In the year 2007, a total of 6 people in my life died. Beyond people living in war torn countries, who knows anyone for whom 6 loved ones departed this good green Earth in a typical year?
It was intense. I realized as I walking my dog recently that there are few to whom I’ve talked about 2007. Three of my loved ones died from brain tumors from various cancers. Two more were utterly freak accidents. The final passing was from complications of diabetes. My kind and compassionate business partners and close friends knew; but it became almost embarrassing. It was like: “Another one? Really? Your poor family!” I caught myself wondering if those that knew would think I was making things up like some sort of whacko attention getting ploy. I grew to loathe the phone ringing because all too often I would hang up with a sinking, shock-like feeling realizing while whirling that I still had to keep it together to move through life.
Ironically, 2007 was also the year I plunged into co-ownership of Balance Restored Center for Integrative Medicine in Mill Valley, which is the site for my acupuncture practice and which I love. When it rains it pours it seems.
Things I learned…
Despite the losses and the intensity of the stacked proximity of each passing, 2007 was year of pivotal learning, largely due to the way in which my loved ones moved through death.
My friend Palmer was perhaps the most graceful. He was venerated teacher and inspired students of all ages his whole life.He read a book a week, sometimes more, and had knack for suggesting just the right book for whatever ailed you. Palmer was my very first real patient in my very first acupuncture office. Two days before he stepped across, I had what was the greatest honor of going to treat him in his Napa home. He was calm but was having some difficulty breathing.
I asked if he would mind if I stimulated some acu-points on his chest to help with his breathing. Not missing a beat, or a stand-up opportunity apparently, he chirped out in his best Norwegian fisherman accent: “Well, keep in mind the ladies get very excited when I take off my shirt.” The solemn bedroom erupted into laughter.
the ongoing quest for knowledge are what I learned from Palmer. At Palmer’s memorial services dozens of people spoke about how he had impacted, touched and changed their lives. At the close of the service his son stood and said: “Please let’s give a round of applause for my father and a life well lived.”
Laughter on a deathbed? Applause at a funeral? It was perfect, not usual, but perfect. These were among the lessons and gifts I took from Palmer.
A year ago I wanted to get a special gift for my dear friend-Palmer’s daughter. Rich Sigberman, a local artist and friend created a watercolor of Palmer with blue herons taking flight in the background (http://sigsart.com).
Palmer was fond of the Great Blue Heron, which held spiritual significance for him. To my surprise and delight, that small but so treasured watercolor gift, prompted a whole series of Blue Herons by Mr. Sigberman, one of which now hangs in my office.So Palmer’s grace takes flight and continues to inspire even now.
Running scared from the grimmest reaper
But death is not all Hallmark cards, fairy dust, and inspiration. Everyone, if not personally, innately knows this. Perhaps it is one reason why our culture avoids death, its discussion, and process. This avoidance is a common human phenomenon. Maybe death places us the cross hairs of considering our own mortality or threatens to unleash the tamped down, weighty emotions of grief, loss, and fear. Perhaps we dance around it because death is the ultimate life episode of us having zero control.
When I was working as an ICU RN, I would often be surprised that when we had a dying patient on the unit, someone for whom we had exhausted all of the best medicine we had to offer, nurses shied away from taking that patient assignment.It was not malicious or callous. In fact it was quite unconscious.
ICU nursing is fast-paced. In order for RN and patient alike to survive, the RN must be able to make accurate, rapid assessments followed by correct and timely interventions. The vigilance can be exhausting: Is the patient bleeding internally? Is the potassium too high or too low? Have their kidneys stopped functioning? Is there a mental status change and why?
Whereas if the patient is moving through the death process, the nursing tasks turn to comfort care, supporting the family, assisting with social services interventions and the like. You see much pain and grief; but the biggest task can be willingly, lovingly and patiently remaining present-not running scared from the hooded guy with a scythe.
One task at hand for family and friends: be present
There is something in 2007 I learned about being present. It’s not about having answers, though personally it that makes me feel better. It’s about being present. That means: being present when it’s physically messy. That means: being present when sifting through the maddening insurance maize. That means: being present when there is no tidy, quick or comforting answer. That means: being present when families disagree or family dynamics are playing upon the stage. That’s why you so often hear people say, “Thank you for being here.” It is of immense comfort not to be alone.
The bigger task at hand for the dying
In contrast, the dying loved one is often about the business of shaking off the bulky, problematic strappings of physical temple and re-entering Brahmin, going to Heaven maybe after a hitting a rest area in Purgatory- if that is your belief. Maybe they are cooking up their next existence after this one. That’s yet another complexity: our many belief systems around spirit, this world and the world(s) beyond.
Important things can refocus rapidly for dying people whereas family and friends might remain mired in day-to-day minutia.I remember my friend Sue struggling with finding a facility for her dying husband. The only one with room and availability was very worn and poorly maintained. It was heart breaking for her to see her husband in this setting.
There was a pivotal moment when she was crying and upset about the surroundings when her dying husband Jon reached over and clasped her hand saying, “Sue. Listen to me. Really: this does not matter. It does not matter at all to me. I do not care.” I believe Jon was already spending a great deal of time on the other side. He slept a lot as many dying people do; but he was at peace with the workings of this physical human world. It was as though this existence was simply a part time role in a play into which he stepped now and again. He didn’t resist. He didn’t judge or get angry. He didn’t care that the night stand was chipped or that a little, old lady resident sometimes absently wandered into his room in confusion and had to be redirected back to hers etc. etc. It just wasn’t important any more.
That checking out process can be rough on family and friends, grasping for last treasured moments and completions. For the transitioning human, one foot is already stepping onto that other side and it’s a comfy, blissful place there. The reality is that completions can occur at any time even when our loved ones are long passed. That part is our work: connecting, tuning in, tapping on and doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves for closure. Sometimes our dying friend or family simply does not have the reserves for closure in the here and now.
Not all death transitions are so graceful. That unfortunate instance is immensely and incalculably hard on loved ones. One dear friend became angry and prone to rages during the latter stages of his brain tumor. It happens. It wasn’t pretty. He was young and brilliant which made his death that much more painful. I remember him saying that he felt as though many people kept him at arm’s length because they worried about their own loss in the eventuality of his death. It was true.
After his passing, I struggled with did I do enough as a clinician and friend? Did I miss something? Should I have done more, done less?
“could have” are all of those terribly destructive phrases.
A wise coach later said to me: “Karen: on some level, any level at all, was there healing in your friend’s death?” ‘Yes, of course.’ I said without hesitation or contemplation.
In that moment, I realized that nothing is lost. Nothing is ever lost, really. It feels so in the moment because we can not bend time and space to comply with our desires. But really, truly, no efforts go without benefit. We do the best we can. It’s a physics thing actually in that energy cannot be destroyed, only changed. Change our minds, change our hearts, change our lives.
Spirit goes on beyond the body. That is my belief anyway and 2007 solidified that for me. So in closing: I’m not really sure why I needed to write this now in 2011, other than to say there are blessings and gifts even through death. If I had resisted 2007 those things would be lost and I would not carry them forward to hopefully help someone else in their process.
There is an old Yiddish saying, “May his/her memory be a blessing to you.” It seems to me that part of the wisdom of that wish is seeking the blessing and light. I wish you all many blessings and applause at your life well lived.
2007 taught me those are good things.