“Everything will take care of itself with unexpected grace. Death is perfectly safe. Death is not the enemy, holding to fear is.” – Stephen Levine
“Radical acceptance tells us that the best way to overcome a perceived threat is not to look for ways to ward it off but to change your relationship to it.” – Sameet M. Kumar
The famed psychologist Carl Jung once said that he never had a patient over the age of forty whose unhappiness did not have its roots in the fear of death.
But even as a young child, I feared losing my parents, and strangely, I worried about them getting in a car accident. When my dad died almost twelve years later, I wondered if my childhood fear was actually a premonition or if the worrying itself caused that awful wreck to happen. I grew panic stricken when I would hear people say “be careful what you wish for” and “your thoughts are powerful.” I am grateful to know now that thoughts are just thoughts, and we choose rather to listen to them or watch them go as quickly as they came.
And now my children ask me questions about death. This summer after my daughter saw a dead cat on a dirt path in Nantucket, she wondered worriedly if he was alright. Later in bed she asked me whether it is possible to talk after we die. And years before, my son needed clarification about heaven existing in the toilet after we said goodbye to his first pet fish, Nova, with a ceremonious flush.
These questions begrudgingly bring up my own fears and confusion about death. But they also remind me to be as honest, real, and present as possible while thinking about my answers. It is my heartfelt wish for my children and for all of us to be brought up understanding – and sometimes I think my kids get this better than me – that death is not separate from but instead is a part of life, and that everything is impermanent. I hope to never let the fear of dying obstruct living life fully (and not in an “I’m invincible, I can do anything kind of way.”) Lastly, I wish for us to all know that death is essentially okay. (And I know, too, that death feels as far away as possible from okay when something tragic happens.)
I am now more likely to meet their questions about what happens after death with the answer, I don’t know.
But I do know that when someone dies, he or she is still with us. And to answer my daughter’s previous question, I also think we can still talk after we die.
The night of my father’s death, he, in fact, spoke to me. He appeared before me while I slept in my high school bedroom with the bright blue walls. Although I was asleep, this meeting was more real, vivid, and vibrant than any dream I have ever had. In fact, it was not really a dream at all.
We had unfinished business, my dad and I, and it felt as if he came to console me. I needed him, and he was there even though he couldn’t be there in the way he used to be.
Wearing a navy blue suit and tie with his signature warmth, he told me not to worry and not to feel guilty about an argument we had had days earlier. He was relaxed, carefree and at complete peace. I heard his message loud and clear: everything is going to be okay.
This particular encounter, and subsequent experiences with people at the end of their lives, stirs in me the soothing, albeit enigmatic realization that when someone close to us dies, he or she remains in our lives forever. And not just in the obvious ways found in old photographs, videos, and memories faded and grown soft with time. This subtle reprieve lies in the knowing that our relationships survive death. And with hopeful watering and loving tending, continue to grow. There, flowers bloom where there was once only dirt.
It is often in the presence of beauty, nature, silence, and serendipitous moments, that we are shown that we too will be okay.
When I feel overwhelmed with the weight of grief or anxiety, I know it is time to simplify…to slow down and feel my feet on the earth. And to stop thinking so much…to not look at the big picture for a spell but instead try to narrow my focus with the eye of an eagle on the miniscule details before me…the hot shower, the dishes in the sink, and the pretty punch-colored petal on the ground.
And while I don’t know much about death, I do believe that when we die, we don’t just disappear. Energy doesn’t vanish, but rather, it changes and transforms. This is not simply spiritual discourse but is in fact the science behind the law of thermodynamics. This theory states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Caterpillars become butterflies; the crushing of shells makes sand by the sea; and fires bring new growth to the forest.
I believe that the light we carry within us never extinguishes but instead transforms into brilliant, omnipresent, and eternal sparks. These sparks move through us. I have felt them manifest as smooth ripples in the ocean, in the smile in my son’s eyes, and the quiet stare of the hawk that visits my mom’s backyard in December.
Through my own misty eyes, I recently read of the cyclical nature of growth and life in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open; How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. She writes of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on death. He says, nothing is born, nothing can die. In the below excerpt, Hanh offers this explanation:
Look into the true nature of the paper. What do you see? You see – in a very tangible, scientific way – that paper is made of non-paper elements. When I touch the paper, I touch the tree, the forest because I know that deep inside there is the existence of the tree, the forest. Right? I also touch the sunshine. Even at midnight touching the sheet of paper, I touch sunshine. I touch the cloud. There is the cloud floating in this sheet of paper. You don’t have to be a poet to see the cloud. Because without the cloud, there would be no rain and no forest could grow. So the cloud is in there. The trees are in there. The sunshine, the minerals from the earth, the earth itself, time, space, people, insects-everything in the cosmos seems to be existing in this sheet of paper. It is very important to see that a sheet of paper is made of – only of – non-paper elements. Our body is also like that.
I don’t know what really happened the night my dad came to me or what happens when we die. And death still makes me anxious and sad. But while it is hard for our human hearts to bear, I also believe that it is okay, just like my dad said.
*I referenced these beautiful and helpful books above and recommend each one wholeheartedly. A Year to Live by Stephen Levine, Grieving Mindfully by Sameet M. Kumar, and Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser.