Living and Dying with Passion

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” . . .

My First Blog from 2009

With all I have learned and experienced over the past few years about life, death, fear, grief and optimism, I am here to report that what I shared in this first blog all holds true today. Still relevant. Still deeply stirring for me. From November 2009, “Living and Dying with Passion”:

“Yesterday, on the first day of November (ironically the ‘day of the dead’ in many traditions), my good friend Guen Gifford died while paragliding in California. Most of us are still in shock, regardless of our spiritual beliefs or general optimism about life.

Guen lived a very thoughtful life – considering pros and cons, examining how her actions would affect those around her. She was one of the most thorough, pensive people I’ve ever known. (She did, appropriately, become an advocacy lawyer). But she didn’t allow thoughts of fear to get in her way. Especially when it came to her passions.

As I see it, she was passionate about three main things: economic justice, women, and paragliding (not necessarily in that order). I have known her since we were in our early 20′s, working together on community and women’s issues in Vermont. Starting in July of 2009, she took a year off from work in order to travel and experience a less-structured life. She had been of service at Law Line Vermont for over a decade, helping low-income people with legal assistance related to housing, family court, and public programs.

Over the years, Guen had been in Chile, Baja, Guatemala, and many other amazing places, hiking up mountains with her paragliding equipment and flying down like a bird. Photos of herself and others paragliding covered the wall in her office. When I think of her dying while living her passion, it seems so fitting, so perfect. She was experiencing a sense of freedom that she loved, something many people long for their entire lives. In this way, I am drawn to see beauty in her death. But is that just warped positivity? Am I desperately grasping for the bright side of a tragedy?

At the recent ‘Circles of Healing’ retreat I attended, participants were asked to imagine the worst case scenario of their own death. I was actually quite shocked at the exercise, wondering if it made sense to put thought and energy into something that I didn’t want to call in to my life.

Then we were asked to envision our most ideal death, to see our surroundings, hear the sounds, smell the scents.  We were creating the picture of an emotional sensation, answering the question ‘how do I want to FEEL when I die?’ The opportunity to consider this was such a gift for many people in the room. Some of the feelings that surfaced for me were peace, joy, freedom, and a sense of oneness.

The common thread of the retreat was cancer, but this exercise focused on deeper truths, as does this news about Guen. Death is the opposite of birth, not of life. Everything that is born will die.  Life, on the other hand, goes on forever. So can we somehow forgive death for existing, or even welcome it as a teacher?  Can we recognize that the energy of life is eternal, even as we experience loss? How do anger, joy, grief, sadness, connection, and hope all fit together? Even asking these questions is a tribute to Guen – often questioning, always curious.

I have no idea what Guen would have said was her worst or best case scenario for dying. My guess is that at least one (or both) of these may have had to do with paragliding. I know that her adventurous and sharp mind, her open and inquisitive heart, and her calculated and carefree life all circled around love. And all I can hope is that love circled around her yesterday as she felt the air on her skin for the last time.

Even in these times, I strive to live as an optimystic. I believe that we can love life AND simultaneously embrace death, but that doesn’t make it easy or painless. Nor does it mean that I’m not mourning the loss of a dear friend who has taught me so many wonderful things about life. But I am grateful that she is now also teaching me about death, leaving us all with the ultimate metaphor:  Guen knew how to fly and would encourage us to do the same.

Thank you, Guen. I can feel the wind on my cheeks when I smile, thinking of you.”

Photo: Guen Gifford Archives

Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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3 thoughts on “Living and Dying with Passion

  1. Just today I was wondering what Guen’s birthday was as I walked into work and then I found this beautiful post. My partner, Erica and I live in her (former) house in burlington. my partner met and moved into Guen’s home a month before she passed and Guen made her feel like she found her home during a difficult life transition. We have since bought the home and have started to raise a family there (we have a 2 year old daughter). Although I never met Guen, I know many who were close to her and I have always felt a kinship with her. We often ask Guen about the home and if she likes what we have done with the place. We keep her tradition and fill our home with love and laughter regularly. today I finally printed out a picture of her that will remain on the walls, seems fitting as we still feel the energy of her there. Thank you for this insight into this wondrous persons life.

    • Wow, what a beautiful story! Thank you for taking the time to share this with me. I love that you feel a connection even though you never met Guen, and that you felt called to honor her with a photo in your home. Guen was indeed an amazing woman and I’m glad that you can feel what a legacy she leaves in the community (and the house as well). May you and your partner and daughter enjoy many years to come in the sweetness of that place! Love, Jen.