This is How Death Feels.

Via Erica Leibrandt
on Oct 2, 2013
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Photo: Erin Kennelly on Pixoto.
Photo: Erin Kennelly on Pixoto.

Death feels like my heart frantically racing with hope when I am 13 years old, because I hear the tail of my old dog  thwap thwap thwaping against the wooden floor.

He has been unable to use his back legs for months now and the fact that I can hear him wagging that tail all the way from downstairs makes me think he is getting better.

He is not getting better. He is having a stroke.

When I rush downstairs to see him, I find him with his eyes wide and mad, his tail whipping out of control and spasms jerking his beloved black and white body.

I know every curve of this dog’s head. We are the same age. We grew up together. We’ve hunted for spirits in the woods together, shared sandwiches, gazed into each other’s eyes like lovers.

My mother struggles to get him into the car and takes him to the vet. I stay home curled up in his special corner between the couches, staring at the short black and white hairs he has left behind.

I never see him again.

I will have black and white dogs for the rest of my life. I will love them all, but not like the first one.

Death feels like the cool autumn air in a picturesque town in rural New Jersey. I have only lived here one year, my senior year of high school, and will leave here soon. But for now, I walk to school every day through the cemetery across the street from my house.

There is an obelisk in the old section of the graveyard which dates back over 200 years, unadorned except for a carving of a hand set back in a shallow scooped out oval. This hand is life sized, clearly feminine, with the pointer finger gesturing up towards the sky. Underneath there are some words which have almost worn away.

Each time I pass the obelisk, I place my living hand on this stone hand and gaze up where it is pointing.

There is only sky.

Death feels like the fluorescent lights of a hospital emergency room, where I huddle with my family and wait to hear if my stepson is still alive. We raced here following the ambulance, whispering over and over again, “It’s okay. He’s okay. We found him in time.”

We didn’t find him in time.

They let us see his body and he just looks normal. We all stand around the hospital bed he lies on, and we stare in disbelief. His eyes are still open. I touch his leg. It is cold.

The next time we see him, he is in a casket and he doesn’t look normal anymore. He has on make up and a suit he hated. I stand there and shake people’s hands and receive their hugs. I wonder what good any of it is doing. Someone takes a clandestine picture of him in the casket. I look away, pretending I didn’t see.

Death feels like a shadow that follows my youngest son around. He is so similar to the son that died, but he is 15 years his junior. The two boys seem to have become one, and I see the soul of my older son glimmer around his little brother’s shoulders all the time.

Death feels like the years that pass when everything seems the same, but nothing is the same.

Death feels like life, the two irrevocably intertwined, each one knocking on the other one’s door.

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Ed: Cat Beekmans


About Erica Leibrandt

Erica Leibrandt is a licensed mental health clinician, certified yoga instructor, and mother to six heathens who masquerade as innocent children. If she occasionally finds herself with a fried egg on her plate or dancing until dawn, she asks that you not judge her. Life is short, she knows the chicken that laid the egg, and we can never dance too much. Connect with Erica on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.


7 Responses to “This is How Death Feels.”

  1. SDC says:

    A sentence which made me feel really sad is, "They let us see his body." They LET us? That is a sad commentary on our institutionalizing of death.
    Death can feel like so many different things. You captured these so well.

  2. @tishushu says:


  3. Eric says:

    thank you Erica. our culture has such a disconnect between what we call "living" & "dying". a zen teacher once said to me, "life is just living, death is just letting go and dying. there is no separation." practicing Buddhism has made me appreciate the thousand little deaths that happen every day–if I can pay attention.
    But I will never forget watching the divine spark fade from the eyes of my sweet 14 year old dog when I had to have her put down in 2010 (she had horrible arthritis & dementia); I know I did the right thing–the humane thing, but I was devastated and humbled all at once as we shared her last breath (just like you, we had shared so much life together…dogs just give us love. that's all they do).

    while I've never been with a dying person, I was in a coma for a couple weeks in 2005–that was a death of sorts. one gets a new perspective on things..
    ~that divine spark illuminates all beings, but we forget so easily….

  4. Erica says:

    Thank you Eric, for reading..and listening.

  5. elainemansfield says:

    Exquisite writing and powerful images. Thank you, Erica. I write about death, grief, and finding a new life after losing what we most love, so I'm steeped in these ideas. Your piece is exceptional. If we watch life, we know that love and death are entwined. Daring to love another human being or a pet or anything at all means grieving deeply when what we love is gone. Life teaches me that my grief is not a frightening thing to be avoided. It is only the final chapter of my love.

  6. Erica says:

    So lovely Elaine, thank you.

  7. vicky says:

    I too know what death feels like, thank you for sharing, it is so important to share our truth, our authenticity, it is the purpose of life, to be who we are and live the lives we are given. Not with question, but with awe. I am in awe of this post, it touched my heart and soul today. I am alive.