Two friends have died recently. One death was unexpected, one not. People die every day, every hour, but when someone we know personally dies, it is different.
These two people could not have been more different. Separated by two generations, they grew up in different worlds. Now that they are gone, their individual stories each have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And so it will be for all of us. I recently read that if you’re worried about the future, pay attention to what you’re doing right now. The future is where our present actions take us.
When someone we know passes away, it is an invitation to reflect on their lives. What did we learn from them? One person demonstrated how an individual can function as a beacon wherever he goes, sharing a lightness of spirit. One lesson from the other person is how difficult it is to free ourselves from emotional patterns that are set early in life. I will think of these people, one of them by remembering his beauty and grace, and the other by remembering that others are struggling with private burdens we cannot see.
There is so much intensity and joy around the birth of a child, and so much sorrow and grief at the death of anyone. When we imagine our own deaths, it may be helpful to remember how intimately, even inextricably, connected these two transitions are.
Zen teacher Zuiko Redding, from a private letter, published in “Buddhadharma: The Pracitioner’s Quarterly”:
Our death is the gift we make for the life we have enjoyed. The fact that it is a required gift doesn’t mean that we can’t give it with graciousness and an open heart for all beings who will benefit from it. It is a gift to our children and grandchildren and to rocks and trees that need the passing of life in order to live and grow themselves. Without the change resulting in our death, there would be no new beings coming into the world – no joy of holding a newborn, seeing the smile of a child or the leaves of a young tree facing the sun. We would have never grown up, helped others, learned new things, known the joy of spring. Death is our gift to the universe, the dues we pay for the joy of our life.
…Death is not an end. It is a change. The elements that made us up are still there, just as yarn is still there in a finished hat. It is itself, but something else, also. Even though we’re in a sense still here, “self” as we know it is gone. That “self” won’t be appreciating the sunrise tomorrow. But, still, we are here in the places where our elements alight – a tree, a bird, a rock. Remember that things had to die so we could be born – stars, rocks, dinosaurs, plants. As we give up this life, we can thank them for sharing it with us so we could be here for a while.