April 2018

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Practice Makes Better

My Spirituality and Health Care class last night started with the Loss in Death Experience. If you were following this blog in the fall, you know that I struggled with the grief that this exercise triggered then.

In the exercise, the person writes things, people and places the person loves on pieces of paper. Then the leader reads a long story about the person getting a cancer diagnosis and eventually dying. Along the way, the person loses all of those pieces of paper: home and art and spring, friends and family.

At the of my experience the first time, I felt angry and betrayed. I felt wave after wave of loss since my tumors: athleticism, hiking in the backwoods, traveling in rural lands where people eat unknown foods and speak unknown languages, a sense of my own invulnerability. For months, I felt unrooted, spinning into space like George Cloony in the movie Gravity.

Last night, I died a second time, but this time the exercise was a healing one. Practice makes better, as they say.

Repeating this experience brought to mind Emily (Dickenson, or course—we’re on a first name basis), who wrote about two of her own painful experiences of loss:

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell

Some critics postulate that these painful events were the deaths of two men in the life of this mostly cloistered poet. Others emphasize that we don’t know what the events were and that we don’t need to know. As usual, I’m pretty much with the others.

There’s no grace in this poem, no respite from the pain, no bright side. The glass is not half empty: it’s entirely empty. The poet is a victim of two losses, and may be a victim again. This is hell.

I do not experience the pain of loss in this way. My early losses (which seemed so significant at the time)— loss of confidence in middle school, quitting the high school basketball team, leaving my first love, divorcing my husband—in retrospect seem to have prepared me for what now seem like larger losses later in life from my brain tumors.

For me, there have been gifts in these losses. Like Dante and so many classical heroes, I have emerged from hell. In my earliest times of pain, I learned that I can experience a very dark time, and once I’ve survived it, I can look back and see the gifts of living through such pain: resilience, peace with taking different paths in life than I had planned, the grace of realizing that my new paths offer me love and beauty that I had not envisioned in my plans.

That’s all well and good, of course, but with death so far as we know there’s no grace of new awareness and new life. With death, we become like Keats as the nightingale sings: a clod.

So far as we know.

Some people of various religions think they know the afterlife that awaits them, and I have my own visions. We might be right that there’s a life after death, but I seriously doubt that the life looks anything like any of our visions. As Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “Death is different than anyone supposed—and luckier.” (He seemed to know this from looking at the grass.)

How do we prepare for the unknown that is death? Perhaps we can practice: maybe doing this exercise again and again, maybe recognizing the small deaths that each of us experience throughout our lives, maybe daily doing Shavasana (the yogic corpse pose).

After my car accident, when Ann ran into the trauma center, the nurse told her, “She’s lost one of her nine lives.” Ann responded that I had lost several already. It’s true: two brain tumors, neurosurgery, neuro-radiation, the swine flu, pneumonia, food allergies and the car wreck.

That’s eight lives, and it’s not counting the lives lost due to the awakening that can follow trauma: Southern Belle to Northwest Lesbian, wealthy wife to divorced school teacher, cautious child to young woman traversing a river on steel girders in a lightening storm, and the list goes on.

But each of my lives lost, though hell at the time, led from hell to transformation. I’ve lived through smaller deaths into transformations and legacies, into great love and great grace, into the belief that the unknown brings gifts that I am too small to imagine.

So last night I died again. And I’m here to tell about it. The next time, I’ll suffer again. Again it will be hell. And again there will be some gift and some beauty that I cannot now imagine. At least that’s how it seems to me today.


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  2. Dear Mary,
    Thank you! Your words are healing.

  3. I like your post it’s simple, quick and practical idea I’m having a good time reading it. Thanks!

  4. Couldn't be written any better. Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!


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