Last month, one of my dearest friends died unexpectedly of a brain aneurism. Dealing with her death has been a roller coaster of emotions and a powerful lesson in how to survive the loss of a loved one.
I felt it would be worth sharing.
I got a phone call on a Thursday afternoon that my friend Emmy had collapsed and was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital.
When I got the call, I drove immediately to the hospital, expecting to find Emmy sitting up in bed and that we would laugh at the false alarm surrounding her health.
What I found was something entirely different.
A team of doctors and nurses were surrounding her bed in the ER and I was asked to wait outside. Soon a nurse came out and explained that her family had been contacted and she was in serious condition; she also asked if I knew whether Emmy had a DNR [“do not resuscitate”] order.
“DNR?” I thought. “Why are they asking about a DNR? She’s going to be fine.” Denial, shock and disbelief will do that to you.
After all, she’d been in good health; we’d been skiing together just a few says before; we were planning to go skiing again the next day.
As more friends and family members gathered, the doctors were very kind and patient in explaining, over and over, what her condition was.
It took several explanations for the terrible news to sink in: she’d had massive trauma to her brain and wouldn’t recover. She was being kept alive by machinery until all of her family could arrive and make a decision on letting her go.
Her family arrived by the next day and the decision was made to take her off life support and, as she was an organ donor, let the hospital start harvesting her organs.
I learned later that, as an organ donor, she may have helped over 100 people. I’d never given thought before that to becoming an organ donor, but I am one now.
After the shock, the grief sets in.
I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to go skiing again, because that was something Emmy and I did together, laughing all day long. I didn’t have to make that decision for a few weeks, because the weather was not conducive to skiing.
Then I managed to put the sad thoughts behind me. I didn’t see, or talk to, Emmy every day. So I imagined each day as one of those days in between our outings when we had no contact. That worked for awhile in keeping the grief at bay.
I got back to my daily routine, put on a brave face, and didn’t dwell on loss.
I thought I was doing fine, especially when I received a visit from a hawk that I knew was sent by Emmy.
Then, the mystical
Emmy had a deeply spiritual relationship with the hawk nation. All her friends knew it, and when anyone found a dead hawk, they would call her.
Trained as a scientist, Emmy kept a notebook of hawk sitings, whether they were dead or alive. If they were dead, she’d record details such as their measurements before giving the hawk a respectful burial.
One morning four years ago, I glanced out the living room window and saw a dead hawk lying on the front porch. Not a mark on it, so I assume it broke it’s neck flying into my picture window. [An all too common occurance here in the country].
I immediately called Emmy, who came and measured it, before we removed the wings for use as blessing fans, then we buried the hawk with prayer.
Four days after Emmy’s memorial service, I walked into my living room and saw a Cooper’s hawk sitting on my porch railing, looking in at me. I knew it was sent by Emmy.
In ten years living here, I’ve never seen a hawk sitting anywhere near my house. The porch railing, directly above where we’d found the dead hawk years before, seemed a deliberate visitation.
It lifted my spirits just a bit, and reminded me to keep my eyes open for other messengers letting me know she was doing fine on the other side.
A day of reckoning
Emmy and I had season passes to the local ski resort, where we shared a locker.
This past winter had not been good for skiing. Many weeks it was either too warm to ski [soft, melting snow] or much too cold and icy [o.k, I admit it, I’m a winter wimp].
But a few weeks after her death, the weather predicted a sunny day with temperatures in the mid-20s. Perfect ski weather. So I planned that as the day to get in the last skiing of the season, and empty our locker.
The day dawned, beautiful and sunny, and I couldn’t get out of bed. Deep sadness filled me. How could I possibly go skiiing without Emmy? She was what made it such fun.
But I knew I had to get our skiis out of the locker, so I drove over with the intention that I wouldn’t ski, just empty the locker. I was so sad I called a friend to comiserate with on the drive over.
But when I arrived, a different feeling came over me. The sun was shining [a rare winter occurance in western Michigan] and the slopes were almost empty on this weekday – ideal skiing conditions.
As I pulled into the parking lot, I had the overwhelming feeling that Emmy would want me to go skiing. So I did.
And I felt her spirit with me. She was technically a better skiier than I was, and I had always welcomed her tips on how I could improve. While I skiied that day, I remembered and industriously tried to follow all the skiing advice she’d given me over the years.
And you know what? I skiied the best I’ve ever skiied.
Our loved ones are never far away, if we call on them. And they’re happy to help us out. It’s sort of like they transform from human to guardian angel. My skiiing experience really brought that home for me.
how to survive the loss of a loved one
- Let yourself cry, grieve and be angry. Once you’re over that, it’s easier to let in the good memories. Native Americans teach that human beings are born with two natural medicines: one is their laughter, the other is their tears. Don’t be afraid to use them.
- Remember the good times; reminisce and laugh with friends about the departed. It will keep their spirit alive in your heart.
- Look for signs from the spirit world that your loved one is surrounding you and sending love. If there is a type of animal they had a particular affinity with, or a plant or flower, keep your eyes open for sightings to remind you of them.
- Do things they enjoyed doing: toast them, order a dish they would have loved.
- Get together with mutual friends and celebrate their life.
- Express gratitude for the gifts they brought to your life.
- What were their best qualities? Honor them by embracing those qualities into your own life.
- Embrace the Native perspective that death is a natural part of life. It is not feared in indigenous societies. There is a teaching that death is not the opposite of life – it is the opposite of birth. Embrace that. It’s only us survivors who grieve because we miss our loved one, yet our loved ones have gone on to a beautiful afterlife.
Some cultures keep the departed close to their heart by celebrating them at certain times of the year. This is what the Mexicans do in their Day of the Dead Celebration. Celebrate that your loved one has gone on to the next life and will be there to welcome you when it’s your turn.
The sooner we come to understand that it’s a natural journey, the easier it will be for us to accept.
“There is no death, only a change of worlds.” Chief Seattle
I encourage you to try and come to view death as illustrated by this beautiful prayer written by Mary Elizabeth Frye in 1932. It perfectly reflects the Native American view of death:
Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
[by Mary Elizabeth Frye]
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet white doves in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there, I did not die.