Dying before Death

I hate writing about death. It brings up unpleasant family memories.

Mother died at the age of 62 in 1982 from a series of brain infarctions, which is like Alzheimer’s, only accelerated.

Dad died in 1994 at the age of 75 from pancreatic cancer. By the time he was diagnosed, it was so advanced the doctors sent him home after surgically opening him up. He died a couple of weeks later.

These were huge personal losses. But I could comfort myself with knowing that I still had my sister, Debbie. Debbie and I were not close, but whenever we met for lunch or a special occasion, the conversation would always move to our parents and what bratty kids we’d been.

Swapping childhood stories with her was the most fun I ever had with anyone.

She died at the age of 48 in the spring of 1999 from congestive heart failure. When I finished being mad at her for taking a radical position early in life to never ever go to a doctor, things started closing in. I began to realize how alone I was. I was the sole surviving member of my family!

I became extremely depressed — numb in fact. Totally shut down. I was surprised that outwardly I could continue to function. But I felt like a robot, living my life in a mechanical way devoid of all emotion. I learned the clinical term for this: depressive anhedonia.

How long could I continue like this, I wondered. A part of me wanted to claw my way back to some sort of normalcy, but didn’t know how. Another part of me was content with being numb.

At that time, I was an active member in a email listserv called Winged Heart. Before Facebook, listservs were a popular way to connect with other people of kindred spirit. In Winged Heart, members of the Sufi Order International, founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan, shared ideas and experiences. Sufis like to toss around big metaphysical concepts like ‘die before death and resurrect now’. I felt like I had already accomplished the first part, though not the second.

I put my plight out on the listserv, not expecting much. One of the people on it was a homeopathic doctor, who responded by explaining it was pointless to fight to be happy again. I would just worsen the psychic split. She said what I needed was to get in touch with my sadness.

Psychic split? I was shocked and angered at her suggestion and even stewed about it for several days. How could I split from anything? There was nothing inside of me to split from! Just a big damn void.

But, I had been numb for so long that I was also startled and relieved to be feeling any kind of emotion – even anger.

As I pondered her idea further, I decided that she was correct. Fear was keeping me in a state of numbness, the fear of being overwhelmed by my grief.

The doctor advised me not to look at my grief directly, but to approach it in an indirect manner – out of the corner of my eye, so to speak.

So, I set about creating “the world’s saddest music” CD. It would be primarily a compilation of Emmylou Harris songs, who does sad songs just about better than anyone. I already had a lot of her material on my computer.

Compiling the CD meant reviewing a lot sad music, and then ranking songs into sad, sadder and saddest categories. At first, I could do this with a detached music editor’s ear. It was an intellectual exercise.

But, by the time I had selected six songs for my compilation and was listening to more songs to add, I suddenly had to stop. Listening to the songs, I could feel my heart cracking open. I turned off the computer, misty-eyed and choked up. Then it hit me. I was feeling something again. I was in touch with my own broken heart for the first time since my sister died.

I never finished that compilation. Once I could feel a range of emotions, I worked on the CD less. I had a long way to go to fully recover, but I knew I was in a process that would carry me forward into healing.

Doug Roberts is the author of a romantic suspense novel set in Iran,  The Man Who Fooled SAVAK.

6 Comments on “Dying before Death”

  1. Doug, thanks for this. I lost my brother in 1994, my mom in 2000, & dad in 2005. The notion of approaching grief “sideways” feels so true. I remember hearing Lucinda Williams sing “Sweet old world” on the radio one day and I had to pull over I was sobbing so hard. We grieve in individual ways. Being gentle with ourselves whatever comes up is key.

  2. myninjanaan says:

    this is such a beautiful and vulnerable article. Thank you for opening up and letting us in.

  3. I found a photo of Darla, my sister-in-law, and I doing the Mulder Secret Handshake:

  4. Jenny Jones says:

    very beautiful and hope-inspiring piece…thank you so much for sharing this.