Yesterday was a unique day in my household. From 1 to 2 PM I gave a Zoom talk at an annual two-day conference called The Conference on Death, Grief and Belief. At 3:30, an 83-year old member of my household died in the arms of his son, also a member of our modest community.

A sculpted tomb, a well-earned rest. Photo by michael_hamburg69 on Flickr.

His death was not unexpected, as he had dementia and was not eating, had lost weight and could barely talk. Nevertheless, it was the end of a man’s life, father of seven children who grew up under the Japanese occupation in the Philippines, and who knew plenty of grief — his wife and mother of his children died at only 31 years old.

When a person dies, I often say: “His work was finished.” We are all here to do work on Earth (our work may be larger than our job). His, in retrospect, was about his family, many of whom he brought to America 30 years ago, where they have struggled and thrived in their way. And whose children are thriving as well.

An Asian-American family at California’s “Keeping Families Together” rally in 2018. Photo by JD Lasica. Wikimedia Commons.

His last words were a “thumbs up” because he could not talk, and we made the decision not to send him to the hospital to die because he did not want to go there. It was a difficult decision to make because we felt he might get better care in the hospital than we could provide at home. But it was such a right decision.

Death is always a reminder to rethink the way we do life—whether personally or collectively. 

Mary Oliver recites her poem, “When Death Comes.” Video by sincerejd. 

I think today of the 24,000 newly dead in Gaza, 70% of them children and whom they leave behind. And the 1,250 dead in Israel. And the thousands in Sudan. And all those who will die today. And the deaths that await so many if we do not respond to the profound climate change emergency that looms.

In my talk, I shared stories about people facing their own death, such as M. C. Richards who wrote a poem the day after she learned she was dying, called “I am dying.”  

To be continued.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest, pp. 361f.

And Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Flowers at a gravesite. Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

What does death teach you? What is the work you are called to do in the time you are on this earth?

Recommended Reading

Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest (Revised/Updated Edition)

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.
“The unfolding story of this irrepressible spiritual revolutionary enlivens the mind and emboldens the heart — must reading for anyone interested in courage, creativity, and the future of religion.”
—Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter

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10 thoughts on “On Death and Dying and Grief”

  1. Avatar

    As always a beautiful and thought provoking meditation. 2 things struck me:
    1. Our work may be larger than our job
    2. Just simply the word household
    With gratitiude

  2. Avatar

    Journey and deepen our awareness and consciousness of ‘the Life’, our life that conquers and is beyond our worldly and physical death. Allow our grief, sorrow and tears turn into joy beyond our comprehension. — BB.

  3. Avatar

    I love the lines from the poem you share “I am Dying” from M.C. Richards

    “I am carrying my bit of being
    free of agenda –
    open to a future”

    I am with the dead all the time; it seems that has been my fate since a young age. Many of my household have died early. I am always with them. Death teaches me that the dead do not die, and life is full of wonder. Without them, I could not still be alive physically today. And what a beautiful thing to have discovered at an early age that my Love still comes to love me even after death…without this, I surely could not be here now. I am grateful for Death because Death has saved my life and continues to keep me alive.

    Life begins after death.

    And also, death teaches me that Rest and Home are real things, indestructible truth. In death, I discover my power in this life.

  4. Avatar

    Than you Matthew for reading the poem by Mary Oliver. So moving. I like to hope that death is a step into a new life that will be grand.

  5. Avatar

    Death – the great mystery for all of us… with faith let us not fear it and the unknown that awaits us… my faith informs and consoles me that our Beloved Source~Essence~Creator~DIVINE LOVE has more adventures and wonders for OUR ETERNAL SOULS to be experienced and continue evolving with one another in Co-Creating Beautiful Diverse LOVING ONENESS… in the Sacred Process of the ETERNAL PRESENT MOMENT….

  6. Avatar

    “What is the work you are called to do in the time you are on this earth?” I have been a mother, a teacher, a language arts textbook writer and editor, and a peace activist. In all these careers, I have done my best to spread acceptance of others, compassion, hope, faith, and vision for a more just and peaceful world. I believe we can do this whatever our job and it is our responsibility to do so. In my second career I am a playwright and my goal is to do the same–disseminate a vision of a better world, to encourage people to use their own talents, whatever they may be, to bring about a better world. I hope when people see one of my plays they will be more accepting of others and other ways of thinking, to ponder new thoughts, to be changed just a little bit and go out and do their own work in their own ways to make the world a better place for all creation.

  7. Avatar

    Lady Death has taught me the value, meaning and purpose of LOVE. This isn’t a sentimental love, for this love has depth, height and width to it; for it is a love that is all encompassing and embracing of the whole range of what one experiences and encounters in life… both inwardly and outwardly… all the seemingly contradictory tensions of opposites that are all apart of the whole… joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, light and dark.

    Lady Death calls you to be vulnerably honest, lifting the veils of pretence, and in that nakedness reveals the soul… without any criticism, judgement or condemnation, but rather with a heart full of unconditional love, compassion and mercy that accepts all that is laid bare upon the altar of ones heart and ones life journey, receiving and perceiving it all as sacred.

    On this side, we experience but glimpses of this… as if seeing and looking through smoked glass… however on the other side, we will partake fully… drinking from the chalice of what was once so little known to us, yet offered freely in the graces of any moment just the same.

    Lady Death invites me to drink from this sacred cup of LOVE now, knowing that sometimes it tastes bitter and sweet!

  8. Avatar

    Dear Matthew, may you have all the loving support and practical help you need in this time of grief. Yes, we know that death is not something to be feared, that it is part of life, but we are still human and feel the loss. Francis of Assisi in his Canticle named Death as Sister. Jim Finley says that God’s exhale is a baby’s first breath and God’s inhale is our last breath as we die. It still hurts, even when we know the person is at peace at last. We still miss the person, even though we know that he or she or they is still with us–just not in bodily form. At least I do.

    I believe that death teaches us to value our time on earth, to realize that we are in temporary residence only, and that our purpose is to learn how to love and how to express that love to all our neighbors, everything in Creation.

  9. Avatar

    Thank you so much, Matthew, for sharing your feelings and tears while reading the poem on dying and death by Mary Oliver.
    The daisy is such a dear flower to me. Always has been, since long before I deliberately started on my spiritual journey. As common as anything and yet unique and precious. Meditating in this, “I” drop down into the heart of ever-being, where there is no difference between life and death.
    I thank you again for taking me with you on a personal journey!

    And while I’m writing, a squirrel is Dancing through the Garden, feeding itself on the bird’s food… Sisterhood and Brotherhood.

  10. Avatar
    Martina Nicholson MD

    Dear Fr. Matt,
    I loved MC Richards, and I remember that last time, when she had come out here to teach at your institute, we went to lunch on the wharf at Santa Cruz, and had salads, and looked at the sea. When I listened to you read her poem, I heard her voice with yours, and thought of courage. And what you said about Pere Chenu and his teaching courage. I have been thinking about the 12th century version of the Hail Mary, and also my revision of the Our Father— instead of “lead us not into” I say “lead us away from”. It seems better and clearer and more determined, if possible to get the hell outta Dodge; and maybe, arguably, better English. “Be my GPS”, and also help me see that Your will is being done by every other created species, and so there is a lot I can depend on, like gravity and space and time, to hang that ethereal but tenacious trust in God upon. And model my efforts upon, too. I am grateful to you for talking about your mother, too, her curiosity and willingness to go on the next big adventure. And Mary Oliver, being the bride married to amazement, and also the bridegroom wanting to hold the world in my arms. It is hard to talk about the real grief and loss we feel before we get to those last few minutes. I also always loved Rumi– “we take the last breath here, and then the next breath THERE!” I have started re-reading “The Divine Milieu”. It helps. With love to you, and gratitude, Martina

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