Hello and welcome to this glorious Friday, July 30, 2021. Today is a rare and precious day that will never come again.
This week’s Mindfulness Support is dedicated to my mother, Phyllis Yvonne Bouchard Piquette. May 17, 1941 – July 18, 2021.
My first experience of death was seeing my lifeless, cyanotic, sunken-eyed paternal grandfather in his casket. I was eight. Seeing him like that put the fear of death into my life. I just knew he was going to sit up in that coffin and grab me. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I was traumatized.
As you can likely imagine, considering my initial experience with death, I believed death was something to be avoided: it was bad, it was creepy. If we think about death and dying in these terms, how can we ever die in peace? How can we ever live in peace?
For much of my life, my relationship with death was based in fear. Even as a nurse, seeing or worse, having to handle, a lifeless human body horrified me. There seemed to be something so unnatural about death. I couldn’t believe that anyone would choose to be a coroner or mortician! Did I tell anyone of my fear? Absolutely not. It wasn’t until recently, within the last ten years or so, that my relationship with death and dying changed.
A little over ten years ago, I watched as my nephew died of cancer at the age of twenty. During his passing, I witnessed my sister handle the situation with such faith, with such grace (she may not say it was with grace). Jedd’s passing and how my sister dealt with it helped me to see death as a normal part of the human experience.
A short time after that, in 2012, I watched a dear friend of mine die in a tragic motorcycle accident. In witnessing Rick’s death, I embodied the wisdom that no-one is promised a tomorrow. Dying was not part of Rick’s plan for that fateful October Sunday. He had plans beyond that afternoon. Nevertheless, that was it. No more. I also realized something else. Rick died doing something he loved, with people he loved, on a beautiful day, with love and gratitude in his heart. Rick’s death inspired me to live a more meaningful and purposeful life.
I believe that if we can learn how to die, it teaches us how to live.
Over time, and with deep exploration using my Mindfulness practice, I’m starting to see how death is a natural part of life. It may even be something to be cherished! After all, if birth is a miracle and something to be celebrated, why isn’t death? I mean, if death were a bad thing, wouldn’t we stop bringing life into this world?
Earlier this year, I traveled to Colorado to tell my mother goodbye for the last time. During intermittent moments of lucidity, I was able to look into her eyes and to convey to her that I love her, I appreciate her, and let her know that she was an incredible mother. I treasure that time with her. Though I do believe that was my last goodbye, I did have the opportunity to be with her recently during her last few days.
Maybe it was because I knew mom was not long of this world but sitting with her as she died was not what I expected. Surprisingly, I felt little sadness, anguish, or fear. Instead, my heart was full. I felt content, peaceful, and uplifted. As I sat there, I reflected on my amazing life because of, and with her. In those passing moments, I had (and still have) a deep sense of gratitude and an appreciation for my life with mom and for the life she gave me.
In the days that followed her death, many friends and family conveyed their condolences, “Dan, we’re so sorry for your loss.” Though this seems to be something appropriate and socially acceptable to say, when mom passed, I experienced no sense of loss. In fact, the sensation I felt was quite the opposite. I feel as though I have gained her spirit – more than ever before, I feel closer to my “Mommy Dearest” (that was what I playfully called her, and she loved it). It’s not that I want to hear, “Congratulations on your mom’s death,” or “I’m so happy for you,” but “sorry” and “loss” don’t seem appropriate either.
What I’m learning from this is that everyone experiences life, and death, differently at different times of their life. The nature of one’s death also matters – young, old, expected or not. Throughout my life, I have thought about death from many contrasting perspectives. As I look back, being asked about how I was feeling following a death would have been far more helpful than condolences. I feel like this is true in every situation – people experience the world differently. This understanding inspires me to explore, not assume, what others are feeling.
I don’t believe for a moment that my mom would want me to woefully mourn her. I feel like she would want me to honor her life by honoring the life she gave me. My mother’s death has inspired me to live fully.
As I’ve seen many times, no-one is promised a tomorrow. Each goodbye could in fact be our last goodbye. Each meal, each trip to the store, each traffic jam, ice cream cone, park swing, sunset, rainstorm, each smile, could be our last. I want to be present for it. Not just the good stuff, but the painful, sad, and difficult times as well. Just like birth and death, all these experiences, whether we define them as good or bad, are a part of the human experience. It’s not that I’ll go looking for difficult situations—life dishes those up all on its own—but I refuse to turn away. I choose to lean into life, and into death. I want to embrace it, all of it. This, among many other things, is what my mom’s passing is teaching me.
May you all be at peace.
You are Loved by me, Unconditionally!