I lost my fiance to a devastating, inoperable hemorrhagic stroke at the end of 2020. I held his hand as he slipped into the coma that would eventually shut down his vital functions one by one. I held his hand again the next day for several hours, wiping morphine sweat beads off his forehead as he fought the very last battle he would ever have to. The hospital knew he was dying, and the nurses turned a compassionate blind eye as I stayed by his side, gently speaking to him, hour after hour, in breach of every pandemic-imposed hospital rule. For these last hours by his side, I will forever be grateful to the anonymous nurses I will likely never see again.
When he died, my world collapsed and with it any sense of certainty about anything. The meaning of life. My purpose in life. The value of even surviving.
As I entered a club I never asked to be a part of (or even really knew existed), I realised that this grief would change me forever. Due to the loss, of course, of this precious man who shared my life. He would never be replaced and our imaginary castle and all the dreams it held and protected was shattered forever. But in the weeks that followed I started to see that I was beginning to transform in a different way, and upon careful reflection, I realized that this was likely caused by my own proximity to death itself.
We in the West are remarkably inadequate when it comes to discussing, preparing for, and dealing with death. To say we were ill-prepared as a couple, logistically and psychologically, for his passing is a complete understatement.
Being this close to death has impacted my life significantly in two distinct ways.
Firstly, I met grief. I encountered deep, intimate grief for the first time, an unwelcome guest that will now live with me forever. With time I am told that it will become a fixture that I will have found a way to rearrange my life around. It sure doesn’t feel like that now, but I have to trust the millions of others who have grieved before me. I learned several things about grief, as grief expert David Kessler describes in his invaluable workshops and books for the newly bereaved.
“Grief must be witnessed”, he says.
There is indeed something healing about being able to collapse in front of someone who cares and letting them witness and therefore somehow share your pain. So if you have lost someone, you must surround yourself with trusted friends or family and let yourself collapse in whichever way that may be. Conversely, if you are trying to help someone grieving, please know that sometimes just holding space for them is more than sufficient — in fact, it’s vital, particularly in the first few months.
There is no timeline since everyone grieves at their own pace, but Kessler describes certain stages of grief that I identified with far more than other models. He describes the stages as anticipatory grief, acute grief, early and finally mature grief as distinct periods in the evolution of the process that occurs over the course of several years. This helped me assess where in my grieving journey I might be. These stages can also help to understand the risk of complicated grief, which experts believe will rise due to consequences of pandemic-related social isolation interfering with traditional mourning experiences and rituals — and the ensuing lack of closure. Complicated grief will halt your life, lower cognitive function, and keep you in a state of despair, so it must be identified and supported as soon as it rears its ugly head.
But being so near death was an awakening in a most unusual way. The absurdity of a human life I held so dear vanishing before my eyes led me to seek answers, I needed to understand what he might have felt in his final moments. I needed to cognitively accept what it all meant, because I was stuck. I didn’t grow up in faith so I had nothing to cling to and any spiritual inclination I had prior to this grief was being heavily rocked. I started reviewing every major religion and philosophy on death and theories on the afterlife, culminating in the Tibetan Book of the Living and the Dying. I spent several weeks studying near death experiences (NDEs), Dr Raymond Moody’s Life After Life and Dr Kenneth Ring’s Lessons from the Light, re-reading each several times. I even started a delightful correspondence on the topic with Dr Ring who graciously took the time to answer my unsolicited emails.
I learned that invariably, people who survived near death experiences came back transformed and reported very similar themes of life lessons they brought back with them. What I didn’t understand is that I felt like I too had been transformed, yet I didn’t come close to dying. Dr Ring suggests in Lessons from the Light that a “near death experience”-like transformation can also take place when you, the living, are literally near death. I didn’t have to experience an NDE myself to experience the effects of one. This theory made a lot of sense to me as it mirrored my experience and articulated how I felt.
Most valuable though, are the lessons themselves. I list here the ones that I feel most resonate with me, but there are several others that Dr Ring and Dr Moody explain in detail such as a drive to be more compassionate or even a change in dietary habits and respect for the planet.
- I am no longer afraid of death, or even of those I love dying. This is counterintuitive since the pain of grief is unlike anything I had ever felt. In a strange way, I look forward to my own death, even if I am determined to do my best at living.
- My relationship with material things is changing. Whilst I still abide by the reality that money can certainly facilitate a more comfortable and diverse life experience, it’s just not the end game. I also understand the desire, maybe even the need to shed most material things before dying as they can get in the way of spiritual development.
- I have a deep conviction that we have two purposes in life: to love and to learn. The quests for love and knowledge should remain vibrant throughout one’s life and can take an endless number of forms.
- Life is too short to spend one more minute doing anything that does not make you feel alive, thus either loving or learning. For many, this may entail a job or relationship change. Or finding a way to develop a different but honest mindset to remain in existing commitments.
- The reason that grief exists, the only way grief makes any sense at all, is to enable us to grow spiritually, and incidentally, better prepare ourselves and those we love for our own inevitable death, or transition of our consciousness into another realm.
I am still very early days into my grief and I still cry most days. Nothing will bring him back and with a world so shut down, it is unbelievably difficult to process the enormity of my loss with no hope of an immediate future.
However, we are all grieving in some way right now — whether a job or a way of life or a loved one. I believe that this incredibly challenging death experience has enlightened me in a totally unexpected way. It has put me on a better life path through some valuable lessons that I have only just started to decipher. Lessons that I wanted to share in hope that maybe, just maybe, they can be of help to someone else as the world grieves together.