The Near Death Experience of Living


Things change in the time it takes to breathe. – Sass Jordan

Two years ago my father died in his sleep while on vacation.

It was, as my mother described it at the time “a beautiful death”; just a quiet, peaceful slipping away—the kind most of us would be grateful for.

And while it was a tremendous gift for me not to ever see him sick or to have to witness the kind of slow deterioration many are forced to endure with a loved one, the stunning suddenness of it all had its own kind of devastation: It’s made sleeping very strange.

Many nights I lie in bed and picture my father on the night he passed away, unaware of the magnitude of the moment as he drifted off to sleep. I think about that brutally precise second when he slipped silently from death to life; one minute here, the next hereafter.

One last unanswered exhale. The permanent period to his life story.

No bombastic moment, nothing noteworthy or eventful, no dramatic speeches or final words or crescendoing music. Just the interrupted beat of his heart—and that was it.

Clichés easily become white noise.

They lose their resonance in our ears as they become familiar:

Life is fragile.

We hear this often.

We think we know this.

We don’t have a clue.

Friend, do me a favor right now as you’re reading this: Take a breath.

(Go ahead, breathe.)


This is how close you are to it.

This is your proximity to the end of you.

We are all having a near death experience in this life.

As we breathe, eat, sing, work, laugh, argue, sleep and do all manner of seemingly ordinary living, we do it all just an onion skin’s thinness from the threshold to whatever awaits us beyond this place.

In our most mundane and uneventful moments we are tightly pressed up against the edge of eternity.

My father’s death (among so many other things) taught me the true width of the separation between life and death: one single breath.

I suppose this news should depress me. Some days it does.
I suppose it should terrify me. Many nights it does.
I suppose it should cause me to see everything here as ultimately meaningless and fruitless. It can at times.

But on my best of days this news wakes me up.

On those days it snaps me out of the sedated autopilot experience I so often operate within.

It shakes away the stupor and circulates a crackling flood of gratitude coursing through me; one that allows all of the color and the movement and the sound to penetrate my senses and I actually feel alive again.

It brings an urgency that fills me not with fear or dread but with joy. That is the paradox: Death yielding such life.

The illusion that we have all the time in the world can numb us to complacency.

It can anesthetize us enough that we lose what it should feel like to be alive.

It can fool us into believing that our time is expendable, that we have anything ordinary or uneventful in our days—and we can become wasteful of seconds and of people.

Dear friends, the truth is we are all as close as my father was that night.

We are one single breath’s width from eternity.

Yes, you are having a near death experience right now.

But take heart.

Take a breath.

Now go, and really live!






Holidays and Empty Chairs

The holidays are a time for recognizing our profound fullness, of purposefully dwelling on the abundant overflow we find ourselves in and being grateful for it.

Our houses and our bellies bulge to capacity, and we gleefully overindulge in food and friends and laughter. We fill ourselves to bursting with all the things and the people and the stuff that make life glorious and make the difficulties bearable.

This is a season where we inventory our lives and readily acknowledge all that is good and sweet and right.

It is about celebrating presence.

But not for you.

Not right now.

Though you may indeed have so many reasons to feel fortunate and to give thanks, what this season is now marked by more than anything else—is absence. Surrounded by noise and activity and life, your eyes and your heart can’t help but drift to that quiet space that now remains unoccupied: the cruel vacancy of the empty chair.

You’re not alone, friend. In fact, though they’re supposed to nurture gratitude and deposit peace within us, the holidays have a way of magnifying loss; of in the middle of all the celebration and thanksgiving, reminding us of our incompleteness, our lack, our mourning.

The empty chair is different for everyone, though it is equally intrusive.

For some it is a place of a vigil; the persistent hope of a prodigal returning, of a severed tie to soon be repaired, of a long overdue reunion to come. It is a place of painful but patient waiting for what is unlikely, yet still possible.

For some the chair is a memorial; the stark reminder of what was and no longer is, of that which never will be again. It is a household headstone where we eulogize and grieve and remember,; a face we squint to see, a hand we stretch to hold, a voice we strain to hear.

For some it is a fresh wound; the painful fallout of a brutal battle that we chose or had thrust upon us, one whose aftermath has yielded silence. It is a place of sometimes necessary but still excruciating separation.

This may be the first time the chair has been empty for you, or you may have grown quite accustomed to the subtraction. Either way it hurts like hell, and I wanted you to know that someone sees you and understands.

This would usually be the time when a writer might offer some silver lining goodness to tie everything up in pretty little bow; some closing reminders about how the empty chair is still a blessing because it reminds us that we had something worth grieving over to begin with. It’s the place where he or she would offer some concluding encouragement regarding the lessons the empty chair teaches us, about living in the moment and being thankful for what we have and about growing through suffering.

I’m not going to do that. You’ll learn those lessons and acquire that wisdom and find that healing in your way and in your time—or you won’t. Life is unpredictable and messy that way.

Right now, I just want you to know that I see your waiting, your grief, and your pain, and that I wait and grieve and suffer too. In that way we all sit together in this, gathered around this same incomplete table. 

Maybe that is all we can offer one another: our compassionate presence in this face of this terrible absence.

In this season each of us learns to have fellowship with sadness, to celebrate accompanied by sorrow. This is the paradox of loving and being wounded simultaneously.

May we each make peace with the holidays and the empty chairs.