In 1923, Rilke wrote, "Death is our friend, precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love." But in twenty-first century America, it is rare to meet someone on friendly terms with death. It is the outcome that we all know will follow us one day, but we seem to have some sort of unspoken pact with each other where we pretend not to know of its existence.
My grandmother took her final rest a few weeks ago. It was on a Sunday morning, in the early hours before sunrise. It was peaceful and loving and perfectly fitting for a life that reflected so much grace. She'd suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke five weeks prior, and the last days of her life were spent in the home she loved so well with the dignified care of hospice nurses and the love of her family and friends.
For me, as a 35-year-old woman, living in a part of the world where we sanitize death and people typically die in hospitals, this was the first time I have been so close and personal with the process of one's physical body gradually fading. It was terrifying and beautiful all at once.
As we cared for her in the ways you care for a dying person, I was struck by the almost tangible separation between the soul and the body. You could feel its progression. There is a line from Quaker writings in the nineteenth century that states, "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." My grandmother's passing showed me that concept in the most raw and honest way. But at the same time, I saw firsthand how sacred these bodies are. How much they mean to us when we love the person. Bathing her and feeding her and rubbing lotion on her tired and bony arms. It all becomes a sacrament and an honor when you surrender to the painful realization that this is where it ends for all of us. Dust to dust.
My grandmother was hard-working and independent in younger days. I commented to my sister, as we tended to her as you tend to a dying person, that I was so thankful she didn't ever know this was the way it would go. It was only five weeks, and it pales so starkly in comparison to the things she did for me for my entire life. But if she knew we would find ourselves in 2016 bathing her and brushing her hair, rubbing lotion on her bony arms and dripping water in her mouth from a tiny sponge, she would have laid awake every night of her life dreading the burden of it and neglecting to see the beauty.
There's so much beauty in sacrifice. The thing about heartbreak is that it breaks your heart wide open for something else to take root. I get it now in ways I never have before, in ways that many people never do. And I am grateful for every minute that taught me what I needed to learn.
So many times in my life, I've heard people say they passed on the chance to see a dying loved one because "I didn't want to remember her like that." That idea seems so sad and small to me now. I will remember my grandmother so many ways. With a house full of food and company. Quiet conversations, just the two of us. Countless moments of small kindness and tiny graces that she delivered to others. A beauty that radiated in a way that only comes from joy and peace that surpasses all understanding.
But I will remember those last days as well, in all their brutal reality. It's cracked my heart wide open for whatever comes next. And now I see that grace always lives in all the hard places.
Many people in our culture don't "do" sadness and don't "do" death. They pretend it's something we can somehow avoid by holding it distant. Like if you run fast enough and smile big enough and buy enough shiny new things, loss won't really happen to you. But you can't selectively numb emotions. You numb the pain or sadness, and your joy is dimmed as well. Pain transforms you if you let it. It can be an almost magical process of transformation if you let it burn to completion in you.
As Rilke said almost a hundred years ago, when we make friends with death, it brings us to what is really here, which is love. I'm seeing already how the well of sadness from the last few months is echoing in a way that magnifies the connection I had with my grandmother. It's like I press my ear to the sadness, and what I really hear beneath it is thank you, thank you, thank you.
Love goes on and on and on. Always.
Katie Mitchell writes regularly on her blog, Mama the Reader. Follow along there or on Facebook as she explores life as a writer, a reader, and a single mom.