How do we talk about death?
I have a friend whose wife is dying of cancer. Whenever he asks me to, I work as a volunteer caregiver, so he can sleep (he works nights). Occasionally, my friend calls in tears and asks me questions about death. I know that he doesn’t expect answers back from me, yet I feel that there need to be some. The problem is that I can’t fall back on my experience. I haven’t had the experience of losing a loved one whom I was close to. My belief about death is that we are only wearing our bodies, and when we are done, we move on. So, our loved ones are just in a place that we can’t see right now. They are still with us for every event that happens after they are physically gone. I believe that when our hearts are open, we will know this. I also know that there must be a grieving period. So, what do I say to my friend?
When I read your letter, I felt an urge to rush to my bookshelves and select books with wise advice about the process of death and what might possibly follow. Fortunately, I stopped myself. I realized that by doing so I would feed your need for the right answer, thereby cutting short your opportunity for transformation. The right words would not help you or your friend. He doesn’t need a streamlined theory about the hereafter in order to feel better. He needs to be able to feel bad about losing his wife and about being present during her terrible suffering. He needs to be able to cry and to question. He needs to be able to stumble around blindly and then, eventually, sense his way back to a life that feels normal again.
Your task (this is where your transformation begins) is to be unattached to his suffering. Do not try to take away his pain. Let him have his feelings. Just listen. Don’t try to resolve his views about death. Listen to each concern with the confidence that your friend will talk his way into the right solution for himself. Your role is to be a companion. You will walk the journey beside him or behind him, but never in front of him.
Recognize that you are helping him, tremendously, by providing care for his wife. And understand that this crisis permits you to learn how to live without a script. Let your theories about what follows death be your theories. There’s no need to proselytize. Instead, be a source of strength and compassion by being present in each moment. To do this, you must shed the layers of your own fear. (Does the pressure to have the answers stem from grade school?) Be fully in reality, not your own illusory worries about getting things right. If your friend asks you what you think happens after death, gently ask him what he believes. It’s the discussion that matters, not the end result. (Hmm … just like life.)
How do you keep a man committed to his family, especially to his children?
You can’t. You can only raise his children to understand the value of commitment so that the cycle is not repeated in the next generation. Commitment is rooted in interdependence. Most people only verbally engage in commitment. To actively engage in commitment, a person must be emotionally mature enough to understand the value of independence (being fully responsible for oneself) and dependence (being able to rely on others and ask for help). Trying to force someone to surrender the fear of being dependent only serves to make that person defensive and to harden their resolve against depending on anyone too much.