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Looking Beyond Life and Death

A psychiatrist shares the devastating experience of the sudden death of her youngest sister, and how looking at death brought more to life.

Photo by Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash 

As a psychiatrist I have spent many years consoling others in their difficult experiences, but nothing prepared me for my own unforeseen loss. On December 29th, 2016 my youngest sister Martha died suddenly of a ruptured brain aneurysm. There was no chance to say goodbye, no chance to tell her I love her one more time. There was death.

Time seemed to stop. Every priority changed. I asked myself how could there be life without my little sister? I couldn’t and had never imagined it.

This experience forced me to look beyond life, and to look at death. What happens after we die, what has happened to my sister, I wondered.

As a culture we don’t think much about looking beyond life. Thinking about death can bring up fear and feelings of loss. It can be like going into no-man’s land. It’s an unknown space until you are thrust into it against your will by the death of a loved one, or when facing your own mortality. If we don’t look at death, we don’t know what happens or what is next.

Facing death puts things into perspective quickly. What’s important in your life? What do you want to accomplish? What can you let go of or stop doing in order to focus on the most important people and things in your life?

What would you want to tell people that you haven’t said? What can you give your kids and your loved ones in this life?

How do you want to be remembered?

The Tibetans believe that awareness and preparation for death can make all the difference in living a full life. As the Dalai Lama says in his foreword to “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”:

“So if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life.”

Nothing prepared me for the shock of losing my sister so suddenly, someone so close and younger than me. It didn’t make sense and didn’t fit with the idea I had about how we die- that we will get old and sick and weak and then die. It was far away and not real on some level.

I used to have nightmares about death, and in particular about one of my sisters dying. I would wake up with my heart racing and pounding asking myself over and over again, “Was that a dream?” I would be relieved do realize, “Yes, that was only a dream, a nightmare.” In my dreams I felt nothing but darkness and loss, filled with deep pain and longing.

When my sister died I was suddenly faced with my fear having come true.

I waited for the blackness to come.

Having studied and practiced meditation for the last 10 years I turned to the tool that has helped me feel more connected to myself and held in a world of constant changes. I sat down and closed my eyes and began meditating. I felt my sadness and very surprisingly to me, I felt a strong sense of my sister’s presence, of her and her brightness. It was almost like she was standing there beside me, with her usual mischievous smile.

There was no blackness, there was no loss or longing or pain when I felt her smile. It almost felt like she was reassuring me. I felt in my heart that she was ok. I felt her with me.

My sister’s sudden death brought me immediately to a place beyond life. Her life had ended, her body was no longer alive. And yet her presence or spirit was tangible. This brought an immense sense of trust for me, a sense that there is something bigger than us out there that can support us, and that there can be another stage, something for us after life.

Shortly after my youngest sister died, my older sister’s husband died of cancer. He was also a psychiatrist and he shared with me that as a boy he had had a near death experience. When falling into a frozen river, he felt a sense of a bright light, peace and calm. The next thing he knew he was being pulled out of the icy river. He said he had never told anyone about this experience but now that he was approaching his own death, he felt a sense of calm. He added that he wasn’t in a hurry to die, but that he had “seen the face of God” and this brought him peace.

Looking beyond life into death through the perspective of my brother-in-law and experience with my sister, I feel that we don’t have to be afraid of death or ignore it. We can embrace life, living a more full and connected life. Opening to the fact that we will all die, and the possibility that there is more there for us beyond life, can help us trust in something bigger as we move into another stage beyond life.

This experience of my sister’s death changed everything for me. The fear of death has lessened and brought an awareness of living life more fully. Her death not only taught me up close and directly that we never know when our time to die is, but I also gained a sense that death is not the end, that a part of us continues on. This deepens my belief in us as spiritual beings and just as Martha’s spirit lives on, we may too. I feel encouraged to strengthen my sense of spirit in this life, to live a full and connected life, and to love deeply.

Originally published at www.tedxlincolnsquare.com

N E X T by Maureen Magauran, M.D.→ A Simple Emotional Model of Depression, How looking at things simply can bring profound shifts.

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