Editor’s note: In the following piece, adapted from Frank Ostaseski’s book The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, he shares some of his experiences from the decades he has been working with dying people and those who are dealing with the death of loved ones. On a regular basis, Frank has gone courageously to places of deep pain and suffering few of us ever have to go to. As you are about to read this account, it might help you to know that it is deeply affecting, and yet also uplifting, to hear firsthand about people going through the hardest experiences of their lives.
Most of the people I have worked with over the past 30 years were ordinary people who were coming face-to-face with what they imagined was impossible or unbearable, walking toward their own deaths or caring for someone they loved who was now dying. Yet most found within themselves and the experience of dying the resources, insight, strength, courage, and compassion to meet the impossible in extraordinary ways.
No two people or stories were exactly alike. Some of the people I’ve worked with had a deep faith that carried them through difficult times, while others had sworn off religion. Some wore the face of resignation or were angry about their loss of control. Many had lost all trust in humanity. Nguyen feared ghosts. Isaiah was comforted by “visits” from his dead mother. There was a hemophiliac father who had contracted the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. Years before his illness, he had disowned his gay son. But at the end of life, father and son were both dying of AIDS, lying next to one another in twin beds in a shared bedroom, being cared for by Agnes, the father’s wife and the son’s mother.
For some, dying was a great gift. They made reconciliations with their long-lost families, they freely expressed their love and forgiveness, or they found the kindness and acceptance they had been looking for their whole lives. Still others turned toward the wall in withdrawal and hopelessness and never came back again. All of them were my teachers.
These people invited me into their most vulnerable moments and made it possible for me to get up close and personal with death. In the process, they taught me how to live.
When confronted by such harsh realities in life, or even some small discomfort or inconvenience, our instinctive reaction is to run in the opposite direction. But we can’t escape suffering. It’ll just take us by surprise and whack us in the back of the head. The wiser response is to move toward what hurts, to put our hands and attention gently and mercifully on what we might otherwise want to avoid.
Once I was speaking to a group in a rural area in the Pacific Northwest, and we began talking about the possibilities that arise when we stop running away from what is difficult. One of the attendees, a burly middle-aged man with broad shoulders and an even wider smile, spoke up. “That reminds me of telephone poles.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Telephone poles? What do you mean?” I asked. He explained that he once had a job installing telephone poles. “They’re hard and heavy, standing up to forty feet high.” There was a critical moment after you placed a pole in the ground, he said, when a pole was unstable and might topple over. “If it hit you, it could break your back.”
His first day on the job, the man turned to his partner and said, “If this pole starts to fall, I’m running like hell.” But the old-timer replied, “Nope, you don’t want to do that. If that pole starts to fall, you want to go right up to it. You want to get real close and put your hands on the pole. It’s the only safe place to be.”
Uncovering a Wound
One afternoon when I was about five, I cut my hand while playing with a pocketknife. I was terrified because there was blood everywhere. My mother took one look at the wound and calmly said, “Oh, I think we need the magic towel for this one.” Then she pulled me up onto her lap, wrapped my hand in a towel hanging from the stove, and held me until I began to calm down.
After a while, I caught my breath, and she said, “Let’s take a look.” I didn’t want to; it was too frightening. But accompanied by her kindness and reassurance, I was willing to try. Slowly, she unwrapped the towel, and together we looked into the wound. I realized that I would be OK. In that moment, I saw that it is possible and even helpful to turn toward our pain and that there is always the possibility of healing.
We think we need the conditions of our lives to reliably give us what we want. But we know it will all break down.
The secret of healing lies in exploring our wounds in order to discover what is really there. When we allow the experience—creating space and acceptance for it—we find that our suffering is not a static, monolithic thing, but rather it is composed of many elements, including our attitudes toward it. Understanding this, we can work skillfully to alleviate the underlying reactions that exacerbate our problems so that we might ease our suffering. It will only be removed by wisdom, not by drenching it in sunshine or attempting to bury it in a dark basement.
Suffering is a pretty dramatic word. Most people don’t think the term applies to them. “I’m not suffering,” they say. They imagine children starving in a famine-struck African country or refugees fleeing war in the Middle East or people afflicted with devastating illnesses. We imagine that if we are good and careful, stay positive, play by the rules, and ignore what’s on the news every night, then it won’t happen to us. We think suffering is somewhere else. But suffering is everywhere. Suffering is falling in love and then becoming complacent.
Suffering is not being able to connect with our children. It’s our anxiety about what will happen at work tomorrow. Suffering is knowing your roof will leak in the next rainstorm. It’s finally buying that shiny new smartphone, then seeing an advertisement for an even newer device with incremental improvements. Hoping your company will get rid of your grumpy boss who still has a year to go before his retirement. Thinking that life is moving by too fast or too slow. Not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want, or getting what you want but fearing you will lose it—all of this is suffering. Sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, and so is dying.
We think we need the conditions of our lives to reliably give us what we want. We want to construct an ideal future or nostalgically relive a perfect past. We mistakenly believe this will make us happy. But we all can see that even those people who realize extraordinary conditions in life still suffer. Even if we are rich, beautiful, smart, in perfect health, and blessed with wonderful families and friendships, in time these will break down, be destroyed, and change…or we will simply lose interest. On some level, we know this is the case, yet we can’t seem to stop grasping for those “perfect” conditions.
Opening to pain in the present moment, we may be able to do something to improve the situation. Or maybe not. But we can certainly notice how our attitudes toward the experience are impacting what is happening. My reaction to pain, even to the thought of pain, changes everything. It can increase or decrease my suffering. I have always liked the formula:
Pain + Resistance = Suffering
If we attempt to push away our pain, whether it is physical or emotional, we almost always find ourselves suffering even more. When we open to suffering, inquiring into it instead of trying to deny it, we see how we might make use of it in our lives.
Even in the Deepest Tragedy
Years ago, Janet was enjoying a backyard BBQ with her husband, their good friend Albert, and their families. Looking around, she couldn’t see her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Jack, or Albert’s son, Daniel, in the yard. Concerned, she said that she was going to check on the boys. But her husband and Albert called her back, saying, “You’re always jumping up. Sit down with us. Relax.” They assured her that the kids were fine, likely playing inside the house. Moments later, they all heard a crash and a scream. Young Daniel came running up to the adults. Janet ran past him to the front of the house, where she found Jack lying near-lifeless in the middle of their normally peaceful neighborhood street. The car that had hit her child had driven off.
Janet scooped up Jack, and they all piled into the truck, heading to the emergency room as quickly as possible. Albert was a physician, so he worked heroically throughout the ride to restore Jack’s breathing. Janet felt overwhelmed by guilt and shame, though her primary concern was for Jack’s obviously broken leg. How could she have allowed this to happen? she wondered as they drove.
It turned out that Jack had suffered injuries far worse than a broken leg. The doctors at the hospital did their best to save the boy, but they explained that his head wounds and the resulting brain damage were too severe. Janet’s son would not survive. She and her husband eventually made the decision to unhook little Jack from life support. He died almost immediately.
Everyone was in shock, frozen in time and disbelief. Janet held her baby close, rocking him as she had so many nights as she settled him to sleep with a sweet lullaby. There would be no waking from this dream. Full of fear and sheer horror, the parents drove back home shortly before dawn. The country road hugged the nearby river. Janet noticed the rising full moon reflected in the water. This contact with something outside herself helped her sense a deep, clear part of her being, a calm awareness that, for a moment, could cut through the guilt, grief, and disbelief. An inner guidance spoke to her, saying, “If I am going to honor Jack’s life, I cannot let this accident destroy me.”
Still, the next day, when the police phoned to confirm the hit-and-run, her whole being filled again with the heat of rage. Then, at 11:00 a.m., another shift occurred. There was a knock on the screen door. An older man, a stranger, appeared on the other side. Instinctively, Janet knew he was the driver of the car. The anguish on his face temporarily washed away her rage, and the grieving mother invited the stranger into her home.
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” The driver apologized, admitted his liability, and explained that he did not know that his car had hit anyone until the police contacted him. Once again, Janet’s guidance spoke to her with an inner strength reminiscent of the drive along the river. She looked compassionately at the man and, without any false sympathy, spoke honestly. “Jack’s death is a responsibility that we four adults all share,” she said.
Janet and the man who had accidentally killed her son talked a while longer. Janet cried as she spoke of how she, her husband, and their friend had been preoccupied and hadn’t kept a close enough eye on the young boy. The driver explained how his daughter was getting married and that he had been rushing to the wedding rehearsal. In Janet’s mind, it was a moment of distraction on all their parts that had led to this disastrous outcome. A brief moment of inattention, nothing more.
We tend to like simple causes: they tidy up life’s uncertainties. We want such accidents to be brought under human control. We want someone to be held accountable. We want the outrageous and impossible to be understood, so as to alleviate our sense of helplessness. But life does not always present itself in ways that are right or reasonable. The truth is, we are rarely in control of such catastrophes, of the twists and turns of fate, and most especially not of our deaths.
In time and with attention, her heart cracked wide open, and her relationship to the precariousness of life changed, giving rise to gratitude and a sense of being fully alive.
In her humility, Janet understood that she could only be saved from this inexplicable horror by accepting it. She said to herself, I need to take my share of responsibility in order not to live a life full of shame and blame. She found a middle ground, one without unnecessary internalizing (“It’s all my fault”) or externalizing (“It’s all his fault”).
There were still years of grief work to be done, pain to be felt, anger toward the driver, herself, and even Jack for dying. It all had to be reckoned with, and it took courage to face it directly. But Janet recognized the importance of meeting her suffering if she ever was to have a good life again. Her small rural community of Mormons, Mennonites, old-timers, and hippies helped her to heal. A bouquet of flowers would appear on her doorstep one day, a basket of fresh eggs the next.
Janet told me later that being with her grief opened her to a new level of love. For a while, she lived with the fear of the absolute precariousness of life, warning other young mothers of dangers to their children that they might not recognize. In time and with attention, however, her heart cracked wide open. Her relationship to the precariousness of life transformed, giving rise to gratitude and a sense of being fully alive. Now she would not turn away from any part of life.
Her marriage didn’t survive the trauma of Jack’s death, but Janet did. She went on to become one of the most amazing hospice professionals I know. She has taught hundreds of volunteers and family caregivers how to live with grief and accompany death. She is the person her community calls to stand beside parents when there are sudden or traumatic deaths of children. Jack made all that possible. And Janet, as she had vowed to herself, honored his life by not letting his tragic death destroy her. It is a kind of resilience we all possess, and can discover, if we allow ourselves to take off the magic towel and look at what lies within.
Listen: How Compassion Gives Us the Stability to Take Wise Action
Listen to the full podcast to hear Barry and Frank discuss:
- The simple the power of human presence.
- How to walk into a room where someone is dying with an open, receptive mind.
- The importance of building relationships with your fear, pain, and grief.
- Why death is in the marrow of every moment.
- How reflecting on death is really a reflection on constant change, and contemplating the comings and goings of things can engender kindness for one another.
Plus, one of the main misunderstandings about mindfulness, and more. Listen: