When Death Is Real: A Postscript on My Year to Live

Last month my year to live journey came to an end.

For nearly one year, a small group of us met each month at the Village Zendo in New York to discuss mortality and to think constructively about how we might go about living our lives if we truly had just one year to live.

I documented my thoughts throughout the year in this blog.  What I did not write about was the all-too-real end-of-life journey of my earliest childhood friend Marisa, who was courageously facing metastatic cancer while I went about my hypothetical journey.

On the night of November 17, our class did a “dissolution of the body” meditation — a guided exercise used by Tibetan lamas to prepare people for the journey of death and beyond.   I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was like because right at the point when our teacher said, “Resist the temptation to fall asleep,” I fell promptly asleep.

But that’s not the important thing.  Five days later, Marisa passed away.

In my grayest moments, I’ve dismissed my own year to live process as frivolous because I am, as much as any of us can claim, healthy.

Then I remember the last time I visited Marisa.  We laughed about the silly details of our childhoods together, like how we let our brothers con us into racing their dirt bikes off a ramp, flying through the air over us (a la Evel Knievel) while we lay completely flat on the asphalt.  And the great trips our families took together involving rented beach shacks and RV trailers.

“It’s hard to come up with a memory from childhood that doesn’t include you guys,” she smiled.

With a lot of hard-earned wisdom under her belt, Marisa posted on Facebook in June: “9 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I’ve seen my share of ups and downs over the years but I seem to only really remember the ups.  The downs will come and go – no reason to get stuck on them.  But the ups, those are the memories you keep forever.”

Of course, “forever” is a relative term.  Marisa’s ups are now my ups.  And maybe someday my own children will remember parts of the stories and her ups will be theirs.  But eventually it all fades into some ethereal mystery.

Still, I like her view of things — if we can put the things we’re grateful for into some kind of internal treasure box to look back upon sometimes (all things in moderation, of course), we’d probably be doing ourselves a world of good.

I can imagine that burying a child of any age has to be the most painful act of all.  I’ve heard many people question faith and god in these circumstances.  Allow me to share a passage from one of the best books on dying I read all year (and believe me, I read my fair share of them!).

“Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup is the autobiography of the chaplain for the Maine game warden who herself was widowed with four young children when her husband – a state trooper – was killed in a car accident.  I’ve read and re-read this passage many times:

My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

I told them, “It was an accident.  There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table.  And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in.  No one meant it to happen.  It just happened.  And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

“God does not spill milk.  God did not bash the truck into your father’s car.  Nowhere in the scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’  God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love.  So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

I’ve been looking for love everywhere.  I saw it in my fellow classmates and our teachers at the Zendo this year.  I saw it in heartfelt comments on this blog.   I saw it played out in my own family.  I saw it in the acts of complete strangers on our trip overseas.  I saw it in the hugs and stories shared at Marisa’s funeral.

I’ve got a year’s worth of learnings, sayings and little nuggets I could end with.  I think, though, I’m going to leave it with this.  If you find wisdom in it, please use it to inform your own journey.  And please keep me posted!

Every day in Zen temples around the world, the following verse marks the close of the day’s ceremonies:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take heed, do not squander your lives.

May our paths cross again soon,


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8 responses to “When Death Is Real: A Postscript on My Year to Live”

  1. Traven says:

    I don’t think there is a verse that has ever stayed with me or affected me as strongly as the Evening Gatha.

    I’m so glad you wrote this postscript – I was feeling a little “incomplete” after your last post – hanging on to the idea of the dissolution of the body exercise and curious about how it went…:-)

    Thank you so much for sharing the journey of your “Year to Live” with the world! It has been a true inspiration.

    In gassho
    (many bows to you)

    • Barbara says:

      Thank you so much for your post, Traven. I searched all over the place for an audio version of the Evening Gatha as it’s done with the instruments and voices at the Zendo. It’s haunting and awe-inspiring. Guaranteed to raise goosebumps every time.

      It’s been such a pleasure to get to know you this year. Looking forward to more!


  2. Sven says:

    Thank you Barb for this beautiful postscript, it’s been great to witness your journey. I wish our society had some sort of a ritual or tradition by which we could become more familiar with and confident in our own mortality while we’re in the middle of life. Perhaps like a Dia de los Muertos, where at least once a year we remember the dead and reflect on the impermanence of life.

    Okay, so I do have one question: What are you going to do now that you’re dead?

    • Barbara says:

      You are so right, Sven. Not having such a ritual is a huge hole in our culture. One of these years, I’m going to show up on your doorstep for a proper Dia de los Muertos!

      And, when I tell you what I’m going to do now that this is all over, you’re going to shake your head knowingly and say, “I predicted that one…”!

  3. Robert says:

    I have read everything on this blog. I have to say, it has touched me. I really enjoy what you have put on here. I know I have just found this now, but I came across it by accident and glad I did. Thank you!

    • Barbara says:

      Wow – it’s nice to hear a comment like this after the Year to Live is over! Going through the 12 months was an extremely powerful experience for me. The lessons learned during that time still trickle into my life in positive ways. If you can get a copy of Stephen Levine’s book, I highly recommend starting your own group! I wish you all the best.

  4. Beautiful! I wish I read this sooner!

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