“The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.
I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love. “
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrow
Twenty-one years ago, today:
How can I walk away from his body, knowing I will never see him again? I stroke his hair, golden with light. He looks so old, and yet he looks young again, too, young like when I met him. He’s always been so alive, so full of everything. He didn’t do anything half way. He was intensely loving and intensely alive. A million memories flash before my eyes. When we married, and I said, “’til death do us part”, I wondered when that might be, even if only for a split second. And now I know. Death has parted us and I now know it is time to go.
It is hard to take this last look and give this last kiss. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I touch his face, trying to capture the memory of him into the layers of my skin. His golden hair is the last piece of his body I touch before I turn to walk away.
April 17th, today:
Looking back, it’s been a long, long time since I said goodbye, yet through these years of journeying to find myself, to wake up, to come to some realization of who and what I am, I’m discovering that I’m also coming to know in a deeper way who my late husband Gary was, to have ‘a more perfect understanding’ of who we both were and are.
Yes, his death was painful. It was a tearing apart of two souls. And, it was also a tearing apart of places where we held each other up in this life, where he was my ground and I his.
It was also beautiful in that it opened me to a larger view of what it means to be a human being. No longer protected from pain, I found myself, as Joanna Macy describes in her interview with Krista Tippett, “dipped in beauty”. I remember lying on my bed, racked with grief, and realizing that I was experiencing a profound beauty. It was puzzling at first because those two things didn’t seem to fit together – painful grief and beauty. But there it was – the distinct experience of the beautiful.
Sometimes we have to know the deepest pain and grief of death in order to feel the most glorious joy and aliveness of life.
Now, twenty-one years later, as I sit more fully in my humanity, I see what a powerful teacher death can be. To live many years with this significant loss is an opportunity to not deny death but to carry it with me as I live. When I turned 47, the age Gary was when he died, I felt grateful to be alive. When my daughters married, again I felt so fortunate to be there to witness those important rites. And, when each of my grandchildren came into this world, I relished the moments much more than I might have if Gary had been there with us, too. Because death is a part of life.
There’s a bittersweetness to life when you carry death with you. By ‘carry’ I don’t mean to hang onto because I’m not willing to see reality. Rather, I mean living with the knowing that I am alive and he is not, and that his death helps me to remember that totality of this existence.
Gary’s death woke me up to that deep longing inside to want to know who and what I am. His death brought me more into life. I don’t know how my life might have unfolded if he had lived, but I do know that I would not have seen the deep, deep beauty that is inherent in the heart breaking open. His death also brought me to come to appreciate him more. The deeper I come into myself, the more I realize how deep he was and how much of him I never got to know. And, through his death and the profound grief I encountered, I’ve been able to be with the parts of my life, and in the world today, that have been, and are, truly heartbreaking since that day I said good-bye.
I share this with you as a celebration of the whole of life, as a remembrance to hold the whole of life with great love. I feel death can make us softer and more real.