Sylvia Boorstein on death: Any day might be the day

Sylvia Boorstein recounts a story to exemplify the suddenness of death, and how we must confront that reality.

Sylvia Boorstein
17 August 2009
Photo by David Cohen

A man fell dead onto the floor in the middle of paying for his purchases at the grocery in my small town in France. I did not see it happen. I was entering the pharmacy next door to the grocery where I was to meet my husband Seymour as Madame Sardas, the pharmacist, rushed by me and out the door and I knew something was amiss.

Seymour was not there either. Someone apparently had shouted for help and they had both responded.

I went back outside and saw people from the pizza shop facing the grocery keeping their distance, but pointing and gesturing. I moved close enough see that Madame was on her knees doing cardiac resuscitation. The gray-bearded man splayed out on his back in front of her, shirt open to the waist, looked very white in his torso but his face was purple. I did not see Seymour but assumed he was somewhere inside and indeed, he said later that his role had been to check for pulse or breath as the pharmacist and a young man, perhaps a bystander, began their revival efforts.

I walked across the parking lot to our car and sat under a tree in the shade and thought about how one moment before that man had been anticipating his lunch and now he was dead. I wondered what he had been thinking about. The paramedics arrived and took over.

Back at the pharmacy, people shared the few details they had which had come from his driver’s license. He lived in Bordeaux. He was alone in the store, but no one knew if he was camping alone at our local campsite, or camping with friends, or just traveling through. The paramedics apparently know how to sort those things out. The main point, for me, is that this morning that man did not anticipate dying today and he did die. Just like that.

I think I cannot learn enough the truth that today, any day, might be my day. Or it might be the day of someone I love a lot. If I absolutely understood that, I would never say another cross word, or blame anyone for any thing or in any other way mortgage one moment of this precious life.

I’ve had three close friends die lingering, painful deaths in the past few years. I miss them a lot. The fact, though, that I knew that they were dying for a while and that their deaths were all relief from so much pain made the actual events of their deaths less stunning. Death seemed normal in the way that appointments are predictable: okay, I need to do this soon so maybe I’ll get this other thing done first. I have time. I have time to even indulge in irritability, or pout, resentment. But, I have no time at all. None of us do.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.