Meet Joe Black.

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
Mark Twain

I tried an intervention this week and I wanted to share it with my lovelies on this beautiful snowy morning. But first, I will provide you with some context for the intervention. My life has been visited by much death. From an early age, I lost grandparents, aunts, and friends. In September of my senior year in high school, three young classmates died in just three weeks. This was followed by more untimely loss in years to come.

In fact, one funeral I attended was so traumatic that I swore off funerals for several years. It was just too much to see my peers lying in coffins. The Grim Reaper is never far from where I sit. I know all too well that each moment is borrowed and The Reaper could cash his check at anytime.

This was never more evident than when I worked in cancer care. For almost two years, I worked with patients living and dying with cancer. This was coupled with two traumatic losses in my personal life. In therapy we talk about once you know something it is really hard (if not impossible) to unknow it. I know that I will die. I know that every one I love will die. Interestingly, knowing this has not been a burden. Without a doubt, knowing this has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Death keeps it all in perspective. 

There is a Buddhist proverb that asks, “Imagine a bird on your shoulder every morning asking you if today was your day to die, would you be okay with that?” I can’t remember a day in the recent past where that question has not come to me. Most days the response is: I think so.

The Grim Reaper Intervention.

Imagine that right now The Grim Reaper has arrived to take you to the other side. However, the Reaper is feeling generous today and he offers you a deal. If you can persuasively argue why you should get more time he will consider your argument. And, depending on your argument you may get a year or several more years. It better be a good argument.

For those of you with a faith system, I understand that Heaven doesn’t sound like a bad place to land but consider with me all that you have here on Earth that has yet to be said, done, and resolved. If you go now, you’re gone from the people and places you love. 

As you argue, he asks:

“But why haven’t you done that already?”

“Why aren’t those things important to you now?”

“If you love them why don’t they know it now?”

“How do I know that when I leave you won’t go back to the way things were?”

“But you waste so much time worrying about nothing, why should I give you more time to waste?”

Remember you are pleading for your life. 

How would you answer? Do you deserve more time?

So far, it has been an interesting intervention in practice. I strongly believe that a constant awareness of death forces us to live. It is always there whether or not you want to face it. I suppose because I have experienced so much loss I have worked through most of my fear of this. I encourage you to consider your own mortality. It is the most intimate relationship in life. 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

 

Love.

Cover image taken from: https://www.etsy.com/listing/205345446/sleeping-with-the-fishes-funny-lil-grim

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My Love Letter To Grief

“Grief is the price you pay for love” – Queen Elizabeth II

(Full disclosure: I have wanted to write about grief from the beginning but it seemed so daunting that many iterations of this copy have sat in my drafts box for a month now. I think it is as ready as it can be)

It has been said that death is the great equalizer. I think we do a poor job of addressing grief and death in our culture. Maybe it’s because we are so scared of death that we like to pretend it doesn’t happen. Until, inevitably it does, and then we are left with no skills or language around how to deal with a loss that lasts forever.

For some, their faith slides in and the floor is promptly back under their feet. For others, it is not that easy and even people of faith struggle to deal with the complexities associated with death and grief.

We allow ourselves a three-day bereavement period during which we are supposed to do all the grieving that is expected of us and then return to the world as if the loss did not happen.

Three-days and we are supposed to be fine? 

Or, there is the weird idea floating around that “It’s been a year and I should be over it.” Which is absolutely ludicrous. There is no time limit on the feelings associated with loss. You will always miss them. It will never be easy that they are gone. Over time, we are forced to adjust to their absence but we are never the same without them. It is insulting to them, to us, and to the relationship with the person to think that we would ever forget them.

Some days it feels like they’ve been gone forever and others it feels like they died just moments ago. I saw a video online this week that thrust me back into the throes of grief.

This is life after loss. 

Grief is expressed as many emotions coming in waves sometimes all at the same time. In the early stages after a loss you can feel turned inside out by all the emotions pouring through you. But because we don’t talk about how that happens, people come to me asking if they’re crazy.

You’re not crazy, you’re heartbroken.

I would never ask for less of grief because I know that would mean I would have to ask less of my love for the person. I’ve experienced some of the darkest depths of grief. I’ve watched as the people I love sit in the deep dark pits of grief with no ability to help them other than to sit with them. I know that is the price they paid for their love.

I was presenting on grief not too long ago and I told the audience that grief doesn’t end and the other clinician tried to soften the harshness of my statement. A man that knows the deep pain and loss of grief personally was telling me I was coming across too harshly. Perhaps, he was correct. I’m not one for couching something as big and powerful as grief.

I don’t expect it to end and I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to stop missing them or remembering them. If grief is the price I pay for love, and I believe it is, then it is a price I will pay again and again. 

Of course, grief is a person specific experience and there are some occasions where grief doesn’t affect you like it does the people around you or you don’t experience the intensity like you think you should. That is okay, too. It’s just not okay to tell someone else they are feeling too much or too little grief.  

When my grandfather passed away six years ago (he was my rock, my secure base, my home and what followed his passing was a season of more grief and loss that will also always be part of me), I was pouring through the handwritten cards and letters he sent me over the years and I found one signed:

as some actor, in some movie, at some time said: until we meet again

Does this mean that I am not happy in my life? Absolutely not. It’s just not as simple as people want (or need) it to be. Our emotions are complicated and messy.

I have a wonderful and beautiful life for which I am grateful everyday AND I experience moments of deep dark sadness within the context of my wonderful life.

I’ve included an excerpt from and article that I reference frequently as it relates to grief:

A psychotherapist for more than thirty-three years, Greenspan sees the dark emotions as potentially profound spiritual teachers — if we can live mindfully with them. – by BARBARA PLATEK

Greenspan: Let’s begin with grief. There is a kind of shattering that happens with, say, the death of a child, or any death, but perhaps most of all violent death. Not only is your heart shattered; you lose your sense of who you are and what your life is about. So reconstruction is needed. But first we need to accept that we are broken. This initiates the “emotional alchemy.” If we can hang in there with grief, it changes from a feeling of being “hemmed in” by life to a feeling of expansion and opening. We will never get back to the way we were, but eventually we reach a new state of “normal.” I’m not talking about the mundane kind of “getting back to normal,” in which we find ourselves doing the laundry again (although that is important too), but the deeper kind, which is a process of remaking ourselves and how we live.

Grief is a teacher. It tells us that we are not alone; that we are interconnected; that what connects us also breaks our hearts — which is as it should be. Most people who allow themselves to grieve fully develop an increased sense of gratitude for their own lives. That’s the alchemy: from grief to gratitude. None of us wants to go through these experiences, but they do bring us these gifts.

From: http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/385/through_a_glass_darkly?page=2

Love.

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Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/46021227413416535/

Bad Memory Days

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
― John MiltonParadise Lost

When you’ve experienced a traumatic event or events (and you get to define what is traumatic for you) your brain and body can react in many different ways.

Memories, thoughts and feelings can become curious and unpredictable things.

Sometimes the bad memories associated with the traumatic event may creep up on you like the shadows that crawl up the side of the wall at the end of the day.

Very slowly, until all of a sudden you are surrounded by darkness.

Sometimes, it isn’t even the event that you remember but just an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness that comes out of nowhere.

The feeling that reminds you of the intense and real vulnerabilities of life.

Some days, you can go along like nothing happened. On the other days, the bad memories can kidnap you instantly out of the right now and drag you kicking and screaming into the past.

These feelings and thoughts may not last all day or they may last for several days. You probably don’t have a lot of control as to how long you’ll stay saturated in the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

During those bad memory days it’s hard, if not impossible, to escape from the intrusive thoughts and focus on what needs to get done.

What we know about bad memory days is that the more we try to make the thoughts go away the stronger and more powerful they get. Sometimes that means, despite your wishes, you may have to make friends with these bad memories or thoughts. Or at least, make room for them in your life because they’re not going anywhere. You know the memories are there but fighting them is futile.

It sounds counterintuitive but letting go of the fight and accepting you are having a bad memory day (or bad memory moments) might actually help you feel better.

On these days, it is so important to just try and breathe.

And, sometimes it helps to remind yourself that “you’re safe” by actually saying it out loud (and talking to yourself does not mean you are crazy)

Saying “I’m safe” and taking deep breaths can create spaces between your bad memories.

I believe self-care is paramount every day but if you’re having a bad memory day self care becomes as essential as eating and drinking.

For some people they may want to take a bath, wrap themselves tightly in a blanket, and limit the amount of exposure they have to stimulating sights and sounds.

It helps to have a to-do list of self-care items prepared for these kinds of days. It also helps to have a person (or persons) that you feel safe enough to sit with or call. You may or may not want to share what the specifics but it helps to know someone cares.

If you have bad memory days a lot and they are interfering with your ability to live a life you love please do yourself a favor: Talk to a professional therapist and see a physician. Getting professional help takes a lot of courage. It is an immeasurable act of self-love to ask for help.

Love.

“Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found,
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe”

Sia, Breathe Me

You Are Going To Die.

Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, attempted to ascertain the most common regrets her patients had when they looked back on their lives. In her work she discovered that there were five regrets that came up most often for people in their last days. The original article and several interpretations of her work have been floating around for years and I know that I’ve shared them before.

Here is what she discovered are the top five regrets of the dying:

1.) I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me

2.) I wish I did not work so hard

3.) I wish I had the courage to express my feelings

4.) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends

5.) I wish I had let myself be happier

Please take a moment and consider the items above.

I’m reminded of several other quotes by people facing their mortality or working with those facing mortality:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

“What is the most appropriate thing to say to a friend who was about to die. He answered: tell your friend that in his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Whenever he goes, you also go. He will not be alone.
Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

“We run after values that, at death, become zero. At the end of your life, nobody asks you how many degrees you have, or how many mansions you built, or how many Rolls Royces you could afford. That’s what dying patients teach you.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special. – Jim Valvano (thanks Rik)

Let me highlight what is NOT on that list:

1.) I wish I had more stuff

2.) I wish I had newer things

3.) I wish I fewer people to love

4.) I wish I made more money and spent more time at work

5.) I wish I did what everyone told me to do without ever offering up an opinion on what might actually make me happy.

The truth is we are all going to die and we have no idea when that is going to happen. Maybe it’s morbid, maybe it’s because I have experienced a lot of loss in my life, or maybe it’s because I spent some of my own career working with death and dying, but knowing that death is imminent gives me the courage to try my best to live a life that I love with the people that I love.

“Once people’s days truly are numbered, their priorities do seem to shift. According to research done on socioemotional selectivity theory, older people are more present-oriented than younger people, and are more selective in who they spend time with, sticking mostly with family and old, close friends. Other studies have shown them to also be more forgiving, and to care more for others, and less about enhancing themselves.” – The Atlantic, Julie Beck, 2015

I think death forces into perspective a great appreciation for life. Frankly, I don’t think we talk about death or grief enough in this culture.

Okay, now pause and check your pulse and take a breath.

Both of those work out okay?

Good, that means you still have time.

Love.

regrets-of-dying

Image from: http://nhne-pulse.org/regrets-of-the-dying/