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Ways of Seeing: Death's presence gives life meaning

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Posted on February 7, 2018 |
By Melissa O'Brien



There is a moment, almost always, when they look out the window.

Inevitably, a pause in the conversation and they turn to the glass and look outside for a moment or two. Or more.

“This is a beautiful world,” my friend in hospice care told me the other day, “and I’m not ready to leave it yet.”

I felt a little guilty that I get to stay.

The gentleman who said those words was in the later stages of a life. Having raised children, built on the family business his father founded and anchored himself firmly in his community as a member of the school board and fire department, he set out to see the world.

“I missed the seventh continent by an hour,” he said with a smile, explaining to me that, just shy of Antarctica, his ship had to turn around in rough seas.

He had lived so many great adventures, close to home and far away; I suspected that everything this gentleman did he did with verve and intention.

“You have lived a life of great meaning and purpose,” I told him, “the kind of life we should all seek to live.”

“I don’t know about that,” he said with the characteristic humility that I had come to know in him.

It is a beautiful world and leaving it can be very hard. Sometimes the folks I see in hospice care are ready to go, they’re tired of living. Tired of dying, actually. Either way, each one bestows upon me a tremendous blessing — a reminder that this life is meant to be lived, fully, wholly — that we are meant to be driven forth by curiosity and to live in service to others, to strengthen the ties that bind as we go.

As a hospice chaplain I am tasked with asking some of life’s hardest questions: have you thought about your memorial service? What do you want done with your body after you die? Do you have any regrets? Are there any relationships that need healing? Is there anything you need to say to anyone?

We cut to the chase when death has come to call. We have no choice, really. When the sands of time are down to the final grains, we have a way of getting to the important stuff quickly. Most fear is gone, pride is gone, ego has finally packed its bags and moved on and very often we get down to the good goods with rapidity.

I wish. I wish for all of us living, that we didn’t wait until the very end to think about these things.

My three kids know exactly what I want when I die because I talk about it, I quiz them, all the time: “Remember how it goes? I want to be cremated and half of my ashes will go up in fireworks at the party to celebrate the life I have loved. The other half get tossed off the Sensation Quad at Stowe, upper section with the tall pine trees. I love it up there.”

“The party should be like a carnival with face painting and balloons, kegs of beer even though I don’t drink. Outside in the summer. Please,” I tell them over and over, “if you tell them anything, tell them how much I have loved this life.”

On a hike in the Tahoe National Forest last fall I asked my son, Nate, who is in college in Montana, what he would want for his memorial service. He is so used to this conversation that he didn’t flinch, didn’t whine, didn’t protest that he’s not going to die any time soon.

I know eight women whose sons have died in their 20s.

Don’t kid yourself. You are going to die and not talking about it is not going to make it go away.

“Cremate me and put me in a whole bunch of small containers,” Nate said. “Then offer a challenge to everyone who comes to the service — I want a little of me to go in every state.”

“Brilliant, I’ll take you to Hawaii,” I told him, the only state I haven’t visited yet.

Our conversation about dying did not mar our trek through the heavenly forestlands of northern California. In fact it may have, in our hearts, made the air smell even sweeter, made the sun’s rays feel even warmer, the company even better.

When I tell people what I do they often say that it must be hard. They cringe and look down, the thought of sitting with people who are dying is so very hard for most to bear.

It is hard, I tell them, but not because death is scary, because everyone dies. I love them all so much, and then they die.

My gentleman friend who almost made it to Antarctica was right, it is a very beautiful world, made that much sweeter by the reality that we don’t get to be here forever. We taste this truth when someone we know dies or when we come closer to death through an accident or a medical event. We have a heightened sense of awareness during those times. The apple tastes sweeter, the hand in ours more precious, waking up in the morning becomes a gift. This is the challenge, the task, to carry that awareness forward into all of life. To invite death into the conversation on a regular basis so that it becomes the friend that accompanies us through our days, whispering kindly in our ear … “you don’t get to do this forever … this life is so very precious … the world is beautiful.”

Melissa O’Brien is a hospice chaplain with the VNH. You can read more of her writing at melissaannobrien.com.

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