Embracing the Mystery by Emily Risner

"We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do." Mother Teresa
Photo by Jay Dantinne on Unsplash

Facing death, talking about it, or writing about it is uncomfortable. I’m young. I’m healthy and death seems a remote possibility right now.  I am called to become an End of Life Doula and yet find this resistance to begin my homework.  Like birthing or parenting, no matter how much you buy in, you still must endure the physical labor with all the uncertainty that goes with it.  The curriculum with the institute is intense, and beginning my homework as a Doula means resurrecting feelings around death that I have avoided.  In all the ways I could look at death, it hasn’t always been kind or welcomed, and yet it came. Pursuing my training to become an End of Life Doula is the first time that I intentionally chose death. 

Death can be a very triggering topic.  No matter how comfortable I think I am with it, death is one of those topics that everyone has to tiptoe their way around.  Death anxiety is a real thing.  No matter how delicate I am over this topic, it feels like I am devaluing or minimizing it.  I have not faced my own death, making it even harder to talk about. Is it possible to be curious towards death without being trite or offensive or macabre?  After all, we don’t really know all that lies within the mystery of encountering death. This is how I plan to approach my homework, with total abandon of everything I should know and open wonder to what comes up.

I first felt this sense of wonder creeping in when I read Candice O’Denver talk about her sister in One Simple Change Makes Life Easy:  

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 “With her last breath, her face went from being calm with no smile to having the most incredible smile I've ever seen in my life. She was smiling as though she had seen the most beautiful vision one could imagine. Several hours after her death, that smile was still there. She was in a state of utter lucidity and peace-that natural state of utter lucidity that is totally beyond the body.”

Her smiled transcended death! This is one of those moments where words fail to adequately relate the sense of peace that fills my being just reading about it. It was these words that spoke to my awareness, that there was something to celebrate in death, that it was ok to find something beautiful in death. I felt so deeply affirmed in the way that even in death, with mysteries untold, her sister had left a special imprint with her loved ones. This is what I would hope to bring to others as a death Doula.

I am training to work with the dying soon. With all the triggers, fear and anxiety that it holds, I realize that I could let this hook me into endless worrying about how this may go, imagining infinite scenarios or-- I could stay right here, right now in all that unfolds holding space for my fears too.  I can ‘sit’ with what is happening. Like in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, I can “have patience with everything unresolved in [my] heart and try to love the questions themselves.”   I can be okay with not being okay, with whatever is happening and embrace all that unfolds from each moment with wonder and curiosity and trust that “someday far into the future, [I] will gradually, without even noticing it, live [my] way into the answer.” 

When my mother died of breast cancer in hospice, my older brother and I did not see her because we were young and my father wanted us to remember her alive. We were there with her, however right up until the point that she let go.  After I was a little older, I asked my father what my mom looked like when she passed, and I will never forget his response.  He said, “She had a very peaceful smile on her face, and she looked happy.”  I was impossible for me to understand then how my mother could look peaceful and happy when she died, but now I realize this was her natural state. I realize in this moment what her smile meant in the ever unfolding mystery of this journey we call life.

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Emily Risner is a student at Naropa University studying Contemplative Psychology with a concentration in Transpersonal Psychology, and also has studied Buddhist philosophies and practices. Before Naropa she studied Holistic Health and nutrition. She is level II Reiki certified,
a meditation practitioner, and enjoys yoga.