Coping With the Death of a Loved One













Several days ago I received quite a shock. I got a strong intuitive sense that a dear long-term friend may soon, unexpectedly, be making the transition to the next plane of existence. In other words, may be making the choice (albeit unconsciously) to die. Needless to say, I was upset. I cried - I wept - and felt helpless. And I also touched into my sense of ultra- responsibility (as a doctor, especially), to intervene and stop this.

Deep memories in me began to surface. We physicians generally receive no help in how to deal with persons who are dying. I recalled back to my residency days: I was quite upset when a young woman, assigned to me, finally was dying of a cancer that was causing her to bleed, massively. There really was nothing we could do to stop it. I asked my chief what I could do. I was told was that I could give her a sedative, so she wouldn't be so aware of what was happening. (Or was the sedative suggested so that it wouldn't bother us so much? or was it just that in medicine we feel we have to give some type of drug, so this was the best we could offer? Actually, this situation challenged me, as a new resident, and I came up with my own way of sharing with my patient, so that she knew I cared about her as a person, and what she was experiencing.)

Not only do we doctors (in general) not know how to help a person make this "life-death" transition: we also have a very strong sense that, if we were doing our job right, the person would not die - the person would live and be healthy - and it is all up to us! (Most, if not all of this limiting belief is unconscious, of course!)

It's not just our medical training - our whole culture denies death - wants to ignore it as much as possible.

But, without facing up to death, what is life really about? This present situation for me brings up again how much I tend to take life - and other people (and even my own existence) - for granted: that my present relationships are likely to go on as is, for indefinite periods of time. Because of this really strong sense of my friend's imminent demise, I find I have choices as to what is important for me to do, to complete my own "unfinished business," as Elisabeth Kubler- Ross says.

I know that death is just a transition to - to what? well, to the Beyond. And I know that my friend will still live on, in a different fashion. Somehow, though, this physical life now takes on new value for me. In fact, it helps me to re-assess what it is that I hold valuable. So now, do I choose to spend as much time with my friend as possible? No, that in itself is not what is critically important. I might choose to be more physically present. However, as I evaluate what's most important to me, I find that I want to be able to tell my friend what I especially treasure about him. I want to be able to show my feelings - my tears, if they come up. (And this isn't easy for me, with all my long-standing training not to show emotions!) And, I want to say - perhaps silently (telepathically), if it seems best in such a fashion .... I want to be able to say "bon voyage!" What I mean by this is: I don't want to hold you back by my "need" for you to stay here. Also, I want to be able to treat my friend as I would want to be treated, if I were in his shoes. I'd like to be able to listen to him, perhaps even better than I have before - listen with as much respect and understanding as I would like for myself.

It doesn't really matter whether my strong intuitive hit comes to pass in the fashion that I think it will. I have gained a new perspective on valuing my friend - and hopefully all my friends! and even myself - and on valuing the present moment and day, with all its riches and gifts. This may be one of my best presents - in this season of giving and receiving.

Many years ago, as I was grieving the passage of my own father, a friend gave me the following gift from an anonymous author:

Life is Eternal

I am standing upon the sea shore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white clouds just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. At that moment some one at my side says: "There! She's gone." Gone where? Gone from my sight - that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when some one at my side says: "There! She's gone." there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, "There, she comes!"


Written by Elizabeth Zook Coleman, MD



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