Some Gifts of Death

Nothing to be said about it, and everything –

- Robert Pinsky, ‘Dying’

Since my mother passed away at the start of March, it’s been hard for me to know what to say – to anyone. And I’m still very much feeling in the dark. But there is something wanting to be said now – an urge to speak and have myself heard.

Yes, much of what I’ve experienced since the loss of my mum has been painful – the grief, the confusion, the sense of being a victim of a cruel fate, the loss of energy. But I’ve also experienced things I hadn’t expected. Like a deep upwelling of meaning; total clarity, in those days of crisis, about exactly where I should be, who I should be with and what I should be doing; gratitude and humility in the face of the kindnesses of friends and family members when things were at their very worst.

Though I know that there is much more pain to come; more opening of the wound of loss, deeper levels of grief, moments that will catch me out of nowhere – I feel it’s important to acknowledge the few gifts that I already feel death has given me, like little crumbs scattered on the road.

Keeping it in the family

My mother was always nagging me to get in touch more with my bothers; she was concerned that, living so far away from one another, we would somehow lose touch as a family, and it was her job to make sure that didn’t happen. That was mum’s message to us in life: we’re a family, and we need one another. Well, in those days leading up to her death, and ever since, I have felt more deeply connected to my family than ever before.

It's tempting to think, ‘well, it’s a shame that it takes someone dying in order for us to learn this lesson.’ Perhaps. But I’d rather see it as a gift bestowed on us by the person who dies – their parting gift, if you like: to give us a clearer perspective than our day-to-day lives can often afford. Yes, now I see, this is why we need one another. Reality can be harsh and unforgiving: people die, things fall apart, the ground crumbles beneath our feet; and in those moments, being able to reach for the hands of people who have known you since birth, who have known you before you knew yourself, is more than a comfort – to me, it has been the life-line.

I know that this isn’t everyone’s experience of the death of a loved one, and I don’t believe my experience is better or worse, or that this is how things should be. I only want to tell you my story so far, because it is a part of all of our stories – because it is a part of how we share experiences and shape our understanding of what it is to be alive, because it is a part of the story we’re all living and giving life to.

The container of community

The other life-line was the community – seemingly invisible before this moment – that my family had built around itself. Before mum became ill, I wasn’t really even aware that we had a community around us. But over the years, as things got better and then worse, and hospital stays came and went, friends showed up un-bidden, to leave cakes, to send flowers and cards, to gently enquire how we were and whether anything needed doing. And slowly it began to take shape in my awareness. Then after her death, as the cards and letters started flooding in, it came into sharp focus: a container; an encircling wall of friends and support and compassion, forming itself around us.

The way I see this container of community now is like a great circle of individual people, all linking arms and standing around me and my family. From those words and acts of kindness, I received comfort and understanding – but also the gift of seeing my mother through other people’s eyes. I saw her through the eyes of people who had known her since childhood, people who went to university with her – people who knew her before she was my mother, when she was a girl, a sister, a woman, a colleague and a friend. As others expressed their own sense of sadness at her loss, I was reminded of all those qualities of my mum’s which, as a daughter, it’s sometimes easy to forget are part of a character that’s been built, shaped, and fought for over the years of a life.

People remembered her generosity with her time and energy; her willingness and ability to listen and to help however she could to ease another’s burden; her organisation (to me, as the comparatively unorganised daughter, this one sometimes irked!) – she was always the one to make plans to meet with distant friends, to arrange walks and events and times to connect – and to make sure they happened. And people remembered how, even as her illness got worse over the years, she remained a true and trusted friend. She still wanted to give of her time and energy; still wanted to know how others were doing, still took an interest in their lives and wanted to be of use.

In the urgency, confusion and immediacy that surrounds someone who is terminally ill, and the people who are caring for them, it’s hard to keep these things in perspective. You are dealing with the exact crisis in front of you, and making what feels like a thousand decisions per day about what needs to, or should, be done. And so the well-timed, well-phrased word, or visit, or card, or text, from someone outside the immediate crisis, came like a flood of relief – they gave me back that perspective of my mum, and her life, which was gradually taken away by the cancer and our living through it.

Two rings... on the left, my grandmother's wedding ring; on the right, my mother's engagement ring.

Moving forwards…

Tho’ much is taken, much abides

- Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses

And so, while many, many things are still in the dark – there are some small, but not insignificant things, that have come to light in the past few weeks.

I don’t know what the future holds for me and my family: but I do know that I want us to continue to hold one another close – in thought, if not in presence. I know that I want to do what I can to honour that great circle of community that formed around us when we needed it most – to take my place in the support of others who do, or will, need it – and to do some work in the world which will help create and maintain the place of community in our lives. I want to fall in love with my own life again, remembering that my time on this world is limited, and is a gift.

I know that one of the things that frustrated my mother the most in her final months was her loss of autonomy and ability to enact her own life. She still wanted to do all the same things she had done before, but her body simply could not follow the desires. To move freely in the world is a blessing, and one which I have taken lightly in the past. As I think about it now, I feel shaken by its significance: to move is to be able to act and give shape to the life that is coming through you. It is to be able to live out your dreams and ideas, to place them in three dimensional space and have the experience of them being living things. With all the disappointment and surprise and messiness this entails!

So to you, listener, reader, friend, yogi – whoever you are – I promise that I will do my very best to create a space for you to connect with yourself, with other people, and with the world around you. I will work hard to build a sense of community, in the classes that I teach and in the way I approach the people I come into contact with. And I will show up with love: love for those I am sharing space with, love for myself and what I have to offer, and love for the messy, complicated, stumbling way we all make our way through the world, our practice and our lives. If I cannot show up with love, I will step away. I only want to teach what I can practice, and I only want to practice what is authentic to me.

I hope that you’ll join me on this journey, I hope to see you somewhere along the path. And if not, I wish you all the very, very best, and I’m cheering you on from my place over here.

Equilibrium is simply

that moment when the present

is as real as the past

or the future, when the air

that nourishes us

we breathe

without thinking

Linda Pastan, ‘Balance’

With Love,

Charley x

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