Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

by guest writer Michele Clark

Death is unimaginable. That’s the problem. If I try to conjure up no-me-ness, it’s impossible, because in death the “I” who imagines will be absent. So, what I wish for is a trial run, just to get a sense of death’s texture. If human life were sensibly arranged we would each get a test drive, before we had to do the real thing. But no, that’s exactly what isn’t possible. Life is unfair, said John F. Kennedy. But at least in many lives there is room for experimentation, failure, choosing again. Death, your own death has none of that. That’s what I call really unfair.

If we’re incapable of accurately fantasizing an experience of not- experiencing, the question then becomes where do we have room for experimentation, learning, and choice.  That place is around the fear of death — what it is, how to ease it.

This is what has helped me: Spending time with a dying friend.  His name was David Palmer. He was my first close friend to be taken by a terminal illness. And taken is exactly how it felt: he didn’t want to go, we didn’t want him to leave.

2 houses - pictureBut Death pulled into the station of David’s life- which in this case was the house one hundred feet from mine, a house he built with his partner of forty-plus years, Jean Lathrop. Then, slowly over nineteen months, warning us every so often, then more and more frequently, with trips to emergency services – Death finally took him away. Volition didn’t count. Resistance was impossible.

Sometimes when David was too weak to get out of bed I would take a nap on the couch next to him. Sometimes I’d just sit in the room. There were other friends who helped more than I did – bathed or lifted him, but I ran some errands, cooked some meals. Sat with him. That was the biggest thing for me – just sitting at his bedside. I began to understand that it was a gift to be part of his dying. Even though it was a gift from the thirteenth fairy, the last gift he or Jean or I or any of our friends ever wanted.

“You’re a pioneer in this David,” I said once, knowing he would get the humor in it and the irony. “You’re teaching us how to do it.”

And he did. First, he stopped worrying about problems he could no longer fix – a leaky roof, trouble at his former business. And asked us not to talk to him about these things. Then he became, in that bed, very loving and open. I don’t know how this came about. Perhaps it was the nature of the situation – but this doesn’t happen to everyone in the process of dying. Suddenly I could kiss him once a day; whenever I left I could say I love you. There were outbursts of affection that would never have happened in an ordinary time. Finally, he really did become accepting and a tiny bit radiant. Then he was gone.

He died well, as much as one can perform well at something so unwelcome.

For myself, for the first time the severity and the inevitability of death seeped into my bones and heart.  A little late, I’m almost seventy, but there it is. (Believe me, I know that I am both privileged and perhaps cursed to be one of the few humans who has been a stranger to death.  But what can I do? I was born into good health, in modern times in a prosperous nation.)

I witnessed for myself how death cannot be resisted, so my fear of it began to ease. Death takes you. This felt like a relief. I don’t have to do anything about it. As Emily Dickinson says, “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.”

What has changed? Now, sometimes, I intentionally notice and say sentences to myself like: This is the only time you’ll be walking down this driveway, on this particular day, Michele. Or: This is the only time you’ll be peeling this particular carrot. So that a preciousness arises- really just a moment – less than one second – passes through me, sometimes more than once a day, maybe three or five times in a day. Even when I’m grouchy I am able to sometimes think: Oh how lovely to be grouchy and not dead.

The moral of my story is the closer you involve yourself with the dying (I’m talking about daily American life here, not the life that Syrian refugee families or the children and adults in Iraq have known, a life with much too much death), the less you are fearful, the more you experience gratitude and appreciation in the present. The more you touch gratitude and appreciation the less you fear that big, gigantic, humongous loss which is your own mortality.

Maybe there are more gifts than these. I will tell you if I find them.

Michele Clark lives in Plainfield Vermont at the New Hamburger Community, an intentional community, where the events in this essay occurred. She is a a mental health counselor in private practice Montpelier and teaches half-time in the MA in Psychology and Counseling at Goddard College where she blogs as The Mediocre Meditator. 

7 comments on “Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?
  1. Barbara Johnson says:

    Michele, thank you so much for this gift!
    I love you. Barbara

  2. Margo Lee Sherman says:

    Thank you, Michele. Your message has come just in time. I lost a friend in March. She lived in Binghamton, far away, and I couldn’t be with her. Every day, I try to imagine her journey.
    I remember JFK’s remark. “Death is unfair. It breaks everyone’s heart.”
    David opened our hearts to greater love. Thank you, David.
    And thank you again, Michele.

    Love to you, Sam and Hannah,

  3. Mary Bewig says:

    Dear Michele,
    What a beautiful and touching commentary on your loss and “growth” through and since. It was my loss that I never got to know David well, but I have lost an assortment of dear friends over time. I find it hard to imagine my world without them in it. I think of them often.
    Fear? I’ll have to get back to you on that. I’m not sure what I feel. I can understand why people dream of “heaven”. That ain’t it for me. but watching it happen, which I did several times ( though not as closely as you did) does reach inside the heart and soul.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Love, Mary

  4. Clo Pitkin says:

    thank you Michele for so generously and beautifully expressing such a difficult loss yet amazing gift. Much love, Clo

  5. Kathleen Weiler says:

    This is really lovely, Michele. We’ve lost several friends in the last two or three years–no one as close as you were to David. I have a hard time grasping their absence, since they weren’t part of our everyday life and the memory of them is so strong. Your thoughts are a help and a wonderful and loving tribute to David.

    Thank you.

    Love, Kathleen

    Love, Kathleen

  6. I too felt privileged to be present while my youngest brother was dying several months ago. For three years he fought his cancer with all of the horrible treatments and a determination not to give in, or even to acknowledge the possibility of losing the battle. But when his doctor said the cancer was back with a vengeance and no more could be done, he had to adjust to that reality. At that point he became more open and vulnerable, and like your friend he ruled out conversation about negative things that had no meaning to his new journey. He said he was ready and accepting of death, but a week later he told me (and nobody else) that he was having bad dreams about impending death. “I woke up and realized it was just a dream and for a second I felt relieved…and then I realized that in real life I’m dying, too.” He seemed to appreciate the irony, but it shook him to realize that he wasn’t immune to fear. Several people came to pray with him, but I downloaded a lot of his favorite music on his iPad and taught him to use it, and when he stopped using it on his own I played it whenever I was there. It soothed him, unlocked old memories, sometimes inspired and uplifted him. I resolved to remember that when my time comes…if I have that kind of time before dying. Sorry, I didn’t mean to tell my story here, but your essay reminded me vividly of this, and it just came pouring out. Thanks to Hannah for sharing the link on FB.

    • Michele Clark says:

      Nancy – I just read this – which is lovely and very sad too — loss is so hard.
      How do you know Hannah? Thanks for your heartfelt response –

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