The Death of Me – What it Means to be Alive

I was in the jungles of Costa Rica one year, 2004 if I recall correctly.  We were on an adventure tour out exploring the world.  As we were hiking into a canopy zip line I spotted a tree that looked very unusual.  Its trunk was tall and straight much like a palm tree, not so unusual at all.  Its base however was the unique part of the tree that caught my eye.

The roots of the tree were mostly above ground and wrapped around the base of the tree.  It looked a little like an umbrella blown inside out by the wind.  The roots on one side of the tree were healthy, strong and alive.  The roots on the other side were rotting and falling to the ground.  The strong forward reaching roots were in fact pulling the tree forward into an environment of better soil and light as the roots in the back were dying and letting go.  The ‘walking palm’ can actually move itself to where the growing environment is better for it.

So in order to be a healthy ‘walking palm’ some of the tree needed to die as it grew into a healthier tree in a healthier environment.  Mother Nature is teaching us an important lesson from the jungles in Costa Rica.

In order for me as a healthy individual to continue to grow I need to let something of me no longer necessary for my next steps forward to die, to fall away.  In my career I may need to let go of what I was once called, say an assistant manager, in order to grow fully into the role of manager.  In my relationship with my wife I may need to let go of an old way of relating in order to embrace a new and more intimate way of being together.  I may need to witness parts of my personality die in order for me to be even more authentic.

These changes, these transitions are all examples of the cycle of life.  Something is germinated, planted, and born.  It grows into something that serves a purpose for a while and then it naturally dies.  A plant has this life cycle and before it dies in the fall it usually goes to seed preparing the way for the next growth cycle.

We humans tend to forget we too are part of this cycle of life.  The baby dies to the birth of a child, this child dies into the teenager who then dies into the adult, who dies into the elder. Unhealthy habits like excessive cigarette smoking die to healthier habits of not smoking.  Everything seems to die and be reborn even me!

I have been going through my own personal deaths in order for me to be born into the next ‘new me’.  I have had to let the workshop facilitator ‘me’ die.  I have had to let the money I made die, the travelling I did die.  My goodness piece by piece I am dying into nothing knowing full well a new ‘me’ will be reborn and yet I have no idea what life has waiting for me.  I have had to let my knowing die too!  It has been a journey into the very core of who I am letting go of any and all ways I have identified myself.  I understand the Phoenix rising out of the ashes.

This is a wonderful way to look at ourselves, to embrace death and rebirth on a regular basis.  It is a powerful way to honor these mini-deaths as a necessary part of our life and our growth.  We could return more fully to the celebration of life’s births and deaths; solstice gatherings, days beginning and ending, week ends and week beginnings, by marking them with celebrations either privately of publicly.  This was the purpose of ceremony and ritual in days gone by.  We were acknowledging the death or completion of a cycle and the renewal or birth of a different cycle.  We were noticing the impermanence of life and honoring of temporary nature of our own existence.

In falling out of the ‘habit’ of these rituals we have fallen out of touch with the natural flow of life and become accustomed to the digital!  We have forgotten we are not in control.

Find simple ways to acknowledge the end of a day, the end of a week or month.  Create celebrations that really do acknowledge the death of a season and the birth of the next time of year.  Look for easy ways to say good-bye to things no longer necessary for your growth and happiness creating space for what is new and next to come.

Send me your ideas of celebrations you have put in place to honor the comings and goings in your life.

 

Much Love

Stephen Garrett A.J. Greer Authentic Jersey

Things not to Say at a Funeral!

Most of us are not well practiced at talking with people who have lost a loved one. It is a skill set not well taught. In fact our collective unwillingness to talk about death retards our ability to develop loving and supportive communication skills.  Typically we fumble and bumble our way through these awkward times.

Our natural inclination is to want to help out and make those grieving feel better.  Out of our love for them we want their pain to stop.  Many times our hearts are in the right place our minds and mouths though are somewhere else.

In chatting with people who have experienced many comments at end of life ceremonies I have put together a list of phrases that just don’t work.  The phrases were all well intended and yet how they impacted the one grieving was far from the original aim.

Review the phrases and especially the reframed phrases that may convey more clearly what you really intended. 

The phrase – “I know how you feel.”

Intention

The underlying intention is to let the person grieving know that they are not alone and that you have experienced grief too.  The speaker is using this phrase to build understanding and common ground so the one mourning doesn’t feel alone in their grief.  They may also be implying that it is okay if you share more of your grief with me if you wish.  The intentions are loving and honorable.

Impact

However the phrasing is poor and results in negative reactions from the very one you are trying to console.  “No you don’t know how I feel!” is a common response and the truth is they are right we cannot know how they feel at all.  We can assume we do because we may have gone through our own loss of a loved one.  Yet, our grief journey was uniquely our own unlike anyone else’s, so theirs will be uniquely their own too – similar in many ways and yet so personally different.

Reframed Phrase

How would you let someone know that you care, have empathy for what they are going through and want to support them?  Here are several sentences that would do just that.

“I have no idea what it must be like for you.  I lost my husband so I have some experience with grief.  I am really willing to offer you an ear or a shoulder if you need it.”

This approach lets the one grieving know several things without laying any judgments or trips.  It acknowledges that the person you are consoling has their own process, that you have had a loss too so you know something about grief, and that you are ready and willing to be there for them at their request.

“I am guessing this is a challenging time for you and I want you to know that I lost my daughter last year so I have some idea about what it could be like for you.  I’d be happy to join you for a coffee and talk about it all if you would like that kind of support.”

This approach lets the grieving friend or family member know that you have some idea about grief and you are there for them if they were to call.  It is important to remember that the person you are speaking with is not broken and doesn’t need to be fixed.  You are letting them know you are willing to support them by listening and understanding.

The Phrase – This too will pass.

Intention

The person speaking this phrase is really intending to let you know that the storm of grief will come and go and ultimate the intensity will diminish and life will stabilize.

Impact

In the moment to the one grieving it feels like this endless, bottomless well of grief.  It doesn’t feel like it will pass at all and to be frank hearing someone say that is more upsetting than supportive.  It tends to create reactivity and distance.

Reframed Phrase

How are you doing?

This simple question opens the door for the one you are supporting.  It doesn’t tell them anything about how they should feel or what they should do.  It gives them the chance to speak and be heard.

The phrase – If you need anything, just call.

Intention

The reason people say this is to offer a helping hand, to lighten the burden.  Sometimes the person speaking is offering energetic support and doesn’t realize how important hands on support can be to a person experiencing grief.

Impact

If the one grieving does take the risk and ask for help, honor your word and when and where possible do give of your time and effort.  There is nothing worse for someone living through grief to reach out for help and then be ‘let down.’   The impact when you do help is untold thanks and relief.

Reframed Phrase

I would be happy to offer you an evening or two of baby-sitting so you can have some personal space.

Make your offer of help specific and straightforward.  Some people experiencing grief feel totally overwhelmed by all of life’s details and can even begin to sift through all the ways they do need help, so they don’t reach out.  Keeping your offer of support clear, concise and doable is supportive.

The Phrase – At least you have other children.

Intention

The intention here is to make the woman experiencing the loss feel better and to appreciate the fact she does have other children to love and care for.

Impact

A death is a death no matter how you slice it.  To attempt to make a woman who has lost an unborn baby feel better does not work at all.  It denies her already existing love and relationship with the child growing in her body.  It is offensive to her and cause even more pain and upset.

Reframed Phrase

Tell me more about how you are doing.

The sentence opens up the opportunity for the woman suffering the loss to talk with you.  Listening to her and understanding her grief is helpful and much more supportive than trying to make her feel better.  Giving her the space to talk with you about how she is really doing is a gift.

The Phrase – They are in a much better place.

Intention

When some one uses this phrase they are setting out to ease the worry of those surviving a loved ones’ death; to reassure them that their family member or friend is alright.

Impact

The one(s) grieving would likely have a reaction something like, “How do you know?”  or  “No, here is a much better place!” There are many other reactions to this sentence but you get the drift, it doesn’t work because we just don’t know that to be true.  We may believe it to be true and that is different.  Typically when we try to make someone feel better by offering them a belief we create reactivity in the one we are attempting to help.

Reframed Phrase

Tell me a bit more about how you miss your partner.

Instead of getting them to feel better this sentence sets out to help them express how they are really feeling.  By approaching it this was and encouraging them to express their feelings you are actually being much more helpful.

The Phrase – Do you really think it is good for your kids to be here?

Intention

People care for children and sometimes they may worry about how children will handle big changes like a move or death.  Many people do not understand about how children grieve and think they need to protect them from death and grief.

Impact

It tends to separate children from the family process of grief and in doing so delays their natural grief journey.  It may also cause children to become frightened of death and to see it as something to be fearful of.

Reframed Phrase

How are the children doing?

Asking from a place of being curious will be very helpful to the person you are talking with.  It will open the door for them to speak openly about their children and how the kids are doing with it all.

 

Much Love

Stephen Garrett Ronde Barber Womens Jersey

As Life Winds Down – Out and About No More

It is indeed a journey from the moment you learn that you are dying until the instant you pass on.  Sometimes it is as the Beatles once sang, a long and winding road, other times it is short and bumpy, other times in between and smooth.  There is no one way that a prognosis moves from being identified to it being fulfilled.  Each person’s path is totally unique.

There are, however, some common stages that we all move through much like a travel itinerary.  The exact details may differ yet the day-to-day road map is similar.  In palliative care the doctors and nursing staff have identified the following stages that a person can often go through.  I thought it worthwhile that you have this information too.  Understanding the flow from identifying a terminal illness to death can literally be life saving for those of us saying good-bye.

I have listed the six key stages and noticed the impact each has on the person initially, and secondly on family and friends.  It is common that everyone reacts differently to similar news and it is important to recognize these different reactions if we are to take good care of each other.

1) In the Beginning – The Diagnosis

Patient  When you first hear the news of a terminal illness there can be many reactions.  Common amongst patients are denial, disbelief, a feeling of uncertainty, confusion, and fear.

Family and Friends  People will react differently depending on whom they hear the news from.  If it is from the ill family member they may not hear the whole story, so there may be confusion and lots of questions.  There may be some conflict as each friend or family member may have different beliefs and ideas, and therefore interpret the facts from their own personal perspective.

2) It is for Real

Patient  At this stage there may be fatigue as normal activities become tougher to complete.  There may be some grief surrounding the loss of some faculties like mobility or perhaps sight. The person may begin to doubt the treatments.  Thoughts about death may occur and the individual may begin to feel isolated and lonely.

Family and Friends  Family and friends may start to look and sound like cheerleaders as they notice the changes and want to inspire and give hope to their loved one.  They might start looking for alternative treatments and they could begin to look towards imminent death.  They may also get back to their own life and create some distance between them self and their loved one.  This could be the result of avoidance or fear.

3) Shifting to Pain Management

Patient  At this point the one dying will likely be losing some more mobility and control of their body.  They could be more fatigued, weak, and less active mentally and physically.  Your loved one may be more confused and looking towards prayer, hope for a spiritual healing, and sometimes even death just to get some comfort.  They may have feelings of shame and guilt for ‘letting’ their loved ones down.

Family and Friends  After living with uncertainty for sometime now family and friends may look for other solutions especially as care demands increase.  Family and friends often look for ways to find some stability and control in their own lives and their resentment do to high levels of care giving may be building

4) Care Demands Increase

Patient  Your loved one now is mostly bed ridden and will need help with personal care.  Their appetite and thirst will be lessening.  When coupled with increased medications due to more complex health needs you may find them drowsy.  The one dying will likely be trying to make meaning of it all and be preparing for death.  Their world is shrinking and their energy is diminishing, care must be taken to spread out visits and activity.

Family and Friends  At this point you may be wondering how much longer it will go on.  Can we continue to do this?  You may get so focused on giving care that you forget to take good care of yourself.  There may be even more demands of you as visitors come by more often to say their final good-byes.

5) Final Steps

Patient  The body and mind will be changing rapidly and these can be profound.  They may not eat or drink and may slip into a coma.  Your loved one could be restless, even more confused and they not have much mental clarity.

Family and Friends  At this point as death nears, family and friends may be going in many directions, some ready for death to come, some holding on for dear life.  Feeling such as anger, guilt, sadness, and hopeless could surface.  Others may be relieved, thankful and peaceful.  It will likely be difficult to communicate with your loved one at this point and simply sitting and holding hands may be the extent of your communications. However, lots of uncertainty will be in the air as family and friends start to let go of giving care.

6) Death

Patient  Your loved one may go quietly and calmly or they may be restless and the death could be dramatic.  Either way death comes.

Family and Friends  Though it has been a journey and the expected destination has always been death, it may still be a shock when it happens.  Panic and fear, relief and peacefulness can all emerge.  Some family and friends could withdraw, while others may be expressive.  Some folks could leave and others stay closer by.  It is usually a time for family to stay close together.

 

Much Love

Stephen Garrett Martin St. Louis Authentic Jersey

Keeping Their Spirit Alive – Death Inspired Goals

I remember clearly the moments I was lowering my younger sister’s body into her gravesite.  I made a solemn oath that her death would not be in vain.  I committed to discover the truth about life and death.  I intended to make sense of Jody’s passing.  I set a goal!

Looking back at this intention, I noticed that this was a way I began to make sense of Jody’s unexpected and sudden death.  In a way it gave meaning to her death and helped me along my journey to acceptance of her passing.  In a very direct way it breathed a new sense of life into me.

Here are a few of the commitments I made as a result of my own experience of loss of a loved one:

I intended to stay closer with my brother Peter and my Mom.

Tell my children more often how much I loved them and how proud I am of them.

Write books that would help people.

Change my career.

 

Setting a personal goal as a result of the loss of a loved one is a real way to honor their death by creating new life.  My goal to make sense out of life and death ultimately resulted in this book!  Death of my sister – birth of this book.

In the case of death, a new life or a new sense of life must emerge

 somewhere in the family unit.

Once the busy times surrounding the death have settled and you have a bit of breathing room and personal time I encourage you to create for yourself some goals which are inspired by the loss.  These goals can reflect a realization you have gained, an insight or learning resulting from the death.

Take a look at any regrets or ‘wish I hads’ that arise for you when you think about your loved one.  Here are some common regrets people close to death often speak about:

 

I wish I’d had the courage to live my life, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I didn’t worked so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express myself more fully. 

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends and family.

I wish that I had expressed the happiness I felt

 

There are many other regrets that folks nearing death experience and I am sure if you recall conversations with the loved one of yours you can add to this basic list.

Here is what you can do with these gems of wisdom.  Take as an example number 4 on this list.  Your loved one expressed that they wished they had stayed in touch with friends and family.  If this regret moved you and you feel inspired to live your life differently you could set a goal such as:

 

I will call each of my family members at least once each week.

 

Whatever regrets you feel might end up coming out of your mouth as you prepare for your own death would be good ones to set goals around right now.  Once you have created these goals make sure to let your friends and family know so they can support you in accomplishing them.  Perhaps your actions will inspire them to join you in remembering all of your loved ones in this unique way.

Setting great life goals inspired by the loss of a loved one is a genuine way to honor their life wisdom keeping their spirit alive in you.

 

Much Love

Stephen Garrett Nolan Cromwell Jersey