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Embracing the Conscious Death of Relationship

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We are so sensitive and avoidant about death in this culture, aren't we? Not only about the death of the body -- our own, and those we cherish. But avoidant about the ongoing deaths we meet in our lives: the continuous endings of forms, of stages, of chapters, of relationships. And understandably so, as there is a necessary finality to what ends, and depending on the level of attachment, the depth of love, of investment, a deep experience of loss, ferocious grief and disorientation can accompany that ending.

And so, habitually, most of us learn to resist and avoid the many deaths of our lives -- obviously the death of our bodies and that of those we love -- but we even resist the death of our own youthfulness, the death of professional phases, death of friendships and partnerships.

We don't want to hurt, and so we often suffer in avoidance of the pain we imagine death or change will bring. Change is terrifying. What if we never love or are loved again? What if we continuously fail at intimacy? What if we never truly receive what we want? What if we won't succeed in the next endeavor?

We fear: if we do let go, if we surrender what we have, what we know, what is familiar to us, what isn't in truth working for us, what is even possibly killing us to stay inside of, then what? What if it's even worse, even more lonely, more desolate, on the other side? There are no guarantees with death. All is uncertain, tossed to the winds of change.

As a death doula, I've sat with people in their last days clinging desperately to their last breaths; unresolved, suffering and terrified to surrender; unwilling to relax into that grand embrace of the unknown. And I've also witnessed people consciously choose to abandon themselves to the grace of release in those last days -- doing the profound work of peace-making with their life just lived, with their loved ones; expressions of completion, of gratitude, of forgiveness, of love.

What an immeasurable gift it is when death is embraced as simply another aspect of life; another opportunity for love, presence, and generosity. Sometimes in sudden, tragic, unexplainable deaths, those left can feel as though they've been utterly slapped by God: betrayed, abandoned, incomplete and unresolved. They are left to do that work of completion with their beloved lost one on their own.

I think about my past endings of relationships, and at this seasoned point in my life, 41 years old now, having loved and been loved by many partners, I have personally known many different ways of death in relationship.

At times the end of a relationship can feel like the slamming of a door on the heart -- and unfortunately, historically, I have both slammed and been slammed. Sometimes relational endings even carry a flavor of energetic violence: a carelessly blind ripping of the cords from one another's hearts and bodies; those carefully honed bonds yanked out like flowers from the earth of a union. Sometimes it feels like a shocking betrayal; an astonishing gesture of recklessness.

I have experienced those violent endings, and the havoc they wreak on the human heart, on the tender field of communion.

And I have also known what it is to presence the conscious death of a relationship; to gracefully nurture the dissolution and transformation of a particular form of love.

When my children's beloved father and I divorced five years ago after a seven-year marriage, it was not free of mess, drama, or moments of agony, by any means. It was complicated and deeply painful. And yet we cared so much that our children be protected from toxicity, that the sacred circle around our family in some way be maintained, that we met (and continue to meet) the change of that form with as much grace and love as we can muster. It is not always easy, certainly not! But I feel truly proud of how we met the death of our marriage, and how we continue to stretch to meet one another now in this often challenging form of divorced co-parenting, on behalf of love, generosity, and these amazing children we are so blessed to co-steward.

It is no wonder so many of us fall fast asleep inside of relationships, inside of marriages; so afraid we are to have to meet its death! I remember avoiding my divorce for years -- so afraid of what it would mean, so terrified of facing the realization that I could have failed in such a huge way.

It made me miserable to imagine what a divorce would mean for the hearts of my children, for my husband. And what it would mean for me to become (the dreaded) "single mother." And so it felt essential to me to do everything I possibly could to keep that marriage alive; to know I had done everything within my power to save its life, before I let it go.

In retrospect, we kept that relationship hooked up on life support for a very long time, in a coma on a breathing machine, before we finally consciously unplugged, and surrendered it with love and gratitude to the next unknowable form it was destined for.

And now? We grieve still, continuously. We embrace the huge important work of truth-telling, and forgiveness, we show up to the form we are given still to cherish, and we open to love afresh, anew.

And what is this experience of shame about death? What is the shame in loving deeply and fully and openly, knowing it might not "succeed" or "last"? And then, what is the shame in death coming? As though to die is a form of weakness, a form of failure, a sign of unworthiness -- of the body, of the relationship, of the lifetime? It's true -- relationships fail. Bodies fail. Forms get sick and fall apart and die. But we are worthy of death, too. And we deserve to stay in love as we die.

It is so clear to me that one of the beautiful keys to healthy partnership is to live in the relationship lucidly present to its imminent death. Not expecting death exactly, (as that could inhibit the deepest surrender in trust) but to truly accept death's imminence. Whether that death of form comes with the end of life, or through the end of the relationship's true service, what an invitation: to stay awake to it's inevitability, and to the possibility of cherishing this love we are sharing while we can.

What a gift it would be, if every time we made love with our beloved we did so awake to the possibility that it could be the very last time? The very last kiss? The very last chance to give our beloved our tender open hearts? To really see them as we look at them? To openly receive their beauty, their power, their magnificence? To really offer our beloved our most beautiful selves, as though it is our very last chance to do so?

I speak from direct experience when I say that when this is the path that is chosen, and then death of relationship does come? It is so much easier to bow out with love and peaceful gratitude.

And so, a year ago, as my last partner and I spoke towards the unfurling truth of death in the field of our union, with pounding hearts, sadness and clarity, we were able to consciously honor the death of the form. With complexity and disappointment, pain and remorse in the field, we were still able to rise to the occasion of a conscious passing.

We were able to consciously make way for grief, to consciously embrace what felt broken and lost, and at the same time to speak of praise and thanks in the generosity of forgiveness. I could honestly and generously say to this one I loved and will always love: "I thank you, I love you, I see you, I honor you. You have blessed me, my passion, my capacity for love, for service, for silence; you have met me in the depths of my heart, my prayer, my joy. Thank you! I love you! And thank you for not meeting me, too -- for the discernment and self-honoring and truth-telling this has beckoned inside me. Thank you, my love. I see you. I forgive you. I'm sorry. I honor you." And I could fully open to receive his expression of praise, of thanks, of apology, of love, of forgiveness, of truth.

And so in this way we can let the relationship die in peace, feeling immensely honored, of profound service, of true worth, even in failure. We can let the form go, the sweet and sacred body of our love go; not knowing what will come, what phoenix might rise from these ashes, what birth or resurrection or friendship might be inspired from the death.

We surrender completely, our tender hearts, broken open once again, laid raw and flat to the earth. Our palms open, open, as they must be -- to whatever yearns to come from this. We grieve deeply and fully; we mourn. We miss, we yearn, we pray, and we love. We keep on loving.

We love because it is the only way to let the death serve -- the many deaths along the way, and the final death that will come sooner or later for us all. What an honor to make use of that final death, these little deaths, and this precious moment always here; to let death serve this life, in all of it's many forms, as an invitation to stretch open wider in love.