug. Take that trip you’ve been putting off. Look for that more fulfilling job. Spend time with your family and friends!  And dammit, be nice to people! You never know where someone else is in their journey!

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