Three Life-Affirming Lessons from Death

DSC019131. Death makes us value life

The death of someone I love reminds me of my own impermanence. The loss of their familiar presence makes me consider what matters most to me.

In my twenties, I read The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castenada. Young, in love, with a long life ahead of me, I took in the idea that death was always close by, sitting on my left shoulder. Remembering mortality became an early spiritual practice. When I was frazzled or anxious, I consulted my death. I still do. I ask if a delayed flight, a rejected article, or a car accident where no one is injured matters in the end or even tomorrow.

I’m a slow learner, so I’m still practicing

“Death is the only thing in your life that will always tell you the truth. If you have any lingering, unresolved questions about life, consult your death.” ~Carlos Castenada


2. Death transforms both the living and the dying

You’ve likely experienced the death of a friend, a family member, or a pet. Each is different, although longing for what was or what could have been is a common thread.

My brother’s death two weeks ago will change me in ways I can’t yet imagine. The last living member of my childhood family no longer calls on the weekend to find out how I’m doing. I no longer encourage him to talk to me about the challenges of his illness. We no longer remember a shared past. Instead, like everyone, we are swept along by the river of time.

DSC04378“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” ~Jorge Luis Borges 


3. Sacred ritual helps us find meaning in death

Ritual creates a safe container for painful feelings I cannot avoid. It’s human to create ritual in community or alone. Every spiritual tradition knows and teaches this. Sometimes my rituals involve tears and song. Often they end in gratitude.

My brother loved the Westport River in southern Massachusetts. I couldn’t be at that river today, so I walked to my stream, scattered flower petals in the water, and watched the current carry them away. I sang the song we sang at his death and remembered him.

DSC05564“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” ~Rumi


How do you to honor grief and death? Do you consider or consult your own death, or do you find that idea morbid? If you’d like to try creating ritual, I suggest Creating a Grief Ritual: Love, Loss, and Continuing Bonds.

Besides writing blogs, I’ve submitted articles about my brother’s illness to a few journals (with his permission). Waiting for Another Dance is a blog written during a time of hope. This weekend, I’ll read a piece published in The Healing Muse 2015. The reading includes thirteen local authors whose articles or poems were published in The Healing Muse. It’s at Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, NY, May 14, 2:00 – 3:30 pm. I’d love to see you there. Bring extra Kleenex.


  1. Since reading your succinct post the first time I have been ruminating about why I imagine my own life continuing many more years. At my age, such thinking is an illusion, maybe a delusion. Yet I persist. Maybe it’s because the close family members who have died up to this point are in the generation preceding me: my grandmothers, father, mother have died in old age. All my siblings are still alive.

    Your post also reminded me of my tripartite nature: body, soul, spirit. While my body and soul/mind may age, my spirit can remain untouched by time. Feeding one’s spirit may impart life to one’s years.

    You mention too that “remembering mortality became an early spiritual practice,” one that I admire and should emulate. Losing Vic means you lost the physical presence of one with whom you had shared the closest bond. Losing Jim means losing the presence of one with whom have had the longest bond. Yet this remembering gives you perspective when you feel anxious or frazzled.

    Well, you really got me going here, Elaine! I love your flower petal ritual you mention at the end. While I don’t have a ritual, I do have a shrine created shortly after mother died. The Ball jar on top of my dresser now is capped with her black bonnet and prayer veiling. I pictured this tiny shrine on one of my recent blog posts. Actually, I didn’t think of it as a shrine at all until one of my commenters named it such, combining as it does her love of food and devotion to faith.

    One more thing: gratitude that we are both alive and upright, able to ponder the mysteries of life and death. 🙂

    • Marian, yes to gratitude. I loved seeing your mom’s black bonnet on a ball jar on your dresser. For me, creating and tending something like your “shrine” is an intentional ritual. My sister-in-law asked what I want of my brother’s belongings. It was the night after he died and nothing came to mind. She and I didn’t revisit the issue, but when I return, I’ll take her up on the offer.

      I feel a pervasive uneasiness and vulnerability without my brother in this world. He was protective, but not in a practical way. I question everything I do and feel unsure about what all this means to me. I question everything. I’m watching to see how my response unfolds.

      I lived with a sick father from the time I was a few years old until he died when I was 14, so death or the threat of death felt close during those early years. Carlos Castenada offered an exercise to turn my awareness into a spiritual practice. Part of me would like to turn away from thinking about mortality. I wanted to write about something light this week, but my mind was focused on this one thing. My son and his girlfriend will visit next week. That’s sure to bring a little laughter and joy into this house.

      • 🙂

      • Carlos Castenada. I read them all. Brother loss is a serious business. much love Licia

        • Carlos Castenada was a big influence in my world in 1970. I read all his books, too, but was less interested as his focus changed. Yes, brother loss is serious. This seems to be a slower kind of grief. Leaving his home (even after his death) and returning to mine wasn’t so much different than leaving his home when he was alive. In the past, I might send a text to him telling him I made it home (this last trip, I sent a text to his wife to tell her I was home) and then not talk to him for a week. Very different from losing someone I lived with, but a deep rumbling going on.

  2. Thank you Elaine for the reminder of how important it is to consider death at all times without being morbid about it. It’s a constant companion as we know only too well. We can practice thinking about death at any time or stage of our lives, even when lighthearted, happy and full of well being …

    Only 20 minutes ago I heard a thud but gave it no thought. My gardener who is here today called me. A dove had flown into the closed glass window. His beak was bleeding. I rushed to get a bowl of water. But to no avail. Wayne and I mourned him, stroked his feathers and dug a hole where he fell, placed a flower in the grave, covered with soil, placed a stone above the grave and a flower on the stone. We said a little prayer … and now I’m lighting a candle. It’s also the birthday today of my husband’s late mother Margie so the candle is for her too … and for Jim and for all those who’ve been before us …

    • I love how you and your gardener handled the dove’s catastrophe. Once or twice a year, a bird smacks into one of my windows. I gather the little one and bury it. Occasionally they are still breathing, but knocked unconscious. Then I move them to a safe place. Sometimes they fly off in an hour or two, sometimes they die. But I’ve remembered and honored the on-going cycle which is bigger than any one life, including my own. Right now, I’m spending a ridiculous amount of time watching birds through my binoculars or telescope. They are reassuring.

      I wish I were having dreams to help me digest my brother’s death, but I’m not. Thank you so much for including Jim in your candle lighting and thoughts.

  3. So it was Carlos Castenada from whom I borrowed the awareness of death sitting on my left shoulder. Thanks for that. I think I thought I had invented that phrase. 🙂

    My experience with consulting death is that it functions as a wake-up call that brings me into the present moment. In an instant my mood changes from worrying about dying to seeing the miracle of life in and around me and being enormously grateful for it. If only for a moment I experience the Buddhist goal of “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”

    These are all such helpful reminders. I especially needed the reminder to create my own rituals. It’s been a while since I’ve done that and I miss the comfort and meaning they bring. Like yours, mine mostly involve Nature. Soon I’ll be back in my mountain forest and once there I know the rituals will spring forth automatically.

    Thank you for another wonderful post.

    • It was Castenada, Jeanie. He was famous for that idea that became part of our cultural inheritance from the sixties. Yes, a wake-up call about what matters. Sometimes when I feel I’ve lost my way or don’t know how to deal with life, it’s the only thing to do.

      I’m busy with ritual-making as a way to quiet my mind and hold on to the sacredness of this time. I experience more middle-of-the-night anxiety than I have in a long, long time. Part of me, the little girl who could always count on big brother, feels unprotected without my brother in the world. I find myself making small and modest woodland altars as I know you’ll do in the mountains of North Carolina.

      Thank you for taking time to comment as you prepare to migrate north.

  4. Poignant post Elaine. Two things in particular you wrote here really resonated with me. Death of a friend and/or loved one really makes me take a step back and realize my mortality.

    And the other thing you said in #2, Each death is different. Yes we all have our own methods of dealing with grief, and no death leaves loved ones without pain. But from my own experience, the death of a parent, a step-daughter, a relative, and friend have all hit me differently. It’s as though a different piece of our hearts reacts different to who’s death we are mourning.

    I can’t even begin to imagine what the death of a spouse would entail emotionally, and I hope I don’t have to find out for years to come.
    Although your writing gives us excellent insights of grieving from your sharing the loss of Vic, nobody can ever really know that pain until they experience it themselves. This I am sure of.

    Thanks for being a sharer of your soul and experience, which is helpful to so many. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. I’m surprised how different this loss is from Vic’s death since these two men were closer to me than any other men my age. They got along well with each other, too.

      I’m grateful for my hospice training, but in some ways there is no way to prepare. As my brother said when I asked him about his experience, “I’m on a path. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m just taking the next step.”

      Wishing continued improvements in your husband’s health as he takes giant steps back from the threshold and you get your life back again. Until there is another disruption, because that’s part of life, too.

      • Thank you Elaine. And you are so right, there just isn’t any way to prepare, no matter how prepared we think we may be. 🙂

  5. Elaine, my heart goes out to you at this time. I, too, lost a brother recently, though I still have two more plus two sisters. He was the first of the siblings to go.

    I’ve been reading books on mortality and death recently. BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande is wonderful–I highly recommend it.

    I see the vividness of my own death as an awakening tool–working on it, as you said.


    • Thank you for your kindness, Lynne. I’m sorry about your brother. This hurts. I imagine it doesn’t matter that you have more brothers and sisters in terms of grieving for the one who died. There is always something particular about that person or pet or thing. Or a particular unforgettable experience around the death.

      I loved ‘Being Mortal.’ I also highly recommend ‘When Breath becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi. A courageous little memoir packed with wisdom. It has thousands of 5 star reviews at Amazon and deserves all of them.

  6. My husband died violently, and suddenly almost one year ago. I look back and I can hardly believe I have lived through these past months. But, things are finally getting more clear. I finally, truly acknowledge he is dead and not coming back to me. But, even more than that, I am thankful to still be alive. His sudden death has taught me, that in an instant we can be gone. So I guess I do consult with my death. By acknowledging every morning, that I am alive and thankful, thankful for being able to suffer and grieve in luxury this past year. I am thankful I have been allowed to grieve. I stil grieve. I now look ahead sometimes, and I realize I have far less life ahead of me, than behind me, I’m almost 62 years old, and so I am grateful for whatever my life is, be it pain, sorrow, joy, happiness, or rivers of tears. I am more thankful for my life now, than I ever have been.

    • Deb, I can’t imagine the surreal shock you’ve survived. Less than a year isn’t long and you’ve had to deal with a world turned upside down and inside out. It sounds to me like you consult your death and the truth of mortality every day. And you also consult life with gratitude and joy. Like you, I was and am able to feel joy and gratitude at the same time as I feel grief. Death is not what we want, but it’s part of what must be. I do better when I remember that every day. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom.

  7. I’ve lost a father and a daughter. But it is so hard to imagine what it must be like to lose a sibling. There are things my two sisters shared with me as we grew up that no one else would know of. They hold my history and when one goes, it will be another new journey, learning to live without parts of my history, my story, my memories that no one else holds. It must be like being orphaned in a whole new way.

    • You nailed the uniqueness of the relationship, Robin. Do you remember when we went to Grandpa’s farm in the spring and gave bottles to abandoned lambs or do you remember when we lived in that tiny place and shared a bedroom while our parents built a house? Those memories, significant and insignificant, and a comfortable physical familiarity and emotional trust. I feel so new in this loss–and I am.

  8. Lovely, Elaine! Thank you for writing this piece.


  9. Death always tells the truth. What words of wisdom! Thanks Elaine, for giving me something to ponder today.

    • It’s a good way to keep life in perspective, Ann Marie. Usually what I’m frustrated or anxious about won’t matter tomorrow, much less at my death. It’s been a helpful practice for me.

      • Now I have to ask you: Is that an eagle in the first picture?

        • I think so, Ann Marie, but I couldn’t be positive. The photo was taken at twilight so I could only see the silhouette. Others who were with me at the park on Cayuga Lake said it was an eagle. They were sure, but I simply didn’t know and couldn’t make a positive identification. It was big! Too big for a hawk. It wasn’t a heron or vulture. It was probably an eagle.

          I saw an owl in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As is fitting for a bird associated with Hekate, it was the day after my brother died. I would have missed it, but a man had a huge telescope set up near a large reservoir where many people walk. My niece and I stopped to ask what he was watching. He invited me to look through his telescope at a screech owl face. I would have missed her because she looked so like the tree bark. As I zoomed in to take a photo, a huge fast streak came from my right. A hawk. The owl retreated into her nesting hole and I got a photo of the hole with no owl face. It was a treat to see her.

  10. Both those quotations are going to stick with me, Elaine. As is the context in which you put them. Thank you.

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