The Peace of Surrender

Rushing toward Strong Hospital in 2008, I call the pulmonologist, the oncologist, the cardiologist, and our family doctor.

“Should we put your husband on a ventilator?” they ask me.

“Can you give him chemo after he nearly died from the last one?” I ask.


“Can he survive without chemo?”

“Not with two kinds of aggressive lymphoma. Without a ventilator, he may die within an hour.”

“No ventilator.” I say after our family doctor tells me Vic would live on a ventilator a few weeks and then die in a drugged stupor. Vic would rather be conscious, but he can’t speak for himself now.

I slow down and drive the speed limit on this pink May morning. Death is winning. Vic fought hard, knowing he would lose. I surrender. With deep breaths of acceptance, peace settles in.

“Still no ventilator?” the doctors ask when I enter the hospital room. Even though Vic doesn’t speak, he tugs at the oxygen mask on his face, trying to pull it off. Our friend Steve is with Vic. I had taken a night off since doctors thought Vic would live weeks or months. This fast crash surprised everyone.

“No ventilator.” I am sure. They place a small nasal oxygen cannula in his nostrils. He quiets and breathes.

Friends gather to read passages from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke, sections from the Dalai Lama and Paul Brunton. Vic’s tiny hospital room becomes a sacred sanctuary while Death takes Her slow time.

2 1/2 days: Breathing, breathing, breathing. He gasps with the labor of each inhalation. I hold his hands, place my lips over his heart, and rub his feet with oil. Someone always touches him.

Vic opens his eyes for the first time in two days when our younger son arrives. He looks into Anthony’s eyes with clear consciousness. A Father’s blessing filled with grace. I’m grateful our son David was here a few days ago and wish he could be here now.

After Vic’s death, my hands feel the warmth over his heart for hours. I kiss his cold forehead and inhale his familiar smell.

That summer, I walk each day to the stone cairn in the forest where his ashes are buried. I feel his presence everywhere. The sun-warmed granite reminds me of his warm heart after death. On cold mornings, I kiss the stones and remember his cool forehead.

Even as my heart aches with searing pain, I feel the peace of surrender. Nothing to fix. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Nothing to fight or change.


I wrote about this experience in my book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief, but needed to revisit it with the recent focus on ventilators and thousands of people gasping for life. How are you handling this time of covid19? Are you sad, depressed, anxious, angry, hopeful, or something else? As the world explodes and implodes, I once again walk to Vic’s cairn every day, trying to remember the art of surrender.

For other articles about finding beauty and peace in the midst of dying, see A Survival Guide for Life After Loss: Tending the Spirit. For an article about help from courageous friends, see In the Company of Friends.

  1. Dearest Elaine,

    Straight as an arrow, your beautiful, penetrating words, pierce my heart! Truly, I’m in awe of the strength and clear-mindedness you must’ve unearthed to transform such raw, heart-breaking pain into language at all. Your post clearly illuminates one of many reasons why your book is the best I’ve read on the subject of grief and loss. I always recommend it to recently bereaved clients and family and friends alike.

    With the coronavirus I ask myself, what is this thing that attacked my wife’s breath, her lungs, the Atman? For taking a breath is the first and last thing we do in life. Yet it’s so hard because like cancer, our enemy is invisible and I don’t even have a psychic image of it yet … apart from those blue or red spiky balls that float across my TV or phone screen every news hour. Hmm, maybe I need to write more about this!

    Given the frequent and global mention of the word “ventilator” it’s no surprise that such tender memories are surfacing during your anniversary week. Elaine, your bravery and truthfulness inspire me to join you in surrender and start a deeper search for peace within. As the ego is now being swiftly dethroned en masse, and all masculine logic evaporates … I’m sensing the wild woman, Goddess Hecate close by!

    Bright Beltane Blessings, Deborah.

    • Thank you for your beautiful comment and for suggesting my book to those who grieve, Deborah. I didn’t go back to what I’d written in my book, but remembered that day and decision anew. Doctors (other than my truthful and loving family doctor and friend) doubted me since they’re geared to keep a patient alive at any cost, but there was no real life left for Vic. A few days before this, he had a dream (you will remember): “The Spanish king is dead and I don’t know about it yet.” He was done exploring new worlds, but hadn’t consciously accepted that.

      I know the fearful sound of someone gasp for breath and now we know that moving and shifting positions is the right thing to do. And then there are hopeful days and crashes like your wife experienced. I can imagine a powerful poem about the difference between those Christmas ornament spiky balls and the agony of gasping for breath. I’m so glad she could avoid the hospital and you could be with her, since she needed you to survive. Vic died on June 3 and our wedding anniversary is May 18, so it’s an emotionally loaded time of year for me. I’d so much rather be quarantined with him. You say it so well about these times: the ego is dethroned and masculine logic is gone. With love, safety, and health to you and Lin.

      • Yes, Christmas ornaments! Oh, how you fire this poet’s imagination! I do feel another coronavirus poem within, waiting in the darkness. Thank you Elaine for your kind-hearted words re Lin. It’s going to be a long, slow recovery I feel.

        As soon as we turned into the beautiful month of May, I thought of you (the Goddess) and Vic (her Green Man) and your wedding anniversary. And to quote you, “how he shone in those last days as all beautiful things do, just as they disappear!”

        I hope next Monday is a gorgeous, beautiful day! No doubt you’ll be taking a walk with Willow and your dancing Disco to Vic’s sacred red oak cairn. Sending you much love and light across the oceans between us, in this green and golden month.

        • I know that Lin’s level of illness demands a careful recovery time, but I’m grateful it’s spring because that will help. May she feel a little stronger every day. Thank you again for your poem dedicated to Vic and me. I plan to share it widely on our anniversary day next week. Vic looked beautiful in his dying, at least to me. Our friend Steve who had been with us during Vic’s illness and stayed in the hospital with Vic and me asked if he could take photos. I’m so glad I said yes. They’re precious to me. Yes, I’ll go to the cairn which I’ve been doing every day for the last two months to check in, kiss the stones, and feel the continuing strength of love.

  2. The memories come flooding back as yet another year is about to pass.

    Sending love to you and Vic.

    • Thank you, Janet. I send you love during this season when we were together so often and in such hard circumstances filled with grief and tenderness.

  3. Nothing to fix, Nowhere to go, Nothing to do, Nothing to fight or change.
    Powerful words. These will stay with me. I can feel myself relaxing when I read them. They are like medicine.

    I had been taught to feel the warmth of the heart after death by my aunts nurse. “Here” she said after Tia Sis’s last breath. First she opened the window and then took my hand and slipped it under her shirt. Hold it here. Her hands may be cold but her heart will stay warm for a while.
    The Tibetans say the energy/consciousness/winds withdraws into it and leaves the body from there through the top of the head. It is why they suggest not moving the body for a while after death as there is a process happening even after the heart has stopped beating. It is best left quiet if possible. It is not always possible.

    Every death I have been at has been different and yet the same. The speed or slowness is individual, the environment changes things, the understanding of the people nearby…all these can be different, but they are all the same in their hallowed-ness, in their mystery, in their finality. The husk always looks like a husk. The spirit is seen so clearly as not the husk. And the love remains.

    Thank you Elaine for your ongoing willingness to share your experiences in such an intimate, elegant, and enlightening way.

    • You passed your knowledge on to me, Lauren. Thank you. I’m glad the hospital let us stay in that little room and not move Vic’s body until the next morning. I remember you and Steve lying on the floor exhausted as I fell into a stupor. And then I woke at dawn and it wasn’t a dream and his heart was no longer warm to the touch. I love your words about death. In one experience where I was a witness but not a guide, I wondered how the sacred could enter the agitated atmosphere of the space, but then a young woman friend of the family came and began singing spiritual songs. It was heavenly to sing with her and the sacred was there for his last breath. It would have been anyway, but I was grateful to feel it so strongly.

      Thank you for being with David and me the next day as we created our own ritual with Vic’s body in his cremation box. That powerful experience always stayed with me. In talking with a class of Cornell students (on Zoom) this week, it was good to assure them that it’s OK to grieve their losses and it’s never too late to create a simple or elaborate ritual to honor grief. Blessings to you, my creative and grounded friend.

  4. “Even as my heart aches with searing pain, I feel the peace of surrender.” This line drew me to your memoir, which I have the good fortune to refer to on my Kindle. Some other lines I liked: “I depend on his brown eyes beaming at me.”

    And later, you placed a bar of bittersweet chocolate with almonds in one hand and coffee beans in a vase in the other. Ah, the peace of ritual and remembrance. One of my friends put a pack of cigarettes in her father’s dead hand, commenting – “The cigarettes killed him and he’s going to take them with him.” She was serious!

    We have decided on a “Do not resuscitate” in our living will. Why fight the pull of nature? I think now.
    If it’s me that must follow through with this decision when the time comes: Surrender seems like a sensible decision, especially when yielding makes more sense than fighting. But I wonder…

    • Marian, when we were in India with the Hindu and Tibetan communities, we noticed small bottles of whiskey or packs of cigarettes on altars to those who had died. Vic, being Vic, asked questions about it. If the dead person liked cigarettes or whatever, they were offered. How different from saying: “That’s not good for you.” Vic liked pasta, chocolate, and coffee.

      Vic had a strongly worded living will with a DNR (as I do), but doctors still question it to the end. I saw that with my mother-in-law, too, and she was over 100. I talked to my sons again during this covid time and told them, again, to honor my living will and avoid ventilators. They can talk to the same friend who was our family doctor during Vic’s death (he’s retired from private practice now) and know they’ll get the truth about possible outcomes and reassurance about their decision. Sometimes death is inevitable but we put the dying person through lots of hard experiences to keep them alive just a little longer. For me, it’s much better to die with less interference. My hospice training makes me sure that comfort care is the right choice–but a human still has to decide the timing for switching from cure to care.

      • Thanks for the follow-up here, Elaine. I guess too often doctors uphold some aspects of the Hippocratic oath to the detriment of patients and their families.

        • I don’t blame the doctors, but think we have to do more to train all doctors about the importance of palliative care. Our hospice is beginning to stress palliative care education. Far too many people end life with unnecessary suffering.

  5. I remember reading this excerpt in your beautiful book Elaine. It’s lovely to re-read it and to feel the peace of surrender. For many, ‘to surrender’ may feel as if one is giving up, as in ‘surrender to the enemy’. I had my own moment some years ago when there was nothing else I could do but surrender when I was in excruciating pain from a burn on my hand. So many thoughts were swirling around my head – is this what people experienced when they were being tortured and could no longer go on, was one of them … did they just surrender? What would it mean to me if I just surrendered to this pain I asked myself. Maybe this is all I could do. So I surrendered. The pain was gone … I will never forget this …

    • Thanks for commenting, Susan. What an amazing experience that after your inner surrender, the pain was gone. How could you ever forget that? I have to go back to my book and see how closely my rewriting of this experience is to the way I wrote about it in the book. I assume they’re very similar since the memory is strong and unfaded. I think we go through various layers of surrender all the time–and sometimes the outcome is not death but a sort of initiation while accepting what we must go through to recover. Your way of handling the burn pain reminds me of how I dealt with the pain of Vic dying. I walked in a cemetery to remind myself of the ordinariness of death. I thought about women in war zones who lose their sons, husbands, homes, or whole families to loss. I thought of people in Haiti who didn’t have clean water to drink. And I recognized and gave thanks for how supported we were even though there was suffering. I accepted the painful suffering because there was no choice.

  6. Oh Elaine, as always you touch the heart that is broken and bring comfort. My mother died two years ago and I held her hand when she just stopped breathing, I wasn’t sure if she stopped breathing, her breathing had been so shallow, but I knew. It was expected that she would die in a few days since she was in a hospice ward of the hospital but when it happened I was not prepared at all. You have been a great support

    • Pamela, I’m glad to know my posts have been supportive as you deal with your grief. Vic said he couldn’t tell whether my mom was breathing or not–she just faded away in peace. I was in Canada when she died, the first time I’d traveled anywhere in years, so I didn’t make it back in time. It’s wonderful if someone can be there at that moment and you were.

  7. In the middle of this global pandemic, I, too, am reminded almost daily of the days of my daughter being on the ventilator, and the days I had to wear a mask around her or she had to wear masks in public. For me, it feels familiar, not scary. It’s a bit like coming home. Your words are beautiful, Elaine. We remember the creeping-out of life from our loved ones with love and longing. The surrendering to death needs to be de-mystified. Needs to be put in terms where we can know it, get familiar with it, and be able to accept it. After all, death is part of all of our futures.

    • Yes, death (and birth) need to be demystified to lower our fear levels and help us make wise decisions. By the time Vic’s mom died, I’d been with a few more deaths and knew better how to make decisions and protect her–and it helped that she was 101 so I didn’t have the concern that she had more possible good years ahead. It’s so complicated with the dying are young and recently vital and full of energy and life. Thanks for your comment, Robin.

  8. Today is the anniversary of my dear younger brother’s death. I have not surrendered to it. I’m still feeling robbed of his presence. He died of cancer at age 41, too soon. I was not permitted to be with him during his last days. I only feel sorrow and loss.

    • Oh dear Gail. I hear you and feel helpless. This is so hard, especially that you weren’t permitted to be with him and say goodbye. I have no idea what others should do, but hope you’re still creating rituals or have a place to honor him because this soothes me in mysterious ways. I have an altar in my house and a few in the forest to honor those who I never forget and those who need help right now–but I’ve never had a situation like yours. I’m so sorry. I look forward to walking and talking with you.

  9. My dear Elaine, What a lovely tribute to the love the two of you shared. Surrending so peace can flow. This brought back Bill’s last days. The hospital wanted to send him to a nursing home (so he did not die on their watch, I later learned). I hired an ambulance and got Hospice in and he died a week later in my arms. Peacefully with his favorite CD playing in the background. Love is about surrender and letting go. No more clinging to hope, just release. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece(peace).

    • Thank you, Mary. There is that moment when we make decisions for those we love. Hard decisions, trying to do what they’d want. Until going through death with Vic and later his mom, I didn’t know it was necessary to convince doctors over and over again to follow the DNR. I’m glad you were able to give your beloved Bill a gentle death with a sacred release.

  10. Oh, Elaine, when I first read your entry a week ago, your words went straight to my heart, and they do the same again today. I finished reading your book recently, and as Deborah wrote in her response, “Your post clearly illuminates one of many reasons why your book is the best I’ve read on the subject of grief and loss.” (And, as a former therapist and hospice volunteer, I have read many.) I felt like I had glimpses into it from reading your posts over the past couple of years, and yet was struck by how compelling it was, as well as the depth of beauty, honesty, and wisdom it contains.

    As you wrote, this is an emotionally loaded time of year for you, on top of the hearing/inner ear limitations you live with and the global crisis. I thought of you on your anniversary yesterday, and went back to one of the passages I marked in your book: “Even as death broke down the door, his love was clear and strong. It still is. I am a woman blessed by love and because of this, I’m doing just fine.” And, still, I know that “doing just fine” includes the truth that your “heart aches with searing pain.”

    For me, it’s hard to separate the personal grief of living with a debilitating chronic illness from the collective grief of global suffering. When I can remember that there is nothing to do but surrender to all of it, just as it is, then I touch peace—if only for a moment. And, to quote your friend Deborah again, “your bravery and truthfulness inspire me to join you in surrender and start a deeper search for peace within.” I am crying tears of gratitude to you as I write this.

    • Thank you, Anne. I’m honored by your feedback about my book. This year feels more emotional than others because of isolation and so much time alone. I take occasional walks with others at a distance, but solitude and sadness dominate. It’s also a time of grief for the whole world and the damage done to the earth. Your second paragraph nails where I am at this moment. I’m doing fine and I’m struggling. My hearing issues make the world of online communication through Zoom or Facetime exhausting and I can’t read lips when someone’s face is masked. On the other side, I have plenty of food, clean water (hot and cold), live in a beautiful place and feel safe. When grief gets overwhelming, I sit at a window facing bird nesting boxes and watch the bluebirds and tree swallows work out how to be neighbors. One bluebird clutch froze in the cold April weather (Nature hurts!), so the female created a second nest which should hatch any day. They don’t give up.

      I understand (from my perspective) how you connect personal chronic illness with global suffering. The earth has a chronic debilitating illness, too, and we’re doing little to help her other than stay at home. The personal is compounded for me when the world feels tenuous. The disregard for the environment and next generations is mind boggling–and so much makes me shake my head in disbelief. I’m glad I can take care of this small piece of land and protect it (it has a conservation easement, so can’t be developed even if it’s sold), but it’s a small drop in a massive ocean (filled with plastic). I’m trying to support local businesses. I have organic vegetables delivered once a week from a farm that no longer supplies closed restaurants and also give to the local food bank. It seems important to help in any small way I can, but then I read the morning news and know that we’re going through an archetypal shadow eruption beyond my understanding.

      My writing about peace and surender is deeper than my experience some days and I write to give myself advice. Yesterday was rocky. Today will be better. Even if I can’t see you, I’m glad to know you’re a woman who cries and I wish I could give you a hug. Blessings and peace to you, Anne.

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