Saying Goodbye Gets Easier with Time and Experience

Peace Village Bridge Reflection Most children have no concept of time and little to no understanding of loss, not to mention the concept of “goodbye.” Ironically however, one of the first things a mother teaches her baby is to wave “bye bye.” When we put them to bed for the night we are teaching them about leaving and being left. The first skill a child learns in the high chair is to drop things over the edge. At one level the life of any human being from birth onward is one long saying of goodbye.

          We leave childhood behind and with it many of the beliefs and rationalizations with which we grew up. As we grow older and seek out knowledge for ourselves, we often abandon our old ideas and perhaps even our cherished beliefs. We move away from old neighborhoods and old friends, we meet new situations and learn new ways to cope, saying goodbye to old ways and old situations. As we grow on in years, over and over we find ourselves, sometimes happily, sometimes sadly having to say goodbye.

Recently Stephen and I attended a graveside funeral for a long time friend. It was a lovely occasion with many in attendance, some of whom had entertaining stories about him to share. He was well loved and had traveled the world; he had lived his life to the fullest. This may be why before he died he could say to at least one friend: “I’m looking forward to the next adventure.”

The Waterside Cemetery in Upton where his physical presence on earth will rest in a plot overlooking the pond where he used to fish, is a lovely, peaceful place. There, together with his other friends we said goodbye to the earthly remains of our friend and then went to a nearby function room to celebrate his life and share our memories of him. An important part of a funeral and afterward is to share stories about the deceased that help recall his life with love and joy.

Saying goodbye to someone I’ve known for a long time, though perhaps not been close to feels strange. When I haven’t seen a person in some time and then they pass on, I have trouble remembering they’re gone. Just the other day when I drove past the former address of a dear departed friend I was almost persuaded to stop and ring her doorbell. I had to remind myself that no, she no longer lives there, and no, I can’t visit for a cup of tea.

As I gain in years I find myself saying goodbye more frequently, both to people and to certain aspects of my life. My bucket list has grown shorter. There are things I once thought I wanted to do that I now do not wish to, like go up on an air balloon. I once believed it would be fun to go on a three months ocean cruise. Not any longer. Vigorous gardening is a thing of the past. Still, as I miss all to which I have said goodbye, I am reminded to cherish all that still remain.

An Appropriate Costume

halloween-three-little-witches

 

As a young child growing up in the country I was accustomed to seeing death. Baby chicks perished; Ducklings drowned; something attacked my rabbits and the ones that hadn’t died were too wounded to survive and had to be killed. Several of our dogs and cats suffered their demise in front of our house. I understood death as a natural part of life and nothing to be feared. Until I was in college no significant adults of my acquaintance passed on except my Great Grandmother when I was only four.

Halloween wasn’t a big deal when I was small. What I remember was the occasional party, with games, and carving pumpkins. We lived in the country and without a neighborhood to go trick or treating, I wasn’t taken anywhere to accumulate candy. Besides, my mother didn’t approve of eating candy; it was bad for the teeth. Later on, however I enjoyed dressing up my children and taking them around to the neighbors.

Where I live now Halloween costumes will soon proliferate as children roam the sidewalks for trick or treat,. Dressed as ghosts, scarecrows, or pirates or masked as the current political figures the wearers follow a tradition that goes back many centuries. Halloween in the United States is somewhat similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead. It comes from a long tradition of honoring those who have moved on from their bodies to the wider life of the spirit.

It was once believed that on October 31 the spirits of the dead could inflict harm or at least return in some way to communicate with the living because the veil between this world and the next is thin. Then some hoped to consult spirits of the dead, believing they could tell where treasure was buried, or what the future held. Some remnants of fear remain from then, though they are not taken seriously.

My grandmother passed on when I was in college and hers was the first dead body I ever saw. It did not frighten me. She had been prepared for burial and set out in her living room prior to the funeral the next day. That evening as I approached her body I realized it wasn’t my grandmother, that it was just clothes she had worn once and now no longer needed. Death did not then nor does it now seem to me to be something of which to be frightened. Life is more than a physical experience.

Halloween costumes can serve as a reminder that there is little to fear from the transition called death. A change of clothing is appropriate to a change of form. Just as I can’t fit into my baby garments or the clothes I wore for my first day of school, I can expect someday to outgrow this body, and to discard it for clothing suitable for the form I will then inhabit. While the unknown is always a little unnerving to contemplate, whatever happens whether in this life or the next is an adventure to which I look forward.

Thorns and Roses

Maine Roses and Hips -15          The season of roses approaches. One of my delights is to drive with the windows open and smell the fragrant wild white roses that border the roadsides. I know they are an invasive species. I found that out when I planted some by our swimming pool and after a year found myself dodging them. Soon they loomed over the fence and began reaching out to snare unwary swimmers, not to mention encroaching on the neighboring raspberries.

However their scent is amazingly beautiful, and for the several weeks of their blossoming any excuse will do for me to drive around just to smell them. Though I have not been able to grow them successfully, I have always loved cultivated roses and to receive them as a gift. Nowadays many commercial roses come without thorns. Somehow this seems wrong. In my mind, thorns and roses go together, and lately I have been thinking about this as a metaphor for life.

My daughter’s beloved mother-in-law passed on a little while ago. I was looking for a card to express my sympathy to my son-in-law and daughter when I ran across the two cards I had bought to send to cheer up the now recently deceased. I had lost track of them and been meaning to look harder so as to send them to her. Now it is too late. However, while I have regrets I will not hold onto them because what’s done is done and cannot be changed any longer.

One of my favorite teachers, the late Pir Valayat Inayat  Khan used to say, “Rather than regret that roses have thorns, rejoice that thorns have roses.” There is always something to be learned from the thorniest situation or relationship. I remember reading an essay by Emerson to the effect that one’s enemies are to be cherished because they help us to learn. Difficult situations do the same, as do difficult relationships. Another recent passing of someone with whom I experienced failure in this regard makes me sigh.

What saddens me is that no matter how deep my regret, the past cannot be changed. This can cause either serious dismay or graceful resignation. The missed opportunity to make up after a quarrel, the disappointed hope or expectation, the fervent desire for a change of heart are all thorns, yet regardless how much I wish things had been different, a least the thorns do in fact all have their own roses.

The pricking of the thorns is also a reminder to cherish the roses. While it is not possible to change the past, there are always opportunities to influence the future. It reminds me to acknowledge and to cherish the friendships I do have and to appreciate the gifts of generosity and love that bless my life. To regret the past is to cloud the present and perhaps even tinge the future with unnecessary sadness. As I work to cultivate the garden of my life I will water the roses of my resolutions with joy.

Into the Next Room

Maple Flowers          The first person whose death I remember hearing about was a relative named Cousin Ellen Parker. My memory of her is of someone roundish, gray haired, and somewhat wrinkled. I have no real memory of her other than of her appearance. She must have died when I was around four. My great grandmother died in her eighties when I was five. I don’t remember hearing much about that. I do have a vivid memory of picking dandelions in our yard and seeing her walking along in her purple hat. When I told my mother she insisted Grandma Great was dead and I couldn’t have seen her. But I had.

In those days death wasn’t usually discussed in front of children. I knew nothing of people dying, only small animals and occasionally pets. The rest of my family was healthy and active, living vigorously for many more years. I grew up with the idea that death was something that happened to people who were old. Times have changed. I have outlived not only my parents but now some of my friends and acquaintances.

This past week Stephen and I heard about three people dear to us who have stepped into the next room–another way to say they have passed from this life. As I write this, it is the birthday of another friend whose death I found out about earlier this year. Stephen and I both find it difficult to believe that these and other friends are gone from our sight. I find myself regretting that I never sent that card I meant to send, or made that phone call.

How can we know when someone’s time will run out? When the card we mean to send or the call to make can no longer be sent or made? No matter how well meaning I try to be there will always be that last small gesture that won’t be made before they are gone. There’s no way to predict when someone will make that transition from life on earth to the wider realm from which no one returns.

As I grow older in years I notice that more and more of the people I have known depart this life for the next. How can this be? Children believe one must be old to die. I’m not old so how can they be old enough to leave this life? When I was growing up I thought of fifty as old. As I approached that time I thought of the succeeding years as indicating age. Now it seems to me that there is no time limit on “old,” nor any way to tell what age is appropriate for the end of life.

It seems no matter how many years I accumulate, I still somewhere within me, retain my youth. From the other side of fifty and more, although the years tell me a different story, I don’t feel very much older. Why have these dear ones left me? It seems only yesterday that we were all in the sunshine of our years. Now the shade encroaches. Still I trust that those I miss are freer now, and without pain. My sorrow at their passing is only for me, not for them. However, I have my memories of them, and these will remain with me for all my years to come.

Tasha Halpert

Living with Dying by Tasha Halpert

Halloween Well dressed SkeletonI had begun writing this column prior to the disastrous tragedy in Paris. It seems even more relevant now that sudden death has as it were, stared us in the face. The media brings it all so close to home. Even so, none of us know the when and the where of our final days in this life here on earth. it is also true that some of us have been given a time limit of sorts, an acknowledgement that our lives have an expiration date. When I hear from someone that this is the case for them, I become more mindful of my own mortality.

There are cultures that are more comfortable with both the prospect and the actuality of death than others. They are more accepting, seeing it as a seamless part of life rather than an end to it. They remain in communication with those who have crossed over into another dimension. To me death appears to signal a change in form,  a continuation not a final chapter. I’ve been changing my form since I was born so what is called death can’t be all that different. The most unsettling part of death may be the process of dying and not knowing what may or may not happen next.

Balzac’s final words were said to be, “I go to the great perhaps.” Despite reports to the contrary, no one knows for sure what will happen because it hasn’t yet happened to them. The unknown quantity that represents our change in form can be daunting, even fearsome. What can we say to comfort the feelings of one who has been given an end point to his or her existence? It may seem better not to know, yet the knowledge that there is a time limit on one’s life can in certain ways be helpful. At the least it gives one the opportunity to do what needs doing before the actual event comes about.

When I was a child I wasn’t worried about anything that might happen to me; I greatly feared the death of my parents. As an adult who has since seen the passing of an adult child as well as both parents to their next form, I am well acquainted with the feelings of loss that ensue from the deaths of dear ones. The fear that made me tremble as a young child has become a prayer for the health and happiness of those I hold close to my heart. I recognize the inevitability of death, and I accept it. I also try to make the most of whatever time I may have with those I hold dear.

It is popular to make a “bucket list” of what one wishes to do before “kicking the bucket.” Depending on one’s age, that might include traveling to see distant marvels, finishing certain tasks, parachuting out of an airplane, or a multitude of potential activities that beckon the adventuresome. If and when I have knowledge of my conclusion in this life I will do what I can to finish up what needs to be finished. However, I feel that regardless what the rest of my life may hold rather than plan what to do, it is more important for me simply to continue to learn and grow in as many ways as possible.

Death is a Part of Life by Tasha Halpert

DSCF0192 The recent announcement of President Carter’s cancer follows on the heels of my hearing about many others whose illness of one sort or another has proclaimed their relatively immanent mortality. In other words, a multitude of serious sicknesses–cancer, heart problems and other conditions of ill health have invaded the lives of people I know and in many cases, love. Perhaps this has to do with getting older. I do not remember hearing as much about such things only a few years ago.

I may have been fortunate in this respect: The death of people I knew and loved wasn’t part of my childhood experience–I went to my first funeral, an aged cousin when I was twelve. Yet death as a part of life was no stranger to me. Growing up with pets and small farm animals I had an intimate acquaintance with it. Ducklings, rabbits, dogs, cats, and the chickens we ate for dinner all lived and died as I watched. I buried my pets myself with due ceremony. I watched as the chicken for dinner was beheaded with an ax.

When I was in my twenties I thought little about death. Then my children’s father nearly perished in an automobile accident. The thought of those I loved dying now forced itself on my attention and I began more to appreciate the specialness of life and of my relationships. Still, I was occupied with life and death wasn’t something I thought much about. Time went by and my grandmother died. She seemed to me an appropriate age to pass on. While I mourned her absence, I was busy with life and my little ones, we were no longer living close to one another and I did not miss her presence.

Years later death grew more familiar. I lost my father to illness, then my own precious son. Some years later several young friends died untimely deaths. Moe and more I was brought to an understanding of the place of death in life. As much as I mourned, I began to recognize that death was indeed a part of life; that dying was merely the blowing out of the candle that was lit at birth. Life is a gift for which I am grateful and the lives of those I love and have loved are very dear to me. Yet like flowers we grow, bud, blossom an finally wilt away.

Untimely death is harder to bear than what seems a natural process. My rabbits were killed when a dog got into their pen. My dog was run over in front of me. Later on my son died far sooner than he might have. Yet even untimely, this is still death as a part of life. Although I miss him still, my sorrow is not so much for his death as it is for the life he was not able to live. We are all most fortunate for whatever time we have on this earth. In my nightly prayers I make sure to express my gratitude for my dear ones, those whose candles still burn brightly. May they continue.

Love, Grief, and Joy

There is a Hebrew saying that goes, if there were no grief to hollow out our hearts, where would there be room for joy? I would add, or compassion.

 

We learn about pain by feeling it ourselves.  We learn about grief and bereavement by losing loved ones. The lessons life has to teach may be harsh or gentle but those that teach compassion invariably revolve around a sense of loss.  Perhaps this is what is meant by the hollowing of the heart by grief. 

 

The sense of loss makes an emptiness where there has been fullness, aloneness where there was companionship.  When we feel these feelings we can cry for them, letting our tears soothe the pain and wash it away, or we can cry out against them and they will harden to rock within us and weigh us down.  What fills that hollow place is love.  But we must pour it out to our own selves

 

As we grow older, if we absorb and process our life experiences, we develop that part of us able to look with love and forgiveness at whatever life presents. Those who die and leave us behind help hollow our hearts.  As we let go the ache of missing the physical presence, it becomes easier to accept the loss.  Time is the best healer, and patience with ourselves. 

 

As I grow on in years, my losses

Leave larger holes behind;

in my life’s landscape, grief has been useful,

reminding me that all we have is now;

we had best enjoy it because it is a gift.

 

My grief is not a weight, nor a cloud,

it is not a blindfold hiding joy,

rather it is an ever giving spring

reminding me to look, to breathe, to know

that all life blooms and fades and love grows on.

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Photo and text by Tasha Halpert