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Soulful Sundays: In Memoriam

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

-Lord Tennyson

Anti-aging, life extension, and longevity. You may have heard these buzz words being thrown around quite a lot recently, from social media and magazine articles to hormone replacement and stem cell therapies. But what is the use of extending a miserable life? Or repairing the body while forgetting to repair the soul?

I watched with sad eyes while my grandfather went through a period of ten years of cognitive decline. Before his first heart surgery he was charismatic and lively. He was the kind of grandpa who would always have several jokes queued up to tell you. He volunteered as a physician at a local charity clinic. He could remember all of the best stories he had accumulated over his seven decades of life. But he had a problem that hid in plain sight and ultimately led to his decline.

My "Pepa" suffered from severe sleep apnea. What was worse is that he refused to use a CPAP. His troubles began during his earlier years as a doctor when he became accustomed to sleeping poorly at night, clocking in very early at the hospital, and relying on an afternoon nap (or a nap any time) to gap the distance. I remember my Pepa being able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime. I thought it was his superpower. It turned out to be his kryptonite.

His cognitive decline began slowly after his first quintuple bypass surgery. He moved a little slower, couldn't work as much, and had to take a few more naps than usual. But the train wreck was only building momentum. A few years later he had a bad fall and then he had a surgery for a blocked carotid artery. A few years after that he had a pacemaker put in. Then it got infected and had to be replaced. All the while he was losing more and more daily function. Mentally he had become a child again.

Little glimmers of his former self would sparkle through here and there, but most of the time he was either confused or asleep. It was hell watching the progression as an adult, especially knowing the source of the decline. After his funeral I took a deep dive into researching sleep apnea. Serendipitously, the very first patient that I treated at my new clinic was coming for sleep apnea. I regarded sleep as the most important thing that we do on a daily basis. I still do. But that is a topic for another post.

We are all going to die sooner or later. What matters most is how we choose to live our lives right now. A very powerful practice in this endeavor is to picture our funerals each and every morning before we begin our day. This could be in bed, during your morning shower, on your morning run, or over your first cup of coffee. Imagine the kinds of things you want your friends and family to say about you when you die. Feel what it would be like to embody those things. Then go out and live yourself into them being so.

You may be thinking to yourself: This kind of practice is overly macabre. It's kind of depressing to think of death. That's what weirdos do. I'm doing just fine without picturing my death every day. Or ever. No thanks.

I would ask: Why do we go to such great lengths to memorialize the dead? Why do we take so much effort in preserving the lessons of our ancestors? After we die, what of us persists? Is it not the memories that our loved ones carry with them? The impression that our soul left on this earth? Even in eternity, doesn't what we do right now matter?

Loss is difficult. Unexpected loss is even worse. Ignoring death will only create greater suffering when it befalls us. Loss without healing is called chronic grief. Healing comes when we can face reality, honor the pain, and turn it into meaning.

In memoriam. Into meaning.

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