Confronting death is one of the greatest challenges of the human condition. To be able to integrate it into one’s identity as a source of inspired living rather than fated demise is ideal, but difficult.
Discerning the difference between life and death is difficult. This past Thanksgiving, my family had the misfortune of putting our beloved dog Homer to sleep. I arrived home for the holiday, and that very night we noticed he was acting peculiar. I hugged him, told him he had another good handful of years left, and my dad took him to the veterinarian. An hour or so later my dad called and said, “Okay, here are our options. He can get surgery that would cost between $5,000 and $7,000 and would only give him a maximum of 6 months to live, or euthanasia.”
I’ve always grown up with dogs, so I’m no stranger to the heartbreak of the dreaded day we must bid them adieu after years of their characteristic loyalty. This time was different. For our past pets, I was always young enough that it never made sense for me to be in the room during their euthanizing. Now I’m an adult, and I knew I didn’t want my dad to be alone. Off I went.
The most heartbreaking part was that Homer’s personality and typical disposition was intact. He was bleeding internally which would have been catastrophic for him had we let it go even a matter of days longer, but in this moment—he was Homer. They wheeled him in on a stretcher into a room where we could spend a few moments alone with him to profess our goodbyes. They told us to hit the “call” button when we were ready. Unfortunately, “never” was not an option—nor is it ever in the realm of death. We hit the button, and the veterinarian returned. She assured us that we were making the right decision, explained the process to us, and I had been gently petting Homer all the while.
When the proclamation, “His heart has stopped beating—he’s gone” is the only thing separating the experience of petting a living dog from petting a lifeless dog, suddenly the margin between life and death feels thin. It was one of the most surreal things I’ve experienced—he just didn’t seem gone. The clinical experience of death was helpful for me to observe as a gal who has many questions about it. I had a profound fear of death as a child that stuck with me into young adulthood, and I’ve somehow managed to shape it into a meaningful curiosity that I trust will serve me well when my own moment comes. Cultivating a healthy orientation towards death has come from a combination of otherworldly grace (as in, from a higher source…definitely not me) and hard work. It has required constantly choosing to confront death, gently and courageously, in all of its forms (death of relationships, loved ones, past senses of self, etc).
I began reading a lot of Eastern philosophy in the same season of life that I was taking martial arts quite seriously. I had been practicing Muay Thai for a handful of years, and I was training for a fight. During that time, I learned that some Buddhist monks are required to meditate in a mortuary as part of their training. The thought is that if you can maintain a calm and contemplative disposition while surrounded by mortality, it will be hard for much else to disturb your inner stillness. It was important to me to keep that learning close to my awareness. I’d walk onto a martial arts mat among men twice my size who were going to attempt striking me in my face, hitting my body, and kicking my legs. I wondered if my opponent would be able to meditate in a mortuary. I thought, “Hm, probably not.” So I would try to inhabit that same sense of calm. Admittedly, sometimes I paid so much attention to strictly psychological tranquility that I would forget to relax my body. But no matter what, the goal was always remembering to breathe and staying relaxed. That has been one of the most profound practices in helping me confront death. Just as with a martial art, channeling the energy of pain and unpredictability into something helpful and generative is of the utmost.
With the ability to confront death came my own sort of death. Gone was my sense of self that feared almost everything, and born anew was a gal who could stay collected. Confronting death is one of the greatest challenges of the human condition. To be able to integrate it into one’s identity as a source of inspired living rather than fated demise is ideal, but difficult. The ideal is rarely easy, after all.
My dad and I went into the parking lot where I told him that I’d see him back at the house, and just as I was getting into my car I said, “Thanks for having me be part of the experience. I’m glad I came.” At that moment, he fell apart. My dad had been solid as a rock throughout the whole experience, and it was like my stable expression of gratitude gave him permission to unravel. We’ve never been a hugging type of family, but we hugged. For me, this was an evening of compounding movement through life cycles. The death of Homer also brought the death of how I orient towards my parents as their child.
Homer was also essentially my mom’s therapy dog. My mom has a disease that has her sick and unable to leave the house about 80% of the time. It causes unreal spells of vertigo that relegate her to bed at best and have her literally falling over at worst. About five years ago, she fell at work. I’m still haunted by that phone call. “We have a situation here. Mom fell at work, and she’s in the hospital now. She’s fractured her skull and has bleeding on her brain, and we don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
I’m so grateful that wasn’t the end of my mom’s story. As with most things, you accept joy and pain all at once and make feeble attempts at trying to untangle them. Five years later, my mother is still navigating an incurable disease with more courage and grace than I could ever imagine. She’s deaf in one ear as a result, and I get my love of music from my mother. She’s also where I get my sense of preferring to be out and about—whether it’s traveling to a lovely B&B that’s been beautifully curated or running out to the local coffee shop for a satisfying latte. Now she can do neither. But she’s learned to appreciate home, make a beautiful life for herself and our family within our cozy four walls, and Homer helped provide the sense of stability and routine to make that process more generative for her than exhausting.
With sobbing parents and a dead dog, all I wanted to do was go into my room with the door closed and think. What does it mean for me to tend to these emotions as a daughter? How am I being called to be present for my family as we all age and dynamics evolve? And how do I engage my own grieving process? Because heck, I just want to cry about the dog, too.
As the verse goes, there’s a time to be born and a time to die. I am in both simultaneously. I think all of us often are—is there any other way? Is it possible to articulate the precise moment of death and the eventual moment of rebirth? Do we ever truly know when one season of life ends and the next begins? If this pandemic has taught us anything, the answer is no. How many times do people lament wanting this to “just be over” so we can go “back to normal.” Sorry for your luck, collective humanity, but we are in a constant state of becoming. And we have always been. And perhaps that’s one of the many things we’re meant to learn from these times (alongside a startling awareness of our sprawling interconnectedness).
In my world of poetry, the grieving process would probably be about 9 months—the same as a pregnancy. I recently read a psychology book that uses the metaphor of gestation and labor to describe moving through life seasons. Isn’t that right? Breathe and push, breathe and push—often through pain. We brace ourselves, and relax. I am a huge fan of Carl Jung, so it’s been important to me to see a Jungian analyst to keep my psychological health sharp. One thing he told me that has never left me is that in moments of crisis, it’s good to get comfortable with the uncertainty, relax a little, and ask: “To what might I be giving birth, and how can I build a nest for that even in the face of the unknown?”
In this moment, I might add an additional question: how do I honor my own state of becoming while also making myself available to serve others? The Internet is full of self-care tips, lighting a candle being a popular one among them. I would suggest lighting a candle for others—always, but particularly in moments of transition when the margin between life and death feels thin and uncertain.