A couple of days ago one of my brothers called to check in. After hearing about his life, he asked about mine and mentioned that he had read my recent post about Mocha. He said that it was hard for him to read about her condition and implied that it was time to put her down. We proceeded to have a tense conversation where I attempted to convince him as to why I believed that she deserved to live out her life according to her own timetable and he expressed that he didn’t think it was right that I was allowing her to suffer. The tension finally dissolved when we acknowledged that we each understood and respected the other’s position and we said a peaceful goodbye.
The conversation left me feeling frustrated and unsettled. I trust that I’m communicating enough with Mocha to know that she’s not ready to go, but trying to explain that beyond what I had written in my post to my extremely smart and scientific brother was challenging. I was lacking some key words or vocabulary that would contextualize what I intuitively know. The next day, I relayed the conversation to my friend Lisa, who worked in hospice for many years and isn’t afraid to talk about death, and she said, “Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talked in her books about how important the dying process is because, even if someone appears to be gone, in a vegetable state or struggling with dementia, there’s something happening that we can’t see. The soul has work to do. Some of the most important work happens during the dying process.”
As often happens when I hear a statement that resonates true for me, my entire body reverberated yes to what she said. The soul has work to do. We can’t always see what that work is; most times, I imagine, neither we nor the person who is dying has any idea what that work entails. But just because we can’t see it or touch doesn’t mean it isn’t important. The more scientifically-minded we are, the more we focus on the tangibles of what we can see and touch. My brother sees that Mocha has a tumor under her tongue that prevents her from completely closing her mouth, he imagines himself in the same scenario, and he says, “It’s time to go.” It’s a valid response and one that I’m sure few people would argue with.
But I’m coming from a worldview that believes passionately in the idea that transitions carry tremendous potential for emotional and spiritual growth. We grow when we marry; we grow when we become parents; we grow when we move or change jobs or lose a loved one. Many spiritual traditions teach that the two most powerful transitions we experience are birth and death, for those are the times that we’re most open and vulnerable to the portals that connect us to another realm. The more open we can remain during these transitions, the more we can access the potential for growth.
Furthermore, transitions not only affect the one in transition, but everyone who’s touched by the transition process. When my clients who marrying are stumped by the fact that their mother or sister or father is having a hard time, I remind them that that their marriage is also, to a large degree, a loss for their family. As always, this loss must be acknowledged and grieved before the family and friends can truly support and celebrate the marriage. Likewise, as Mocha dies, I’m watching Everest grow and learn about death. He’s also learning about compassion, about what caring for a dying friend requires, and about tolerance as we have to accept the unsightliness and smell of her tumor. He’s learning that dying is often a process as it’s been about two months since we received her prognosis and through that time we’ve been able to have a few conversations about death. I would never elevate his learning above her need to die; in other words, if I felt it was her time, I would take her in. But as long as she’s still here and showing strong signs of wanting to be here, we’ll embrace this experience, as painful as it is, as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Death is so hard to talk about. As I was putting Everest to bed that night, we looked out at the giant cottonwood trees outside the window and mentioned how we’ll probably start seeing the owls perched on those branches soon. Remembering the family of rabbits we watched hopping around our yard that morning, Everest asked, “Will the owls eat all the rabbits?” I said, “No, not all the rabbits, just what they need to survive.” Everest rubbed his eyes as he does when he feels sad. I explained that it’s important for owls to eat the rabbits because it maintains the balance of nature, but my explanation fell on deaf ears. Everest was furiously rubbing his eyes now and hiding his head under the pillow. For most of us in this culture, especially the sensitive among us, death is hard to talk about. But it must be done if we’re to have the conversations that allow us walk through transitions consciously. He can hide under his pillow when we’re talking about rabbits being eaten up by owls, but he won’t be able to hide under the pillow in a few days or weeks when it’s time for his beloved cat to make her way to “cat heaven.”