“I thought:

maybe death

isn’t darkness, after all,

but so much light

wrapping itself around us—

as soft as feathers—

that we are instantly weary

of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,

not without amazement,

and let ourselves be carried,

as through the translucence of mica,

to the river

that is without the least dapple or shadow—

that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—

in which we are washed and washed

out of our bones.

— from “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field ”, by Mary Oliver

Can Death be About Light?

In her poem “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” Mary Oliver explores death not as darkness but as light. Light that is warm and feathery and enveloping. The poem ponders whether passing from this life feels something like being carried away in a moment of amazement.

I love this description of death: the light, the softness and the image of being carried. It stands in such contrast to many images of death as a cold, dark, lurking reaper. The enemy of life.

My dad and my brother were both in desperate need of relief in their final days. And I hope that ease and gentleness awaited them on the other side of this life. Softness and feathers, as the poet describes.

Talking to My Dying Father

As my father was dying, the cancer consuming him, I whispered in his ear, “It is okay to let go. It is time. We love you.” I believe those words helped release him. He longed to be reassured that his work on this earth was complete. The blessing to go seemed to calm his mind and his body.

My brother, Dave, was also in tremendous pain. The pain of addiction and depression was tenacious and absolutely overwhelming to his mind and body. Dave’s pain was different but equivalent to the cancer that overtook my father. His illness was also fatal. He died by suicide six months after my dad’s death.

I became an unfortunate expert in grief, first professionally and then personally. As a trauma psychologist, my own loss left me reflecting on how I treated my dad’s illness and death, in contrast with how I handled my brother’s experience. 

Talking to My Dying Brother

I comforted my dad by saying “let go,” but my words to Dave were always things like “Hold on,” “Hang in there,” “Keep fighting.”

I would never have said those things to my dad as he entered the advanced stages of esophageal cancer. No amount of tenacious fighting could reverse damage to his cells. I would never have asked him to do something I knew was impossible simply because I didn’t want to be without him.

In retrospect, it seems unkind that I said such things to my brother, whose illness was addiction and suicidal depression.

What About Suicide?

I wish that I’d been able to tell Dave that it was okay to go. I wish I could have told him that I don’t judge him. That I understand. And that I wanted him to feel some relief from his own time spent fighting – ten years in and out of hospitals and treatment centers that didn’t make him better.

Those are scary words, aren’t they? It’s ok to go.

If I had said those things aloud, would it have sounded like permission? Like I was condoning or supporting his choice to die? That I agreed?

The thing is, in matters of death, permission and choice are both illusions.

Did I give my dad permission to die? No. He was going to die regardless of what I said about it. He didn’t have a say in the matter. My words of release were spoken out of love in an attempt to ease his mind about all that was left undone.

Did my lack of permission keep Dave here on the planet? No. He died regardless of what I said about it. Clearly, I have no power over these matters of life and death. None of us do. 

Regrets Over Final Words

I wish I’d given Dave a tiny bit of ease. That I’d had a moment to whisper in his ear, “I’m sad you’re going. I love you.”

He was alone when he died by suicide. I wish I could have said goodbye. 

Even now, though, had I been there, I know I would have begged him to stay. Or, I would have used my powers to once again send him to the hospital, by force if necessary. 

I did it before. I tried to force Dave to stay when, nine months before he died, I asked a judge to confine him to the hospital against his consent. That is what I’m trained to do as a psychologist, and it was my instinct as a sister. The judge placed him on a 30-day hold, a temporary fix, a Band-Aid that didn’t work. I tried to make him stay, or keep him forcibly alive long enough that perhaps he would regain his desire to stay.

I didn’t listen when Dave tried to tell me that he needed to go.

Do Words Matter at the End?

Permission and choice. They’re both complicated. We don’t have widespread conversations about medical assistance in dying for those with addiction or suicidal depression. The concept of permission is legal, social, and familial. I don’t know if talking more openly about death, permission and choices would have helped Dave. 

There were no measurable tumors in Dave’s body. And we don’t yet have definitive scans to assess mental injuries, although it is possible that scientific advancements in coming years will demonstrate a clear link between organic brain damage and suicidal depression.

As a mental health professional, I’ve read therapeutic frameworks and studied if-than equations to assess risk of suicide in veterans and other patients dealing with trauma. I thought I knew what to do. How different it was to be on the other side of the equation, as a sister. 

It is possible that my brother died of pain and injury, just like my dad did. Dave’s cells were broken, too, just a different set of cells.

All I know is that I wish I could have sent him off in love. With a gentle whisper, “Let go. You are released from this pain. You are released into ease.”

In the aftermath, I hold on to the image of Dave ascending into light as soft and floaty as feathers.

Learn more about the author’s work at Sherry Walling, PhD.

Read another Sherry Walling article on Open to Hope: I’m Joining the Circus: Movement is Healing – Open to Hope

Sherry Walling

Dr. Sherry Walling helps high achieving people navigate painful and complex experiences. She is a clinical psychologist, podcaster, author, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate. Her book, Touching Two Worlds (Sounds True, 2022) is part memoir, part reflection on her years as a trauma psychologist. Dr. Walling explores grief in the aftermath of losing her father to cancer and brother to suicide. Her Tedx talk, Why a Grieving Psychologist Joined the Circus, advocates for the role of expressive movement in working through grief. Dr. Walling is an expert in trauma, stress and burnout and her research has been published in academic journals such as the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Dr. Walling is graduate of the University of California, Davis and Fuller School of Psychology. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and master’s degrees in both psychology and theology. She completed research fellowships at Yale University School of Medicine and the National Center for PTSD in Boston. She’s held teaching appointments 5 academic institutions including the University of California, San Francisco, and Boston University School of Medicine. Sherry and her husband, Rob, reside in Minneapolis with their children. She teaches yoga classes, loves to paddleboard, and has been known to occasionally perform as a circus aerialist.

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