Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Death ends a life, but not a relationship.
-Scott Gillen, Poem (Untitled)
My heart tells me it’s time for the story to be told, and this time I might finally believe it. So I sit down, take a very deep breath, and dare to start writing about great mysteries far beyond words, life and love and death and the miraculous thread that weaves them all together. It is no simple task to explore such depths in a way that will mean something, to mine the blessings of my harsh experience so that the way might be eased for others. Part of me feels called, as if in a dream where everything is just out of focus, to some high wire ill- prepared for the steps before me. The stakes are high, and I stand trembling and revealed. Yet it is here exactly that I belong, for I have experienced miracles of a truth and power that cannot be denied even though I can never, will never, fully understand them.
In this moment my heart pounds; my mind is stilled by the dazzling impressions of height, depth, and color. Distant music surrounds, arising from elsewhere. I have loved truly, lost all, and stand scarred by grief for all to see. How strange even the air feels up here; I’ve been laid low for so long and wandered so far. I cannot be sure where I am, but I am not lost. My eyes wander, catch the brilliant colors of light dancing restlessly off the shards of my shattered heart! My wounds are deep but I am still standing, sustained by a love that defies all reason, refusing to die. Where am I to go from here? How am I to probe the unexplainable?
I have absolutely no idea. Only instinct can guide me through this dream, and that voice tells me that the time to move forward is now. Despite the undeniable wounds, the monumental self-doubt, I am assured that the story is not mine alone but somehow meant for the sharing. Its message may carry hope or the promise of healing for others lost in their own worlds of grief, those who feel themselves ghosts and more alone than they could have ever imagined. I tell it precisely not because it is unique or special, but because I cannot doubt that the same loving spirit is just as busily at work in your life right now as it is in mine, and will remain so beyond our concepts of time or place.
Life is indeed hard, sometimes even a brutal horror, and the pain of death’s ravages often intolerable. But things are not always as they seem, and that’s the very best of news. The truth is sweeter and more powerful than you can imagine, enough even to reach you wherever you’ve wandered and to keep your spirit alive long after you’ve given up all hope.
Spirits Having Flown Acrylic on Canvas 1998
Here’s a wonderful truth, and this I now know: I was completely wrong in much that I believed about death. And I consequently paid the highest of prices, measured out in despair. The pain of grief is itself more than enough, the added cost of false belief possibly enough to break you. Not so very long ago, it seemed all too obvious that death meant the end of the story, clear and simple. The emptiness following one’s last breath was complete and forever, a final insult silencing all rhythm and mocking all that was now so gone. In one random instant everything that a person had touched and felt and seen, all they had ever dreamed and known and been, evaporated like a mist that left no trace. Dumb and damnable death stalked its prey with a serpentine hunger either mindless or ravenous, who could know, but in the end simply swallowed all that lived. It was just a matter of time.
If life inevitably birthed death, spawning in turn only nothingness, exactly what manner of insult was love? What could possibly be its point? And all that aside, how high was its cost? Did the whole setup reflect some cosmic cruelty or even malice, or was it all simply pointless? Such awful questions became important to me only after death suddenly became real, after I’d watched my loved one so warm and tender just a moment ago transform into a cold corpse that quickly began to stiffen and mottle into an ashen pallor. An unthinkable riptide had capriciously swept in and torn from me my heart, casting him away forever. From my life, our home, our bed, right out of my arms. The sand castle walls of denial I had so artfully and painstakingly constructed as my only defense simply dissolved, leaving me wet and cold. There was only emptiness, and a longing too painful to bear even for an instant in an awful new world where the clocks had no hands.
Before the direct strike of death’s lightning bolt I’d been too engaged in living to spend much time or energy contemplating its absence. With each new day presenting its own full share of ordeals and challenges and triumphs before unfolding into the never-ending drama of tomorrow and next week and so on, who really cared what was to happen after that almost imaginary last day? In any event who could know, and so what was the real point of asking? And who in God’s name really wanted to ponder the matter, anyway?
It’s no wonder, then, that the sudden arrival of that last day for my loved one, marking also the death of our days together, left me wholly at a loss. With full pain and little thought I embraced the conventional wisdom on the situation, concluding that he was forever gone and his precious being entirely and irrevocably lost. The relationship most sacred to me had been severed as quickly and cleanly as if struck by the falling edge of a sharpened guillotine, and felt no less violent in impact. What did it matter that his death had changed nothing of the fullness of my love for him, my burning need to continue the seamless sharing that had so sustained me and enriched my heart, even come to give my life meaning?
If I longed as never before to continue casually sharing with him my dreams and fears, hopes and visions, the simple events of the day, that was my tough luck. Yesterday was just gone and so was he, of less substance now than even thin air. Any gifts I might feel the need to give him, no matter how worthy, were henceforth undeliverable and thus wholly useless; he’d left no forwarding address. I would obviously never again hear from Scott or enjoy his companionship and find comfort in his warmth and devotion, feel his touch, or enjoy the delights of his unique sense of humor. Though my hope began to wither into despair with the deepening of that realization, nothing could change the awful fact.
Self-portrait (camera on time delay), sun setting on New York City 1993
I now know that I was wrong on all counts, and that Scott’s death by no means brought about either the extinguishing of his soul nor the end of a vital and ongoing relationship. I have at last grown to understand that his passing signaled not only an ending but the miraculous beginnings of an entirely new journey for us both, a timeless rebirth. But the road to getting from there to here has been far from either direct or easy, and along the way I have been repeatedly shaken to my foundations and pushed always another step beyond any prior limits. It may be important that you realize I am now writing in a vocabulary of ideas and experiences once barely known to me, even beyond my imagination. I cannot begin to fully understand it all, but my experience of death has taught me volumes about life.
Death remains essentially mysterious, and I would not presume to speak otherwise. Despite its absolute universality, indeed life’s one guarantee, it refuses to submit to any insults of simple explanation or to the reduction of its realms to any map or chart. At this point I have learned much more about what death is not than what it is, yet found even such glimpses of the truth profoundly liberating and worthy of sharing. Mine is less a story “about death” than the daunting challenge of getting on with life. At its essence, it is about living freely, and loving deeply, and savoring the experience we are given with a feeling of safety and an attitude of abundance that in some ways defies reason.
Although it once seemed very much otherwise I have come to understand that death is no enemy to either life or love, and without exception or accident serves only according to the purposes of its undisputed master, love. Death is as every bit as essential to the grand cycle of being as birth, and lies just as near the center of its heart. And though we observe in nature that night follows the day following the night, and witness each season yielding gracefully to the next, time after time into time and past time, we often fail to remember that we too are part of it all, or to make the basic connection between the cycles of our lives and the greater pageant always surrounding. Winter is no enemy to spring.
There is a greater plan, and we are all in it together. It only seems as if our journeys from birth to death are isolated and solitary, the weight of the fragmented choices confronting us along the way ours to bear alone. In deeper truth we are always unified by the roles we share, and jointly partake of one Spirit. Not one of us walks even one step of our journeys alone, unguided, or without such protection as may be required for the benefit of our souls, ever.
Looking back on the raw horror of my experience and the winding lengths of the journey that followed, I cannot help but feel that the process need not have been so damned difficult. I could not have had less of a clue, or been less generally prepared for the event had my beloved been the first mortal to ever pass, and imagine I am not alone in that feeling. Had I known then what I do now, or simply been open to the questions, the entire experience would have been different. Not necessarily easier, but most certainly different, and in a way promising of healing.
Aware even of the possibility that love truly shared can never die, I might have been better able to face up to the gradual diminishment and final physical loss of my loved one. With the unbearable weight of anticipated loss lifted at least in part from my shoulders, I could have more fully been there during that sacred time. Knowing that my real treasure could never be lost, I might have found it easier to begin to let go. And, after his death, been better ab
le to cultivate an attitude of gratefulness for what we’d shared instead of sinking into a black hole of the spirit without bottom.
But none of that was to be, for I had unknowingly swallowed the bitter and skimpy offerings tossed out as reality by “those who knew.” Strangely for a culture in which the miracle of resurrection provides a common bedrock of faith, our institutions have proudly embraced in this realm of the sacred a form of collective myopia, and presumed in unthinking arrogance to strip death of its mystery. Forgetting that death always has been and remains the greatest of the great unknowns, the most vocal, “realistic,” and assertive among us have presumed to pronounce its occurrence the end of the story. Not merely the end of a life, but also the final and irrevocable dissolution of every human bond and the sudden endpoint of each ongoing journey.
It is no wonder that those traumatized by the ravages of death and its attendant losses often feel exquisitely alone. Their hearts whisper from within a comforting knowledge of deepest truth, that their love is not only still vital but received, even tenderly reciprocated here and now. The “experts” proceed to nod patronizingly as they inscribe in their crisp notes such clinical terms as “denial” and “wish fulfillment,” meanwhile mentally pinpointing each experience neatly within an authoritative list defining “Stages of Grief.” In the place of meaningful guidance or support those broken in spirit find awaiting only a sterile vacuum overcrowded with an abundance of cheap and damaging “answers” on this greatest of human questions, backed primarily by cynicism and laziness.
Yet on the basis of what experience can so many with such smugness make such pronouncements, and upon what “evidence” offered? Those claiming with authority special knowledge of death’s nature and meaning need to be questioned, and hard. How would they presume to engrave upon mystery’s great blank slate their “knowledge” of the hereafter, offering only small and dingy answers in return, and why? If both our true origin and real purposes in life remain ultimately clouded and thus gloriously rich in possibility, why should the next phase of our journey be any different? Who among us can credibly claim an ability to first fix and then define the anatomy of a miracle?
Those reeling with grief and short on hope often fall easy prey at the greatest cost to such stock “knowledge” and advice, for the physical absence of the loved one is palpable and the pain of loss a pounding reality second to none. Yet if these “experts” are wrong and their assurances counterfeit, how much unnecessary damage and human pain have been caused as a result? The cost is incalculable, and its toll in suffering beyond measure. Any door to healing that our intuition and instincts might have had us open is left shut tight in fear, the wellspring of our solitary tears finally dries up and disappears, and part of us slowly dies. We remain unnecessarily alone, a vague sense of shame and painful absurdity weighting down our grief, and have lost the ability to support and share from the heart precisely when we need it most.
Here is why I therefore take that step out on to that thin wire over such deep and sacred ground: not to provide answers, but to facilitate the asking of healing questions. To re-open doors of possibility once thought slammed forever shut, and encourage the exploration of the rich and powerful mysteries that gleam like stars amongst the darkness, offering a promise of healing to those willing to acknowledge them. It only seems as if death and its harsh silence immediately bring to an end all being and stifle any further inquiry. In truth the experience offers a rare portal to entire new realms of knowing and sharing and being, despite its raw opening in grief. Any who would dare find that doorway and step through it will encounter a vast new world of the spirit, richly abundant in possibility and reflecting an ancient language of the heart.
Genuine openness to inquiry, even if leading squarely into the unknowable and at times painfully solitary and uncomfortable, must therefore serve as the best and only lifeline for those struggling to effectively cope with the ravages of grief. Despite the “cookie cutter” approach to death, grief, and loss that society might impose for its general comfort and convenience, each path to healing is unique, and travelers called upon such journeys must ultimately seek out their own solutions honoring their own needs and heeding their own intuition.
No rules universally apply here, at least that I know of. Only we can know our own hearts, have a true feel for our history, and even begin to understand the depth or textures of the relationships we have shared. Only our own discernment can tell us whether the event of a loved one’s passing marks a completion of that relationship, or a new phase of the connection, or any point in between. If unfinished business remains with one still very much loved but now in the spirit, what might be the potential costs on either side if the issue is never even examined?
From the very beginning of the apparent “dead end” of my journey, the seeds of my promised salvation took root with the coaching and unconditional support of my loved ones not only to simply keep on, but to dare listen to the voice quiet and steady within my heart along the way. At that critical point, blinded and frozen nearly solid in pain, I was gently encouraged to continue to open when that seemed an impossibility. In the deepest part of me I knew not only that real love had been, but also very much still was, yet had absolutely no idea what to do or where to go with that knowledge. At exactly the right times, I was given the permission I so craved to simply ask and to explore new possibilities.
Thus was the start of my difficult path smoothed, and my life ultimately greatly enriched. As I allowed my heart and mind to open and began to simply pay attention, I observed that love recognizes none of the limits we do. I learned that dead does not mean gone, or finished, and that miraculously even the individual personality remains fully intact following its passage. I experienced in the most immediate of ways the presence
and touch of the angels, and came to realize they are a part of our everyday lives larger and more real than even the most conscious of us can imagine.
If this book were to succeed in but one task, it would be to simply pass along that same gift of encouragement to others shattered by loss, or left dazed or frozen in confusion, or otherwise feeling locked down in pain with no possibility of parole. I have chosen to share my experience here not to provide a guide or any sort of blueprint for yours, but rather in the hope that doing so may simply help open you up to a new range of possibilities and thus ease the way upon your path. I have learned that love is the sole refuge we can trust, and that in the quiet voice of our own hearts lies our surest guide through the dark and wholly uncharted territories in which so many of us will one day be forced to wander, outcast.
Through dialogue with others I have learned that experiences of living relationships with the honored dead are in fact extremely common across all imaginable lines of age, race, gender, faith, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, yet often stored away as treasure most precious and kept safeguarded private and close within the heart. Our hearts and even experience frequently tell us that a living link with the spirit very much remains, if we even know how to listen, but such thoughts and feelings are considered “crazy,” and thus first discounted and then driven underground. When was such fundamental and sacred human knowledge yielded to the unknown, and why?
Are we not consequently losing a unique opportunity for mutual enrichment, shared healing, and a collective preservation of the essential wisdom of a culture? These powerful links with the spirit are often deeply enriching to the survivors’ daily lives, and held by them as integral and greatly healing as they move on with life. And if our ongoing relationships with the dead are very much a two-way street, how might our willful blindness be somehow impeding their progress, marring their peace, or preventing the delivery of the guidance and other precious gifts they might not only want but need to bestow?
If we have surrendered in matters most sacred our sovereign right to honor ourselves by listening to what we know inside, and yielded the wisdom of our inner voice to the chilly clamor always surrounding and disrupting our search for true guidance, something huge and precious has been lost. We may have unknowingly cast away the key to our salvation, and with it closed the door on those we’ve loved. What exactly has been gained in return?
No matter where you stand in life, or whom you love, death and its great mysteries will sooner or later play a role. And may it be that in the great passion play of your life you will have the strength and peace of mind to live fully and abundantly, holding nothing back. Risk heartbreak, cultivating the understanding that death is simply another transition, from which the soul continues its journey upon the completion of its mission here. Know that death need not end the relationships you hold as most precious, and that despite the possibility of heartbreak your only real safety is in love.
It is with confidence that I assure you that you can find your way, but the going may not always be easy. To start healing, to make progress, you need not fully understand or believe. Just try out the assurance that love is what got you into this mess, and it is love that will see you out. It only feels like any mistakes have been made, no matter how great the pain. No love shared is ever a mistake.
Follow it through, and move on with your life as and when you are damned well ready. Move forward and open up, or don’t, and only at your own pace. Remain open to the possibility that nothing is quite as it seems, and know that the love you still have to give is being received, loud and clear. Whatever emotions may still burn within your breast are neither out of place nor in any way in vain. It may very much seem otherwise, but you are on your path and cannot be elsewhere. If you still breathe, your mission here is not yet complete.
And no matter how the idea might feel to you, here’s the truth: you are loved and needed, more than you can ever know. Right here and now, forever.