Let’s Talk About Death and Meditation

Focus on Death

You might want to think about death. Although want is probably an exaggeration.

Our younger son, Tim, broke his femur in a tricycle accident at nursery school at age four. He had to be in traction in the hospital for twenty-six days, his leg up in the air. We had twenty-six days of trying to keep him distracted from his trapped state. “Like being stuck with your kid on an airplane for twenty-six days,” his babysitter observed. We read, we drew pictures, we played games, we watched a big purple dinosaur on TV, we sang.

The day after Tim’s accident, his older brother, William, came down with the chicken pox and had to be cared for at home. To fill out the full order of a triple whammy (why do these things come in threes?), I had a tumor on my parotid gland that needed to be excised right away. I was scheduled for surgery while Tim was in the hospital. My doctor reassured me — holding up one finger to silence my worries — that the tumor didn’t look to be malignant. Still, it had to come out.

My wife, Carol, and I had been taking turns at Tim’s hospital bed, spending alternate nights sleeping on a cot in his room. The night before surgery I slept there, listening to a four-year-old toss and turn in the never-completely-dark and never-completely-quiet stillness of a hospital at night. If I die, I thought to myself, this is exactly what I would want to be doing in the last moments of my life. Spending time with my son. (I would also have liked it if William and Carol were there too.)

Later I shared the thought in a letter to my friend Claire Townsend. Claire had been a figure of considerable glamour in college, three years above me. A trailblazer, she was one of the first class of women undergrads admitted to Princeton. She had interned for Ralph Nader one summer; sang in the Triangle Club, the musical-comedy club on campus; then moved out to Hollywood, where she ended up making a name for herself as a vice president at 20th Century Fox.1 There our paths crossed again when, in a brief foray, I was looking for work as an actor-singer — a career path I soon abandoned.

At the time she, too, was making a life change, going from Hollywood exec to spiritual seeker. She turned up one Sunday at a forum at the church I attended in Pasadena to discuss her journey and the paucity of spiritual content in Hollywood films — no surprise there. We talked a bit then and stayed in touch. She soon quit Hollywood, studied law, took up a spiritual practice, and made a documentary about Peace Pilgrim, a woman who gave up all worldly goods back in the fifties and spent the rest of her life walking around the United States, proclaiming peace.2

We often discussed our prayer lives. I remember one example she gave, from when she was a Hollywood exec, of her silently “shooting love,” as if from a Star Wars lightsaber, at her colleagues during a particularly contentious meeting and seeing things calm down and become more creative. Would that I could do as much. She read an early draft of my first spiritual memoir, Finding God on the A Train, and gave me helpful feedback. She was wise, funny, thoughtful, smart — and dying. At the time she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was getting treatments. I assumed she would recover, like so many cancer sufferers. She died the next year at age forty-three.

We live, we die, we pray, we meditate.

Claire, of all people, knew what it meant to get a scary diagnosis and how important it was to treasure every minute, not just for this life but for the next, whatever that would be. Spending the night on a cot next to my son on a hospital bed was a worthwhile thing to do. It was as though I had focused one of those lightsabers of love and was shooting it at myself, right in the heart. All would be well. God would be with us.

I went into surgery the next day — at a different hospital than my son’s — feeling ready, spiritually prepared. Did I say a few prayers before they put me out with anesthesia? Of course I did. For me, for my family, for the doctors working on me.

I woke up many hours later in a recovery room, feeling awful. Not prayerful at all. The surgery was supposed to be an outpatient procedure, meaning I would go home afterward. But removing the tumor had taken a long time, longer than the surgeon expected. He had to extract it without injuring any of the threadlike facial nerves wrapped around it. My face was stunned in the process, and I discovered that I couldn’t move half of it. I couldn’t smile on my left side, couldn’t wink. I had to close one eye manually.

No, I would not go home that afternoon. I spent the night at the hospital, and the next day a young resident bandaged me up, swathing me in tape and gauze. I looked like an extra from a film about the Civil War, one of the walking wounded.

What I wondered, what had me stumped, was this: Where had all that meditative serenity gone? Why couldn’t I access the divine now? Why couldn’t I accept that this misery was just part of the journey of life? I could tell myself I was grateful for the doctors’ good care, but I didn’t feel it at all. When I closed my eyes — manipulating one eye by hand — all I accessed was the calm-shattering shock of anesthesia and surgery. And the fear of death.

It was my introduction to the challenge medical disasters bring to a prayer life.

I understood why a woman like Claire, a person with probing faith and a dedicated spiritual practice, could also be afraid when dealing with breast cancer.

When you need to practice meditation the most is often when it’s hardest.

Certain assumptions, spoken or unspoken, accompany most medical procedures and treatments. The doctors are going to make you well, the treatment — no matter its crippling side effects — will heal you. The drugs will save you. The surgery will cure what ails you. No one likes to bring up how you might feel in the process. No one tells you beforehand that your head, no matter what they do to your body, will not be in the same place it was. At least it wasn’t for me.

A dozen years after that benign tumor was removed — yes, it was benign — I had to undergo open-heart surgery for an aortic aneurysm, the result of a bicuspid valve I was born with (oh, the bounty in our genes). This was a big deal, no walk in the park. The surgeon was the most confident — dare I say arrogant? —  creature on earth. Yes, you want confidence in a surgeon. You want the person to know what he or she is doing. Maybe it takes just that kind of cockiness to cut someone up, to take the patient’s life in your gloved hands. Still, it doesn’t address how a patient feels.

“I’ll fix you up,” he said, “and you’ll go on living your life.” But what kind of life would it be? How would it change? How would I change? After some cardiac rehab sessions at the hospital, I would eventually go back to jogging in the park, my patched-up heart doing its job efficiently. But how would the heart of my emotional life be?

We were scheduled to go to Spain for a vacation four weeks after the surgery. “No problem,” said the surgeon. “You’ll be just fine. All fixed up.”

We did not go to Spain.

For months afterward, whenever I closed my eyes to slip into meditative prayer, I found myself in a dark box. The black domino, I called it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because I felt trapped in blackness or on the curve of a row of soldierlike dominos where all of us would fall down. All it would take was one push.
I don’t doubt that some of it was clinical. Depression can be a side effect of open-heart surgery. Not that I seemed listless or lost. On the contrary, I felt overly alert, wary. It was hard to fall asleep at night. It was as though my body were saying, I’m not going to do that again. Remember when you fell asleep in the OR and they ripped open your sternum and cut you up? Don’t let someone do that to you again.

Hospitals save countless lives. Western medicine is its own miracle. But its good work can thrash a soul, especially when we avoid the inevitability of death. In its focus on fixing people up, Western medicine often avoids confronting our mortality.

I once met a woman who worked as a hospital chaplain in an oncology ward. She became aware that one of the challenges she faced was the high burnout rate of the staff. Every day they were dealing with life-and-death matters with the hope, the intention, the goal of preserving life. It wasn’t always possible. Patients died, despite their best efforts.

She instigated a new procedure: when a patient died, instead of immediately moving on, the staff would gather in the patient’s room and have a moment of silence. To share in the sorrow and wonder of what had happened, to know it, to take it in, to not simply run away from it and get on with business. To face the truth. Death is part of life. Know it.

That is one of the goals of my meditative prayer practice. Jesus healed, Jesus cured, Jesus raised people from the dead, but when He faced the prospect of His own terrible death, when He prayed in the garden for this cup of suffering to be taken from Him, He was not reassured. He had to pray that harder, deeper prayer,

Not My will, but Thine, be done. — Luke 22:42 KJV

How do lesser mortals like us do as much?

First of all, listen to the fears. Take them in as you sit silently in meditation.

That ache in your chest, does it mean something worse than a little indigestion? Is that what your head is saying? That maddening throbbing in your head, is it something more than can be corrected with a dose of aspirin? That person who died in the accident luridly described in today’s news, couldn’t that be you? She was as innocent as you, but she crossed the street at the wrong moment, meeting a driver who was blinded by the morning light. No reason it couldn’t be you. Hear your worries rumbling through you, the ones you would altogether rather avoid. (In meditation we meet the unavoidable.)

In Jesus’ time people lived closer to nature. You hear it in His parables. They knew that the seed must die for the flower to bloom. The wheat had to be cut and brought into harvest. No animal lived forever. No person did either. How magnificent that our life expectancy has been extended beyond the biblical “threescore years and ten” (Psalm 90:10 KJV).4 Today if someone dies at seventy, you hear people say, “They seemed so young” (no matter how good and rich a life it had been). Pity those, though, who think they can avoid death forever and come up with elaborate plans to recycle their body parts endlessly, going for eternal life that way. Maybe they fantasize about being put in a Deepfreeze to be revived at some later date, a sci-fi resurrection. Anything to escape the final curtain. Jesus’ message couldn’t be realized until He died. Nor can we realize the beauty of our lives without accepting death. Resurrection — change — doesn’t happen without it.

  1. Los Angeles Times, “Claire Townsend; Studio Executive, Attorney,” December 21, 1995, https://www.latimes.com /archives/la-xpm-1995–12–21-mn-16552-story.html.
  2. Claire Townsend, The Spirit of Peace directed by David Mueller (1995), film documentary.
  3. The untitled cartoon by Roz Chast originally appeared in the October 25, 1993 edition of the New Yorker. It can be viewed at https://condenaststore.com/featured/new-yorker-october-25th -1993-roz-chast.html.
  4. National Center for Health Statistics, “U.S. State Life Tables, 2018,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www .cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/life-expectancy.htm.

Excerpted with permission from Even Silence Is Praise by Rick Hamlin, copyright Rick Hamlin.

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Your Turn

Death is a part of life — we all know it. So instead of ignoring the issue, listen to your fears about death and ask the Holy Spirit to calm and comfort you. Jesus understands! Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you. ~ Devotionals Daily

A long-time editor at Guideposts magazine, Rick Hamlin is a frequent contributor to all Guideposts publications. He often writes about his prayer journey and has hosted numerous prayer events for the Guideposts community, in person and on social media. A busy husband, father, magazine executive, and lay leader in his church, he stresses how prayer and meditation can be a natural part of everyday life. He grew up in Southern California but has lived most of his adult life in New York City, where he and his wife sing in their church choir. In addition to his nonfiction—most recently Pray for Me—he has authored several novels, including Reading Between the Lines. Rick blogs regularly at guideposts.org and has published several op-eds in the New York Times.

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