Death has made me more resilient

Silence — it’s deafening. I look around at this empty apartment and take in the sinking feeling that I’m alone.

New Yorkers seem to crave “alone time.” I see individuals sitting on park benches all over the city, stealing moments, staring into space, encased in an invisible aura of solitude. It’s quite a feat actually to do this amidst the noise and tidal wave of humanity that ebbs and flows through every inch of space here.

I too used to love having time to myself. But since JP died, being alone is extremely challenging. Solitude triggers at best, feelings of absence and loss and at worst, panic. It’s now associated with an unwanted outcome rather than a state of being. Last week, one of the members of my grief support group described death as the ultimate abandonment. I think she’s right. JP’s death left me feeling bereft not just from him, but from the life I knew and had imagined. I lost myself in death’s aftermath and these past five years have been a long, slow process of putting myself back together again.

As I listen to my group members share their feelings, it strikes me as a recurring theme that death evokes so much more than the pain of losing a loved one. Death screws with our imaginings of the way life will or is supposed to be. Death is the unexpected, unwanted disturbance to our plans and expectations that causes us to teeter on the edge of disbelief, confusion, insanity, scrambling to find solid ground. Death points inexorably to the truth that life as we know it is in constant flux and the future is as nebulous as a puff of smoke.

Death has changed me. I have strange anxieties and worries that hide in shadows and spring out like mad Jack-in-the-boxes, especially when I think I’m doing just fine. But death has also made me more resilient. I have a higher tolerance for pain. I accept sorrow as a dark but necessary companion and I’ve learned to be still in the presence of fear. These days, coping techniques and historical precedence help tremendously when I feel shaky and overwhelmed. I think back to the days when pain had to be overcome moment by moment and time moved so slowly it might as well have been standing still. I remember that those days are not how I experience life anymore.

Sit, be still, go into this fear as you’ve done so many times in the recent past, “you know what to do.” The minutes pass as I focus on breath and tune into my body. Slowly, as with my dreams about the future, the anxiety and fear that came from being alone slowly subsides, like a puff of smoke. And in it’s place comes a recent, surprising and increasingly familiar sensation that I don’t know what to call other than the joy of being.

Joy is a very new sensation for me. I grew up in a strict and joyless Chinese family environment where duty and responsibility were emphasized above all else. So I’m curious about this bubbling joy. It’s mystical and bemusing and all the more strange because it doesn’t seem to be caused or tied to anything at all. I’m not sure what the source of this joy is and so I just accept it gratefully for now, as a state of being that I hope will become my natural, default state in time.

Along with this joy I have found deep gratitude. Not because life is good or at least better, or even because I’m not so sad any more. I’m grateful that I can embrace all of life’s offerings, good and bad. I’m grateful to have pushed past the search for security in material things and even in relationships. As a friend, a consultant, a partner, I can hold space for you whether you are joyous and celebrating or whether you are torn apart by sorrow and grief.

There is much more for me to learn to navigate this amazing life. But today, I’ll take the joy and gratitude and be at peace with simply being.

Taruni Tan is a grief counselor and music therapist. She can be reached on A good day to die.

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  • Wendy Belgard Hanawalt

    I am so grateful to have found you. My son died a couple of months ago, and you have spoken what is in my heart. Not so sure, I’m in touch with the “joy,” but I do know what you mean.