Working through the stages: Friend’s death brings unexpected gift of personal renewal

With the publication of her book “On Death and Dying” in 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross began a worldwide discussion about death and grief.

The author presented her theory that people grieving the death of a loved one experience common emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Dr. Kübler-Ross proposed these five stages of grief could be used to counsel clients to work through their sorrow.

The Huffington Post reported Dr. Kübler-Ross later regretted presenting those five stages in the way she wrote them because people mistook those stages as being linear and universal; grievers negotiate the stages in ways unique to their psychological makeup. A recent event reminded me of the five stages of grief, and of my “Death and Dying” university courses when I was completing my baccalaureate degree.

Last week, my heart breaking, I wrote the following in my journal:

“My dear friend is gone. She died two days ago, sometime in the morning. The call came shortly after she passed to the next World. The pain I feel is just indescribable. Could eyes be more swollen, the ache of the head almost as heavy as the ache in my Heart?”

In the middle of my deep grief, I became calm as I realized the foundations of my feelings. My friend taught me so much during the years we shared our respective journeys on this Earth; I could almost hear her comforting and supporting me as she had always done, countless times, when I was most in need of someone believing in me or hearing my burdens.

When Death forces its calling card upon our psyche, our sorrow is as much for the dead as it is for the living. What we see in a loved one’s death is our own mortality. The tears we shed for our loved one are tears spent for ourselves; the musings of how a good and loving Creator could allow such sorrow and pain can be self-questioning about how we treat others. In my friend’s passing, I learned again that death is an opportunity to create a new way to approach living, as I worked to move out of grief to acceptance and to a tentative truce with the knowledge of my own mortality.

I share my story not as a professional grief counselor or as a licensed therapist but as one who has worked through Death’s appearances either with the passing of loved ones or my own near-death trials facing the Grim Reaper.

The most important things in life are not “things” at all. It is no exaggeration to say I know what it is like to be dying. The cancer treatments I endured years ago devastated my immune system; more than one time my death might have occurred. It was at those times I learned what was most meaningful and most important in life. I can also tell you what I found completely unimportant when I faced my mortality. What did not matter was the type of car in my garage, the jewelry I wore, the types of parties I might be invited to, the types of clothes I wore, or that my home was in nice neighborhood. None of that afforded me comfort when I knew I could be at “the end.” What was it when I was near the brink of crossing the Great Divide that I found to have real meaning, to have real value?

I learned the one thing in life important above all else is the quality of our relationships with others. Think about it. At the end, what is left but the relationships we formed during our lifetimes?

I discovered how I treated others was critically important; sadly, as I reviewed my life I found myself at a deficit. I am not perfect (as many in my long past will readily attest) but I am today trying at every turn to remember the value of offering a kind word, a smile, or a nod to passersby. These acknowledgments of the humanity of others go further than we realize. I know; I was the recipient of these kindnesses the times I was very, very ill. Nothing meant more to me than the thoughtfulness of others, their giving of themselves without any personal agenda or expectation of return.

I now work to harness a tongue that is sometimes impatient to wait for my brain to process and filter what might flow over it. The deathbed experiences gave me the full understanding of how my words said in anger or in mere thoughtlessness caused pain. People may not remember what we have done for them but people will always remember how we made them feel. I grieve for how I sometimes made people feel, because there were times where how I made them feel was not very good.

Give flowers to the living. I eased the pain of my friend’s passing when I recalled how many times we said we loved each other. Perhaps that also makes her departure all the more intense because I cannot say it to her one more time. I take comfort knowing she knew while she was alive I appreciated her, and that I loved her. Our words to each other were the “flowers” we exchanged during life.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” My friend always freely assisted and gave to others. She volunteered at her church and she was a loyal volunteer to The Salvation Army. She helped me so much; she supported me so much; she was more than a friend, more than a kindred soul – she was, simply, “more.” I stand with a huge deficit to what I owe her as a friend.

Are you doing something in your life to help others, to impact their lives in meaningful ways? It is not necessary to have a career in social services, health care, or non-profit organizations in order for you to “make a difference.” We are all “busy” chasing after our lives, but have you considered volunteering? Numerous charities and social organizations stretch their services to their clients through the generosity of unpaid volunteers. We can make a difference by doing something we love, in doing something we enjoy.

I recently read about the Bag Ladies Queen Anita Cath raised $24,000 attending 55 events for charity by doing something fun and enjoyable. I have to believe it was Anita Cath’s excitement and enthusiasm for a just cause, and the fun she exuded in doing it all, that inspired so many to follow her lead to “make a difference” by donating their time and their money.

What I remember crystal clear, the times I have been so ill and almost ready to cross the Veil, were the kindnesses offered to me by strangers, the prayers said on my behalf by persons I will never know, the gentle squeezing of my hand giving me the silent signal that someone cared. What I remember is arriving at a real understanding of the true meaning of the oft-repeated adage, “life is short.”

Live in the moment. Live in the here and now. How many times have I promised myself I would do this or that “in the future?” How many times have I thought or said I want to make things right before I pass into eternity? News flash: “Eternity” is now.

Eternity is not something we are separate from, it is not something that will happen at a later time apart from our existence on planet Earth. Eternity is right now and we are hurtling through it just as has everyone, just as is everyone at this moment. We are living in “eternity.”

By living in the now we can savor life; we can experience the fullness of joy that comes from living authentically when we free ourselves of the handcuffs of false values we often willingly bolt upon ourselves.

My friend’s passing reminds me of lessons learned and promises made to do better, promises made to work at being a better person in the service to others. The next time you are beset with the grief of a death, by all means allow yourself to experience and pass through the sorrow. But allow yourself also to use all that you experience as an opportunity to live authentically and to grow.

I am often a bit “out there,” a bit loud, a bit odd, perhaps laughing just a little too much at times for some people’s tastes and their ideas of proper social decorum. But by living and presenting to the world as I am, I honor my now-gone friend. She wouldn’t have me any other way.

In Memory of my dearest friend, Sharon S. I never had a friend more loyal or more true.

Article republished with permission from The Gay Word.

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