Over five years ago in 2009, I wrote my first blog post ever. The website I created at the time was called Optimystic Institute and my initial article was about the unexpected death of my dear friend Guen. Today, June 4th, had been her birthday.
Back then, my focus wasn’t death and dying. It was inner joy and optimism.
Actually, my focus still IS inner joy and optimism. But my entry point to these topics is now death and grief, rather than the other way around.
I had imagined that my response to our temporary lives had been shaped primarily by my life-partner Kate’s death in December 2011.
Then I reread this article.
My experience of Guen paved the way for my exploration of embracing death as part of life. My experience of Guen prompted many questions I continue to ask and countless conversations I continue to have about how someone’s death can inspire my own life.
These are the roots of “Seeing Death in a Different Light” . . .
When I watched the video trailer for the new book Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul by Stephen Jenkinson (aka Griefwalker), I admit I felt a bit uncomfortable.
Photo credit: © Stephen Jenkinson “Die Wise” video trailer
I wasn’t uncomfortable with the topic itself or his bold idea that “it’s a moral obligation to die well.” I was actually quite moved by his courageous and controversial words. In fact, his ideas catalyzed my article Is Wisdom the Essence of Dying Well?
I felt uncomfortable because Thou Must Die Well seemed like a huge demand on someone who is dying.
I wanted to take the focus off of the person who is dying and put the attention onto those of us who care about them. I wanted to say “Wait! What about our obligation as loved ones? How can we ask or expect someone to ‘die well’ or ‘die wise’ if we don’t join them fully?”
But how can we join others in dying well?
As my grandma sits in her wheelchair, I lean in to say goodbye before I return home – 3,000 miles away from room #39 at Oak Hill Manor. We touch our foreheads together and I look into her eyes over the top of my glasses. Only inches away, she looks into mine.
“You are my perfect pigeon,” she says.
I laugh to myself because “pigeon” isn’t a pet name Grandma Gene has called me before, and certainly is not the choice bird for a compliment. I’m not sure what word she meant to say. But at her current stage of life, any connection is welcomed by me. I kiss her cheek softly for what may be the last time.
This moment and many others that could be sad or melancholy have actually been endearing. As my grandma’s physical and mental capacities shift, I’m reminded of both my mom and my partner Kate’s final journeys, when they seemed to age many decades in mere weeks due to cancer. The difference is that my grandmother really is in her 90s. And that she has Alzheimer’s. But otherwise, the signposts that she’s nearing the finish line in this body actually resemble theirs.
Perhaps most people resemble each other as this cycle of life is winding down. The way they move, speak, and blink more slowly – seemingly with little self-consciousness. I imagine it’s just what happens as the body and mind do what they do. And while witnessing this stage is often bittersweet, it is the sweetness that stays with me and makes my heart smile.
My sweet friend, what a year it’s been for you as someone so close to your heart has been living with cancer. A number of times, you’ve asked me to share insights from my own journey. And I admit, I often haven’t know what to say. There are so many nuances to cancer. And even more nuances to relationships.
Over the months, I’ve found myself considering what practical advice I can pass along. Are there helpful tips on “what to do” or “how to cope” that I learned from being the main caregiver for my life-partner? How can I encourage you, comfort you, or simply empathize?
With your beloved signing up for Hospice the other day, I imagine you both feel the layers of this shift. Regardless of the timing, it seems clear he may leave his body in the near future. I see this as an opening. To me, there’s now permission to say hello to the likelihood of death from a new vantage point. And this is where what I have to share really begins . . .