How to Understand Life Better – Letter to A Dying Man

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  • Posted by: Gavin Crombie

When we started this project a number of people commented that there is a lot of material here for prevention of suicide and recovery from self-harm thoughts or actions, but little for those suffering the intense grief caused when someone close to them has died by suicide.

I’m working a new ‘Manifesto’ right now – The Grief Manifesto’ – which is a guide for recovering from that grief and finding healing and purpose again, in a world that doesn’t make sense any more.

In the meantime I want to share a letter that I wrote my best friend in China, who died from cancer 18 months ago. I help onto this letter until it was plain that the end was imminent and it perhaps might offer a little insight for anyone who is currently here because they are looking for way to find healing.

Its called ‘Letter to Jon’

Dear Jon

I’m writing this letter because there is much for me to say to you but I’m here and you are there and it is unlikely that we are going to be able to sit outside in the sun and enjoy each other’s company sipping tea and chatting and me calling you an old bastard and you calling me the same.

It’s pretty hard to ignore that elephant sitting there right in front of us with cancer written all over it. I’m still getting over the day I received your one-line email and sat there stunned while I tried to process exactly what it said and what it meant.

And however much we wish we weren’t here in this spot, here we are anyway, and here we stand together.

You are a good bastard Jon; a bloody good bastard. You stood by me once when trouble fell on my head and you probably don’t know how much that meant to me. I can tell you how much:  a LOT.

And I want to talk to you and talk to your soul and maybe I can say the things that are in my heart and these things might bring some comfort to your soul and bring insight and understanding as you prepare yourself to embark on that journey that awaits us all.

Most of us shy away from confronting what the end of life of means. We fill the spaces with superficial chat – we smile and laugh and we work really hard at keeping our spirits up and we seldom speak of or to what is really happening.

The end of this world looms as a fearful bridge we must cross. A black dark chasm, with the other side hidden from the view of all. And confronting this, when it is raw and close scares most of us, which is why we keep the mood light and the conversation mundane.

I can only imagine the thoughts that are going through your mind – the rough raw emotions of dealing with what has been diagnosed. There will be fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, uncertainty, and a thousand other things that race through your mind as your come to and understanding of what this damned elephant means. I would like to speak to those fears and I would like to offer my hand of understanding.

Each of us set out on our race thinking we are running a marathon, but some of us are running the 100 meters and some of us run the hurdles.

It is not until the finishing line is in view that we learn exactly how far we are called on to be in this race of life and when the finishing line is holding out its hands to clasp us we draw back instinctively and hope that the pace will slow and the race will continue.

Death is a messenger of joy, just as birth is a messenger of joy.

After 9 months in the womb which is a dark, warm, confined place, a baby develops sufficiently to be able to greet the bright light of this world. Where the things the baby practiced daily in ignorance of what the practice was for become the tools and behaviour that the baby needs to survive in this world. Sucking its thumb in the womb develops the muscles that are required to suck milk. Turning and moving in the womb advances the skills the baby needs to move and interact with its new exciting world.

And this world is but one step farther and one step into a new existence.

How do we know that this life continues when it is hidden from view? How can we be sure?

Look inside and tell me how old you feel. Do you feel 50 or 60 or 18? If you are honest you will know that your heart has not aged a day since you reached maturity. Unlike the body which declines and decays with every passing day of our life the consciousness does not change. Our hearts are eternally young. Our spirit remains youthful and buoyant while each day every single one of us deals with the flagging energy of the body.

If our hearts remain young how death can destroy our soul?  The heart is not changed by the change in the body. It endures as we leave this mortal coil behind.

Do not be afraid – what is happening to you in this world is nothing more than the transcendence of this plane of existence. It is a passing over to a new classroom, to a new place to learn new lessons.

As Richard Bach of Jonathon Livingston Seagull fame said:

Here is a test to see if your mission on Earth is finished: If you are alive, it isn’t.

We are on this earth to learn and it’s a very gentle learning – the lessons we learn came one by one and over a long time. We don’t see what these lessons are most of the time because they simply fit in with the ever moving passage of time, but like the pebbles in a river, your heart is polished smooth slowly and relentlessly by our experiences until we stand ready for the next adventure.

Don’t hold any regrets in your heart. What is and what was is simply that. I don’t believe there was a time that you ever did less than your best, so there is nothing to be regretful about. Doesn’t matter if you made mistakes, because we all make mistakes. Doesn’t matter if things didn’t work out exactly as you wanted them to – because they worked out exactly as they should.

In reviewing your existence in this valley of tears (as I am sure you are doing) there will be things that you wished you had done differently. There will be things that you think you didn’t do well – but actually these things are the real lessons – that’s when you learned more than you knew at that time.

Regret is a wasted emotion – there is nothing that can be done about what you think it should have been like. But more importantly hidden within the regret is the lesson that you needed to learn. We seldom learn a lesson when everything goes well – move along, nothing to see here. But when something we do or say causes us to wish we hadn’t done or said that then our experience expands and we become slowly wiser and much less likely to repeat that which caused us to regret in the first place.

What I know about you is that you were always a champion of injustice. You were always willing to help people. You were always kind. You were always a good bastard.  There are many people who come into the home stretch and are unable to say that but you are not one of them.

Look around you and see the result of your time on this earth – wonderful children, a wife who loves you, friends, acquaintances and colleagues – all of whom have shown a tremendous outpouring of love for you. These are the things that signal your worth and these are the things that are the achievements of a lifetime.

Do not bemoan the fact that the end of your race seems to be earlier than you might have wished – there are so many people who have been denied the time you have spent here – the children blown to bits by bombs in a never ending list of tragedies – Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Yemen – places where life has been snuffed out in the blink of an eye by the aggression and hate that infects the world like a disease.  Babies, children and adults who have been handed short lives as a result of famines and diseases and often simply because mankind as a whole is incapable of getting its act together and looking after the entire family of humanity as it damned well should. Young men and women who are allotted a short span on this earth through accident, illness or despair. There are many whose race is a mere 100 meters. Mortality is what we all share.

But this apparent sadness is not sadness – when the gardener sees the plant can’t flourish in one part of the garden, with love and kindness he moves the tender plants to where they can blossom and thrive. Instead of sadness it is delight.

We are given what we are given and every day is a new wonder and every day has been a blessing.

There are things far beyond the ken of men at work in this world. Without even delving into the realm of religion, God or belief we can discern even through science and reason things that point to the continuation of the consciousness.

Count all of the blessings that you have enjoyed on this wonderful journey of yours – you and I were both born in the luckiest country in the world at the luckiest time of its history. A time when crime and social disorder didn’t exist. When a childhood roaming the forests and swimming in the lakes, a childhood carefree and tranquil. Given the gifts of enough food, clean water, a shelter over our heads, with medical care and education at our fingertips.  We were given all of these and more. And all that was asked of us was to be understanding and tolerant of those who didn’t have these gifts.

And you passed that test – you spent more than 20 years amongst people who had endured 150 years of turmoil and war, starvation and chaos, and you helped these people unstintingly. How many of the people who were given the same gifts as you and I can look at themselves in the eye and say we were thankful for what we were given and in return have helped others. Alas far too few. But you are one of them. You passed that test with an A+ and flying colours.

You have been a champion of others and a clear sense of what is right and wrong.  There was never any fear in your heart to call out the ones who were less than honest.  I have sat with you when you have looked at someone straight in the eye and called them for what they are. That’s bravery – it’s a moral bravery – and it is a strength that I for one have always admired. Moral bravery is far more significant that physical bravery. It’s one of the things that you will take with you on this journey across the dark river.

Dante said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crises maintained their neutrality. That was never you – you always had the clear bright moral and ethical standard that you lived up to – time and time again I saw this in you. Maybe in your mind these were small victories because they did not move mountains – but these victories are not graded because of whether the world applauded. These victories of morality over injustice were equal to the greatest in the world because they were not won for the world but simply because you did what was right when it needed to be done.

Treasure that. Treasure the fact that you did what was right and put it in your bag of treats and delights that count towards who you are.

Physical reality is a myth – science has shown that 99.99% of matter doesn’t exist and when you throw in quantum physics then this entire world is not much more than a hologram of intersecting waves, creating what we think is solidity and matter.

When we release the bond between our spirits and this world we cannot take anything of this world with us – we can only take those things that belong to the heart and the spirit. Got a billion dollars’ buddy? Drop it here and walk on. Live in the biggest house on the planet and drive the most expensive car in the world? Leave by the roadside and walk away.

You can’t take anything from the physical with you but you can take treasure.

Every time you made someone smile. Every time you helped someone. Every time you did the right thing. Every kindness, every loving act. Every goodness remains and fills your soul with treasure.

Doesn’t matter what religion you were, or even if you had a religion, doesn’t matter how clever you were, or how many books you wrote, or how many honours the world showered upon your shoulders, or how big were your donations if given in pride, or how many people fell at your feet in awe of your beauty or how big was your business or your plane or your boat.

There is one thing and one thing only that counts: how much love you showed to others. How many times lifted someone’s heart? How many times you made a sad man laugh and how many times in secret you cared.

These treasures will fill the backpack of goodness that you carry with you to where the things that are real are good, and the suffering and tears and injustices of this world don’t exist.

This world is worth less than the black in a dead ant’s eye and every single piece of it is only borrowed for the short span of time we walk on this plane.

Do not tremble or worry about what is happening – every single one of us reaches this point at one time or another. The end of life is a clarion call of joy – it is but another step in the journey of life.

When you cast your mind back over your life, don’t cast it back with regret or sorrow. It’s all ok. It always was ok. In casting back to where you feel you may have not acted as well as you could, simply acknowledge that and accept it – if you felt your hurt someone, then let it go – understanding hurt means it is forgiven and forgotten. The lesson is given so we can learn and once the pupil knows the lesson then it’s time to move onto the next lesson. Job done. Lesson learned.

So now I have said those things that were in my heart to say and that I would have loved to have been able to say to you together, in each other’s company.

We will walk the trails one day Jon, we will sit in sunshine, and we will surely, as the sun rises day after day, meet again in love and happiness.

Take these final days, however many, or however few they are, to bask in the love of your family and friends and know that you will not drift off into a dark night without leaving your ripple in the millpond of life.

Yours has been a good life. You are a good bastard and it has been an honour and a privilege to be your friend over these years in China.

And soon your spirit will be young again as you cast off this old mortal body that weighs like lead and holds you to this plane of existence and soon, at each of our allotted times will we all meet up again and drink honey mead in a garden of sunshine.

Fare thee well, kind, good friend. Travel safe and travel far.

You good bastard you. We are all going to miss you.



If you would like to know more about Jon you can read my China Blog about him here:

A Bloody Good Bastard – Tribute for Jon Shearer.

Go Well. Stay Well. Choose Life

Author: Gavin Crombie
I’ve traveled far and wide, met more interesting people than you can poke a stick at, met kings and captains, the bereft and the beggars. Written books, built multi-million-dollar businesses, lost money, made money. Loved with all my heart and lost love and then loved again. I’ve had joy unlimited and happiness I could never dream of. I’ve been in dark places where hope seems lost and then after a little while that marvelous old sun comes out and blazes with gladness again. Felt the rain on my head and then the gentle warmth of spring, as life renews. I’ve experienced the full spectrum of life, joys and agonies. I’ve seen children and grandchildren grow and prosper. Seen my children and grandchildren fall and pick themselves up only to fall again and pick themselves up again. Watched with breath held as they too go through pain and suffering and find themselves once more. I’ve done and seen more than I ever imagined I would. Fought and won. Fought and lost. I’ve learned new things every single day. I’ve enjoyed the gentle breeze of beauty and felt the cold chill of despair. I’ve seen the stars and felt the night. Watched people succeed and watched them fail. Held their hands when things are tough and laughed with when things were good. I’ve had a life that fills my heart with wonder every single day. And I want you to know that this and so much more is waiting for you.