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Posts from the ‘Life and Death’ Category

Running Scripts

Long, long ago, in a time decades in the past, there was a younger Gail in her early twenties. At the end of my first two years of schooling, and with an Associate of Arts Degree in hand, I discovered my life to be a mess. One of my professors suggested psychotherapy. Scared of what was ahead of me, I trusted the insight of a woman who saw what I couldn’t see in myself. 

When I stumbled into psychotherapy, I’d just escaped from the clutches of two years in a conservative college town that was not the normal California that I had been raised in. Having returned to the sanity of California, and desiring to get free of where I’d been, I found a therapist.   

At first there was deconstruction. Deconstruction is the dismantling of who we think we are, only to discover that our beliefs about ourselves need to be challenged and examined thoroughly. Deconstruction for me took years, and several therapists. I was peeling the layers of the onion of myself; this takes time. The “it took years” can be explained by the fact that I also took breaks in the process to synthesize the movement that was occurring in my life. I needed different therapists for different portions of the road. Some were better fits than others. During my grad school years, the work took on the focus of resolving unresolved issues that would enable me to become clear headed about myself, and with my clients. Ultimately, what it all taught me was that I’d be monitoring my stuff for the rest of my life. I needed to be doing my own work with an objective party who was willing to call me on my stuff. 

On the practical side, what I’ve learned from my time spent in therapy is that I’m a person who might need to step back for a few hours or a few days to sense what is really going on deep down in the soup of my head. When we listen to ourselves, we need to, and must, employ the same reflective listening that we do when in conversation with others. Do we allow ourselves to do this listening, or are we quick with a response to ourselves?  

One “rubber-meets-the-road” skill that we need to use on ourselves is the pause, and then count to 100. When we’re ready to rip someone’s face off, this serves as a means to get calm, think it through, and most likely come back with a kinder response than the angry thing we were going to allow out of our mouths. How many times has pausing saved you? What if we practice this pause with ourselves? 

What if the next time you were tempted to spew a list of all the reasons “I’m an idiot” for doing or saying whatever you just did or said, you counted to 100, took time to think about what you were about to do, and asked yourself the WHY question? What happens when you call yourself on your own self-talk and the scripts you run in a way that challenges all of it, the scripts and the motives for running the scripts? 

There’s a huge difference between running self-destructive scripts and deeply questioning our motives for running the scripts. The former allows us to remain in the same place and feeds the illusion that by running the script we’re doing something constructive about our behavior. The latter moves us into a place of personal responsibility for our thoughts and actions and requires us to ask the “What can I do about this?” question. It requires movement, research, and further exploration that could lead us towards the therapy we need to work on situations we find ourselves in.

Next week in part two we’ll explore the subject of selecting a therapist. See you then. 

Putting the Sledgehammer Away

The last few days have been filled with tears, meditation, looking inward at the past, and realizing where I am in the present. Growth can hurt deep down. Growth is progress that we achieve because of the price we’re willing to pay for it.

I’ve spent fifty years pointing out how those of us in the disabled community need to raise our voices more and speak loudly—and boldly. Last week I authored a post about my experience in a crowded room. My friend Karen read it and told me that she felt as if I were plagiarizing her. How often has this happened to each of us? We come together and discover that our life experiences aren’t so different. The commonality of what we experience as persons with disability can be powerful. It creates bonding in ways nothing else does. It is a gift that I share with Karen, and with others.

“You too!!!?” While this happens all the time, the feeling that “I’m unique” is dispelled by finding out that no, once again, I’m not alone in the world. This realization is juxtaposed with the example of a child who thinks everyone sees as they do, but who knows deep down that they are “not like the other kids,” whether it be due to disability, being LGBTQ2S, or being a victim of abuse: the secret is out of the bag. Adulthood requires that we grapple with these issues.

There are times when our inner selves push each of us to stand up and fight for justice for ourselves or others. We fight to be heard, and to have our realities accepted. If we can’t fight, we’ll likely be trampled because we’re not always seen or heard. Sometimes in that fight we forget who we are; we fade to our unique gifts, talents, and insights. We become swept up in the fight for recognition. I’ve been in this place for forty of the fifty years that I’ve been advocating for justice and change and for listening to the marginalized voices.

This week it all came to a head when I was forced to look inward at where my journey had taken me. The work I desire to do now is more spiritual in nature. It is the work that honors where each of us are. Each of us are equal within this realm. It is not a place of the marginalized: it is a place of learning to love ourselves, and to accept our own authenticity.

This place is one that offers sanctuary to each of us. Here we stand on equal footing because it is our hearts and souls that are heard. In the realm of the soul and the heart, all are welcome, and all are equal at this table.

I spent two years becoming certified as a spiritual director. I spent time discovering the power of meditation. I’ve uncovered places in my heart and soul that have moved me in directions I would have not considered five years ago.

Some of this uncovering is due to my husband’s suicide. Suicide changes survivors. One of the changes is the questioning we must do around making assumptions of others and ourselves. Another change is that we come to understand that people can remove themselves from humanity in a matter of seconds. Some feel strongly that if we all feel a sense of belonging, we’ll choose to live. All of this becomes evident to us as survivors. It causes us to question old things in new ways. We see an old rainbow in a new way. It causes us to do a grand reframe of it all.

The paths we have walked no longer suit our needs. There is a restless feeling when we remain on that path. It is as if we’re binge-watching our life because we’re at a loss about where to go next. We want the old to work, but we know it won’t, and we must come to terms with the fact that we’ve outgrown the friendship, the relationship, the career, or our lives as we understand them. It is why some people shock family, friends, partners, and church members when they announce that they’re packing up and moving to that new place. “Where did that come from?” or “Wow, her death really did a number on him.” The reality is that for whatever reason, that life change was brewing beneath the surface, and the life-changing event was only the catalyst to promote action.

I’ve heard the “if you hadn’t gone to a therapist…” If I had not seen my first therapist, I would have never begun the self-exploration that I needed to do in my early twenties; it was the beginning of my soul work. I would have continued to believe that everything would be alright and settled for coasting through life.

Life isn’t a straight path. Life is bumpy, strewn with twists, bends, and curve balls. We’re challenged to sit with the unknown, and to ask new and unthinkable questions that we would not have dreamt of asking even the week before. Life is messy.

It was in this state that I engaged in a conversation with a friend yesterday. She listened, didn’t need to fix anything, and I know she’ll support me in my new direction. She can sit in the messy, the unknown. To her and to others I say thank you.

While it is the mystical that draws me into soul exploration, it is the practical that grounds me in the here and now. It is a desire to always improve who I am, and to not settle for less than who I can be in my fulness. It is my understanding and my life experience that keep me grounded in the fact that there are people on the margins of life, and that they struggle to have their voices heard, accepted, and acknowledged. I will not forget you. I cannot forget you because my waking reality—struggling to see, to hear, and to negotiate a crowded room—calls me to that remembrance. It is the struggle that I will always share with those who are disabled.

I’ll admit that walking a new life path is daunting. Can I do it? Will I fall and mess up? Will I be able to learn to discover new ways of being along this new path? In a way, I’m putting away the sledgehammer that I’ve used to break down walls that have limited me, and others. It is time to put the sledgehammer to rest. This path calls for a peaceful tool.

I know there will be restful places to sit and reflect because I’ve always found them. What I don’t know is where all of this is going, and that is perfectly OK. I’m able to smell the new air, take it in, explore its excitement. And so, I turn my back on the old, and face something new. I wonder where this will take me? Where do you need to go?

The Re-sync

The last six years have been filled with all sorts of happenings, and while I’ve moved forward in so many ways, I can’t really explain it. I realize that not having the words for what has happened has caused me not to write about it. The time has come to find the words.

Why haven’t I put this on paper? One of the reasons is that part of me thinks I might alienate the reader, not be read by someone who is in the early stages of their loss. Logically I know they can return when ready.

When I think back to where I was when I wrote “Navigation,” I marveled then at the time of the writing. I return to the piece, I’ve had clients read it, I and realize that it speaks to the wonder and process of where we’ve been and where we’re trying to get to. How have things changed since that time?

I’m running the river! I’m moving through deep, uncharted waters, places that call and beckon me to come have a closer look.

Running this stretch of the river has become about being able to reframe the past, look to the future, view my life in new ways, and ask some hard questions of myself. It has also meant that I admit my ignorance in some areas of my life. I’m able to observe what got shut down and is switching back on. More on that in a paragraph or so.

Sitting with a friend in my garden last Friday, I looked at him and said, “Brace yourself, I’m going to say something you thought you’d never hear from me.” He laughed when he heard me say that I needed help with something. It was a respectful laugh. Sometimes, growing up because of loss and maturing in new ways means that we must ask for help! It is also a sign that something has switched on in the brain: something that may have shut down due to the trauma of grief, loss, and life restructuring.

As we run the rapids of life, we’re required to become fully present to ourselves, to others, to our surroundings, and to our knowing. At first, we think we’re doing a wonderful job of it, until something or someone shows up to slap us silly, and we see, feel, or realize that no, we didn’t have this as we thought we did. And so, sitting in my garden, I had to voice the fact that I didn’t know something. That was an intelligent thing to do. I also realized that something in my mind had turned itself back on. This switch had been subtly nudging me to awaken to the present. OK Gail, get on this, move with it, and know that with this new line of thinking, you really have come to new ground.

I began to concentrate on thinking about how the switches turned back on and why the change and resolution slowly creep back into our lives. I can tell you what shut itself down instantly, and in some cases I am aware of the switch moving to the on position again. Libido, cognitive processes, diet, and physical awareness, to name just a few things that mess us up, went down instantly. This is why our friends and loved ones look at us like we’ve vacated Earth and moved to Saturn. We’re not speaking our normal tongue: we’re speaking in grief. This is why, for some, they find new friends and wind up having to pull away from old relationships. It is not that the person wasn’t a friend: they’re not able to speak grief. We don’t have the energy to teach them grief right now. It is why doctors and therapists might tell someone that six months is the proper amount of time to work through grief! The body might not be able to grieve for a year or two because we’re in survival mode. A huge part of the process is allowing the body to shut itself down and do a reset. When you’re in the midst of sorting out estate issues, cleaning up a nasty marriage, or recovering from another life event, your body isn’t going to do the reset: it needs to survey and find out where the damage is—then it can reset. Six months for grief? No, not even close. Docs and others don’t speak grief. If they did, they wouldn’t be saying that six months is enough!

The shutdown is the biggest reason why we shouldn’t change things for a year or two. We’re not in a place to process things. So, cut us some slack for coming out of a long-term relationship and needing to do the healing! It’s going to take time to gently allow the body that has been in fight-or-flight mode to catch up and switch back on. It takes time to learn about our lives again.

About three months after his death, the first switch came on for a day and promptly shut itself back off. It would take some six to eight months to have it flicker on again, and several years to have it come on completely. I didn’t realize until it came back on in full-power mode that things had shut down. It caught my attention. Some things have taken several years to stabilize.

From a distance, my brother had noticed that my sleep was all messed up, and he pointed it out to me. While I heard the words, I couldn’t fix the sleep issue. Some things are only going to work only when time passes, and inner work has been done, and it is safe for the body to return to a new way of being. Eventually sleep became normal. The sleep and everything else had to readjust to the new normal.

The stress I was under was intense. While I felt it, I couldn’t see it in my face. But others could.

If the grief process, and the losses we suffer because of it, cause our bodies and minds to desynchronize, then syncing up again sends us signals that we’ve moved, and that it is once again safe for us to go to new places. On many levels it is kind of magical, and in reality, it is quite logical. Family, friends, cut us some slack here! We’ll be back when our bodies, brains, hearts, and souls realign. Until it happens, please, take the garbage out, walk the dog, understand that you can help with the shopping, reminding us to cut our hair, get us out in the sun and get us out for walks. Yes, we’re really that checked out in the beginning stages, and sometimes it takes however long it takes to slowly speak Earthling again. Telling us to check in isn’t going to work, because our brains aren’t ready to do it yet.

So, how does the process from grief to something new really happen? The process, whatever it may be, happens slowly, and the observer may or may not notice the inner changes. We may or may not sense the inner movement that is going on. What happens? In the beginning, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode because they need to protect us from the dangers that we know must be present. This happens without our authorization. Yup, our bodies automatically take command of things. The trauma of the event sets in, and our bodies go into shock and shut down. Essential services remain queued for functioning, and the non-essential services take a holiday. Depression is a typical response to loss and pain.

Think of being depressed in this situation as essential services attempting to shut the entire process down. All of a sudden, the neurons aren’t firing correctly because we can’t make heads or tails of something that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened unexpectedly, or might have been so far out of the realm of our imagination or normal that we’re being challenged to resolve it when we can’t do it easily in the present state of existence. The body, amazing thing that it is, throws the stop switch. We wonder when it will all end, and board the grief boat, trying to locate a seat. Sometimes finding a seat is difficult because things are that disconnected in our minds. The boat pulls away from the dock without concern for us. At times, we get off the boat to explore something new. We get back on a new boat and notice that things are a wee bit nicer in the interior. One day we awake to find ourselves in a spacious yacht. We wonder how that happened. We realize that we’ve been a part of our own personal miracle: the ignition of the new self. We look in the mirror to see that we’ve switched back on. Double-checking, we discover, for the first time in years, that we’re present to our own lives in a synced manner.

I Miss

Last night while reading, my mind was blown by what was on the pages. It seemed as if I had been sent sailing into the outer limits of my mind, and that I was needing to process all the fantastic thoughts that were coming to me. I realized that my out-of-this-dimension-process-person was gone. OUCH!

In realizing this, I also noticed that I wasn’t shedding tears, I wasn’t angry, or even sad: I just missed him and the easy access to processing wild thoughts. Now who do I do this with? The one person who might go there with me no longer speaks to me due to where my life has gone. (That’s an entirely different post.) What do I do now?

The prospect of finding a new conversation partner for exploring the out-of-the-box things that need to be spoken, pondered, turned over in the mind, and configured into working theory and thought is difficult. He is gone.

I began to reflect on those long conversations that took us into first one and then another subject, until the wee hours of the morning when my intellect was stimulated and all we could do was collapse into bed, not remembering exactly where we began—only knowing where we wound up.

While walking on the treadmill this morning, I realized that somehow, without my knowing it, something inside of me had shifted. What piece of the grief puzzle, the loss, the resolution, had gently moved into place?

Is it that in our journeying and self-discovery and the multiple examinations of the past relationship, we resolve the ugly, the painful, the hidden along with the happy and joyous parts of the relationship?

In contemplating this, my thoughts turned to the fact that death is for the most part traumatic. It is traumatic for the dying and for those left behind. We don’t expect it will happen when it does, or how it happens. We don’t get to have closure. Yes, if there is a terminal illness involved, we might be able to have some of those conversations—but not all of them. We move forward, and in time, shifts happen and things change.

There are no certain answers with the grief process. There is no ready formula that creates resolution and stops the tears. There is no end point. Time doesn’t resolve the pain and loss. There are people who are in the same struggle ten years after they’ve lost someone—the pain is just as intense. I think there are things that can stimulate forward movement. I’ll talk about a few of them in no particular order of importance.

Be open to the tears, because tears tend to cleanse our souls and open new paths of healing. If we fail to care for ourselves by honoring times when we need to let the tears flow by pretending that shedding the tears is weakness, we shut ourselves down to legitimate growth. It is natural to cry in pain, to feel the hurt fully, and to allow our bodies to respond naturally when we’ve been assaulted by physical, mental, or emotional pain. Tears are a cue to the self that all is not right within us.

Shrines are damaging, so don’t build them. Shrines to anyone tend to block progress. They stifle our development by keeping us in a memory loop that can lead to not being able to move forward. We become trapped in the past life we had with this person.

Reclaiming a space that may have been the domain of another person is difficult and emotional work. It is a good idea to go into a bedroom or workspace with a supportive friend or family member to enable the beginning of the process of restructuring the new space.

Photographing things we want to remember enables us to move forward and hold onto memories. It also allows us to create new spaces for the living. I think people create shrines in fear of forgetting. This doesn’t mean that we go in and take everything away. What all of this means is that we give careful thought to finding some of their possessions new and loving homes. We become selective about what will really mean something to us. We might store some things in order to determine at a later time what we want to hold onto. There is an element of realism to this. In sorting through things, we can remember and face some of the work around remembrance that must be done in all relationships. I had sufficient space to store some things until I could realistically come to terms with what I wanted to do with them. Intentionally packing things away, asking others about some of the items, and coming to terms with how I felt about things enabled me to not erect any type of shrine that would be unhealthy.

In stating the above, it does not mean that I’ve wiped my husband out of the home. There are photos and other special memories tucked away that I can enjoy when I want to do so. No shrine.

Stare it all down. If we’re not willing to look at something, we need to as ourselves why we’re avoiding doing so. If we’re in a rush to explore everything, why is it a rush? Would allowing time and a gentle approach serve us better? There are some realities that we’re forced into dealing with, and meeting them with courage rather than denial does wonders for us and others. Denial, in its own way, is a shrine to the unknown.

Recognize that if you listen to your heart, your head, and your gut, you will gain insights into the when and the how of looking at issues. You will also have a better sense of when you are stuck and need to seek help in moving forward to the place where you become unstuck. For most people, the process of looking at it all and facing the reality of whatever loss it is seems to be the most difficult. We’re not animals who are designed to move on. We’re humans, and we function differently than out pets, who may remember and miss their pet housemates or human companions, but who will move on as the scent fades with time. We’re wired to remember, and we should!

Speak the person’s name! Speaking of memories and uttering their name is a good, healthy thing. Burying the person is one thing and keeping them alive in a healthy way is another area of work. Out of sight is not out of mind. Talking helps us all process the loss.

There will come a time when you will be able to remember and reframe the relationship that was lost in a better and clearer manner. Allowing for gentle time, courage, and uncertainty as to when it will all come together is key in moving on. Yes, I miss him in a different way now, and it is both sad and good at the same time.

Seasons of Loss

If you search this blog, you will stumble onto “Seasons,” in which I talk about my favorite time of the year: autumn. With its rich colors, deep scents, and vivid changes, I love it. The fire and warmth move me to cozy places of the mind. The autumn of the heart takes me someplace else. 

Grief in its beginning stages, before the work of sadness is done, is cold and brittle. It drives wedges into our hearts and minds, and as if we’re stuck outside in the freezing cold, it immobilizes us in our pain and threatens in its beginning months to shut us down. The winter of grief stands mocking us and challenging us to bury ourselves and succumb to the cold. And then, as only the freezing cold can do when a person is close to death, it tells us that we’re really warm and tired, and that sleep is to be desired. What we need to do here is feel the shivers and stand up and move. As we breathe out and notice our breath, we see the cold in ways we can’t feel it. We must move forward and survive this desolate place.

In the work of the tears, we feel. For the first time, we understand our own pain at the loss of what was. Loss brings with it the death of innocence. Whether it is our first loss, or several losses out, each time a piece of innocence leaves us. It seems as if the winter of grief will never leave us alone.

In our longing, the winter does pass and merges into a spring of the soul. The texture of our tears changes, and new little shoots of hope and life spring up, as if by magic. We had no clue they were present! Where the hope of spring comes from is the tears that watered our winters, the fires that ignited our rage and anger, and the soft gentle moments that called us as we trembled in pain. All of it planted seedlings that are now poised to offer up growth.

In many ways, it seems as if we’re privileged to have our own miracle. We may shake our heads in wonderment and then accept that, somehow, the thing we thought would never end is changing us inside; and if we’re wise, we let it do its work within our hearts. We allow the spring rains to nurture new thoughts and questions. The spring rains are softer and gentler, and as we cry them, we continue to water and grow. At this point, we don’t fully understand our pathway forward, but by now the gentle sunlight of the spring calls us into new life. And, like the seedlings that have now showed themselves, we move upwards, forcing the earth to give way to new bloom. Spring, with its gentle power, is pushing us into the summer of exploration and strength.

The summer of strength, with the trees that give us needed shade, allow us to rest from the difficult work of the winter and spring, feeding us new and wonderful meals. We explore new places, gain new confidence, and realize that we’re doing the things we thought we couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do because of the losses in our life. We can reconcile old and create new relationships. In the heat of the season, we discover new ways of being. Maybe we even climb a tree or two. We swim, play, and discover that life can be good. We notice the days are cooling, the urgency of summer’s end sets in, and we wonder in our new strength what we’ve learned.

The days and seasons have carried us into the autumn of loss, and we allow ourselves to turn around and to look at the landscape. We see the fire of wisdom begging us to sit under the trees that are now turning to their rich colors. Soon they will drop their leaves of glory and will return them to Mother Earth. Now we sit in the place provided. We pause and begin to view the lessons of the seasons: the wisdom waiting happily to be examined. It is time to discover the treasures we didn’t know would come from our pain.

Loss, in all of its diversity, teaches us so many lessons: the life choices that we made that led us into dark places; our inability to say yes to something that was good because we were afraid to risk something new; the “I should have not done that,” as we realize the pain it brought into a loved one’s life; our first ventures from home and how we had to learn that maybe we weren’t so grown up after all; the failed relationship and realizing only too late that there are two sides to everything; the realization that, while the marriage was good, we might have done things to make it better.

The sitting in our autumns asks us to look, and as we look, we see the stuff we held strong in. We notice our weaknesses that became new strengths because we were willing to get through the winter and walk into our spring. We see our stumbles, our risings, and our victories over things we thought during our winters and early springs we’d never be able to conquer. We see ourselves in “Navigation” during our springs and summers, and we must pause to say “wow” once again.

As we sit in our autumn, we find ourselves shedding tears for ourselves—weird tears of amazement and understanding at the brutality of what we endured and the inner strength it took to get to the place we’re now seated on. In wisdom, we come to understand that the brutal winter had to happen so that the spring and summer could come. We come to an understanding within ourselves that, while we would not do it again, we’re glad we walked through the seasons of our loss.

As the leaves begin to fall, we bend down, retrieve a bright red one, and hold it in our hand. Giving thanks for the autumn, we return it to where it was so that Mother Earth can reclaim what is rightfully hers. We shed one last tear, realizing that once again, the process has worked within us. And we know we’ll shed other tears that will come from places of wisdom, courage, and gratitude. Inasmuch as things can be, all is well.

Doing It Better

Take the “dys” out of the function. 

When I began doing the work I now do within the realm of the grief community, I began to notice how many families used the funeral/memorial service as a weapon against those they did not like or wanted to exclude.

While families can hide dysfunction during life, it seems to jump out at you after the death. The dysfunction takes on many forms ranging from dictating who can attend the service, attending and disrupting the service and showing disrespect for others, stealing items from a home, denying items to someone who requests them for sentimental reasons, requesting something for vengeful reasons, challenging what the dead person would have wanted, and even denying the live-in partner the right to access the body!

I understand that death is difficult and that emotions can run high. I understand that sometimes the most mature people present are the ones that are excluded in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes they choose to be the adult in the situation and withdraw a request, not attend a service that they want to be at, or construct a means to mourning the death that will bring them closure even though they’ve been barred from a funeral or memorial service.

Sometimes it is the deceased one’s wishes that are being honored despite the fact that there is dysfunction present.

I find myself facing the question and asking: How do I honor everyone? How can families do the real right thing? I’d like for there to be one simple solution for this question and there isn’t one. Here are some suggestions that I hope will help smoothen the way and remove some of the “dys” from the functions that lay ahead.

Recognize that emotions run high. When you want to fight and be right, step away and remember that the person you’re fighting with is someone who has feelings as well.

This is a time for sharing and taking turns.  

Think about the real reason from barring someone from seeing a body, from an end-of-life service, and from having something they treasure. Ask yourself why claiming a beloved object is so vital.

The memorial or funeral is not the end of grief: it is a way point in the process. The real hard work is left for after. The Jewish tradition does grief really well.

When You Must Exclude Someone

It is true that there are times in life when a relationship must be severed. Examples are:

·    A person who has abused children and is barred from being around them

·    A family member who is disruptive and cannot be reasoned with

·    Someone who will not show up sober to a service

·    Someone who has done irreparable damage to the deceased or the living 

When to Record the Service and Send it to Someone

Technology is great! We can now record high-quality video on a good phone and send it off to those who can’t attend the service for reasons beyond their control. There are other reasons to send a video and these may include sending it to those on the exclude list. While there are legitimate reasons for barring someone entrance to a service, there may also be legitimate reasons to send a video of the service to the excluded soul so that they can attend from a distance. Remember that funerals and memorials are for the living.

When the living make poor decisions and do awful, inhumane things, it is difficult to make things right. My rule: if it’s in a legal document, you need to honor it. If it isn’t written down and it can be negotiated, come to a compromise. Sometimes we’re placed in a position of doing the right thing for both the living and the dead.

This is about making responsible choices and sometimes the best, most responsible choice for all can be difficult for some. Lead with love, compassion, and reason.

If there are religious reasons that a person must be buried rapidly, honor that. Can those who may not be present at the burial be present for other aspects of the grief process?

Some countries have laws. While I had to have my husband’s cremation on a deadline, countries may have laws that dictate a period for a service. These laws must be honored.

The last three services I’ve been involved in have all been by distance. They’ve also all been delayed. The delays have been from three to six weeks. Sometimes honoring others means being very flexible.

The biggies to remember are why, what, how, and who:

Why am I doing this?

Why am I behaving in this manner?

Why do I have to do it this way? 

Why can’t it be done in a new way? 

Why must I exclude…?

What would happen if we were to take a new approach? 

What are the consequences of…?

How is this going to affect the future?  

How can I/we make this situation best for everyone?

Who is best suited to handle…?

Who can bring balance to this situation?

Who needs to be honored in this process?

I understand that this is a difficult process no matter when it happens. I also understand that life isn’t easy and we all get rolled over at times. I’m hoping that this piece might offer the reader a chance to rethink the future. We all need to do it better so that we’re not in a squabble when we need to plan a functional grief process from the beginning and move it forward.

Watching Beth, Part 3: Endings

After the last post I made, I got this great idea on how to best communicate with Beth. It is a “chronicle” of sorts. I got the first one sent off and began to outline several more.

I woke up Wednesday morning to the message that I needed to call the States when I woke up. It was urgent. I knew before the end of the message what I’d hear. She had a horrible last twenty minutes of life with the liquid morphine not even touching the pain. I would not have wished her death on anyone. Sweet sister of the music, you are gone.

I sit here in the stillness of my office and understand that we’d said our goodbyes, “I love you” to each other, and that there was nothing left to say.

I sit with the finality of what has happened and know that I’ll never call over to her again. I’ll never hear her strong voice again. The words of parting were said and I’m fine with it. Dear Beth of the sewing machine, goodbye.

A prayer for those of us left behind:

When I see a begonia, I’ll think of you.

When I eat pumpkin pie, I’ll taste it for you. 

When I run into the outrageous, I’ll react for you.

I’ll laugh, smile, and wonder at the fun you had. 

I’ll never be able to pull a better April Fool’s than the last one I pulled over on you. It was sweet. It was inspired pranking! You deserved it! 

We’ll never talk about ways to dress our feet.

We will never stand over our respective sinks eating pears that drip with the juice running down our arms. I’ll do this in memory of you each pear season.

I will always savor the two birthday cards you sent me here in The Netherlands. They were both gems. Each is special to me, and I will treasure them both.

You leave talented musicians behind. Your children have passed on the gift of music and now the family can really engage in the magic of playing music.

You’ve fought your last battle, and won. You didn’t lose to death—you won at life. You got out before you would have wound up in that bed you didn’t want to go into. You surrendered your body and soul and said goodbye. Good for you, sis!

I will miss you when I can’t call to sing you Happy Birthday. You won’t be calling here to see how I am.

As the sun sets and leaves the rose color in its closing act of the day, I’m thinking of the sunsets we witnessed on the beach. The days of our childhood when life was laid out before us, and now it has ended for you, Beth.

I can’t bring you back and I won’t, because that would be regression of the worst sort. I love you.

The lemons are now gone. It sucked while you were alive and in pain. I’ll replace the lemons with pears and apricots, just for you.

One last thank you that you’ll understand: Thanks for throwing the bash. It was unforgettable.

Love you, 


Watching Beth, Part Two: This Sucks Lemons

The WhatsApp came in while I slept. It was from my sister-in-law, telling me about her Easter visit with Beth.

I read the text and cringed, fighting back the tears that came up because I had a meeting in five minutes. Then I thought: I’ll process this after.

Truth be told, this sucks lemons. I know saying “sucks” isn’t professional. Cut me some slack—my sis is being eaten alive by this thing called cancer, and I’m going to say “suck” because this word describes it best.

I’m witnessing the decline of a woman who attacked her life with energy, maybe took on too much at times, and loves her family deeply. This leads me to the “it isn’t fair” thing.

Who says life is fair? Where is that written? OK, maybe in the land of the narcissist? I wish life were fair, with quiet lives lived out and peaceful, convenient deaths that we’re all prepared for. It makes me think of that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Deanna’s mother, Lwaxana Troi, meets this guy who is scheduled to return to his planet to die because his society doesn’t what want to impose or inconvenience itself with the brutality of old age. Really? Wow!!

So yes, watching Beth, or hearing about it, does suck, and my job is to figure out how to handle the news in a reasonable manner. So, I’m stuffing until I can let it out, blogging, and crying because that is what I need to do to process this ugly, upcoming death.

In the first post, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be flying over to see her. She’s weak, can’t walk, and uses a wheelchair to get around. She’s in pain constantly. She’s on drugs and sleeps in two-hour intervals. One of these days, she’ll slip into a gentle coma and then die. Her reality is that she’ll slip away, and my reality is that flying there would be useless because I’d be sucking energy from her. Visits suck energy when you’re sick. If my nieces, who are now there more often, find a window of good phone time, I’ll call. I can’t help but think that even a phone call at this point will suck energy. Time to use only e-mail and have someone read it to her, as she is also blind.

As I sit here with the feelings gushing out, I can’t help but cry. My Beth, my older sister who played the piano while I sang when we were young, my sister who could sew up a storm, is dying, and I’m here and not there, and this is hard. No, it isn’t fair. No, why must she suffer? Why doesn’t her body shut down and let her leave? Once again, I see lemons. I can’t hold the tears back, and I won’t stop them now. Sweet Beth, I’m sending buckets of love, a gentle hug, and a song.


Watching Beth

I’ve debated making this post, but after sitting with it for over a month, I’ve decided that I want to give voice to what I’m witnessing from an ocean and continent away: my sister’s death process, or rather my process of the end of her life.

Last year at this time I received a phone call from my sister, and she informed me that she had liver cancer. From the moment I saw her request to return her call, I knew, and I knew that this was bad. I knew that I’d be hearing that she was dying, and I knew that I’d be witnessing this from a distance.

I returned her call and yes, it was bad. She said she’d do a round of two of chemo and that should take the tumor out. By late summer the call came again: surgery was scheduled for as soon as she could build up the body strength to withstand said ordeal.

The tumor was gigantic; it was the size of a small watermelon! That thing now out of her body, she settled in for recovery and did some traveling to see kids. She ended the year feeling OK.

January rolled around and she wasn’t feeling OK. The liver had been invaded with nasty cancer cells, and once again she began an aggressive treatment. This time it was worse, and by the end of February, with the protocol not working, she elected to check into hospice care.

This is where things are now. I talk to my younger brother these days and let him tell me where things are. Why do I do this?

I talk to him because she is now so drugged up that she can’t talk. My last conversation with her was no more than three minutes. This isn’t about me meeting my needs: this is about me allowing her the space and freedom to die and to not cause suffering.

Saying Goodbye

I’ve now had two conversations with her. The first one was a conversation in which I wanted to tell her that I loved her. As she shared her story of making the decision to die, I understood two things: this really wasn’t about me and I needed to respect whatever she wanted me to do. All she asked was that I not call too often. I could do that. 

There are times when we revisit the “if only” space; I didn’t want this process to involve a revisit. Closure means saying what is important and realizing that if we do that, we’ll be OK. Closure also means that we allow for others to be in their own space with their own needs. For Beth it means granting her space to sleep, to decline phone calls, and to die in a dignified manner.

My part is to make peace with what she wants on my time. I hung up from the first phone call at peace. The next day I was depressed. This process is difficult and raises challenges for everyone. I realized that this would be my process: engagement and needing to be sad while managing feelings around knowing she is suffering. I went through this in 1991. The difference is that I was caretaking for my father and had moved back into my family home to be there for him and my mother. Seeing it in person is easier than witnessing a loved one’s death an ocean and continent away.

To Travel or Not to Travel?

Should I board a flight to see someone who is dying? As I thought about this, I have weighed cost, what my goal would be, my needs, her needs, and pandemic safety issues. I could not justify doing a flight to the U.S. on any level.

Will I regret this choice? I don’t think so.  Which leads me to the next point of thought.

Certainty vs. Uncertainty

As I have grown as a person, I’ve faced the fact that nothing in this life is certain. It has also caused me to rethink death and what lies beyond. While I want to believe that life goes on in some form, I also understand that this type of knowing is not knowable.

Do we go off to a heaven? I don’t know. Do we become a part of the cosmos and continue on in energy form? I don’t know.  Do we shut down and cease to exist? I hope not, and yet I don’t know. My life experience tells me that anything is possible. My seeing death up close and personal allows me to hold space for all options.

For a person of faith, the above might sound a wee bit odd, yet I hold the belief that we won’t know until we know, and so I sit with a wee bit of healthy existential uncertainty and curiosity. As my mother used to say to me, “Life is not certain, eat dessert first.” While I don’t really do that, but see the humor in the saying, the fact is that sitting with Beth’s approaching death serves as a reminder that as much as I want to have that certainty, it can’t be had.

I engage the possibility of life and death on multiple levels. I’ve found that in doing this, I’m driven to live the best life I can and to do the best I can do while I’m here on this planet. Watching Beth challenges me to hope and to hold all options open.

As I type these words, I understand that I’m fine with her leaving because I’ve said the one thing I needed to convey to her: my love.