We really never talk about death, unless we have to. It certainly does not make happy dinner table conversation. But sometimes, we have to do what we have to do and last weekend, as a parent, I had to tackle the topic of death.
I have three boys and my oldest’s best friend lost his father. While our children’s friends can be somewhat removed from the family, not this boy. I lovingly call him my fourth son and his family is, like family. So much so, that he was with us on vacation when his mom called to tell us the news– that his father’s death was imminent. We knew it was coming, but not so soon. He had been sick for a long time. He said goodbye and I love you on the phone, but by the time we landed back in New York, it was too late.
I love the conversations I have with my children. They are often stimulating and challenging. The boys constantly try to disprove some of my crazy theories and beliefs. We argue about politics, science, religion, health with them often bursting into my room to tell me of the CNN alert or an article on Huffington Post. However, with our many conversations, the one we have never had until now is about death.
Death is that taboo subject probably because it is the only subject in the universe that no one can claim to be an expert. There are no definitive opinions about death. No scientific studies.
Recently, there has been much discussion about near death experiences. For those who missed Newsweek’s cover article, Heaven is Real, by Dr. Eben Alexander, it is an amazing story of a neurosurgeon who was in a coma, officially declared brain dead. He then came back to life with tales of an incredible, supernatural experience. Stories of beauty and peace beyond imagination. Stories that give us hope. There are many people with similar experiences throughout the years. Just watch The Katie Show or Oprah or Today. They make great talk show and morning TV guests, because wouldn’t it be nice to no longer fear the one thing people fear the most?
So as our family was confronted with losing someone close to us for the first time, I was confronted as a mother with managing three different conversations. Why different? Because we all experience death and grief differently. There is no set formula. And that is what I said to each of my children. There is no prescribed way to feel. For some death evokes tears. Some may even laugh. Some may feel numb and some may try not to even think about it at all. My older two seemed truly sad, but stoic. They succumbed to a good hug, but gave me the hint to give them their space.
Not so with my 11 year old. He climbed into our bed truly shaken. My 11 year old and my son’s friend are very close and had just spent 5 days together. As he imagined life without a father, or even his own ultimate end, fear and worry escalated.
Years ago when a good friend of mine suddenly died from lung cancer, I had a similar conversation with my oldest who was friendly with her son. However the situation was different. We were friends, but not intimate. Nonetheless, I called a parenting expert and sought her advice. She said, let them talk and only answer the questions they may have for fear of putting thoughts into their heads. Sound and helpful advice at the time. I kept it simple and my oldest was able to move on with his happy childhood.
However, this time, as I started out trying to answer only the questions asked, I realized that in order to truly discuss death, we must first discuss life.
As I snuggled with my 11 year old assuring him of our health and longevity, we talked about life or what I have come to learn about life.
To me death is not an ending, but merely a transition. The body is temporary, but the soul or spirit is eternal.
OK, perhaps a little too existential for an 11 year old. Perhaps a little cliche, but to me a more recent, heartfelt, core belief. For my son’s sake, I kept it simple and on his terms.
We talked about the beginning, birth. We talked about learning. How life is one long continuum of learning and not just academic learning as some of the most important lessons are taught outside the classroom. That, in fact, I believe, the point of life is learning and the key to life is love. So imagine that every lesson in life is taking you closer and closer to the ultimate goal of giving and receiving pure love.
Sometimes lessons can seem insurmountable. Maybe some came into the world with so much baggage or so many experiences derail them along the path. Or maybe they refuse to learn so that each lesson has to be repeated, getting harsher and harsher each time– something I learned from a book written by a Buddhist monk. At the time, I was incredibly angry with someone, but the book taught me that anger towards someone is usually that person mirroring the thing you dislike most in yourself. In my case…how true! Once I realized this and chose to learn about myself from the situation, the anger dissolved and that person is now very near and dear.
This philosophy makes the phrase we have heard many times, “when will they ever learn?” take on new meaning. Because when we don’t, unfortunately, fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, arrogance, all the toxic emotions just build and block the one emotion we all seem to long to feel most, love. And with the buildup of toxic emotion comes dis-ease, challenges or sickness, necessitating a huge effort to heal or again, as I have discovered, to learn.
I emphasized to my son that often people do not get this during their life or even think about it– that each incident or moment can be seen as a lesson to get to know our true selves. That most lessons are lessons of self discovery…to connect with our soul or spirit or to love ourselves. Not in that narcissistic way, but in a wholesome, healthy way. For most of my life, I never gave this much thought. Since I have, life has gotten steadily easier and bolder enabling me to step out of my comfort zones. I explained, when you love yourself, loving everyone else comes easily. Life comes easily. I told him that his Dad and I try to work on this everyday!
Then we talked about him. Like every person on this planet, he too is here to learn and grow. But in some ways, he came into this world already highly evolved, quite learn-ed. Why? Because he is nothing, but pure love. He has the biggest heart of anyone I know. While parents are supposed to be the teachers, in matters of the heart, he is teaching us.
Last year when we were in Peru, we did a ceremony with a shaman. She looked at us, smiled and said, “You know what he is?” We said, “What?” She said, “He is your lucky charm. He is pure love, pure innocence.”
Together, my son and I recalled that moment and until last weekend, I do not think he ever thought of his natural way of being as a gift or something that distinguished him. He never thought about learning how to love as anything that needed to be taught or achieved. I am sure he is not alone. However, do you remember when Tom Hanks thanked Rita Wilson at the Oscars for teaching him how to love?! For some reason that moment stuck in my mind. At the time I thought, what an incredibly loving thing to say to your wife, and now I realize he gets it. Tom Hanks gets what I believe is the constant lesson of life.
At times I nag and berate my son to grow up, to focus and take responsibility. I get frustrated with my uber creative dreamer. But he makes me laugh everyday. His spirit, something I would never want to change, simply dazzles. Spend any time with him and you will know. All you need to do is smile or laugh and he is your best friend.
I remember once when we were away, there was a boy who obviously was born with extreme facial deformities. As my kids stared, I told them he can not help the way he looks and I am sure he is a fabulous person inside. An hour later as the kids’ club convened, the kid with the deformities was onstage singing and dancing and within ten minutes, my son came running up to me and said, “Meet my new best friend. Can we go play DS together?” To my son, all he saw was this boy’s spirit. And even when he looks at me with his big blue eyes, I know most often all he sees is mine. It is an indescribable feeling of love.
Death is inevitable, but I think my son now understands that life is the furtherance of one’s soul and perhaps death is merely a term for the furtherance of one’s “eternal life.” For if our beautiful spirits truly live on, then it makes sense that any effort now to learn, to grow, to evolve, only enhances the journey, present and future.
No one knows for sure what that future may be after death. I am kind of relieved there is at least one subject with no one claiming to be an expert! But it just does not make sense that we do all this work for nothing! There has to be something more. Dr. Alexander came to understand this through his experience. In his words,
“…what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.”
Unfortunately, death is truly hardest on those left behind. Yet, again it is a lesson. Think about a eulogy. Who isn’t rapt with attention listening to every word? Who does not take some kernel of another’s life and apply it to their own? Listening to my friends talk about their father and husband, I learned so much I did not know and even if a funeral only makes you hug your loved ones closer, then something was learned or gained. One of my favorite lines came from a eulogy, “In the ordinary, lies the extraordinary.” It was something I took to heart. It was a lesson learned.
Cherishing and nurturing my children’s spirits is my greatest responsibility. But I would not be as effective if I did not first learn to cherish my own. To me that is life and it does not end at death.
I dedicate this post to my friend’s spirit. I know he is at peace and may his death be another’s learning.