I have found myself thinking about death lately. Not my own death necessarily, although with each ache and pain that comes with aging I am reminded of its inevitability. But I recently had a 24-hour period that included three very different conversations about death and dying, conversations that reminded me that while death is a solitary experience, dying is and should be a communal one.
Simply put, being with one you love through his or her dying may be one of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship.
The first of my conversations about dying was with several family members as my mother talked about what she wanted in her funeral service. Having recently been diagnosed with cancer, she wanted to address the issues directly, being clear about what she wanted, so that when her death occurs all of us will be on the same page. While her death is certainly not imminent, she wisely took the opportunity of having some of her children, grandchildren, in-laws and husband all in the same room as she talked about what she wanted — and what she did not want — included in her service.
While not an easy conversation for any of us, we all realized that it was a critical one to have, and we were able to set aside our fear, our anxiety and our sorrow to really talk about things that were important.
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The second conversation occurred soon after the first when we received word that a family member of my brother-in-law had died. This death, sadly, was a solitary one primarily due to the fact that the person who died had systematically alienated her friends and family members for years. While some of her family had valiantly worked to stay connected to her and offer love and comfort, she refused every attempt. Consequently, her passing brought regret about the relationships that might have been and sadness that she died alone, but also some relief that the incredible challenge of the relationship was finally over.
The final conversation of those 24 hours came as I prepared to officiate at the funeral of a much-loved member of the community. I did not know her well, but as I talked with those who knew her best it became clear that the impact she had on those around her was life-changing. A woman of enormous generosity who gave herself to the community and to multiple at-risk kids, her funeral service included testimonies of the love she shared with others and the love she inspired in them. She was clearly a woman whose death was a significant loss, but whose spirit would continue in the lives of those she’d touched.
Poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow, and somehow, each of us will help the other live, and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.” Death is a difficult and challenging thing for most of us to think and talk about. Perhaps it is our own fear of it; perhaps it is our fear at losing those we love. But for our relationships to be healthy ones, it is important that we push past the fear and be willing to talk about death and dying and be with those we love as they wrestle with their own mortality.
Healthy relationships are as important at the end of life as they are in its beginning. If we’ve worked to build healthy relationships throughout our lives, we will find that those healthy relationships will surround and sustain us at the end.