Blog: Life, death and the space in between


A difficult day.

I went to visit my friend G who has had a stroke, and is in a coma. As I turned into the hospital driveway to park my car, I couldn’t help but remember the last time I was there; my friend, a young mother of three, was in the last stages of breast cancer and I was one of the few she allowed to spend time with her at the end. I park the car and so far I’m okay, despite the memories of that oh-so-sad time a number of years ago.

But as I walk down the corridor toward the ICU, I see the familiar artwork on the walls and my body remembers it all: those last days and hours of C’s life, the enormity of her death, the family’s sorrow, and the children… I enter the ICU and G’s bed is two down from where my friend passed away. It’s all so real — life, death, and the fragile hold we have on the space in between.

I spend time with G, offering kind words and a soft touch, and as I leave, I notice each patient, realizing that there but for the grace of God go I. We are all, in truth, headed for something like the ICU; we’re all in line for the same bus, headed toward that destination at some point. I consider what it’s like for each of the people I pass; for one, it might have been a sudden event.

For others, it may be the final stretch of a protracted illness. But regardless of the circumstances, I can imagine the monumental shifts that had to take place inside their hearts and minds to come to terms with their situation — to be in a backless robe, wired to tubes and machines, and utterly reliant on the care of others to get them through another day.

I know it’s morbid to talk about death, and those who know me will attest to the fact that I’m as sunshiney and upbeat as they come. But I have to say, I think it would do us all a world of good if we spent a little more time in the company of those whose lives have been stripped of the extras, who are facing life day by day — or moment by moment — rather than operating under the illusion of immortality.

I have experienced the loss of many loved ones from a young age, and I am certain that it has influenced me more than almost anything else I’ve gone through in my life. When we think we’re going to live forever, the little things get missed; they don’t matter all that much. We forget how wonderful it is to taste chocolate, or listen to a great piece of music. We lose sight of what makes our heart sing its sweetest song — playing a game of Connect Four with our child, or feeding the ducks at the park on a sunny day.

Life really is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. As easy as it is to let these platitudes roll off our tongue — regurgitated words of wisdom from a book of quotes or an inspirational Facebook post — it’s often not until we come face to face with the absence of life that we remember its value.

So today, I am especially enjoying the aroma of the broom I picked from the side of the road up the canyon. It is so lovely, filling the house with its sweet fragrance.

Susan Stiffelman is a family therapist and author of “Parenting Without Power Struggles.”  This column originally appeared on