A dear person named Gordon died very suddenly last week.
He came to many retreats Colin and I offered over the last 7 years, and was a gentle, loving, tender presence in this community.
As happens with sudden deaths, there is a lot of shock. How is it possible, that one minute there is this being, this alive, embodied heart touching all around them in the ways that they do, and the next there is nothing. An empty body, recognizable and yet so not who that person was? No life; no spark, no love, no intelligence, no humour. Nothing. How can the mind truly comprehend this mystery of mysteries? Perhaps for some there is still a tangible presence or essence that can be felt even though there is no body through which it can express itself. And yet for most what remains is nothing. A sense of an indelible bond which was, and is, and yet no longer a feel-able, touchable presence. And the emptiness this leaves.
I first experienced this when my half sister Soph died from suicide 33 years ago. It was utterly incomprehensible to me, even though in theory I understood about death. Unfathomable. Impossible. That she who I had known my entire life was now gone. Many times over the years I have dreamed that she came back to life, or had never died in the first place, but had just been somehow hiding. My unconscious still trying to work it all out.
It seems to be easier to comprehend and allow when the death is more expected, timely, and has been prepared for.
Next week it will be a year since my father died. I was ready for his death and I felt it as a deliverance; I felt waves of grief, but I most strongly remember two days after he died, feeling swept through with a wild joy, as if I could feel his letting go, his freedom, as if he were soaring through the skies. And seeing his body in the casket brought with it a gentle sense of the mercy and the beauty of death even as it seemed strange and incomprehensible.
I have spent most of my life in fear of death. Terrified more than anything of more loss. Afraid to truly open in love because somewhere I’ve always known that everyone I love I shall eventually lose, and this seems utterly unpalatable. Slowly, as I face into my essential aloneness and come to terms with it, make friends with it, soften around it, the prospect of deep loss seems easier to allow for; the dread is easing. Not that the heartbreak stops.
The simplicity of Gordon’s death is heartbreaking – and even more keenly so when I sit with those for whom his death leaves a vast chasm, and feel them as if I were them for moments in time. And more so because he was in a time when he seemed happier, less burdened, more available and brighter than those of us who knew him had even seen him before. He died knowing he was loved, and his love was received.
And more generally, it is heartbreaking that we are all going to die. Each and every one of us. And none of us really know what, if anything, happens next. And that is both awesome in its incomprehensibility, wonderful, terrifying and yes, heartbreaking.
There is so much love. For so many people, for the birds and all the creatures, the trees, the earth itself… and if I am not willing to have my heart broken again and again, I cannot truly surrender to love.
I remember hearing that quote from Tennyson,
“Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
It struck me from the young age when I first heard it. It gave me courage even as I questioned it. Really? Are you sure? Can I not protect myself from pain, by loving less??
Well perhaps I can, and have done. But what a price to pay; to love less.
I wrote a song a few years ago about dying and living to the full. In the last verse it says
“…until that day,
I’m gonna gaze into the endless sky,
I’m gonna love and love and love without asking why…
I’m gonna open my arms, and my legs, and my heart so wide,
That I can know I lived, and lived, and lived, until I died…”
So that is my invocation. I don’t always manage to live it, but it is my prayer and intention. For the sake of Gordon, who once again has awakened me to this mystery, and for my father and my sister, for all those who have died and all who are still alive, and because I believe that is what I am here for.