Is The End The End? How To Think About End of Life.

We tend to fear the end of life, but it is fear itself that is the enemy.

By Maureen McKane, LCSW

Remembering those we have lost. November 1 is reserved for that thought. The trees drop their exuberant leaves and go into hibernation and we think of loss. I know people who love the fall with an excitement about what is to come. I know others who enter an internal mourning as the leaves fall.

This week I found myself facing losses that are fresh. A friend’s sudden death in an accident, another friend’s parent succumbed to a long disease. Yet another was robbed of a 20-something son, without warning. Do I cry? Do I keep walking? Do I hold tighter to those I have not yet lost?

I decided today to sit still with it all. That made time to reflect on long past losses. They live in a softer place in my mind. Their voices and the melody they played in my days give a certain shape to the long story of my own life. It is not their end that counts. It is our living days together.

There was the grimacing grandma who kept a portrait of Jesus on her living room wall. Jesus had a way of staring straight at you no matter where you were. I was a silent and perfect child in that house.

My Gramp, on the other hand was a big happy-to-see-you guy. Together we made my early childhood a sweet place with walks to the library and popcorn and romps through the house where I rode his shoulders like a horse. When he died years later in a nursing home, it was a time to recapture all that. Barely conscious, he looked up at me from his death bed and gave exactly that smile I remembered.

A small child died when I was raising my own young ones. I didn’t know it’s mother well, but she was part of a club I’d joined. That death ripped us all in the gut. He was 2 years old. I labored over the idea of death, the why’s and where’s of it. Finally I wrote in a sympathy card only this, “He lived a lifetime.”

Each loss takes us again on that journey of what it all means, how to live with it, how to understand the incomprehensible. We are passengers on a train ride where the ultimate destination is our own private end of life. We step on the train only when a loss requires it, then step off as best we can. Each time we comprehend one more aspect. Letting in the learning makes our fear a little less.

The problem comes when we fear endings. We run, we deny, we hide. Is ending the enemy? Is not-knowing the enemy? The only real enemy is fear. Come at it logically and you will say what one mother told her son. A radio interviewer said he was afraid to go to sleep as a child for fear he would die. Finally his mother said, “Son, if you die in your sleep you won’t even know it.” That was the end of his fear. It was not a question of knowing but of accepting the not knowing.

It isn’t necessary to devise a whole program of understanding this thing called death. There is no right way to grieve and no right answer to what happens after. But it is possible to sit still with unthinkable losses and let the parts of its emotions flow over you. It is possible, even necessary, to feel the hole in life. Then, when the time is right, because nature does not like a vacuum, light comes back to fill it.