A friend of mine died a couple of weeks ago, aged 84. She was someone I worked with and also stayed with and “just visited” a number of times over the thirteen years I knew her. Spending time with her was wonderful in many ways. She was a rigorous thinker, intellectually stimulating and passionately committed to making the world a better – especially a more equitable – place. She was also compassionate and considerate on an everyday basis. Well traveled and sophisticated in the best sense of the word, she taught me about many things beyond my fairly sheltered experience.
Being with her was also a wake-up call that inspired me to get serious about my spiritual life. My friend had lost her husband in a senseless accident about a year before I met her and had a terrible time reconciling herself to his death. She also lived with chronic pain from multiple hip surgeries, shoulder surgery and a host of related problems. Her last few years were made more miserable by the fact that she could no longer travel and so could not stay engaged in the work she was so passionate about. She talked to me more than once about suicide.
Her experiences, as I perceived them, made it clear that aging can be hell. Even if things don’t get as bad as they did for my friend, I realized there would be challenges dealing with physical discomfort and the emotional pain of loss – loss of loved ones, loss of capacities and ultimately loss of life. It seemed to me that, although my friend had tremendous intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, she did not have a spiritual grounding to ease her suffering. I wanted that grounding to cultivate acceptance of the inevitable changes coming down the road. There is much more to spirituality, of course, just as there is more to aging than pain and loss, and there was so much more to my friend than her unhappiness. But the desire to face the hard parts of old age with equanimity has been a good motivator. I am glad she is beyond pain now, and I will miss her.