Why does it seem when we are dealing with death, our language and our actions never seem to be up to the task? One of the most heart wrenching conversations I’ve ever had happened a few years ago. It was with a small ten year old boy whose world had just come crashing down. Both of his parents had been critically ill for several years with little chance of surviving. Their debilitating illnesses frequently left them unable to cope with the demands of parenting and running the household. As a result, he had to take on the lion’s share of household responsibilities as well as provide considerable care to his little sister. He carried his heavy responsibilities with grace and little complaint. His parents would often remind him that he would soon become the man of the family and asked him to promise he would always take care of his baby sister after they were gone. Too soon, their deaths became a reality. His Mom died first and just six short weeks later, his Daddy died. It was immediately following his father’s funeral that we had our conversation that remains so vivid in my mind. I saw him standing alone. He was standing ram-rod straight, his little fists clinched at his side, and elephant tears rolling down his cheeks as he tried to keep from falling apart. My heart was breaking as I walked over to him. When he saw me and spoke, my heart simply broke in two. He said, “Miss Rose, I know I am supposed to take care of my little sister, but who is supposed to take care of me?” What could I possibly say or how long could I hold him that could erase the enormity of what he was feeling? There are times when there are no words.
His question has stayed etched in my mind. In reflection, I think his vulnerable plea touched on what is at the heart of our fear surrounding death. Could it be that under the fear are the swirling questions, “Who is going to take care of me?” “If you die, will I survive?” “ If I am dying, will you be there?”
We all need reassurances that someone will be there for us. Our lives become like the tree in the forest. When we go, we want our leaving to have sound. We want our names to be written in permanent ink on the hearts of all of those we touched. We want there to be witnesses left behind to say we were here. We want to know that our lives mattered.
In our world today we put a great premium on professional status, economic success, and the quantity of our material possessions. These provide us an identity to face the world and provide us the illusion that we are masters of our own fate. That we are in control. The dying process robs us of our illusions and we feel naked in its presence. Yet in our nakedness we can be who we really are and know that is enough.
In the moving poem, The Dash, by Linda Ellis, it reminds us that we all will have three things in common: the date of our births, the date of our deaths and the dash that separates those two monumental occasions in our lives. It seems such an irony that something as inconsequential as a dash, one tiny horizontal line can represent our every moment in this life. Since reading her poem, my eyes have been opened to see the dash in a very different light.
That is the funny thing about life. With time and with experience, our perspectives change. What we once held on to so tightly, can hold little or no importance today. So too, those things that we let get away from us or took for granted, are now the very things we cherish. Those who are near death teach us that it is our relationships to each other that matters most. Little else really matters.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross wrote, “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth-and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” As we dash through our lives accomplishing our never ending lists and acting as if we can lengthen our time here, it’s easy to lose sight of what really counts. Yet we know just as the Great Masters have taught, love is the greatest gift. It’s force can be communicated without words and it’s power can not be destroyed by death. So in the end, when our words fail us we can be comforted in knowing our love is saying everything that needs to be said.