The Benevolent Guide

A few days ago, my partner Karen’s beloved father passed away after a long illness. It was a very gradual departure; for weeks, everyone thought that each hour might be Charlie’s last. The days immediately following his passing were unthinkably grueling for Karen and her family, but I’ll say this for imminent death: it clearly differentiates the things that matter from the things that don’t. Being together matters; how we look doesn’t. Love matters; status doesn’t. Having a roof over our heads matters; having a mansion doesn’t. Peace matters so much that by comparison, literally nothing else does.

A few months ago an interviewer asked me, “What are you most grateful for?” and I found myself cheerfully blurting, “Death!” There was a long silence, and then I stammered, “Er, well, it’s nice to think we don’t have to just, you know, keep doing stuff.” The interviewer did not seem to be going there with me. Oh, well, I thought; when I’m dying it won’t matter what she thinks of me. And then I remembered: We’re all dying!

Getting past the fear this creates has been a life’s work for me—a work very much still in progress. But after schlepping away at it for years, I now feel more awe and wonder than dread of death, and the knowledge of its inevitability gives me permission to do more and more of what matters, less and less of what doesn’t. In Africa, where I spent June, I had few possessions, no telephone or email, a very simple schedule. Since returning I’ve given away most of my clothes and set out to minimize things like unnecessary meetings, housework, correspondence, and especially thoughts that distract me from the amazement of being alive for a little while.

Think about whatever you have planned for the next few hours. Would you do this thing if you were currently helping a loved one cross the threshold of death? Will this thing matter to you at all when you’re the one crossing that threshold? If not, stop. Do something that matters in the face of mortality. Living this way makes death a benevolent guide that shows you how to create the best possible life you can have. And doing that brings peace, the peace that matters so much that nothing else can ever compare.

22 replies
  1. Mary Robertson
    Mary Robertson says:

    Great article Martha and it certainly fits in with the way I have felt this past week, since the death of Robin Williams. His passing brought me back to my partners death last summer… again a special soul taking his own life, the day after my daughter come out of the operating room for a brain tumour. The same kind that took my father. All a surreal experience that I managed to live through. Yet it is like you said here… what is important? I have given away so much of the “stuff” of life and yes, I hear myself saying that I what I do now must matter. Each day is a gift to be used gently and respectfully. Yet I search for direction for nothing is the same. At 58 I find myself wanting to spend my days making a difference in the lives of others who have lost their way. I will find that peace when I find the answer as to hoe I can do this. I have 3 of your books… may be I should take FINDING YOUR OWN NORTH STAR to bed with me and start to read it again. Thank you for being such a real person as always.

    • kathy
      kathy says:

      I am 59 and have the same struggle. I have given all my life but also I struggle with control and I don’t think they go together

  2. Kristy Kennedy
    Kristy Kennedy says:

    HI Martha,
    I want you to know how much I appreciate your wisdom and insight. I consider you one of my spiritual teachers on this journey of life. Thank you for sharing your gifts.

    My mother died 2 months ago. I was by her side, every step of the way for the last 8 months of her life. Being with her as she passed through the thin veil was something I will forever be grateful for; although, adjusting to life without her continues to be extremely difficult.

    You are so right in that death shows us exactly what matters and what doesn’t. My mother would readily admit that she was very vain throughout much of her life, but as death approached, she became much less concerned about how she looked, even when she was going out in public. She was beautiful even when she didn’t have on makeup or have her hair fixed perfectly. Going into a restaurant in her pajamas and robe was something she would NEVER have dreamed of in her younger years; however, going out to enjoy a meal with her family became much important than how she looked. This was extremely liberating for her and for her three daughters. As we near death, our desire for “things” wains. Spending precious time with my Mom was the greatest and only gift she desired. My Mom taught me how to live and how to die. She was a remarkable woman.

    • Sade
      Sade says:

      Consider yourself really blessed for having had such a liberating experience. A year on I’m still grappling with a mixture of confusing emotions which are mainly because her last communications were subdued with combination of anger, frustration and disillusionment with life. The residue of her hurt doesn’t leave me at peace. That old feeling of guilt that I was never strong enough to support her (shackled to my ankles since childhood), has surfaced in such a way that it disrupts many fine moments of my current days (post her departure. Kristy as you said following teachers like Martha would help many of us with grander questions in life.

    • Rhonda
      Rhonda says:

      Thats so funny that you mentioned your mother being vain. My mother back in July found herself in the hospital. She doesn’t remember a thing about her 2 week stay, but at 79, almost 80 when Sunday rolled around she had me pull out her makeup kit and set to keeping up with the Jones’s. She knew the “high class neighbor” was coming to visit,the one that always has her nails and hair done and thinks she’s better then anyone else. Moma said, ” I am not going to look like a witch with her coming here”. I thought, wow I’m 53 years old and could care less what the neighbors think, but then again, I’m a Aquarius, I really don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m glad you got to spend that time with your mom. I spent 9 days with mine hoping against hope that we could come to some type of impasse, it didn’t happen but I tried…

  3. Jeannie
    Jeannie says:


    This is so important! My mother passed 12/15/14 and my brother passed 1/30/14. I miss my brother terribly. The good news is I was laid off in August and was able to spend the majority of 5 months with my brother walking along him as he made his transition. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. I have no regrets and consider myself blessed that I was not working and was able to be with him. I know that I did everything that I could possibly do for him and his kids. I am now his personal rep. and in the process of settling his estate. Another long and difficult task, but no regrets.

    My mother is a different story as I never felt good enough. Never felt like she thought I did enough for her over the the years. But I got the call from the nursinghome and I was with her almost to the very end. I did all that I could without loss myself or my sanity.

    I’m stronger, more aware and more considerate. Also, more aware of what matters and what doesn’t.


  4. Sarah Van Ryn
    Sarah Van Ryn says:


    As always, divine wisdom! You seem to always be speaking to my heart. I needed to know this today. Give Karen hugs from all of us. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all. Thank you for sharing!

    Sarah Van Ryn

  5. Sean
    Sean says:

    Dear Martha,

    Thank you for being you, and helping me to see hope in my future and needed action. This story in particular brings home the necessity to make action towards meaning in one’s life. And also the need for acceptance in our mortality and the realization of the beauty in every moment.


  6. Ramani MATHEW
    Ramani MATHEW says:

    Something similar happened to me this year when I turned 60. I realized that I had finite time left on this earth, which has made me focus on what I really want to do with that time. All else can be dropped as new things evolve.

  7. Jodine
    Jodine says:

    Thanks for sharing Martha. My mom passed away two months ago. After being by her side through a two and a half year journey with cancer I can relate. I often have a hard time explaining to people how despite this being the most challenging time of my life I have been more present, connected and grateful than ever before.

  8. Arwen
    Arwen says:

    Martha always manages to say exactly what I need to hear exactly when I need to hear it. I am starting back to work after completing cancer treatments. Thankfully, my cancer is now gone, but even if it never comes back, I (like all of us) will eventually die of something. Before my illness, I worked long hours at the expense of my relationships, health and well being in exchange for more money. Now I am doing work I love for much much less money. I am grateful to have a supportive partner, and I fully realize not everyone has the freedom to take a pay cut. As strange as it sounds, I have no choice but to be grateful for my cancer because it brought me to this place. I hope I get to live a very long time. But even if I don’t, I know that right now I’m living as I should.

  9. Christine Statler
    Christine Statler says:

    Will you really read this? if I were tobe helping a loved one over the damn death threshold or if i were hopping over myself..I would not be playing with your blog or doing much else…but since I have a teenager who needs his wisdom teeth removed and needs to go into college and our money is so teeny it would not buy a semester I don’t want to zoom into sleep mode…because right now we’re in Life mode… you even get this……????????????
    I think you do get it.

  10. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I LOVE people who blurt! Isn’t it interesting to hear what comes out? Thanks Martha, for another wonderful reminder to live like we are dying- because we are!

  11. Deborah Knittel
    Deborah Knittel says:

    Martha, another powerful post. I have come to depend upon you for bringing me back to true north often. In fact, the main reason I renewed my O Subscription was for your column! We have things in common. My mother lived with us the last 10 years of her life and I got to know a different person that I thought I grew up with. Her passing, in our home, was beautiful and sacred. She was nearly 98 and had been withdrawing to prepare for her transition for about a year. I withdrew with her the last few months and after she passed I continued to sit in that quiet to integrate what I had learned. I left my job and my community work ( I was either the chair or founder of several “important” committees in my town) and others thought I was indispensable. I know that nobody is. I spent much of my time after that in study with people like James O’Dea and Gabriel Nossovich and Neale Donald Walsch, the writings of John O”Donohue, Pema Chodron and others. I chose my company carefully to be with those who honored themselves and me and allowed me to honor them and share our paths. I went to what Tm Kelly calls “our trusted sources” daily and spent more time working in the yard with my hands in the soil. In June my husband and I spent 2 weeks with Pachamama Alliance with the Quichua tribe in the Andes and the Achuar tribe in the Amazon jungle (no mirrors, few possessions, no electronics-heaven), just learning from people who live from their hearts in community. Possessions are being tossed, company even more carefully chosen, time more deliberately spent. The peace continues to grow and I am even more centered. I am not afraid as the international events swirl and things seem to be falling apart. I feel we as a species are being forced to toss away that which is not life supporting until we are able to see and embrace that which is.

  12. Norma Veldhoen
    Norma Veldhoen says:

    Your work is so important, Martha. I am reading your books again, while recovering from a terrific car accident. Just before the “deadly” collision, my world stopped and in the silence of my car I had a choice – to stay (which revealed the pain I might endure) OR to go (which showed me the lightness, weightlessness, the freedom of leaving the body). Obviously I have stayed. With more work to do, writing my memoirs in a series of 7 books, the 3rd one already begun. And thanks to your books, I feel encouraged to continue. It gets easier as I let go of what I thought was important. And what is really important. Thank you for your brilliant way of writing and sharing.

  13. Alicia Buisst
    Alicia Buisst says:

    Martha –

    Your insights – once again – hits the mark for me when I need it. I’m embarking on a new career as a writer. One of those things I ‘always wanted to to do’ as a teenager, but never pursued. I was hardwired to find job security in retail and business careers. Illness (literally) re-wired me, back to health then my company laid me off. Now – I AM in the driver’s seat. And it’s a Mustang!


  14. Maree L Meehan
    Maree L Meehan says:

    Cosmic Awe by Stosh Gepp . You may enjoy this. Thanks for your work provokes spiritual enlightenment.

  15. Bridget Wilde
    Bridget Wilde says:

    I want to say that I too only renew my subscription to “O” magazine because of Martha’s column!
    We lost a dear friend 2 weeks ago, and just today I was thinking “I wonder what MB would say about death and the very important passage. Well I open my computer and as it happens so many’s Martha’s answer.
    Thank you.. I too will start re-reading Finding Your Own North Star..
    B. xx

  16. T
    T says:

    Dearest Martha, your writing has saved my ass so many times I have lost count. You have made my gratitude list so many times I think I have a girl crush on you (and I am not a lesbian, not that there's anything wrong with it….I'm just saying). But the end of this article brings me face to face with the stark reality that is my answer to this following piece piece of your writing :

    "Think about whatever you have planned for the next few hours. Would you do this thing if you were currently helping a loved one cross the threshold of death? Will this thing matter to you at all when you’re the one crossing that threshold? If not, stop."

    and what I am doing for the next few hours is data entry on an excel workbook for work, and if I stop, I am sad to tell you, there would be no paycheck for the rent that is due on the 3rd of each month. How do you live your best life (while you're here) and deal with that little fact of my life?

    In love and Gratitude

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