It is a journey like no other – to sit with a loved one while knowing that their death is weeks, days, hours, or even minutes away, knowing that there is no way to stop it.

In those moments that are different than any we have ever known, there is forced upon us an acceptance, a resignation, one that we have no power to ignore and no strength to prevent. It arrives as a wave of such immensity – even ferocity – that it defies belief. It leaves us gasping, reeling, stunned, even if we believed ourselves to be ready for death, perhaps the death of an aging parent.

But no matter the age of the dying, we will be unprepared for what follows. There is no map, no manual. There is no easy way. If you have walked this road, you know. If you have not, you can only imagine, and even then your wildest imaginings will not come close. At best they will be a flicker, a spark of the eventual inferno. And those flames will consume you. Sooner or later they will pull every atom of air from your lungs, leaving them dry, scarred, brittle, and leaving you wondering how you could have been so wrong, how you could have been so unprepared.

And then, much later – days, weeks, months, even years down the road – the flames will return. I know this.

I was present at the death of my brother, my mom, and my dad. I found another brother after he had taken his own life. My niece was killed in a horrific car accident. Another niece took her own life. A young cousin was killed in a devastating motorcycle accident. I know this fire. I know its tendency to reignite in seconds, to smoulder unseen for months, to flare up and to snuff itself out. And in the midst of the flames I know that the best I can do is survive and believe that I will live again. I have been scorched and marked countless times, but every time I have emerged through the smoke. Even when it is all I can do, for one more day I breathe. I move. I simply live.

And then I dance. I laugh. I weep. I hope. I stand amazed at the beauty of the world. I kneel in the woods, awed at the mystery, the majesty, the complexity, the simplicity. I love. I laugh. I lose. I sleep and I wake again, even knowing that the flames will return unbidden, licking once again at my weary but hopeful soul.

Even as the flames rekindle this evening, fanned by news of a tragic, young death in a friend’s family, fanned by knowing that one year ago I was at Mom’s side in Hospice House, I live, and even in my tears I am thankful. And oddly, I am thankful that I know this road so well. I am even grateful that I travelled it first when I was seventeen, that I have felt its searing cobbles, and breathed its foul smoke more times than most. I am thankful for what I have learned.

The flames have taught me understanding, compassion, patience, faith. I have learned that I can live one more day. Despite the fires that still rage, the smoke that still scars, and the blinding, unimaginable pain that is found on this journey, I smile. Even as I weep, I smile.

When I wake in the morning I will have lived another day. When I rise I will look forward to the hours unfolding before me. And even though the flames will return unannounced, unexpected, at the most inconvenient times, and in new ways still unimaginable, I will live. I will live.

I will see sunsets glow. I will feel the warm breath of a playful pup. I will revel in a riot of wildflowers. I will know more pain as we all will, but I will live.

If you have walked this road, you know.

Categories: Pondering


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