Living With Life’s Impermanence |

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Nearly a century old, my mom is in the winter of her life. She’s lived a long life, a good life, a meaningful life. I write this post to offer you, the reader, this thought to consider: Many of us in today’s American culture try to hide from life’s impermanence and the aging process. Purposely or mindlessly, we tend to avoid the truth that we are all born and that at some point, we will all pass away.

Truth be told, it’s difficult sitting here and typing these words, but I believe they are critical to my development as a human being. This process, this time of getting ready for inevitable loss, is important. And among my many thoughts and emotions, I feel I’ve been given a gift—to have had these many years with my mom, and now to have the space to try to prepare for the time that her life, as we know it, will conclude.

I find myself thinking about this loss that will inevitably arrive. My advanced training in psychology reminds me that there is no correct way to experience grief and loss (Kessler & Kubler-Ross, 2007; Kessler, 2019). I’m glad to know this because, in recent months, unsolicited thoughts, feelings, sensations, and emotions come to me at random moments, intruding as unwanted visitors in my day-to-day life.

Somewhat inexplicably, I observe myself jotting down notes, quotes, and thoughts on random scraps of paper, hoping that, somehow, these words will begin to bring order and meaning, making this impending loss easier to bear. As James Pennebaker, Ph.D., has found, writing about our feelings can be very meaningful and healing (Pennebaker & Smythe, 2016).

Sometimes, I even hope my unwanted expedition into life’s impermanence offers some wisdom I don’t yet have. Why? So that I might have the “right” insights to more capably share this transition with my family in a way that helps them find meaning while also easing their losses. And, yet, as I write this, I know that losing those we love is not at all that simple.

The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (1994; 2012), is quoted as saying,

If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don’t suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent, but you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away.

Psychologist and spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, Ph.D., (2018) wrote, “When all is said and done, we are all just walking each other home.” We know that life is impermanent—things change even when we don’t want them to, and we lose people we love. These can be very hard lessons to learn. Yet life continues to serve reminders of inevitable cycles of transition and impermanence.

Mindfulness practitioners know that the process of breathing offers continual reminders of the continuity in our lives and also—that nothing is permanent—the beautiful gift of our inhale followed by the exhale (Shapiro, 2020). Each breath is new and temporary as it arrives and then departs. And, so, we breathe, knowing breath is necessary to life and continuity.

Perhaps the greatest continuity is love. When people die, love can live on—in hearts, minds, and actions; and perhaps in larger more mysterious ways. And there is love—love for each other, love for those we have lost and will lose, and the great love that interconnects us all. And then, how can we carry their legacy, the best of them, with us to inspire the best in ourselves even when our loved ones are no longer with us in this dimension? How can we let our losses call us to be higher, wiser, and more resilient versions of ourselves?

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“I lifted you on eagle’s wings and brought you back to me.” This quote from Torah, Exodus 19:4 (Hebrew Bible), can offer a poignant reminder, especially during difficult times of great loss, that we’re not alone. That in some mysterious way we’re connected to something larger than ourselves, a great Oneness that we come from and return to. A reminder that we have opportunities to uplift our hearts and spirits and carry each other in good times and difficult times, in joys and in losses.

In his book Die Wise (2015), Stephen Jenkinson reminds us that gratitude is needed during difficult times. Even when the gratitude may be bathed in grief and sadness, how can we experience awe and gratitude for relationships with those whom we love that continue on in our lives? And gratitude for those who have graced our lives and now have moved to another dimension?

Here are some things I’m learning as I contemplate life’s impermanence. Perhaps an idea or two will resonate for you:

  • Ignoring difficult truths and impending losses does not usually make them go away.
  • It can help to do the following:
  1. Take care of ourselves and our needs, balanced with love and being present for the ones we love and care about.
  2. Have confidence in the care team for our loved one, ask questions, and weigh their responses and our own.
  3. Remember that sometimes words are not needed, that much can be shared through touch, quiet, and mindful sharing of love.
  4. Reach out to our networks of relationships for support and help.
  5. If we are experiencing deep grief, we may need to consult with a supportive, compassionate professional.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. No content is a substitute for consulting with a qualified mental health or health care professional.

© 2023 Ilene Berns-Zare, LLC, All Rights Reserved

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