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Keeping the Heart Open to Life after Loss

Over the years I have watched when people lose someone close and then their hearts start to shut down. The pain of grief is so deep that they quietly retreat from life or the prospect of loving again. Or they do things to escape and distract from life so as not to feel too deeply again.

I didn’t want that to happen to me. My father died at 98 years old and despite all that he had been through, including memories from his time in the British navy during WWII, he was an incredible example of someone who had kept his heart open to life. He remained curious about so many things until his death. With great devotion, he loved my mother through a progression of Alzheimer’s that lasted over ten years until her death. I am blessed to call him my father.

One day, months after my husband Gordon died (back in 2008), I clearly remember feeling my heart wanting to start to guard, to protect, to quietly shut down as the pain of my loss was too much. I was concerned. It has always been a goal of mine to keep my heart open to life, love, God, the Divine, and the greater mysteries of life. The individuals whom I have observed in my hospice work who have kept their hearts open to love and life almost always have richer experiences and relationships as a result.

So I took these reflections inside, deep into contemplation, which is what I do when I am unsure. I asked inwardly, “Show me what to do to keep my heart open to life. Show me how to keep my heart alive to love and life and continue to be childlike in how I approach things. What can I do to have the excitement of a child and be open to life as though it were new?”

As I was holding this reflection carefully in contemplation, ever so gently but distinctly an answer came: gliding.

“Gliding?” I protested out loud. “Are you kidding me? Here I am grieving, and your answer is gliding?

For those of you who aren’t aware, gliding is flying a plane with no engine. Yes, a full-out plane, with cockpit and instruments but NO engine. You are towed up by a power plane and released at a higher altitude, learning to soar on the wind currents like an eagle. I had seen gliders in my youth when my father’s interest in flying drew me in, though he himself flew planes with engines—never a glider!

I even tried an introductory flight in a Cessna when I was in my twenties, but I didn’t like the noise of the motor and so didn’t pursue lessons after that. In 1995, my husband and I both did an introductory flight in a glider with a pilot around the stunning mountains of British Columbia. When the tow plane released the plane for the first time and flew off, the glider slowed and was caught by the wind currents. I clearly remember the feeling: it was so profound for me it brought tears to my eyes. It was like resting in the arms of God. It was so magical that I can’t begin to describe the feeling. Stunning mountains all around and river valleys below cradled only by the invisible wind currents.

Gord enjoyed the experience too, but he wasn’t interested in proceeding beyond the initial experience at the time. Now, here I was fifteen years later in contemplation asking how to keep my heart open to life like a child, in the midst of this grief, and the answer that came was gliding. I hadn’t really thought of that in years, but the prompting was so strong I couldn’t let it go. I called a few friends and within a week arranged for another introductory flight out at the airfield.

Despite my enthusiasm and encouragement to share the experience with those close to me, I remember being exhausted on the day I had to make the long, hour-and-a-half drive to the gliding club. Later, when standing on the grass airstrip and looking at the stunning mountains all around and this crazy plane with no engine in front of me, my thoughts reeled. “What in the world am I doing here? This is ridiculous. Maybe I heard wrong. I can’t do this. I just want to go home!”

Not more than a heartbeat of a moment went by when I looked up and walking toward me was one of the older pilots whom I had not met before. He reached out his hand and introduced himself as Harald. Ironically, there is someone in my life who has taught me so much spiritually—a cherished teacher—and his name just happens to be Harold. So when Harald introduced himself, I instantly paid attention.

He then leapt right into his presentation and without hesitation, he said, “Life is a three-dimensional experience. Most people live life in a two-dimensional way, but life is a three-dimensional experience. If you take up flying, your whole perspective on life will change. When you see a tree and leaves, you won’t just see a tree and leaves. When the leaves are turned in the opposite direction, you will see the wind. And you won’t just see the wind, you will then see systems. And you won’t just see systems, you will see how they interact with nature. If you take up flying, your whole perspective on life will change.”

I couldn’t believe his words; they were poetic in the moment in how they spoke to my heart and my questions about life. It was because of his encouragement that I went forward and took up flying seriously. It has been an amazing experience to heal and embrace life again. It has caused me to look at many things in a different light. It is so beautiful to dance with the clouds high in the sky; life looks different from that expansive bird’s-eye viewpoint.

The metaphor of flying a glider and its parallels to the many dimensions of life is quite profound. There are the detailed components that are at play when handling the plane and strategizing for a safe flight. But there are also the less tangible components in nature that cannot be predicted and yet cause the experience to be more interesting. One must flow with the wind and nature’s elements at play in the midst of the adventure; trust is a key factor. I have faced myself and many fears while up in the sky flying a plane with no engine and I have become a stronger person for it.

Much like those facing their physical death, there is so much at play in life itself that we cannot see or formally define. The more we stay open to learn from all that they share, the more we will learn about this vast uncharted territory. In turn we can support each other more fully through this fascinating life transition. Discoveries regarding the rich dimensions and mystery of life are unending. Compassionate presence, love, and understanding are key during this sacred time.

How can we all better honor the mystery at the end of life, support our shared humanity, and in turn celebrate life to the fullest?


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