Death tears the fabric of our lives. The wrenching loss of beloved, vital people seems an impossible affront. I know St. Paul said that faith would rob death of its sting, but that just doesn’t feel right. The loss of a beloved presence in our lives leaves an emptiness that will never fill–nor should it. It seems to me that grief is the sword in the heart of love. It is love’s burden, and love’s gift. For while faith might not rob death of its sting, the death of a beloved person can indeed bring many gifts. If we allow it, the finitude of life can come crashing into our awareness and bring with it a lasting perspective. Our broken hearts can break open to a love that cracks the shell of ego, so that grief is no longer the pain of self-centered victimization (Why did this loss happen to Me?), but a deep recognition of the interplay of life’s precious beauty and heartfelt sadness. I find consolation in the Hindu trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. It is a powerful mythic rendering of the transience and the mystery of life.
These reflections are not purely theoretical. Our 30 year old daughter died a few years ago, and it was then that the above perspectives began to grow.
Lisa was my wife Carolyn’s biological daughter, but she had become a daughter of my heart. She suffered a double cerebral aneurism while skiing, and was rushed to an urban hospital for extremely invasive brain surgery. She never emerged from her coma, and for two days after the surgery Carolyn and I were lost in a maelstrom of confusion, shock, and fear. But on that second night, we stayed up for hours sharing our thoughts and feelings. The waters of our consciousness warmed until a boiling point of insight was reached, and two realizations changed our lives and deepened our relationship forever. The first was that no matter what happened–years of coma, or even death–we could and would cope with it together. We felt strong in our love, and up to whatever life had to offer. Second, we realized that this entire episode was not about us. This was Lisa’s crisis, this could well be her time of dying, and our job–our privilege–was to love her, and serve her, and comfort her. With these realizations, the pain remained, but its quality had shifted. We were no longer suffering. Our hearts were looking outward to the well being of our beloved daughter.
Two days later, the neurologist informed us that Lisa’s brain stem was severed, and that it would be right to release her. After removing life support, her strong body lasted for 16 hours, and we stood by her giving what comfort and reassurance we could. As her heart finally stopped beating, Carolyn gathered her in a loving embrace, and said “I held you in my arms as you came into the world, and I hold you in my arms as you leave it.” Now the maelstrom in which we found ourselves was one of grief infused with love, and even beauty.
Lisa’s death still stings. We continue to feel her loss, and sometimes tears flow. The pain, however, while real, is felt as an appropriate part of living the vulnerability of love. This vulnerability is also the doorway to joyful gratitude, and we often smile at the memory of this vital woman’s joie de vivre, her indomitable spirit, and her incredible sense of humor. In those moments, we celebrate the gift she was in our lives.
On the death of his 6 year old daughter, the Japanese poet Issa wrote
“This dewdrop world
is indeed a dewdrop world.
And yet…And yet…”
And yet it is profoundly sad.
And yet it is unfathomably beautiful.