Waiting in line at the bookstore a couple of months ago, I saw copies of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
I’d checked out the audiobook from my local library before, but I’d never listened for more than two or three minutes before falling asleep. I’d later awaken to some random excerpt, think that’s lovely, and then tumble right back to sleep.
Seeing a copy of the book in print in line that day, I thought I might enjoy actually reading it—all the way through, from its beginning to its final word.
Until finishing Being Mortal last week, I’d read three or four pages at a time.
Having spent the years 2016 through 2018 plowing through a couple of non-fiction books a week, I’ve slowed down when reading those books that touch my heart. In a world currently so full of fear and condemnation, I want to touch in frequently with those things—those words, those hearts, those authors, those places—that fill me with the wonder of being deeply, achingly human.
A couple days ago, I reached this particular book’s final pages. I found in them words that helped me name a particular ache in my heart as I’ve followed COVID19’s trajectory the last month or so.
Many times now, I’ve seen doctors, family, and friends of those deceased mourning people who have died in physical isolation. In they end, both those dying and those left behind have been deprived of their loved ones’ presence, ethereal and bodily.
From a distance, I’ve ached for everyone involved.
Reflecting on the final days of one of his daughter’s teachers, Gawande writes:
Technological society has forgotten the “dying role” and its importance to people as life approaches its end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their stories on their own terms. This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.
Right now, minute by minute on a scale greater than I can fathom, people are departing this world quickly and from a grave physical distance, without the chance for anyone to experience the slight measure of peace that can come from the dying role having had its proper place.
What do I do with this grief, this loss, this global mourning?
How do I use it to open my heart, instead of as cause to shrink into myself, away from the hardness of the world?
The best I can figure it now, as I listen to my husband and kids snoring, is that I can—and will—advocate for systems that make these outcomes less likely, from within pandemic and outside of it.
On a more human level, I can hold space.
I can–and will, and do–hold space in my heart for those who are dying apart from their loved ones, and
for those who are left behind, and for those,
between them, trying to save lives.
I cannot be there in body, but I can be—am—
there in love.