Today we continue a series begun last week on death, dying, and grief.
There is no easy way to write about death that doesn’t risk trivializing it or being overwhelmed by it. Fortunately I have never suffered tragedy, such as the loss of a child or spouse or family member before their natural time.
But I have spent a lot of time personally and professionally with people who have had to grapple with the questions none of us have answers to: Why did this happen? Why me? What did I do wrong? How can I make this pain go away? If I could only have....
With all the pain of loss and grief, I do like one aspect of what death does to those of us left behind: it pushes out all the extraneous noise of our lives and forces us to deal with only that which really matters. Most often, someone who has been shattered by a loss is very, very real. It’s almost like you’re speaking to someone on a drug, when what comes out is pure and true and undefended.
I find such experience deeply grounding and I enjoy being in an atmosphere of such truth. It is at such times that I understand what might draw someone to work in hospice care. The opportunity to work in an atmosphere where everything is on the line, where there is no point in pretense, where life is stripped down to the bare essentials: it seems to me it’s like a spiritual backpack trip. You have only what you really need to survive; everything else is extra baggage you don’t want to carry. You are reminded both of how little you really need, and how simple and pure life can be.
Sometimes when I’m working with a couple and they’re sniping at each other over the “he said/she said” of married life, I cut through the static with the following intervention: I have them sit across from each other and fill in the blank to the sentence: “If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, what I would want you to know today is....” That gets their attention. They immediately drop out of the argument and say things like “that I love you” or “that I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband/wife.” Why do you think that happens?
I think most of the time, most of the day, our ego is running the show. We are concerned first and foremost with the survival of the “I” of the ego. This can take countless forms, but just a few examples to help you know what I mean would include: worrying about what I get out of this situation, or how I look to others, or wanting to hurt someone who hurt me, or feeling slighted by perceived disrespect, or wanting to fend off possible criticism, or feeling embarrassed by something I’ve done, or needing to be right. All of these are about the importance of my ego.
None of us know what happens when we die, though most of us have beliefs about it. Here’s one of the things I feel relatively secure about: the ego dies with the body. If any part of us survives our physical death, I cannot believe it is that aspect of us which worries how we look, if only because I see how that drops away in those who have just lost someone.
Letting death be our teacher, through making us aware of what really matters, is one of the best ways I know to be truly alive.
Next week: Guest blogger Deborah Leeds writes how working with the experience of grief is another opportunity to convert pain to love.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at email@example.com.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is currently accepting referrals.