"You must die to who you think you are before you can awaken in the dream of Heaven on Earth." -- Angel of Death from the film Dreaming Heaven
From the moment we take our birth on this earthly plane, we are on a trajectory toward death. As much as we shun the idea out of fear of what awaits at the end of the ride, it can also be an invitation to live as fully and richly as we can. Most cultures view death as "the grim reaper" with scythe in hand, hooded head cloaked in dread, eyes blazing waiting to snuff out our pilot light.
Death has become a familiar companion over the years, and while I am not ready to "leave the building," I don't view it as the enemy. It first came knocking at the door of my childhood home when my beloved maternal grandmother, who I called "Giggie" since I couldn't pronounce anything remotely like Grandmom, passed from this world following a stroke a few weeks after my fourth birthday. Although I couldn't have articulated it at the time, it was like losing a third parent. To this day, she has felt like a guardian angel. My paternal Russian immigrant Bubbe died after my 13th birthday and was buried in the turquoise brocade dress she wore for my Bat Mitzvah. When I turned 40, I became part of "the non-exclusive club that no one wants to join." My husband Michael vacated his body that had been ravaged by Hepatitis C while awaiting a liver transplant, and my life took a dramatic turn that wound inexorably to this moment.
In 2008, my father Moish succumbed to Parkinson's disease that left this formerly vibrant, fit (he had six-pack abs into his 70s) man debilitated and "disgusted," as he described himself when I asked how he was feeling one time. At that point, he could no longer work out at the gym and was relegated to a wheel chair. Two and a half years later, my beautiful mother Selma joined her sweetheart at the end of the hospice journey the day after Thanksgiving in 2010. It began with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure that spring. I believe that she died of a broken heart from missing the man who had been by her side for more than five decades. In the interceding years, friends, other family members (two-legged and four-legged) and patients have transitioned as well.
As a result of these losses and my own inner work that has helped me to integrate them, I have become a bereavement counselor, a guide who walks with those who are on this path, whether on the witnessing or directly experiencing side of the relationship with the angel of death. I also teach this topic to helping professionals since if we are unable to feel at least passingly at ease with it in our own lives, it makes it that much more challenging to serve those who are facing end of life choices.
All of that being acknowledged, sometimes the hardest thing is to face the death of who we believed ourselves to be throughout our lives. Shedding the façade, peeling off the disguise, owning our choices, speaking our truth and being fully seen for who we are can be the most daunting death of all.
In a blog that I posted on The Huffington Post a few weeks back called "What If You Knew?" I asked:
If you could know the exact moment and method of your death, would you want to be told? There are times when my answer is yes and others when if it was to be said out loud, I would plug my ears with my fingers and say "la, la, la, la... I can't hear you."
In the first case, I wonder if it would change the way I live my day to day. Would I be more open and loving? I know I would worry less and take greater stretches and leaps. I would do the things I fear to do. I would tell people how I truly feel and not hold back a syllable and in some cases, would sit in silence with those for whom words are not sufficient to express how I feel about them.
The jury is still out on that one here, but I would like to think that I live each day as if it could be my last. I do my best to tell those in my life that I love them and that they matter. I take care of myself in ways that I wouldn't have before, less likely to burn the candle at both ends until there is no more wax left. I am listening to the messages my body sends me more often, despite the fact that at the moment, I didn't do that and now have a sprained knee that calls for crutches, an immobilizer and ice to get me through the day. I am working on forgiveness in all areas, doing my fourth step work of a "searching and fearless moral inventory" right on time for the High Holy Days, coming clean with myself and others about my feelings, saying what had not been previously said.
In the past nearly 15 years, I have allowed to die aspects of myself that had kept me imprisoned in fear and had allowed for interactions that I would have defended to the hilt that anyone else walk away from. I have, with increasing compassion, gazed back at that woman who had experienced virtual paralysis, like a deer caught in the headlights, an emotional contortionist who would bend over backward to please people. She felt like her own life force energy was slowly and steadily oozing from her and could do nothing at the time but hang in there until she felt strong and resilient enough to gradually but not always gracefully move from where she was to where she wanted to be. Love transfusions from those in her life also revitalized her. She faced and danced with her own inner critic who snarkily smiled at her, claiming her right to BE without needing to impress or dazzle. She curled up inside herself, rocking away the terror. She pounded pillows, expressing rage that had lie dormant for decades. She drenched herself in a baptism of tears. She is emerging from the sleep of forgetfulness, a type of spiritual amnesia that wants her to deny her essential humanity and divinity.
My writing saved my sanity and kept me from meeting the fate of those I have served over the years in my professional capacity as a social worker/therapist. I am grateful for that gift. With words, I have let go over and over, died again and again to old ways of thinking and doing, taking that plunge into the emotional abyss so that it need not happen on the physical realm until the day that my clock stops ticking away the moments of this life.
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