Knowing What’s Going To Happen Next: When a Friend Dies

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme,and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.   Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” – Gilda Radner

Left ot right: Maureen, Melissa and Natalie, front row at the Château de Versailles.

Natalie in her light brown curls, signature smile, and beige trench coat, sitting at my left elbow (I’m center, in burgundy). Château de Versailles

I learned this morning that Natalie, whom I’ve known most of my life, and who is only a few years older than I, passed away yesterday at 6:32 p.m.  She had battled the devouring dragon of cancer for a long time. Her death, I have been told, was quiet.

At my desk, blithely culling my decades-deep archives for pictures for yesterday’s post, I was thinking of this woman as her image passed under my eyes. It’s strange and painful but somehow beautiful to think that in the same moment I was posting away, crossing and recrossing my legs, breathing steadily and smiling while studying a friend’s features, that very friend was being released from this life and the diseased body that encased her buoyant spirit.

Someone wrote on Facebook that “her spirit [was now] free as the wind,” and someone else expressed her conviction that Natalie is now surrounded by loving heavenly beings. These are things I believe.

Correction: These are things I know.

I don’t expect anyone else to believe or know them as I do. But given that the header-title up there announces the fact that Melissa Writes of Passage, it makes sense that I stare down the ultimate and common passage, death. I do not know death from the horrifying and perhaps purifying experience of extended suffering that Natalie had, the one that her family and closest friends have ushered her through; I do, however, know some other things from irrefutable, repeated and shared experience that is so intimate, I hesitate to put it in words, written or whispered. Forgive me as I lurch and fumble.

“Life after death” is about two realities: what happens with those of us who survive the death of another, and what happens when we die.  Life in some form follows both events. I’ll talk first about the first, grief, which I know well. I’m still moving toward the second experience, as are we all.

Natalie

Natalie, front and center; ninth from the left, tenth from the right

Surviving another’s death; Living with grief

In this slippery passage of life, we can’t be certain about what’s going to happen next. We can, however, be sure that death will be at the end of all the uncertainty, the final leveler. It will be there, waiting, at whatever will mark the end of your mortality and mine, and of the mortality of every last person we know and love. Death can come in any way, at any moment, and to any one. Let that be a warning. Let that be a reward.

With that backdrop, being in this life might sometimes feel like we’re Mr. Magoo bumbling through an obstacle course built on lava-filled and rapidly shifting plate tectonics while being chased down on all sides by Dementors, Orks and Aliens.  I’ve had those not-so-deliciously ambiguous moments, which sprang not from anticipating my own death, but from outliving my own child.

Gildna Radner, the comedienne, was a performer, as was Natalie, the violinist.  Both women died too young of cancer. For some bereaved, I can imagine their friends’ suffering and deaths feel cruel, brutal, heinous, ironic, senseless.   As the survivor of my son’s tragic death at age eighteen, I know something about the way these feelings of grief can throb and rage inside the rib cage, gnaw at the base of the brain, put dangerous tension on relationships, and how they can singe the corners and core of the heart.

There are other responses, however, which might come over time and from making challenging, deliberate choices. They can lead from raging in the rib cage to enlargement, from gnawing in the mind to illumination, from tension in our ties to welding, from singeing in the heart to singing.

What is the most important ‘”challenging and deliberate” choice we who live might make in order to glean something from death?

I suggest we begin by choosing to look at it. “Let death be daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything,” wrote Epicetus. A modern spiritual leader expanded on the same thought:

All men know that they must die.  And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. . . .  It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other.  We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation.  If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.

Joseph Smith

Until the evil of death is acknowledged for the traumatic event it is, we live, I believe, actively devaluing and rejecting two of our most humanizing qualities; vulnerability and compassion. Minimizing the impact of death also numbs the innate spiritual ability in all of us to refigure our relationships, which I believe continue in spite of separation through death. These continuing ties can greatly enhance our living years. They can guide us.  They can, even, give us greater life. Dr. Kaye Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist and author, says something similar:

‘Blessings may break from stone,’ wrote George McKay Brown. ‘Who knows how.’ Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why. … ‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,’ wrote Graham Greene.  Grief is at the heart of the human condition.  Much is lost with death, but not everything.  Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love.  There is grace in death.  There is life.

Kay Redfield JamisonNothing Was The Same,  pp.181,182

Our own death; Living eternally

What I can add to Gilda Radner is that after death, I know something does happen. That is delicious to me. Deliciously unambiguous.

Death as an event is not shrouded in ambiguity. It is straightforward, natural, an advancement, a transformation, a passage. As spiritual entities inhabiting mortal bodies, we are not meant to remain in this decaying state nor on this earth forever.  We are intended for far more magnificent and expansive experiences. As said the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.

Natalie wearing a flowered peasant blouse and her irreplicable smile.

Natalie in a flowered peasant blouse.

But we cling desperately to this life. It’s only human to do so.  Hundreds of devoted friends fought and campaigned and lobbied the medical and heavenly powers that be for Natalie’s life. There were glorious benefits concerts, generous donations, organized caretakers, trips for retreat, quiet mornings spent just sitting with her, I’ve been told, and the countless communal fasts and desperate prayers, I’m sure. Mine were among them.  We’ve all known how the best in the human spirit can be caught into the warm updraft of the divine, and how entire communities, entire lives, can be altered by a crisis like this. How we will tear, tooth and nail, and shred at heaven’s curtain for a brother or sister’s survival!

Last month, however, Natalie visited my parents.  She’s known them, fellow musicians, since the days captured in these photos from the ’70’s. It was a simple, brief visit in their living room.  Natalie was conserving energy, she said, which explained her hushed voice, her stillness, the palpable calm that spread out in the room like the sound and shade of a sunset.

“We’re redoubling our prayers for you, Natalie,” my Mom said.

“And hoping for another breakthrough and some sort of–”

Natalie cut my Dad off, mid-phrase, with a limp wave of the hand.

“No, no. Please. Don’t pray for healing,” she insisted, her eyes steady.  “I’m prepared now. Pray for my release.”

I have to conclude she told others the same. And released she was.

Natalie didn’t know in July of 2007, when she played prelude music on her violin at our son’s funeral, that cancer cells were already conspiring to assault and destroy her body.  That only six years later, she would join our musician boy in the neighboring realm – “the next room”, as a prophet once called heaven, the vast world of spirits.

What happened next? Graceful, ivory-skinned Natalie stepped into a slow explosion of ultra radiance peopled with “loving heavenly beings,” who from their watchful position, have known and mentored her in life, who have in turn awaited her arrival with shimmering joy and outstretched arms, who have since swept her up,  gathering her into glistening, swirling currents of unbelievable, unearthly music. She is playing as never before.

Natalie in lavender  maid of honor at my sister's wedding.

Natalie in lavender sash, as maid of honor at my sister’s wedding.

12 thoughts on “Knowing What’s Going To Happen Next: When a Friend Dies

  1. Thank you for writing, Melissa. Thank you for your beautiful voice.

    I remember sitting with my friend, Adrienne, in the days before her transition to the next world. I found myself awash in feelings of birth — thoughts about how birth is both beautiful and violent. Death too: the pulling-away of spirit from body must surely involve “labor” even in the best circumstances. Yet, we are loved through all of it. We were welcomed into this world by loving others who awaited our arrival. We are welcomed into the next world in much the same way. There is no end to spirit.

    And from Alex Caldiero (have you heard him talk about his mother’s death?) — We watch our loved ones exhale their final breath here, knowing that somewhere else, just as in birth, they emerge into life with a grand, gasping inspiration. There is no end to breath.

  2. Thank you for such beautiful words of expression. As I read about your friend I remember a friend of mine in high school . I did not know she was sick I was 15- 16 at the time and the one that really got me . My friend we knew each other since grade 3 . She died at 21. Her mom helped my mom when we lost our sister. I had some personnel experiences of which I would love to share with you sometime. . thank you for your gift of writing you express on what I wish I could say.

  3. I wanted to include this lovely passage, sent to me by an unusually sensitive and thoughtful friend:

    “You’ll get over it…” It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. To lose someone you love is to alter your life for ever. I You don’t get over it because ‘it” is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never loses. How could it? The particularness of someone who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne by death. This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no-one else can fit it. Why would I want them to?”
    –Jeanette Winterson

  4. What an appropriate read. Thank you, Melissa. I could NEVER have said or even repeated your beautiful contribution and description of Natalie. Thank you for taking the time and sharing not only your thoughts but also those memorable photos. Thinking about you and your family. Grief does a beautiful thing of connecting our souls even all those miles apart.

    • Liebe Maja-

      And thank you for the wonderful quote from Gilda Radner. It was the way I found out about Natalie this morning, through your loving post about her. You are one of those rare persons who not only understands loss and grief, but who, in spite of personal pain, has opened herself up to hold other’s great burdens. It is an inspiration to me.

      Always-
      M.

  5. Natalie and I served together in the Munich, Germany mission. We were in the MTC together and became sisters. Thank you for your thoughts. I love you for your ability to dive in deep and navigate the dangerous waters of pain, sorrow and loss, whereas I swim quickly to the shore, numb and cold and senseless. Thank you for so many times putting a voice to my stunned silence.

    • Donnette:

      Those of us who know, are stunned to our own silence by the way you churn water and all its associations: “dive in deep”, “dangerous waters”, “swimming to shore”, being left “senseless.” I love you for the way this one comment has me holding my breath as I go under for a while. Thank you for being here.

  6. Thank you for sharing this with us Melissa. My loving wife Andrea lost her beloved mother on November 10th and though we recognized decline in recent months her demise was nearly overnight…two days after her arrival to enjoy a two or three week visit with us. It was crushing for Andrea. They were closer than any two individuals, related or otherwise, that I have ever known.

    We spend a lifetime analyzing eventualities, preparing, denying, avoidance, fearing. How many of us visualize an afterlife, a great purpose beyond this earthly existence. For some our final moments in this life are just that…a conclusion of a relatively brief mortality. The possibility that our brief life may be a precursor, a grand rehearsal of sorts or preparation for a far greater purpose upon our passing is exhilarating.

    I have managed retirement properties for a decade and in that time saw completely differing perspectives on life and death from the sick and dying. I have grown to know and embrace their acceptance of their eventual passing and their great anticipation for what lay ahead for them. Whether or not faith was a strong or minimal factor in their determinations they would come to a point in their life where they were simply too weary to go on, physically and mentally too tired to fight increasing pain and a diminishing quality of life. They had fully come to terms with their circumstance and excited in their continued journey.

    May Natalie and my beloved mother-in law Jacqui, my parents, Parker and all those we have grown to love and have lost know an everlasting beauty and eternal peace as they remain close and venture far. As in the wonderful words of a favourite song of The Carpenters some decades ago…”We’ve Only Just Begun…”

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