Everyone You Know is Going to Die (Part One)

A chapter from my recently published book, How To Die Happy

Martin O'Toole
ILLUMINATION Book Chapters

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How To Die Happy book image: by author

As life is, death is. The awareness of this fact allows you to live life fully and intensely.

Sadhguru

A lot of folks say we can do nothing to prepare ourselves for losing a loved one. Such thinking has us lost in a void that envelops our ignorance and lack of preparation for the inevitable. There are many things we can do to reduce such suffering. I say this with love.

There’s a significant chance that you’ve already lost someone — perhaps one or many. Maybe your parents, friends, or even your children. Possibly your partner, grandparents, or a beloved pet. Maybe someone died recently, or death looms for you or someone close, and you seek answers, meaning, and alleviation. All such loss can cause us to experience devastating emotional injury, none of which is less significant than the other in the eyes of the grieving.

One incredible gift from the dying, should you choose this perspective, is that the event often triggers a renewed interest in living. We question our reality more deeply, perhaps choosing significant introspection for the first time. Or at least, that’s what happened to me.

The last time I saw my mum alive was Christmas Day, 2013. I was still a high-functioning alcoholic then — a habit inherited from her. She’d drank my whole life, you see. We all had a lovely day, a rarity for our family during Christmas. Since there was more alcohol in the homestead in the festive season, the Christmas tree dramas were aplenty. On this occasion, it was a short visit, with plans for dinner in my own home. As frail as she was already, Mum seemed fine enough for a woman with advanced Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD) in her early 70s, who’d recovered from a double mastectomy the year before. I hugged her when I said goodbye; I might’ve even managed a kiss on her cheek — a rare moment of intimacy between us.

Monday, January 6th, was my first day back at work. During the holidays, I’d made plans to start a new creative agency — Fist of Fury — a solo venture that would eventually provide many lessons alongside my third breakdown. I was about to go to a meeting when my older brother called with the news. Peter was bereft, mumbling and sobbing as he forced the words: “Martin, our mum’s dead”. Immediately shocked, yet pausing only momentarily, I said I would go to a meeting and then travel to my parent’s house later. He was understandably surprised. I put the phone down, packed my bag, and left the house like nothing had happened. Loading the car, I bumped into my friend and neighbour, and the moment she asked how I was, I broke down, spilling the news with a pond full of tears. She suggested I might instead drive directly to my family. I’m thankful she was there for me that morning (blessings to you, Caron). Without her, I would’ve made a six-hour round trip to avoid the inevitable, neglecting my suffering family for a pointless business meeting.

Still wearing his pyjamas, my broken dad answered the door, collapsing into my arms as he sobbed. He couldn’t speak. I asked when the ambulance had removed her body, and at that point, realised that only the family doctor had been to pronounce the death. She was still in her armchair in the back room. “What am I going to do, Martin?” he asked. I packed him off upstairs for a shower, took a deep breath, and entered the room. It’s strange to see a dead body — especially when you know the person well and with whose every expression you are intimately familiar. It’s like they’re there, but they are not there. I didn’t feel like she’d ended so much as she wasn’t in that body anymore. Pat’s story was over. Her Earth Rover was a greenish-yellow, and her closed eyes were sunken into deep, dark holes. I wasn’t sure whether the doctor had done that, but I remember feeling grateful for not having to look into such emptiness that would likely overwhelm.

With no detectable life force, her frail body rested peacefully in the black leather Lazy Boy chair. I suppose her nothingness was the oddest aspect of the scene. I tentatively approached and, through tears and trembling lips, mumbled: “Oh, Mum”. I kissed her cold forehead, and as I observed her through streaming eyes, I noticed she’d died with a packet of cigarettes in her hand. A chuckle escaped. I don’t know what made me do it — shame, perhaps — but I gently took her hand and pried the carton from her grip.

The doctor had left details for the town undertaker (a kind and gentle man), so I called and made arrangements. By the time my older brother arrived, dad was showered and dressed, a shadow of his former self. There were tears and hugs aplenty during that moment of quiet. Then we put the kettle on and rolled a joint the size of a whiteboard marker pen. We spent around three hours in the room with her, telling stories of her idiosyncrasies and adventures, chugging coffee, smoking weed, and remembering whatever good times came to mind. She was pretty quiet, obviously, but we laughed a lot. It was nice. I coordinated the removal of her body with a much-needed family visit to the pub, since none of us were overly keen on being around for it.

We were all pretty broken the following days — though I worked hard to hide it. We planned the funeral together, and I stayed organised and busy. On the day we cremated her — after a great deal of drinking at the wake — I finally crumbled. Now it was my turn to fall into my dad’s arms. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever cried like that in my whole life.

After keeping it together relatively well in the following weeks, the cracks in my psyche became all too visible. Though, similarly with my childhood and adult life, I put on a brave face — bizarrely pretending everything was fine. One by one, however, the wheels of the Martin Express came off. And boy oh boy, that train derailed. [Ding-ding] All aboard!

I’d not long been separated from my second wife, a victim of my cheating with an employee with whom I eventually shared a home. Said new partner and I had flirted outrageously from her first interview. We both lied to friends, family, and colleagues as we carried on our messy affair with no real thought for anyone other than ourselves. My actions destroyed my relationships with my wife and my former business partner. Both became unwitting victims of my ongoing self-destructive behaviour, which increased with intensity. Understandably, my partner Don asked me to sell my share in our successful firm; I had broken our seal of trust. It was a needless end to an excellent partnership. Years later, I sought Don’s forgiveness with a new perspective on my actions; he promptly asked whether I was dying! Rumours of me apologising to folks had spread like wildfire; thus, there was some speculation about whether I was not long for this world. Funny. Thanks to Don for accepting my apology with empathy and humility. How might the world be if we all learned to let go of grudges?

Not for the first or last time; I used a lot of cocaine back then and drank and smoked heavily. I confided in very few — including my closest friends — some of whom tried their best to overcome my defences. No one could, not really. Thus, emotionally incapable of seeking intimacy from my former employee-cum-partner, and being the self-destructive narcissist I was, I sought attention elsewhere. Relationships borne from dishonesty will be plagued by insecurity and mistrust until their inevitable demise. So it wasn’t long before my suspicious partner discovered my indiscretion, naturally breaking her heart.

When caught red-handed, a narcissist’s best course of action is to gaslight and sling buckets more drama with the hope of assuming the victim’s role. So I drank a bottle of neat gin, put my head through a window, and sliced my arm repeatedly with a kitchen knife to release the shameful pain. Perhaps, as unconsciously anticipated, the event garnered her sympathy. The distraction worked a treat. Of the many lows I have had, this was one of the more significant. It was also pivotal to the journey of accepting responsibility for my actions. And so, having realised that the common denominator amidst all my bullshit was, in fact, me, I made the life-changing decision to begin therapy sessions with a wonderful man named Michael.

Regrets for the Dead

We all have valid reasons for being broken when someone dies. We’re human, after all. Some will miss the deceased and suffer a deep sense of emptiness and loss. That wasn’t my major malfunction; mine was regret. My guilt had nothing to do with my last encounter with my mum since I was grateful for it. Rooted like cancer, my shame was tied to my role in the abusive and dysfunctional relationship we shared for 39 years prior. I carried so much regret for the lack of a resolution, and that dark energy consumed me to my lowest. The maggots of shame and guilt for not working harder to fix us bore into me. I had not said “I love you” anywhere enough. I never once said, “Thank you for bringing me into this world and doing your best”, or “Please talk to me about what drives you to self-harm so”. Nor did I accept responsibility for my own human shortcomings during our countless negative interactions.

And then we’d run out of time.

I’d spent most of my adult life holding on to hatred, anger, frustration, fear, blame, or blatant disinterest in her well-being. Now, she was dead, and my love for her no longer had any place to go. I was on a tightrope, with each step switching between plans of survival and suicide — a heady and tiresome mix that might well yet be my undoing.

When something happens — regardless of being a direct result of something we did, that event carries a lesson. The lesson is for you and you alone. Each event, each exchange we have — no matter its bittersweet flavour — is a gift. The gift of trauma. The work is in learning how to see that. I was far from understanding this concept in the stories I’ve shared above. However, while I had no idea at the time, I had taken the first essential steps on a new path. And what a glorious adventure it would turn out to be.

“What this book does with life and death is extremely powerful. Using incredible prose on death and why we do everything to avoid the subject, Martin poetically illustrates why we need to reframe our views on death and dying. The way he writes about the topic is so healing and unique. He hasn’t just written a book… no… not even close…

He’s written a masterpiece that provides a crash course for life on what we call Earth.

He’s taken a mystery, something we hide and tuck so deeply that we’d never think of digging in to expose our fear. He’s lifted it up to us and made beauty of it. He’s invited us to shed years of that fear while exposing the light that death really is.

It’s f***ing masterful”.

— Brandon Ellis, Bestselling Author

Thanks for reading. Find out more about How To Die Happy here.

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Martin O'Toole
ILLUMINATION Book Chapters

Psychedelic integration coach and counsellor, How To Die Happy author, podcaster, and mental health advocate writing about healing and the Anatomy of Happy.