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Posts from the ‘Life and Death’ Category

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, 

Gail

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.

Lemons.

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.