”The boy whose death was a true beginning.” When I read this memorable headline as I was glancing at the daily newspaper almost two decades ago, my heart quickened.
A few moments later, I opened the paper and read the story of Nicholas Green, a young boy who died tragically at the age of five while on an Italian vacation with his parents and sister, mortally wounded by a bullet during a violent roadside attack. But it was not the tragedy of Nicholas’ death alone that was so moving, but the determination of his family to find some meaning in the tragedy that took his life so prematurely, by donating parts of him to persons with life-threatening illnesses so they could live.
Although Nicholas’ passing was deeply mourned by his mother, father and sister, his story left an indelible mark upon the psyche and hearts not only of those whose lives benefited from his, but everyone who heard his tale and the tale of his family …a family whose compassion and generosity has touched many, not only in Italy, but throughout the world.
Nicholas’ gift was the supreme gift: a gift of life, made possible only through his death. As the author wrote: “In a subtle, almost magical way that is difficult to comprehend in the Modern Age, ‘the Nicholas effect’ has begun to act like some potent medicinal vapor.”
Figuratively, Nicholas Green lives on in Italian streets and in town squares, new gymnasiums, and school wings than have been named in his honor. He lives in the trees planted in his memory in Israel and in a daffodil patch in California. He lives in the stories of his life and death, carried widely in magazines and news articles throughout the world, and he lives on the bodies of persons saved through his organs. Symbolically, Nicholas Green lives on as a testament to the potential of transformation, and so much more.
In our culture, in which illness and death are so widely feared, stories like Nicholas’ are desperately needed, for they remind us not only of the fragility of life, but our capacity to imprint others with our lives long after we are gone. For although we cannot ignore the inevitability of our own mortality, or the uncertainty which lies beyond our lives as we now know them, a story like his reminds us that we will continue in some form, even once our lives as we know them has ended. His life gives us hope that something, even intangible, endures.
In the third edition of the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotation,” there are more than 500 references to death, the majority referring to fear. Clearly although death is a natural part of living, is, it has become imbued with terrible foreboding. This fear has perpetrated the core of our existence.
However, the longer we fear death, the more we try to ignore it the more firmly we become locked in its grip. The more we try to escape its inevitability, the more monstrous it becomes.
In fact, it may be true that our failure to develop a spiritual understanding or acceptance of death or its meaning in our individual lives prevents us from living as fully as possible. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote that “Death is the key to the door of life,” yet how can we recognize the value of this gift if we are taught instead to dread it? How can we live peacefully with our destiny or courageously meet our fate, if we deny our mortality?
This task has been one of the fundamental challenges of my life, especially since faced with the death of my mother, father and sister, my parents to cancer, my sister to a fatal accident. All preceded me in death, my sister and mother before their lives had taken full form.
For a long time, I wondered why they died so young, as if there were an answer. For some time, I wondered whether they were bound to share a destiny, and whether I shared that fate, too. The prospect of dying young in life terrified me at the time, but death, rather the fear of death, has been my greatest teacher, I now realize.
This fear has required me to look beyond, to find greater meaning in my existence than the superficial. Perhaps this fear was the most singularly important influence of my life and therefore its greatest legacy, a legacy I received primarily through association with my mother, and her particularly difficult encounter with illness and dying.
It has led me on a long journey of exploration, grappling with the themes of loss, grief mortality, joyful living, purpose and meaning.
If you are seeking psychological or psycho-spiritual support to cope with a life-threatening illness, love someone who is ill or in their dying process, or are experiencing a loss, I may be able to help.
Although each person’s journey is unique, I have an intimate knowledge of the experience or illness, death, dying and loss, and would welcome the opportunity to support you in your process, whether it involves simply listening or helping guide you as best I can through your journey.