Lessons from the Dead

The veil between this world is always one breath away.

I was enjoying lunch with two close friends when a text popped up on my phone. A colleague wrote to share a new’s article that the police had located the suspect who had killed our former student.

I hadn’t even known our former student had died.

Death Over Shoes

Our former student (14) was shot in a parking lot by a 17-year-old over a pair of shoes. Fourteen. A freshman in high school, weeks away from enjoying summer vacation. Fourteen with parents who love him. 

Fourteen no more.

Death Over Cancer

Earlier this week, my mother’s best friend passed. Cancer, silently arrived to her breasts and within a short window, spread throughout her body. Her last words to my mother:

“I know I’m not going to make it.”

She passed only a handful of days later.

No One is Immune

The sweet boy who died May 6th left us too soon. My mother’s best friend, left us too soon. Short of the 101 year old who dies peacefully in their sleep, most deaths create a powerful domino effect of pain. No one is immune from that person’s loss. And even the lucky few who cross over once they have reached that 3 digit status, even their passing is painful to those who love them.

Gift of the Dead

We all know we are going to cross over. We all know there’s an invisible expiration date in our future. We know no one’s getting out of here alive.

But there’s a gift the dead bring us: a stark reminder, a yanking away of the Denial Curtain we comfortably drape ourselves in most days. 

The dead were once no different than you or me: they had dreams, hopes, pains, fears, yearnings, hungers — you name it, if you have it, they did too at one point. The permanence of their passing is a raw reminder of our impermanence, a reminder that this ride of Life in the Earth School comes with a graduation for all.

The Dead Make Time Matter

I can still hear my mom’s best friend talking, the light in her fair eyes as she spoke, the way she always dressed like a million bucks, the way her New York accent made me feel home.

And although the teen who died wasn’t formally “my student” but a student at the school I taught, I can still recall his kindness. 

Both deaths, although worlds apart, remind me how precious and fleeting this life is. The veil between this world and the next is always one breath away.

The Dead Give a Reality Check

The sons of my mother’s best friend, now grown men in their 40’s, spoke at her funeral.

There is nothing like Death to bring a Reality Check to Life. Both spoke of their mother’s essence and actions — not the house she lived in or the car she drove, not how many friends she had on Instagram, not the size of her bank account or the quality of her wardrobe. 

What Matters Most:

Here are the highlights of what those grown sons shared at their mother’s funeral:

  • Thanksgiving was the most important holiday to her — she loved to have her family and friends together.
  • She loved ordering cupcakes for her grandchildren exactly the way they liked it — never forgetting which one loved chocolate and which one loved sprinkles.
  • She was a source of strength and encouragement to her sons, family, and friends — known for her positive outlook in life.
  • She was close with a cared greatly for her hairdresser

Death helps us remember what matters most.

Death Gives the Greatest Gift

Death gives us the greatest gift: Life. It’s through Death that we appreciate the miracle of an ordinary life. The sunsets, the smell of coffee, the feel of a rose petal between our fingers, the first kiss — the list goes on, doesn’t it?

The great mystery (Death), knowing it is coming for us, can serve to help us appreciate this very moment that much more.

The Only Way Out

Like Alice in Wonderland, the only way out of the mad world of denial is through the looking glass.

Denial is not always the clandestine villain its often portrayed. It can act as some solid protective gear amid danger. The child who is abused or the hostage with a gun to their face likely needs a hefty source of denial to get them through their toxic environment.

But the denial we allow ourselves to retain post a traumatic event can wreak havoc on our daily lives. We might numb the pain with anything from drugs and alcohol to gambling and compulsive buying. There are also the more subtle forms denial takes: the physical pain that sweeps through our bodies, alerting us that we are not listening to the inner teacher residing within each of us.

Avoidance is the child of Denial. We keep busy, psychologically hiding behind to-do lists, appointments, Netflix binges—you name it. It is human nature to avoid the uncomfortable and downright painful. But I’ve learned firsthand, the only way out is through. Those little, seemingly innocuous avoidance behaviors are like spiderwebs, gossamer thin individually, but overwhelmingly powerful as an intricate whole that you can’t untangle yourself from. Avoidance is the spiritual equivalent of those Chinese finger tricks: the more we fight to avoid the pain of our past, the stronger the spiritual and physical hold on us.

According to author and teacher, Byron Katie, when we are bravely willing to examine the terrain of pain, we are also liberating ourselves. She offers four simple yet powerful soul-provoking questions:

“Is it true?”

“Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”

“How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

“Who would you be without that thought?”

When I was twenty-six, my husband died. For years, my denial, not over his death, but over my feelings surrounding his death, were too painful to bear. In Judaism, when someone passes, there is a formalized mourning period known as Shiva. The immediate family of the deceased is not meant to do anything but mourn. Mirrors are covered. Food is brought to the mourning family. There are no distractions from the loss. The Shiva provides a way through the pain.

Unfortunately, I didn’t sit shiva or sit at all with my pain. I returned to work within a week, started dating, dancing, doing anything and everything to keep myself busy, busy, busy. The idea of sitting alone with my thoughts terrified me. My avoidance took the form of a jam-packed schedule, running to the brink of exhaustion, my M.O.

Fast forward to today, and I am a woman who misses the young man who was my sweet and thoughtful husband. It took facing my fear, asking questions like the ones above from the wise Byron Katie to begin healing. I went from avoiding the pain to embracing it and finally, made peace with my beautiful husband.

Our relationships, all of them, are an opportunity for us to know ourselves better. Once I embraced the pain of losing my husband, I was able to embrace myself in a way that rendered me more grounded and comfortable in my skin than before I even knew him.

If there’s something in your life that is keeping you in the Land of Denial and you are ready to make a change, I highly recommend delving into Byron Katie’s four questions: https://thework.com

The Gift of Discomfort

            When we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.

My friend *Camile cried to me over the phone this past weekend. She suspects that her new husband is cheating on her. If her fears are correct, this would be her second marriage strained, if not destroyed, by infidelity.

Fact: Camile husband keeps an extra cell phone for his work as a doctor. 

Fact: Camile is not allowed to know the number or have access to this additional phone.

Fact: The two haven’t been intimate since COVID began…

Flash back to three years ago when Camile discovered her first husband (now an ex) sexting with his nurse. Once Camile caught him red-handed, her ex said he “wanted out anyway.” 

It’s worth noting that for month’s prior to Camile’s sexting find, she’d wanted to confront her then husband. But each time, the mere idea of broaching the topic made her queasy with discomfort.

Within months of Camile’s split from her ex, before the divorce was even finalized, she started dating the man who is now her current husband.

Tonight, as Camile broke down to me, I could hear the familiar tinkle of a glass that had accompanied our talks back in 2017.

“What are you drinking?”

It was a rhetorical question. My dear friend’s imbibing companion was always the same: Riesling.  While she isn’t much of a drinker, she does become a fan of the white grape wine whenever heartache arises.

Camile chooses wine in lieu of facing her pain. I tend to go for the chips and ice cream. Some of us choose inedible comfort food when a challenge of the heart grows imminent: gambling, smoking pot, retail therapy.

The last time I heard Camile drinking her beloved Riesling was during her divorce proceedings. Once her current husband entered the picture, I can’t recall her enjoying the beverage.

To avoid pain and suffering is human nature, but sometimes, the very thing we are trying not to experience actually prolongs if not worsens it. Camile never truly mourned the end of her marriage, never honored her feelings of anger and betrayal. Tonight, those lessons are knocking on her door again. 

What lessons are knocking on your door? What pain and heartache do you run from and subsequently continue to experience?

There is a gift in acknowledging everything from discomfort to heartache. If we don’t pause long enough to accept the gift, we run the risk of repeating pain in merely a new guise.

 While it sounds counter-intuitive, when we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.

The Dish of a Hard Lesson

Our harshest teacher is often where we find our greatest strength.

We all have someone or something in our lives that pushes us to do the very thing we may not want to do or don’t think we can do. Today, I ask you to consider the following idea:

Our greatest teachers or lessons are often the ones that involve falling to our knees.

Why is this? Why can’t we get the lesson or experience like one would experience a massage? Why is our greatest teacher often the person who makes us feel ready to pull our hair out?

The Universe works in mysterious ways, but it is always working in its own intricate and beneficial way. We are like fish in a bowl, looking out at the world around us but only having a limited perspective of what reality is. Hindsight often offers us a better view in our respective fishbowls.

When I reflect upon the very things that I was certain would break me (the death of a loved one, the belligerent colleague, the litigious ex), it is hindsight that demonstrates time and time again, how each hardship, each challenge caused me to push past my comfort zone and grow. Each seemingly impossible situation or person caused me to get up off of my figurative knees and figure out a way. Had the person or situation not felt so overwhelming or heartbreaking, I would not be the strong, capable person I see myself as today.

We all arrive on this planet loving ourselves. We never see a baby embarrassed about the size of their derriere! But over time, many of us are taught to doubt ourselves. That doubt attracts us to all kinds of lessons and teachers. Once we get the lesson, the problem or problematic situation disappears.

Some of us—like myself—needed some tough lessons. It is once I thank those teachers that I notice they start bothering me. 

I encourage you to consider a figurative dish in your life—a person or situation that is challenging you (You know, the ones that cause your blood pressure to rise or the ones that make you feel like your heart is breaking and will never be whole again.). Serve yourself an alternate perspective: what if this person or situation is here to teach me another way? To show me an inner strength that was dormant until now? To help me realize what really matters and what I need to let go of?

When we thank our hardest teachers, we receive the invaluable gifts of peace and growth.