A Death is Born Into Your Life

I sat next to R. at a community sing the other night. Her mother died several months ago and she is still in the raw grief of it all. Many of the songs called forth her tears and she looked a bit worn. It brought back memories from my own journeys with grief….

My father died in 1991 after a short and intense illness with pancreatic cancer. I was with him when he took his last breath and sent him off with words of love. It was the first time I’d been with someone as they died and it changed my life in ways I am still discovering these many years later.

In the months that followed, I experienced the roller coaster of grief. I’d wake up in the morning having forgotten that he was gone. The realization would land like a stone in my heart every day. Then there were the series of firsts without Dad – holidays and birthdays and seasonal rituals. There were stories on the radio I wanted to tell him about. Weaving through those first weeks and months, I was exhausted from contending with such a huge loss.

It occurred to me since that time that a death has its own life cycle (death cycle?). Like a baby, it’s born into your life on its own schedule and brings undeniable changes along with it. The first months living with a death is much like living with a newborn. Sleep cycles are interrupted. Every little and big thing is different, often in unexpected ways. It feels like it will never end at times. And there’s lots of weeping and a fair amount of shit that needs cleaning up. Paperwork, too.

Eventually things even out and the death requires less daily attention. It starts “maturing.” The feelings are less raw. The anniversaries and celebrations become less wrenching.

Even with those changes, the death – like a child – is with us forever. My 91-year-old mother tells me frequently that I am still her child. “You never stop being a mother” she quips with a smile. It’s why I have to call her to let her know I got home safely after every visit.

Twenty-four years on, my father’s death is now a full grown “adult” in my life. In a way, his death has moved out of my house. I still think of it – and him – every day, but I do so with a kind of pride and distance.

That death – like a child – has changed me and grown me up in many beautiful ways.   It helped me understand my capacity for being present in the face of mortality. It unleashed a creative burst of songwriting that is still continuing after seven CD’s. His death also wiped away a big batch of chronic fear from my life. I’ve heard parents talk about similar fearlessness, clarity, and purpose that came upon them after having a child.

A death is born into your life and grows alongside you, offering many gifts and lessons, including the truth of your own death ahead. May we learn to live more gracefully with this generous and relentless companion.


About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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2 Responses to A Death is Born Into Your Life

  1. Linda Lundquist says:

    Oh, dear Barbara, I read this with tears falling as I was missing my Dad and Auntie so at our Thanksgiving dinner yesterday. Plus, having gone through 7 other deaths in 7 months, I know that I am being called to do hospice work down the road once my grief subsides as still waters, not coming in titantic waves during the holidays. Thank you so for your presence in this world and I look forward to your concert with Glenda in December! Love and blessings, Linda

  2. Liz says:

    Love you and what you share, Barbara. You are a rare treasured gift. Thank you….peace, Liz

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