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On Dying

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I suppose people die every day. However, death as a phenomenon seems so rare, perhaps because it only happens to each person once. And despite the many people we may know, deaths are so few and far between that we can readily convince ourselves most of the time that does not, in fact, exist.

But death is really the unavoidable, inevitable component of life. Most everything else we can escape from, change, avert, divert our attention away from, and ignore, until the end. The end comes at a different, and always unexpected, time for each of us.

Although we expect it will happen, death still comes unexpectedly. This is where we humans can do our most difficult and powerful work.

Death seems so rare because we, the living, are afraid to talk about it. When our loved ones die, we feel indescribable pain, anguish, loneliness, and alienation from the rest of humankind. And the fear of speaking about death is what gives it its power.

The other day, I was trying to buy some last minute holiday gifts and my Nana was very ill in the hospital, so I hadn’t had a moment to get anything. I went into a boutique near my house where I had shopped before with my sister, and hoped to swoop up all my gifts at once.

As soon as I walked in the door, the owner of the boutique, who I had become casually friendly with, asked me how I was. I burst into tears. I couldn’t help the floodgates of emotion because no one had really asked me how I was doing lately and I was not doing very well.

My friend, the shop owner, was very kind. I told her I was sorry to lay all this out on her, that it wasn’t socially acceptable to talk about such serious and scary matters in our everyday lives. The shop owner said not to worry, she knew where I was coming from, and she then told me about how her father died of leukemia when she was about my age. My friend started crying and she gave me a big hug.

I later received an e-mail from her. She had used my e-mail address from the computer database that she keeps of customer’s information, asking how my Nana was doing and offering her support and love. I have never been more touched than when I read that e-mail.

There are so many painful, uncontrollable things we may have to face in this lifetime and, in trying to cope and heal, the most powerful tool we have is each other.

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