Since my dad died a year ago on April 7th, 2016, I’ve been thinking about dying and death in one way or another. I don’t mean I’m personally thinking about wanting to die but about dying and death in general and specific. And, I am purposely using the words death and dying in an attempt to be real about it. My insistence in using these words instead of the words “passed” or I “lost” stems from my reading of the book DIE WELL by Stephen Jenkinson. Formerly a director of children’s grief and palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Family and Community Medicine, Mr. Jenkinson founded the philosophical system Orphan Wisdom and the Orphan Wisdom School in 2010. His system states that;
"What modern people suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history." (Wikipedia).
Mr. Jenkinson believes that, “Death isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you do. You get to choose the manner in which you die: the quality of it, the nature of it”.
I believe Mr. Jenkinson’s philosophical system unmasks our contemporary culture’s fear of dying and death. The understanding of it as a “doing” as opposed to it happening to us is a crucial part of our growth as human beings. Dying and death are important pieces to the completed picture of the puzzle of life. Without these pieces in place, we cannot live OR die well.
In his book Mr. Jenkinson talks about the use of the words “lost” or “passed” as being inaccurate in association with our conversations about death. It seems like semantics and that’s the whole point. “I lost” doesn’t refer to the person who died but instead to the speaker; “passed” has so many meanings that who knows what is being said? He goes on to discuss the source meaning of the word palliative as well. The etymological meaning of this word is as follows;
“to cloak” or “to mask” (late Middle English (as an adjective): from French palliatif, -ive or medieval Latin palliativus, from the verb palliare ‘to cloak’ (see palliate).
I found this discovery to be both amazing and disturbing. I had made up that palliative meant “to soothe” or “make easy”. Obviously, this is not the case...
I’ve been interested in the etymological meaning of words for many years. I believe that when I understand where a word comes from I get closer to the reality of my thinking as well as my communication with others. So, when I use the words dying and death as opposed to words that are vague or questionable in meaning, I am forced to stand face to face with the Unknown and my image of death as the skeletal finger pointing at me from under it’s black heavy sleeve. In a larger context, I’m convinced that most of us avoid thinking about death and/ or talking about it due to our own personal fears and cultural influence. Yet on some level, be it known or not, we all know it’s coming. Well, maybe not all of us. Maybe not kids, adolescents and young adults.
As a 4 year old I couldn’t fathom the concept of death and dying. My earliest experience with death was when my mom threw out my turtles, Sophie and Gertrude, in our outdoor garbage pail in a brown paper bag. Apparently she had read somewhere that turtles carried some kind of disease that was worse than the plague. I cried for a little bit and then went outside to play.
I sailed through my entire teen years without a death or dying event in sight. The first death that was significant to me was the death of my Pop-Pop, my mom’s dad. He died when I was 25 years old. As a kid and then teen, I felt afraid of him for some reason and so our relationship during those years was superficial. Years after his death, my fear of him made sense when I found out that he struggled with depression during those years. Once diagnosed,treated and soon after, with retirement, he became a different man, a kind and quiet soul who had not just a green but golden thumb. He took great joy in growing and tending to his garden, full of flowers, trees and vegetables that would knock your socks off. In retrospect, I think he was good man who wanted more out of life then his old school Italian stoicism would allow. In his early years as a husband and father, it seemed that life’s challenges were hard for him which may have been one of the causes of his depression. We will never really know and in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is that his depression was recognized and treated. Good for him and good for us.
I remember the phone call that came on the night he died. My mom answered the phone in her usual upbeat yet simultaneous “don’t bother me” fashion. She said a couple of “uh-huhs” and then burst into tears. It was like watching movies I had seen in the theater. At first there were just tears. As her experience intensified, her breathing became more like gulping for air and her chest began to shake and bob. I had never seen my mom cry like that before. Even so, I wasn’t disturbed by it. In fact, it was just the opposite. A strange calm overtook me and I thought “good for her” along with something that felt like “finally”. In the years after his death, my mom shared more details of how life with her father shaked out but I always knew that their relationship was not an easy one. It’s the classic story for many of us of wanting love and approval but not getting it. At least not getting it the way we want it.
Which reminds me of a “story” I had about my mother for a long time, probably up until I was 35 years old. Currently, at age 59, I can say with whatever semblance of awareness I have at this moment that I am as “complete” with my mom as I can possibly be. I am not going to say that it’s all been said and done but it could be; I really don’t know. My use of the word “complete” as a way to describe how I feel about our relationship comes from my years of participating in programs developed by an organization called Landmark Education. Landmark Education Corporation originated from the EST Training. It’s programs are designed to investigate what it means to be a human being as defined by the stories or narratives we create about ourselves and others. Consequently, these stories give meaning not only to who we are but to how we live and see the world around us. Even the “good” stories can be a front for something that’s missing or lacking. It’s a remarkable training and an education that I highly recommend. It’s one of those experiences that is not easy but valuable.
During the Advanced Course,(my favorite of all the Landmark Courses), the conversation turned to the stories we create about our parents. As most of us know, it all goes back to dear old Mom and Dad. One of the conversations pointed to how at a VERY young age we make a choice to identify with either our mom or dad as a behavioral model as well as create stories about who we think are they are or more accurately, who we think they should be. Our projections block our ability to “see” our parents as real human beings, separate from us with their own stories about themselves and their life. The stories we create are so ingrained in us that we think they are real! According to Landmark, these stories are dismantled within the context of a conversation. And not just any conversation, but a "strong conversation" where we are committed to the undoing of the story resulting in a transformation of how we think, feel and act.
So, here I was in the Advanced Course, listening to this conversation about the stories we have about our parents and thinking, “I’m good!” when a gentleman stood up and shared the story he had about his mom. He explained that he felt like his mom smothered him. As a kid, then as a teen, she made extraordinary efforts to get to know him and talk with him about his life. She was interested in things that interested him and wanted to be there for him. She even made homemade cookies for him and served them with milk upon his arrival home from school.
“I WANTED YOUR MOM!!!!!!!!!”, I shouted as I shot up out of my chair like Old Faithful. It took me a good 10 seconds before I realized that I had been triggered. Slowly, I came back into the hushed quiet of the room and saw the group staring at me, wide eyed and jaws dropped open. A muffled giggle squeaked out from somewhere followed by more until the whole room was loud with laughter including my own. This man had the mother I wanted, the mother I longed for. The mother who in his story was smothering him. Now, it’s not that my mom isn’t a good and decent person but you see, I wanted something different! I wanted this man’s mom; the milk and cookies mom and not the fiercely independent mom who in my story, no offense mom, seemed to be more interested in herself.
The utter paradox of this story is that I identify with my mom and so like her, I too am fiercely independent and for those who know me, totally self absorbed. In that moment, I had what Landmark calls an, “I got it” moment. I got how I had created the story about my mom not being the right mom for me and how she should have been someone else. Yet, at the same time I had made the choice to identify with her and so the very thing I disliked I had also become myself! That’s what you call a TRANSFORMATION CONVERSATION.
So, how does all this relate to death and dying? I’m not exactly sure except to say that I had stories about death and dying that I didn’t know that I didn’t know until my father died. In some mysterious way, all these events tie into the last year and my reflections about death. My turtles, my Pop-Pop, my need for my parent’s love, my idea of them as opposed to who they really are...it’s the age old battle of fiction vs. fact, story vs. reality.
And who am I kidding? I used the word reflection but it felt more like obsession. I was in it to win it. And folks, when I am obsessed with something it seems to appear everywhere around me. Like when I was pregnant, suddenly every woman I saw was pregnant, or trying to get pregnant or had just given birth.
The week after my father’s death, as you know if you’ve had this experience, my mom, my sister, and I were caught up in the whirlwind of loose ends that happens when someone dies. The arrangement for the wake at the funeral home, the funeral, paperwork, banking, etc. etc. It’s a LOT and it takes you away from the reality of death. In the book DIE WELL, Jenkinson talks about how not so long ago, dying and death took place in the home. The old and the YOUNG were part of the dying and death process. No one was protected.
This reminds me that my cousin from Virginia came to my dad’s wake, bless her heart, with her 4 year old daughter. I was overjoyed. As she walked toward the casket with her daughter in her arms, her daughter blurted out in that innocent 4 year old voice, “Is he asleep?”. It was a marvelous moment. Her mom didn’t shush her but instead walked closer to the casket. I watched them as they whispered to each other, no doubt my cousin giving her daughter a practical crash course in death. It didn’t take long.
It was difficult to leave my Mom after the week passed. She was kinda “ok” but the reality of his death had definitely not landed for her or for any of us for that matter. It was a week after I arrived back home in Maine that IT happened. As I was driving home from somewhere, looking out from behind the wheel, suddenly, painfully, I was aware of the fact that everything and I mean EVERYTHING was not only living but dying as well. The trees, the clouds, my hands on the wheel, even the cars were transient and impermanent. I GOT that nothing lasts and in that moment the vibrancy of life became unbearable to me. I felt the beginnings of a deep cry coming on and thought for a moment I couldn’t handle it but then this “fuck it” feeling burst through and I let it all go. In this moment of moments I realized as I was heaving, gulping and driving(and why do these things always happen in the car, God damn it!)that I had been battling with this uncomfortable feeling all week long and I couldn’t make sense of it until now. This was a feeling I had never known before and this feeling was Grief.
As the emotional intensity of the experience lessened, I had what I call an “instantaneous neural download”. It’s the kind of understanding that takes place in an instant and one that only life can offer. The reason I dropped into this state was because I got, like on a visceral level, that on the other side of life’s vibration was death. Real death, not a story about death, like “I understand it or I am not afraid of it, or I’ll be re-incarnated, etc.” but death as a Reality.
For the next few weeks, my grief along with death, was with me pretty much 24/7 and it kinda freaked me out but not really. I realized I had a story about grief that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I thought grief was the great incapacitator, the dark figure standing next to the chopping block. It just wasn’t so. My grief teacher consistently appeared to me as a gentle and kind soul, a big ole’ softee. She didn’t make me feel depressed or hopeless as my story told me she would. Instead, she said it’s ok to feel sad and to not understand. “Let me, Grief, guide you to a new place in life. Also,get used to me being around because the sooner you do, the easier it will be to get on with life”.
She affirmed that just because nothing lasts doesn’t make life a bummer. The intensity, the vibration of LIFE is loud and gorgeous BECAUSE of death, because of grief. You just never saw it before. No one taught you but let me teach you. I will never let you down and I will always love you and see you as you are; a child of God, worthy of love, light and life. Walk with me everyday and I will remind you that life in REALITY is fleeting and every moment is awake and alive through this lens. Don’t be afraid or be afraid, it doesn’t matter. But whatever you choose, be alive and awake in it and don’t let the story get in the way of the reality because, in the end, REALITY loves you baby and it is the best parent you’ll ever have.