“Practice dying,” Plato said.
Such practice is extremely important, because no one escapes death.
Of perhaps equal importance is practicing how to live after a loved one dies. Among the shocks that befall humanity, few are more devastating than such a loss.
The July 23 cover story in Time Magazine deals with the suicides of military personnel — one per day on average, and most of them young.
Every 14 seconds, someone in the U.S. dies. That’s about 6,200 deaths per day. So, somewhere in this country, every day, children, parents, spouses and friends are facing life without a person who made an immense difference in their own lives.
At that point one’s family and friends, religious community, and fraternal group or civic organization usually provide support, such that funerals are mainly for the living even as they are social gatherings to remember the dead.
What happens next? Some seek grief counseling from clergy or therapists, or they turn to friends for support.
However, in my experience, most bereaved people fail to appreciate the powerful blow not just to one’s spirit but to one’s body caused by the death.
Some of this results from the sheer exhaustion of arranging a funeral, traveling to the event and encountering one’s extended family. Some comes from the stark realization that the loved one is no longer there to give hugs, share dinner or a phone call. Nothing.
I have witnessed several instances recently where the health of such a person took a body blow — severe flu, inner ear infection and vertigo, heart attack, unspecified pain or weakness, or clinical depression.
So it is important to be good to one’s body by eating regularly, sleeping enough and finding as much joy as possible under the circumstances.
Attitude is vitally important.
One friend who lost her 57-year-old daughter to cancer last year said she tries to focus on her child’s achievements and accept that she accomplished what God intended for her.
Belief in an afterlife can also be very consoling through the conviction that death is not the last word, that its sting is followed by eternal life and a heavenly reunion.
Another indispensable tool for coping with a beloved’s death is remembrance.
I sometimes try to remember my deceased parents as they were when young together on a 1940s dance floor, gliding like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And every day in prayer, I call to mind deceased relatives and thank them for their goodness to me.
Most religious traditions have prayers of remembrance at services, such as the Kaddish prayer at the close of a synagogue service. Catholics may request that a Mass be said for a deceased relative, particularly on the anniversary of the person’s death.
We cannot escape reminders of death. They are with us daily in the media, and inevitably they will find their way into our personal lives when a beloved dies. But, along with the sobering effect that such reminders have, we need to appreciate daily the gift of life and make it count.
A final note: Because you love your life partner and children, provide them with clear written instructions for your own final days — a will, a durable power-of-attorney for health care and clear end-of-life instructions.
That will lessen their pain and ease their lives after you die.
BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. He is a Costa Mesa resident.