“He’s conscious,” the nurse says. I trust this Vietnam vet with his acne scarred face and tender resigned heart. His sad eyes help me face what’s coming. The two of us stand next to a bed in the oncology unit of Strong Hospital and look over my husband Vic’s limp body.
“He can hear you,” the nurse says, “but he’s too exhausted to respond. You can ask him to squeeze your hand.”
I can ask him to squeeze if he hears me, but he doesn’t need to hear me. He needs to die, so I don’t call him back to life and to me, but let him stay with the hard labor of breathing.
Yes, I could ask Vic to squeeze my hand if he loves me. But I don’t doubt his love. I can ask him to squeeze if he hears me, but he doesn’t need to hear me. He needs to die, so I don’t call him back to life and to me, but let him stay with the hard labor of breathing. I touch him and inhale his scent, rub oil into his hands and feet, and pray for strength to let him go. I’ve walked with him to the threshold of death and hung my feet over the ledge. I feel the vastness of the abyss, but I can go no further.
For two years, I tried to save him. We both tried, but there are no more escape routes. After years of struggle, his gentle passage opens my heart and stills my mind. This quiet death is his last gift to me, even as I weep and whisper my goodbyes. Just after midnight, he exhales. I wait for an inhalation that does not come.
I don’t know how to live without this man. I depend on his brown eyes beaming at me. For forty two years we loved each other, meditated together, transformed our land, raised our sons, and shared our dreams and sorrows. I don’t know who I am without him.
My friends and I sit with his body for six hours. When an orderly arrives, a loving nurse helps me shroud Vic in clean white sheets and slide his body into the body bag.
I’m exhausted and stunned, but also relieved. I don’t have to watch his suffering anymore.
After gathering his computer and toothbrush, I walk down the dark hospital corridor toward the elevator, my shoulder leaning into my son Anthony. We’re followed by four friends who stayed with Vic and me at the hospital the last three days. I’m exhausted and stunned, but also relieved. I don’t have to watch his suffering anymore. Now I begin to deal with my own.
We take the elevator down and walk toward the hospital lobby, shading our eyes from the sun glaring through the floor-to-ceiling windows. People scurry, grasping coffee cups, pushing to punch in before 7 a.m. They are serious and self-absorbed, their eyes averted. They seem to be behind a glass wall, in another world, on the side of the living, while I stand on a threshold where death feels closer than life.
We find my Subaru in the parking garage and stack Vic’s clothes and laptop on the backseat. Lingering, we stand in a helpless clump, softened by the mystery of death we just witnessed. It’s not enough to hug and thank these generous friends for accompanying me on this journey, but it’s all I have to give.
“Are you OK to drive?” Anthony asks.
“Yes,” I answer. “Follow me.”
I steer down the parking garage ramp, driving slowly so Anthony can catch up in his rental car. I stop at the parking attendant’s glass-windowed booth. My body knows how to count money and pay the parking fee.
I’m a stranger, just returned from the underworld. I’ve seen death, raw and unstoppable, and understand that my own death is not a distant thing.
We travel over the foreign soil of this world, strangers to the usual concerns of the day.
My body knows how to navigate this world, knows the way to the airport where Anthony returns the car. I grip the steering wheel, feeling both sharply awake and vaguely disembodied. Outside the rental car return, I move into the passenger seat and let the June sun bathe me with warmth.
Anthony drives toward home in the slow lane on the New York State Thruway. We travel over the foreign soil of this world, strangers to the usual concerns of the day.
How is it possible to feel such deep sorrow and deep gratitude at the same time?
This article is an edited excerpt from Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (Larson Publications, 2014).
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I have made a practice of coming to this site each morning and came across your beautiful writing just now. What a gift to be able put this in words – thank you so much. I have lost my husband as well and I am a Hospice nurse and a regular witness to this journey – I am grateful every day for the privilege to be present for others at this time and awed by the power and grace of love. thank you again, Nancy
Dear Nancy, I hadn’t looked at comments for a while and find yours written a month ago. I apologize for not being on top of this. You know what it is to be with death and the many ways we can choose to help or resist. My husband’s mother is still alive and she’s 102. She’s a hospice patient now. I was so relieved when hospice support came in. Thank you for the important work you do. And thank you for your kind words.
Very touching and powerful words. Your experience reminded me of my parents who were also married for 42 years and whose love was magnetic and boundless.
Thank you, Iraida. I apologize that it took so long for me to find your comment. I’m grateful your parents had/have that kind of love and it’s wonderful you were raised surrounded by it. Blessings.
‘How is it possible to feel such deep sorrow and deep gratitude at the same time?’
I call this an experience of Grace…
Thank you, Elaine…
I knew I had the gift of a wonderful relationship (complete with kindness, honesty, everyday irritations when two egos rub against each other, and a shared spiritual path). Not everyone is half so fortunate. I also learned early on that Love stayed if I wasn’t afraid to feel the fierce grief. The grief softened in time, although it’s still there after 10 years. In some ways, the Love is stronger than ever. I think Grace is the perfect word. Transformed by grief and Grief transformed.
Thank you for this beautiful post. It is heartbreaking and carries a poignant message.
This universe makes no promises to anyone. The one thing that is for certain however, is our own death. In fact, taking that even further, we can also expect the death of our own sun, our solar system, our
galaxy. Everything is impermanent, even our universe. Yet, when death appears we are usually taken off guard, off balance. We are like, “how can this happen?”
However, knowing that death is a given certainly doesn’t diminish the grief that accompanies it. To me, there would be no greater grief than experiencing the loss of a close family member; spouse, child, dad, mom, sibling, or close friends.
Grief and gratitude are two different things. Feeling grief, being consumed by grief, drowning in grief is often so overwhelming it is impossible to see any sign of gratitude anywhere near us. In fact, it is sometimes impossible to even imagine a time when things were or could ever be “normal” again.
In the beautiful book, “The Five Invitations” by Frank Ostaseski he says, “Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment, a secret teacher hiding in plain sight, helping us to discover what matters most in life. ”
Living with the knowledge that death can take you or anyone you love at any moment is a great gift of death. Imagine living every day as though it would be the last day you spend with the person you love the most. Imagine how you would hold them, look in their eyes, tell them how much you appreciate them, how much you love them. Yes, Frank is right, that is, death can be our “secret teacher”.
When your or your partner leave your bodies – one of you will be left behind. At that moment, I suppose that finding gratitude may be very difficult as you go through the very personal process of grieving.
However, stopping to breath, stopping to feel your pain and remember the time you and your partner walked this planet together is something to truly cherish. To know that a part of you died with your partner and that your love walked to the other side with them and helped them transition is something for which to be grateful.
Also, experiencing the very real raw pain as a reminder of your love and as a teacher is also something for which to be grateful as you prepare for your own death.
I am not looking forward to the day my love and I separate to death. It is something I think about everyday. I imagine that moment when one of us leaves, and I then move closely to my honey and take a deep breath for the life and love we now share, for this, I am grateful.
I’ve meditated and studied since the late 1960s, so had lots of support from that background.. I felt immediate gratitude and made it a practice to find beauty, kindness, and goodness in life every day. The day my husband died, I came home to fields bursting with purple blossoms. I knew life was good and an opportunity, even though it hurt. My husband died in 2008, so I’ve had time to digest this experience. The first few years, I walked to the place where his ashes were buried every day and let the feelings flow. I still go there when I need support. My love for him remains as does grief, but I feel that love/grief as support and a reminder of the nature of life and mortality.
As I said in my TEDx talk, “Love and Grief are a package deal.” That idea is as important ten years later because there have been more losses because all is impermanent. So on we go on this path, receiving lessons and learning that love and kindness matter more than anything. I’m glad you have the blessing of a deep love. I never forget that I had/have that blessing, too.
Thank you for your story…those first moments after a loved one passes are filled with so many emotions, when I lost my husband in 2013, your reflections of those moments mirrored mine….bless you…
Sandy, it still helps me when I read something that reflects my feelings and other-world experiences following my husband’s death, so your comment makes me feel connected to you. It also makes me feel I’ve done my job as a writer. Thank you so much for taking time to comment. I’m so sorry your husband died and how hard it is to lose that primary relationship.. May the Love live on.
Thank you Elaine. I love your words and I thank you for sharing this wisdom.
And thank you for sharing yours.
The death of a near one can be a life altering event. Death teaches us many lessons.One who is awakened to death and accepts death as a fact of life, begins to get transformed. For more details please read the article below:
Thank you. I’ve studied world philosophies under the wings of many teachers. One of my first teachers, although I did not meet him in the body, was Ramana Maharshi. I also went to India three times to spend weeks sitting with Sri Sankaracharya. I have been deeply transformed in the ten years since my husband’s death. Death and Love are our ultimate teachers. Thanks for sending the article. I’ll have a look.
Thank you, Elaine. I experienced the same 27 years ago. An image came to me then. While at first I felt as if my heart had been ripped out of me, I later had the vision that my husband had left half of his within me, and together with my own half I still had a beating heart that was unbroken.
Wow! I’m weeping as I read your message. My heart ached in the most physical way in the weeks and months after my husband’s death. You received an image of the “sacred heart” to last a lifetime. An unforgettable image of the power of Love. We feel ripped in two as though half of us or more is gone forever but in time we realize things were rearranged and now we hold them in the deepest and sweetest part of our heart. When we call on them, they are always there.