My friend Keith Bennett, who is also the webmaster-extraordinaire for our Write Me Something Beautiful website, sent me a link to a Ted Talk by philosopher-writer, Anne Lamott. I was not familiar with her work. I like her!
A few days before she turned 61, Anne decided to write down everything she knew for sure is true. She dives into the nuances of being a human who lives in a confusing, beautiful, emotional world, offering her characteristic life-affirming wisdom and humor on family, writing, the meaning of God, death and more.
Anne shares twelve truths, and I was particularly taken with her twelfth. Listen to the Talk and here is the transcription of what she says about death.
Number 12- Death: Wow and Yikes. It’s so hard to bear when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and no matter what the culture says, you’re not supposed to. We Christians like to think of death as a major change of address. But, in any case, the person will live again fully in your heart if you don’t seal it off.
Like Leonard Cohen said: ‘There are cracks in everything and that’s how the light gets in.’ That’s how we feel our people again fully alive. Also, the [beloved departed] people will make you laugh out loud at the most inconvenient times. And that’s the great good news.
But their absence will also be a life-long nightmare of homesickness for you. Grief and friends and time and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate and moisturize you and the ground upon which you walk.
Do you know the first thing that God says to Moses? He says, ‘Take off your shoes,’ because this is Holy ground, all evidence to the contrary. It’s hard to believe, but it’s the truest thing I know.
When you’re a little bit older like my tiny personal self, you realize death is as sacred as birth. Don’t worry; get on with your life. Almost every single death is easy and gentle, with the very best people surrounding you. As long as you need, you won’t be alone. They will help you cross over to whatever awaits us.
As Ram Das said, ‘When it’s all said and done, we’re all really just walking each other home.’
I think that’s it, but if I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.
More from Anne Lamott
Of course, Anne has written a lot more on this subject and here are some other quotes, some of which you will recognize from her Ted Talk.
You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.
This reminds me of what Billy Bob Thornton said about losing his younger brother, Jimmy.
You won’t ever get over it, and the more you know that, and embrace it, the better off you are. I don’t want to forget my brother; I don’t want to forget what I felt like when he died. Because he deserves it!
[Here is the link to more of what he said on the Oprah show: I’VE NEVER BEEN THE SAME SINCE MY BROTHER DIED]
More from Anne.
“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her magnificent meditation on the subject [THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING–click here for Joan’s website https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/05/joan-didion-on-grief/ ]
But oftentimes, grief doesn’t exactly come — not with the single-mindedness and unity of action the word implies. Rather, it creeps up — through the backdoor of the psyche, slowly, in quiet baby steps, until it blindsides the heart with a giant’s stomp. And yet it is possible to find between the floorboards a soft light that awakens those parts of us that go half-asleep through the autopilot of life.
My eight-year-old grandson asked me, to anyone within ear-shot, ‘What’s that like? Dying?’
So I thought I would tell you what I know, because this thing, this aspect of reality, this weird scary aspect of life, can just wreck everything if you don’t figure out at some point that it is what makes life so profound, meaningful, rich, complex, wild.
If you try to outrun this existential truth, with manic achievement and people-pleasing and exotic distractions, it begins to argue a wasted life. Everyone we love–and I am just going to add, in a whisper, even our children and nieces and nephews–will die. They will no longer be here, on this side of eternity.
We Christians see death as just being a fairly significant change of address, but still, our most cherished people will no longer be here, to have and to hold, or reach by phone.
This can kind of ruin everything. When my son was little, he asked if we would die at the exact same moment. When I said, ‘No, probably not,’ he wept, and then said, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.”
Do you want to have instant meaning and incentive and almost heartbreaking appreciation in your life? Live, starting now–as if you have three months left. At some point, this will be true. Tick tock.
But won’t death be scary?
At some point, for almost everyone, it is like being in labor. Especially if, like me, dilated 7 centimeters after 24 hours of labor, you realized you didn’t like children. But in both cases, birth and death, something beautiful is coming.
Ram Dass said death would be like FINALLY getting to take off the too-small shoes we had been wearing our entire lives. Think of that. Getting to rub those sore arches and wiggle those baby toes, after all these years feeling cramped, like Chinese foot bound women, tiptoeing to minimize the pain.https://www.ramdass.org/
The most important thing you can do if someone is dying? Show up; listen; nod.
And maybe even more important, share with each other our worries, memories, sorrow, impatience, and anxiety about the process, how much more, and much sooner, we could have done this or that. We showed up, we listened to each other, we told others how much we hated everything, and how much we loved each other, we listened some more, we nodded, and put the kettle on for tea.
This brings to mind the wisdom my friend, Jeff Schwartz, shared in this post: HOW TO WRITE A BEAUTIFUL LETTER TO SOMEONE BEFORE THEY DIE
Life never ends.
Joy comes in the morning.
And let it be so.
Death Is Nothing At All
Anne’s reflections reminded me of a poem I was first introduced to in June of 2009. It was all rather other-worldly. Tarra called early in the morning. Tarra is the medium we saw in Coronado three months after Jimmy died and blew our minds with her reading and connection with our son. In a couple hours we would be driving up to Pasadena for the memorial service of our good friend, my fraternity brother, Bill Driscoll, aka “Billy D.”
We learned of his cardiac arrest when we were in Belgium two weeks earlier. His wife Ludie, our dear friend, Hil’s roommate and sorority sister, had a reading with Tarra a few days after Bill died. Bill came through, Big-Time, and it was patently obvious he wanted a heavy hand in the planning of his memorial service presided over by Monsignor Clement Connolly of the Holy Family Church.
Tarra had called me to let me know she had received a message from Bill.
“I initially ignored him, because he had been pestering me so much, but then my shower door shattered so I tuned him in.
“Casey, Bill wants you to read the Death Is Nothing at All poem at his service today I don’t know who it’s by or what it’s about—look it up—and find a way to read it at his service. Love you, babe.”
I found the poem online and was instantly moved to tears because it spoke to everything we so early-on believed to be true in our grief.
I printed out the poem by Henry Scott Holland and told Hilary about my call with Tarra.
Hilary wisely observed, “I think Ludie already has this day planned out how she wants.”
Of course, Hilary is always right.
The “dance card” at Bill’s service was more than full with beautiful eulogies, tributes to his favorite singer, Frank Sinatra, and the absolutely perfect benediction performed by the ten Mariachis sequestered in the upper balcony of the majestic Cathedral who erupted with the playing of Johnny Cash’s infamous ballad Ring of Fire; a tune that resonated deeply and painfully with his fraternity brothers in attendance. Our tears turned to cheers as every Delt joined in and sang that song at the top of our lungs as our brother’s casket was carried out of the Cathedral.
But if I’d had the chance….here is Holland’s poem.
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.
All is well.
Canon Henry Scott Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral
Thank you Keith for everything.
Postscript. My uncle, Stan Case, sent me this note after he read the story.
I have read Death is Nothing at All two times every day since Joan died, first thing in the morning and the last thing before I go to bed! I love it! I have it right above my desk at my home office.
Joan Westlund Case passed away on June 3, 2018 after 67 years of marriage to her best friend, Stan.