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Narrative: Dan Blogs - Death and the Beauty Within

Facing our own mortality means that we fully embrace what our life can mean. Since the idea of death takes us to the precise center of our own mystery fear becomes our trusted advisor. I have been reading through an inspiring series of posts at Dan Blogs (via Lisa Galarneau in Beauty From Tragedy). The weblog is a compelling account of Dan's thoughts, feelings and experiences related to the tragic death of his partner. Jane died beside Dan in her sleep on July 23, 2005. As Lisa points out in her wonderful title to entry, beauty can and does from tragedy. Dan's commentary about his experiences in the loss of his loved one reveals that it is only by fully embracing the fear, suffering and isolation that naturally occurs when someone close to us dies can we fully embrace hope, healing and contentment. As I read through Dan's inspired and thoughtful writing, he provided deep insight into that relentless question How do we learn the things we value most? Our experiences with death, in fact, bring us into direct and unavoidable contact with this question...

Time Doesn't Heal: The Only Way Out is In

What does happen over time is that memory of the loved and lost begins to fade and so the daily experience of pain at the loss reduces. You begin to form new life patterns so the reminders of the difference gradually diminish. This isn't healing the wound, though. It is simply the wounding process winding down. The knife gradually being withdrawn as it carves on.

Healing is what happens to the wound. Perhaps not a bad metaphor is scar tissue gradually forming, closing up, joining together and finally healing over in some way. The body does it itself with physical wounds. With emotional ones, we have more choice over it.
- Dan's Blog: Time Doesn't Heal: The Only Way Out is In

While reading and absorbing Dan's Blog I decided to search my own weblog for the word death. Death is a powerful force in the quest to live a life worth living. Death and Lifelong Learning captures a glaringly obvious reality that something called lifelong learning can in no way be fully appreciated unless it is framed against death. I was reminded of the tragedy of Terri-Schindler-Shiavo's death in One Day Later. The idea that death is our only wise advisor in Castaneda's Journey To Ixtlan made me look to my left - again. The death of Jerry Wennstrom's ego remains a startling example of the power of the creative process. I glance at a partially read book on my shelf called On Death And Dying: What The Dying Have To Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, And Their Own Families by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and wonder when it will turn to writing. And there is Dark Night Of The Soul: St. John Of The Cross, another book on my shelf that I continue to read and re-read.

But one the most important aspects I am reminded of is that my own experiences have not yet involved the intensity of Dan's. In his writing I see a feeling of authenticity and authority that is profound and moving. His idea that the only way out is in captures through first-hand experience the spirit of resilience that has been mentioned in numerous books. Moreover, there is a clear sense of fearlessness in his words - he is giving himself permission to fully experience the loss of his loved one - a going in - and has the found the strength to share some of these experiences with us.

His reminder to us that time doesn't heal is an important one. I have heard an assumption in conversations I have had that this thing we call time has the power to heal. In a literal sense, this statement is trite nonsense. The reality is that time has no healing power at all. A tragic event in our lives simply does not heal by virtue of the fact that it was something that occurred further and further back in time. Healing a profound loss in life is a personal responsibility, a call to resilience, an individual act of courage, a willingness to experience suffering for its transformative power, and a unmovable belief that there is always hope. Of course, people close to us in life can have a beneficial influence on this process, but in the end healing is a place where we find ourselves in the utter fear of loneliness and isolation. The length of time is simply irrelevant, and a person is not in any weaker because the societal belief system places boundaries on the duration of what an acceptable period of suffering is. I have heard, in similar conversations, the advice, "It's time to move on now." This kind of "advice" is reprehensible and fundamentally arrogant.

Why It Hurts When A Loved One Dies

Actually, I think it's more accurate to say that you aren't dead until everyone of whose social atom you are a part is dead. This is because we don't live solely inside our bodies, we live outside them, too. We are social beings. We are defined by, we come into existence through our relationships...

OK, so, even if you don't know everybody who knows you, your existence is defined, at least to some small extent by the way that they perceive you. Therefore, in some small way, you live on while they do...

What this doesn't explain is why it hurts so much when a loved one dies. In fact, it rather suggests that it would hurt less because the person lives on in our hearts and memories. Actually, that is true for me. There is a great deal that Jane has given me that I hold dearly inside me and do not have to let go.

The rub is that, as well as the other person living in us, we live just a little in them. When a loved one dies, then they take with them some of us. We experience a small death of ourselves.
- Dan's Blog: Why It Hurts When A Loved One Dies

In an age frequently described with words like connections, relationships, associations and networks it seems that we are blinded to and becoming increasingly ignorant of the most basic and human context of these words. It is both disappointing and somewhat discouraging to see so many theories and approaches to "learning" completely void of any real human experience. However, natural selection will take care of these approaches as it has many others. Dan's comments bring us back to this precious center of relationships and connections in learning. His sense of connectedness is not merely knowledge, it is the full force of experience itself.

Only an individual with a keen artistic sensibility can fully embrace the idea that, "we don't live solely inside our bodies, we live outside them, too." This is not merely because memories of person are retained after death, nor is it some kind of new age gibberish. What Dan is saying here is an important insight. The spirit of one single person can influence and change the lives of those it touches. This touch of another life is one that lives in our minds, hearts and souls - it changes our own individual experience of living. While we may retain photographs and items related to another person's life, it is only the power in these material reminders to evoke the life force of another person that matters.

This spiritual extension of life after death, in my opinion, is one the most important sources of inspiration for Jill Fallon's Legacy Matters. The idea of legacy is tied intimately to the power of how a life "lives on" after death. In With Death Before My Eyes Jill captures a wonderful quotation that echoes the sensibilities of Dan's Blog:

Having death before our eyes never allows us to take life for granted. And so you could say that the essence of monastic life, of spiritual life in general, is gratefulness.
- Brother David Steindl-Rast in With Death Before My Eyes

Through loss and suffering we learn humility and gratitude. The people that are closest to us in our lives influence the things we say, the things we do and how we feel. This influence does not cease after we lose a person to death. A legacy means that the intense pain of losing someone will "hurt less because the person lives on in our hearts and memories." And this energy in our hearts and memories lives on until our own end.

Time - Where Did You Go?

Chantal Kreviazuk reminds that our time here is limited:

I should’ve know better
I shouldn’t have wasted those days
And afternoons and mornings
I threw them all away
Now this is my time
I’m going to make this moment mine.
(I shouldn’t have wasted those days)
I’ll take what you give me.
Please know that I’m learning
I’ve looked in the mirror
My world’s getting clearer
So wait for me this time
- Kreviazuk, Chantal. What If It All Means Something (CD) | Time: on What If It All Means Something (MP3)

Perhaps facing our own mortality and experiencing the death of a loved one as Kreviazuk suggests is a way to look in the mirror. A means to become clearer in our lives by accepting the time we have perhaps wasted so that we can make more of whatever is left. That wasting time is learning in one sense, and from that wasting we discover, often painfully, new possibilities for living. When we do this we "make this moment mine."

Chantal Kreviazuk has a hauntingly beautiful voice, however, she goes beyond that to reach inside and explore what it means to be human. This is an artist, not merely a musician with a good voice. The meaning of the lyrics is reflected not only in the words, but also in the subtly changing colours of her voice.

In Dan Blogs I see a similar subtle colouring of experience expressed both clearly and with the depth of an artist. He is not asking, "Time - where did you go?" but stating, "Time - this moment is mine." And in doing so he sensitively shares learning the things he value the most in motion.

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Hi Colleen,

Thank you for adding a comment. I have added your weblog to my reading list and look forward to following your writing.

Best regards,

Thanks for this thoughtful look at death. A friend recommended I read it and I'm glad I did. After losing 2 siblings a month a part, I was compelled to write about the experience, first as a book and now on my blog. While my blog isn't just about death, it has a grief and loss thread and is one of my sidebar category. I have made quite a few strong connections due to this. I feel privledged that my writings on death have touched some readers and amazed that then they touch me back.

Hi Jeremy - The aching and feeling of terror are good and healthy feelings to have. Indeed, the "fear of facing..." can be extremely difficult. The problem is, unless we face death, especially our own, we always wear the mask of fear. As Castaneda says, death can be an advisor. But many people wait too long to consider the importance (and reality) of it.

Powerful stuff, Brian. I'm still aching from reading a dozen or so of Dan's raw, so real, so terrifying. Yes, these stories contain all kinds of lessons for living and really experiencing life, but there are times when the pain and fear of facing death (even just triggered by the stories of strangers') masks the insight and opportunity for engagement.

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