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Death as Teacher

This post looks at the ways in which losing a loved one forces us to drop all the unnecessary worries of our life and to focus on what is of real and lasting value.

Today we continue a series begun last week on death, dying, and grief.

There is no easy way to write about death that doesn’t risk trivializing it or being overwhelmed by it.  Fortunately I have never suffered tragedy, such as the loss of a child or spouse or family member before their natural time.

But I have spent a lot of time personally and professionally with people who have had to grapple with the questions none of us have answers to:  Why did this happen? Why me?  What did I do wrong? How can I make this pain go away?  If I could only have....

With all the pain of loss and grief,  I do like one aspect of what death does to those of us left behind:  it pushes out all the extraneous noise of our lives and forces us to deal with only that which really matters.  Most often, someone who has been shattered by a loss is very, very real.  It’s almost like you’re speaking to someone on a drug, when what comes out is pure and true and undefended.

I find such experience deeply grounding and I enjoy being in an atmosphere of such truth.  It is at such times that I understand what might draw someone to work in hospice care.  The opportunity to work in an atmosphere where everything is on the line, where there is no point in pretense, where life is stripped down to the bare essentials:  it seems to me it’s like a spiritual backpack trip.  You have only what you really need to survive; everything else is extra baggage you don’t want to carry.  You are reminded both of how little you really need, and how simple and pure life can be.

Sometimes when I’m working with a couple and they’re sniping at each other over the “he said/she said” of married life, I cut through the static with the following intervention:  I have them sit across from each other and fill in the blank to the  sentence:  “If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, what I would want you to know today is....”  That gets their attention. They immediately drop out of the argument and say things like “that I love you” or “that I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband/wife.”  Why do you think that happens?

I think most of the time, most of the day, our ego is running the show.  We are concerned first and foremost with the survival of the “I” of the ego.  This can take countless forms, but just a few examples to help you know what I mean would include:  worrying about what I get out of this situation, or how I look to others, or wanting to hurt someone who hurt me, or feeling slighted by perceived disrespect, or wanting to fend off possible criticism, or feeling embarrassed by something I’ve done, or needing to be right.  All of these are about the importance of my ego. 

None of us know what happens when we die, though most of us have beliefs about it.  Here’s one of the things I feel relatively secure about:  the ego dies with the body.  If any part of us survives our physical death, I cannot believe it is that aspect of us which worries how we look, if only because I see how that drops away in those who have just lost someone. 

Letting death be our teacher, through making us aware of what really matters, is one of the best ways I know to be truly alive.

Next week:  Guest blogger Deborah Leeds writes how working with the experience of grief is another opportunity to convert pain to love.

Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at josh@joshgressel.com.

Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.  He is currently accepting referrals.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Marlene Vasilieff February 17, 2013 at 02:03 AM
Hi Josh, I really like what you wrote here. The image of a spiritual backpack trip stayed with me. When people who I have loved passed I have felt emotionally overwhelmed, but also focused, on the person who passed, and the moment that was. Time stops in some ways because of the rituals of going to the service, and being consumed with memories of the person. I agree that in that place, pretense is gone and that's comforting. What you wrote touched me and I appreciate your insight and wisdom. Thank you.
Dan Perez February 19, 2013 at 06:52 AM
If more people were better tuned in to their own mortality, I think it would strengthen their relationships and make their life more fulfilling. When we are living, there is this notion that time is infinite, but in reality, things in life happen only a certain number of times, and a small number at that. For example, how many more times in your life will you see a sunset? Or, how many more times in your life will you have a conversation with your father? Can you count them all on one hand? The prospect of dying puts things into perspective very fast.
Margaret Tong February 19, 2013 at 10:35 AM
my ain Dad aye said, "We're nae here tae bide"
Tatter Salad February 20, 2013 at 02:10 AM
You mentioned correctly: " We are concerned first and foremost with the survival of the “I” of the ego. This can take countless forms,..." You left out that the departed care not whether they go out in a card board box or a gold casket. THEY DON'T CARE. The funeral and all that goes with, is for the mourners, and if there is extensive tears, they too are for the mourners' wishes unfulfilled, or guilt, or self pity; the 'departed' has departed. I share your goal that gentle education should be used to reshape public awareness of death, and more to the point: reshape opinion about the use of organs for transplantation. Society should accept that "using" body parts is moral and offers a source of health for everybody. The concept that using cadaver organs implies sharing a source of health might be a social agreement between all members of Society. Suggestions for improving organ shortage include: 1) Society should understand that during one's life one may be just as easily a potential organ receiver as one is an organ donor. 2) Cadaver organs are an irreplaceable source of health. 3) As self-interest is one obstacle to donating cadaver organs, the "concept that allowing the use of our organs after death represents a chance of sharing health for everybody" may be useful for a change of attitude.
MIKE ALFORD February 20, 2013 at 07:57 AM
What if this were a dream ? I mean if we were a thought and that life as we know it were a moment cought up in a place space & time that was all a dream and that the price of wakeing up was the reality of death and that death was the process of moving on through the reality of the dream than the consept of ego or attitude would not exist but only remain a thought in a dream ?

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