Why I Was Willing to Laugh Even Though My Soulmate Was Dying

Being more aware of our thoughts, letting go of judgments and frustration, and focusing on what really matters are just a few lessons we can learn from choosing laughter as a tool for wellbeing in our lives.

The following article was first published in the Shift Network’s online magazine on April 5, 2018. To see the article in all its glory, with photos and a sweet layout, you can go to The Catalyst. During 2018, I offered a workshop called “Laughing Matters: What Laughter Teaches Us about Living & Dying” to over 150 people in California, Oregon, Vermont and Maine. What a treat!

In a future article, I will share some of the lessons from the classes and what we discovered together. For now, here is why the class came about to begin with . . .

What We Owe Those Who Are Dying

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?

Coming Out of a Different Kind of Closet

I’m usually quite comfortable talking about my life-partner Kate. But sometimes, especially when I meet new people, I find myself hoping the conversation doesn’t bring me to mention her name. My hesitation doesn’t come because she’s a woman. My hesitation comes because . . . she’s dead.

Even if I share this news in a softer way, people are often caught off-guard, which isn’t my intention. Whether I’m coming out as a lesbian, or coming out as someone who experienced the death of a soul mate, my intention is to be honest about my life.

Similar to my experience of coming out in the 1990s, talking about death means anticipating people’s potential discomfort. Sometimes people don’t know what to say or do. Or I can feel their pity and the assumptions they make about what it’s been like for me. This often shifts the energy of the conversation.

I don’t want to feel awkward about withholding a significant part of my life. And I don’t want to make other people feel awkward either. Rather than being self-conscious when I speak about Kate, I do my best to be conscious and real.

Why I Don’t Talk about Missing my Beloved

Only months after my life-partner Kate died, a friend called me in need of support. As I listened, she matter-of-factly said that I wouldn’t understand how much she missed her ex-boyfriend. “What do you mean?” I asked her. “Well,” she said, “you don’t miss Kate.”

Photo credit: Michelle Asch (Jen & Kate at South Fork River, 2011)

What?! My beloved recently died and she thought I didn’t miss her?

What are you talking about? I thought. I think about her all the time. Of course I wish I could look into her eyes, hold her hand, hear her laugh. Doesn’t that mean I miss her?

“Of course I miss her,” I said out loud.

At first, I was caught off guard by my friend’s comment. After our conversation, I reflected on what she had said. I wondered what gave her this skewed impression of my experience.

And then I realized – to my friend’s credit – she was absolutely right. I didn’t miss Kate. At least not according to the common connotation of what it means to “miss” someone we love . . .

Letter to a Dear Friend who is Facing the Death of a Loved One

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 . . .