“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote while ailing with leukemia. To comprehend the luckiness of death is to comprehend life itself. When a loved one is dying and we get to be by their side, it is a double luckiness — lucky that we got to have the love at all, and lucky, which is not everyone’s luck, that we get to say goodbye. Even so, accompanying a loved one as they exit life is one of the most difficult and demanding experiences you could have.
How to move through it is what my talented friend and sometime-collaborator Wendy MacNaughton explores in How to Say Goodbye (public library) — a tender illustrated field guide to being present with and for what Alice James called “the most supremely interesting moment in life,” drawing on Wendy’s time as artist-in-residence at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and her own profound experience at her beloved aunt’s deathbed.
Punctuating Wendy’s signature ink-and-watercolor illustrations of Zen Hospice residents and her soulful pencil sketches of her aunt are spare words relaying the wisdom of hospice caregivers: what to say, how to listen, how to show up, how to stay present with both the experience of the dying and your own.
The book’s beating heart is an invitation to grow comfortable with change, with uncertainty, with vulnerability, radiating a living affirmation of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s insistence that “when you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence.”
If you don’t know what to say, start by saying that.
That’s very vulnerable.
So much falling away. The body falling apart.
There’s a lot going on in that conversation.
Neither of you knows what to do in this situation.
That opens things up.
In lovely symmetry to Zen Hospice Project founder Frank Ostaseski’s five invitations for the end of life, Wendy draws on what she learned from caregivers and distills the five most powerful things we can say to the loved one dying — “a framework for a conversation of love, respect, and closure,” rendered in words of great depth and great simplicity, like the language of children, for it is this realm of unselfconscious candor we return to at the end:
I forgive you.
Please forgive me.
I love you.
Emanating from these tender pages is a reminder that death merely magnifies the fundamental fact of living: We are fragile motes of matter in the impartial hand of chance, beholden to entropy, haunted by loss, saved only by love.
Complement How to Say Goodbye with Rebecca Elson’s “Antidotes to Fear of Death” and Anna Belle Kaufman’s stunning poem about how to live and how to die, then revisit Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most difficult and redemptive life-advice ever offered.
Illustrations courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton