My Journey with Death. ~ Rick Henderson

Via elephant journal
on Mar 20, 2013
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broken heart

“Tomaso Ma Jyotirgamaya.

Lead me from darkness to light.”

~ Upanishads

From Darkness to Light.

We know what’s happening in our life, who we are and where we’re going. We know why we are here and what is coming next. We are really confident about it all.


Yet, no matter how cleverly we arrange the future the nagging insistence of our own mortality remains, that inevitability which heeds no schedule.

Dying is, after all, the one thing that can really mess up our plans.

This is the story of my journey with death, how it feels to come back to tell about it and how everything can shift.


For me, dying was unspectacular. It wasn’t mystical, spiritual, heavenly or even frightening. I was more interested in finding the exit sign than moving toward the light. Imagine a gentle weight of diminishing luminosity, like a veil that enshrouds slowly. What is more fascinating is what you can see when that darkness lifts.

An Unexpected Day

On January 30th, 2009, at 11:03 a.m. I suffered a severe heart attack, the type euphemistically known as “The Widow Maker.” By noontime, I was being prepped for surgery and would soon die three times on the operating table.

Doctors perform amazing gymnastics when this happens, and if you’re tough and resilient they sometimes succeed. The will to live is essential and, for once, being stubborn and defiant was a plus for me.

Failure is an Option

I then entered the phase known as congestive heart failure, not much better than the aforementioned dying. In this oxygen-starved condition I weakened steadily, death again imminent. My cardiologist, nicknamed “Dr. Doom,” basically said there was nothing more he could do.

Throughout this ordeal my loving wife Susan stood by my side. The amazing care she offered selflessly during the next six months kept hope, and me, alive. Her constant attention and the additional support of my family bought me precious time.

My final referral was to the Heart Failure Clinic—very funny. I’m thinking, what’s this about—you only have one appointment and don’t worry about the co-pay?

Frighteningly true unless you are incredibly lucky. In the perfunctory tones of a highly-trained expert, my doctor told me I needed a new heart.

Tragedy and Triumph

Waiting for a heart transplant is a surreal state. There is a macabre vulnerability in knowing  your only hope for life rests on the timely and well-matched availability of someone else’s healthy, living organ. It must be delivered within four hours and from a legal donor. I had approximately one month to live.

Far removed, a tragedy unfolds for a person I have never met. Their family, suffering an immeasurable loss, was about to display a level of courage and humanity that is simple—yet stupefying. They decided to designate their loved-one as a multi-organ donor, forever altering a number of lives.

The heart I received returned so much I had lost.

My wife, my son and my passion for music were mine again, albeit with some changes. It was a humbling blend of tragedy and triumph. There is pervasive guilt for the survivor.

Death is my Guru

I am slowly evolving through my physical, and personal, change of heart. My prognosis is good. A life-long need for medication, certain physical limitations and discomfort are an insignificant price for life.

I understand that soul abides, that the border between spirit and body is insignificant. I’ve begun forgiving myself and others unconditionally, inviting clarity and purpose and expunging guilt and anger. Relinquishing  the past, I move forward lightly without that burden.

Inspiration to be more conscious is the gift I received—a chance to find compassion for others, and the awareness that acceptance can replace judgment.

I witness beauty and grace everywhere, that we are all innately pure, able to inherit the love and joy that is our true nature. We are that, even if our realization and manifestation of it is clumsy and slow.

Most valuable of all is the opportunity to know myself. It’s somewhat easier to contain the oppression of self-importance when life is a gift from someone else—more natural to love unconditionally and share when you’ve received that ultimate gesture.

I’m granted the opportunity to be more discerning about whom and what is really important—when to embrace and when to let go. I try to act in a way that always honors the spirit of my donor. Gratitude is my creed.

I am, it seems, a rather dense and obstinate lump of clay. Surely, one should not have to endure all this simply to learn to love and live more gracefully.

Still, we each receive the lesson we need.

Now, I just need to practice.


Note: The author has refrained from any public comment on his experience until he was able to meet with his donor family and receive their blessings to write about it. He invites everyone to consider the option to become a registered organ donor.


rick hendersonRick Henderson is a performer, composer and recording artist who has spent a lifetime exploring eastern music, philosophy and religion. A sarodist and singer, he studied Indian classical music with master musician Ali Akbar Khan and his celebrated son, Aashish Khan. Residing in San Antonio, Texas, Rick is the leader of Shantikar, a performance ensemble that offers kirtan and original music as a community service. He continues to study, perform, teach and support the arts of India.

Like elephant I’m not “Spiritual.” I just practice being a good person on Facebook.


Assistant Editor: Sara McKeown


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18 Responses to “My Journey with Death. ~ Rick Henderson”

  1. Farzani says:

    Rick I am blessed to know you. Thank you for sharing your experience.. xxx

  2. Zet says:

    What a wonderful view of your wonderful life! So grateful you have shared it with us. Blessings to you and your donor family.

  3. Alyssa says:

    You have given us all a new perspective on the gift of life, in more ways than one. I, too, feel honored to know you. Best to you and Susan.

  4. Susan Henderson says:

    I've been a fellow traveler on this journey — as an observer. I've watched your transformation as you dealt with grief (loss of the life you had) and frustration with new limitations, finally arriving at acceptance and peace. I admire your strength of character, will to live and passion for finding beauty in this world — in all its forms. By living and loving "more gracefully", you honor the young man whose heart beats in your chest.

  5. Arline Terrell says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful message. Surely this is what inspires your musical gift. It warms my heart and fills me with hope.

  6. AASHISH KHAN says:

    You are blessed by the all mighty the God and your Gurus, this is your 2nd birth and 2nd opportunity to full fill all your desires,
    duties and incomplete works. May God bless you with very long and healthy life for your 2nd birth.

    Luv and Blessings,

    Guru-ji/aashish khan

  7. Shiv says:

    Well said. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Anu says:

    Amazing and inspirational, Rick. It is so heartwarming (hmm…a pun?) to read about your journey and then also to read Susan's response. From here it seems like your heart is indeed full. Wishes for a long and happy life!

  9. Rick Henderson says:

    Thank you, Guruji, for your always kind and encouraging words. I am indeed blessed to have shared in the divine music of your beloved family. Love and pranam to you always.

  10. Beautifully told Rick.

  11. Michael Duke Reibin says:

    Should a Heart be regarded as the Spiritual Seat of Intelligence? If so, then Rick Henderson has uncovered the genius contained therein. May we all take note of the gift he offers upon return from That Distant Land…

  12. Rick Cavender says:


    Our blessings are with you. We are all inspired by your words and your incredible zeal to survive and thrive! It is a great pleasure for me to call you friend.

    Stay strong and allow others to prosper from your optimism and faith!

  13. Alice Zimmermann says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your life, your gifts of voice, sound, and wisdom. You're a light to those around you. I am so grateful you're here and to be able to call you "friend."

  14. Well, brother, what can I say! You've touched a lot of hearts with your revelation about your second one! With our beloved Guruji, I congratulate and bless you and Susan on your re-birth. Enjoyed sharing some years of your first life with you, and am privileged to share the road with you on your second!

    Now practice!

  15. Thank you for sharing this utterly profound and poignant experience, Rick, and for the truly invaluable insight of "living" this life.
    It is people like Susan and the donor family who reveal a fresh perspective of living, that is not only inspirational but also exemplary. My best wishes to them.
    Your thoughts about life are as pure and enlightened as the music that you play. It is such an honour to know you, my friend.
    I wish you a very long, healthy and fulfilling life.
    May your music continue to touch and inspire the hearts of people around.
    Rajendra Teredesai

  16. daniel henderson says:

    happy birthday, dad!

  17. Benjy Wertheimer says:

    What a beautiful offering, Rick … SO glad you posted this!! I love you, brother!

  18. Caterina Arends says:

    The Kirtan tonight was so special. I am thrilled you have brought this to San Antonio. The learnings that you gained through your challenging and transformative life/death/life experience shine through your work. What a blessing you are for all of us. Thank you!