Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Scared to Death of Dying and Denying Grief

When I invited Martha to the gathering at my house, she accepted the invitation cheerfully. Martha was new to the area and so I thought this small potluck I was hosting would be a chance for her to get to know other women in our town. Martha stuck it out till the end, softly responding to each person's questions about where she had moved from and the details involving her current job. It was not until the last guest left that night that she was able to utter her fears, "Oh, Alice, maybe I shouldn't have come." Then she fell apart in tears.
Martha's son had died in a car accident in Tennessee a year ago. She had tried to hold it together during the whole evening, blocking her tears, until at last she had to let go. A private person, she hadn't wanted to tell the others gathered about her son.
As she sat at my kitchen table with the tissues I supplied for her, Martha shared about her son Tony and her love for him. She needed to go over the circumstances which led to his accident that snowy night on a mountain road.
I well remembered how much my husband and I had needed to go over every detail at the one-year anniversary of our son Daniel's death. We had to relive it all in order to get beyond the truth that we could not have prevented his death; we had not been in control.
To complicate matters, before coming to my house, Martha had just gotten off the phone with her sister. Her sister was excited over her upcoming marriage to John. Martha couldn't muster up an ounce of happiness for her sister's special day for the thought that her Tony wouldn't be at the wedding was all consuming.
Then when her sister laughed and said, "If John's dad wears that horrible toupee of his, I think I'll die!" Martha felt her heart ache.
Martha was having a hard time dealing with what all of the bereaved must deal with -- how a society can carry on as though we should be "fine" about the death of our loved one, especially after a year's time and how we can keep on in a society which denies our grief and even pokes fun at death.
We do not live in a sensitive society, especially when it comes to understanding death and grief. Perhaps the use of certain phrases that have the word "death" in them, but don't mean physically dying, proves that we are not "death sensitive." Daniel's oncologist answered my question of "Why do we make fun of death?" with, "We often make fun of what we are afraid of."
I think of the phrases that have nothing to do with real death and yet are part of our colloquial conversation:
Drop-dead gorgeous
A dead ringer
Dead in my tracks
Almost died
Scared to death
Dying to see
Died laughing
To die for
She looked like death warmed over
It was like I didd and went to heaven
We aren't really speaking of death when we throw out these phrases. The girl who wore the t-shirt to the museum that said she was "brain dead" during school hours didn't really mean she was either. Yet, it offended me and anyone else who has had a loved one who was medically brain dead. She thought it was cute. I wanted to leave the museum and cry.
Do others get it? Do they care? Some days their words may help; other times, their words sting. They may be well meaning, but they are at a loss as to what to say. Some say nothing and some say the wrong thing. And there are days when the arms of a church or family member may encircle you and make you feel included and loved. There are other times when you feel isolated from your family and friends.
It was stated to me many times that I should tell others how to treat me. I needed to give them wisdom in knowing how to reach out and help me. In the early months of grief, this can be one of the strangest things to have to do. It is like having a broken leg and telling the doctor how to fix it. Shouldn't he know? Likewise, we are the hurting ones having just buried a loved one, shouldn't the rest of society know how to help us? Why do we, when we are already in agony have to show people how to treat us?
If we don't, they will never get it. If we don't let them know that we need permission to grieve, they will continue on in their lack of understanding. If they say, "Well, he's in a better place," and you let it go, they will not know how that statement tears at your heart. But if you can say without too much venom in your voice, "But he's my son and I want him here just like you want your son with you!" then you have done a great service to that person.
I wish that we could all be as truthful and articulate as my friend Peg from Wisconsin. She says, even now, nine years since Ross, her 4-year-old's death from cancer, "I miss what he would have brought to the rest of my life."
For the truth is, death is all around us. We are born to death. From the beginning of time humans have had to deal with their own mortality. But instead of accepting this, we joke, tease and try to avoid death. We use the phrase that the only two certainties of life are death and taxes and yet, we pretend death won't get us.
To speak about death has been called the greatest taboo. Yet, really, even more of a taboo is to admit that grieving over the death of a loved one is real and important.
We want to shove grief out the door. People don't want you to make them feel uncomfortable or sad when you cry. They want to see you smile and be like you used to be before the death of your wife or sister.
When asked by a coworker how she was doing one mother, who had just lost her son said, "I'm not doing as well as I was three months ago."
"Three months ago?" asked the coworker, puzzled by this answer.
"Yes, that was before my son died."
There is nothing wrong with saying, "Not so good today" when asked how you are doing. Sure everyone wants to hear that you are "fine," but if you're not, why lie?
However, we all know the sdtbacks to telling the truth. We struggle because, while at times we want to let others know how we really are doing (not well today, thank you), we want to be careful that we don't get an earful of unwanted cliches or platitudes that wrench our stomachs and torment our minds.
There are other platitudes people say in order for them to have something to say or perhaps in hopes that these will make them feel better about your devastation.
"Just trust God."
"God needed another flower for his garden."
"Life isn't fair, you know."
"You'll grow stronger and better because of this."
"God never makes a mistake."
Whether these are true or not, the bottom line is that they don't help we who are grieving.
In the words of Joe Bayly: "I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God's dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he'd go away. He finally did.
Another came and sat beside me. He didn't talk. He didn't ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go."
People want us to "get over it" and to "move on with our lives." These do not know the first thing about grief. Grief is not an illness or an act of stubbornness or a desire to be difficult. Grieving the loss of a loved one is a deep complicated inexplicable truth.
Over the next months I tried to help my friend Martha learn the ropes we bereaved parents all must learn -- to gently teach and guide others to understand the heart of a griever.
Alice J. Wisler, author of the memorial cookbook DOWN THE CEREAL AISLE, writes and speaks on self-esteem in grief, writing through pain, and the value of remembering loved ones who have died. Visit her website Writing the Heartache -- [http://www.geocities.com/griefhope/index.html]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Sinking Ship: Death, Dying, and Chinese Medicine

Chinese MedicineIt was Friday night, and Dan Jones was on his deathbed. In his 70's, riddled with pancreatic cancer, the five of us paid our respects with a 15 minute silent meditation.
Dan had been a skillful guide to my men's group one Saturday in a straw bail house out past the Y in Oak Hill. Seared in my mind is the memory of his haunting clear eyes and my hands gripping his outstretched index and middle fingers. Intuitively, he asked, "Who betrayed you?" He held space, allowed me to squeeze as hard as I could while a deeply buried volcano of rage erupted from within me into the still Hill Country air. I am grateful for that day and his steady presence.
Now, here I was in a vigil with this long-time Austin psychotherapist and pioneer of men's groups. I decided to keep my eyes open, resting them on him as I sat on the floor. He was on his side in this hospice bed, breathing through his mouth, laboring to take in air.
All of a sudden, we switched places in my mind. I was him and he was me. I was old and dying, swimming in an opiate fog, cancer consuming my organs, breathing like a fish out of water. I was horrified. All of a sudden, I painfully understood that I will die!
I struggled to keep my eyes open and continue to visually take him in, but the stronger force of fear prevailed. It felt as if an invisible finger was forcing my eyes closed. My inner "hero" fought for awhile, but eventually the kindest thing I found for myself was to let the eyes close. That evening, I clearly witnessed in me the One Who Is Afraid to Look.
We're all in the same boat. A boat of flesh and bone. And these boats are destined to sink. They always have and always will. So what is your relationship to this sinking ship? How do you face the Inevitable End?
Practice Dying Every Day
Chinese Medicine offers both an invitation to investigate this relationship and a map that can cultivate greater harmony with the relationship to death and dying.
The first pillar of Chinese Medicine is Meditation. In this context, it's the simple steps of:
  1. Pause during any "ending" in your life.
  2. Reflect on the question, "How do I do endings?"
  3. Notice how the energy is moving (the sum impression of the thoughts, emotions, and body sensations that are occurring)
Pausing and inquiring into the question "How do I do endings?" is the start to discovering how you will do the Big Death. And by "endings," I mean things like a divorce, a move, a change in job, quitting a habit, going to sleep at night, or simply ending a hangout session with a friend. These are the "little deaths" of regular life.
The next step is to bring mindful awareness (the simple act of witnessing) to how you respond to all the "little deaths" of daily experience. At these moments, do you find yourself getting busy or anxious? Do you turn on sitcoms and space out? Do you slow down, get quiet and reflective? Do you plummet into the abyss of despair and loss? Each person will have their own unique "ending" style.
Your unique "ending" style is the habit that will be in place when you die. The approach towards the Big Death is simply another transition (from this body into whatever comes next) in the stream of a lifetime of transitional moments. It's the Big Transition. And it's the most mysterious one. In Death, our deepest habit patterns of the mind surge forward with great force. These deep habits are the accumulation of the billions of responses to everyday living you have done thus far.
"We get good at what we practice." (Joko Beck) If you are practicing avoiding endings, then you will be avoiding Death till the very end. If you practice calm bravery in the face of unknown transitional moments, you will bring calm bravery to the Big Mystery. Practice dying every day. If we get "good" at the little Deaths, perhaps we will able to bring grace and wisdom to the most challenging transitional moment of them all, the big Death.
the Roadmap to Death & Dying
The third step is noticing how the energy moves. The Five Phases of Chinese medicine is a map for how energy moves in a process of transformation. By process, I mean any life event that has a beginning and end. It could be the act of reading this article, driving to the grocery store, or the life cycle of a human being. In addition to describing how energy moves, the Five Phases describe the resources available during each phase of the journey through a life process.
Each Phase describes a quality of energy. The season and the stage of human development associated with each Phase helps illuminate the quality of energy. Let's start with Water and move through each Phase.
Water relates to the season of Winter. The energy is more still, contracted, laying in wait before the stirrings of spring. In terms of human life, it is associated with pre-conception, conception, the time in the womb and early infancy. It is the energy of potential before structure. It is pure Being. Think of a newborn with wide wondrous eyes not knowing the boundary between herself and the world. In terms of a process, it is before the next process takes form.
Wood relates to the Spring. The energy goes upward. The earth begins to surge and throb. The sprout elbows its way out of the seed. Vibrant green leaves speak of new life and the ambition to reach the sun. In human life, it relates to energy moving from the unconscious to the conscious. It is the driving force of ego development and personality during childhood. It is the time in a process of envisioning, making plans and decisions. It is the stage when an idea strives to manifest into the world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Of Death, Dying, and the Possibility of a Hereafter

Possibility of a HereafterDeath is the greatest of our fears. Most of us believe it to be a cruel, catastrophic finality-the end of all we know, of all we are. Yet, Albert Einstein said, "When gazing into the profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, life and death flow into one another. There is neither evolution nor eternity, only Being."
Many years ago, one of my patients offered me a glimpse into the unknowable. By entering a realm between life and death, he discovered that the point of passing can be a moment of transcendence. His story has allowed me to see that death may not be the end, but could perhaps be a path to other realities. Through him, I came to know life and death as mysteries beyond human understanding. Through him, I was given a glimmer of insight into the beyond to perceive the miracle of existence as an exquisite mosaic about which we can only wonder. I have written his story in my recent book, Courageous Confrontations.
My patient was an overbearing Catholic priest, who after a lifetime of invoking the wrath of the Almighty upon his parishioners, had a massive heart attack and a cardiac arrest. Despite being on a heart-assist device, his heart slowly began to fail.
Father More's heart attack left him in despair. He had spent a lifetime begging God for salvation from the inner demons caused by his childhood role in the death of a sadistic father. Despite a lifetime of devotion, his prayers had been in vain.
But as he began to intermittently lose consciousness in the Coronary Care Unit, the pain that had oppressed him throughout his life began to fall away. Father More had begun an astonishing series of healing experiences that led to his religious and spiritual awakening.
Father More was simultaneously dying, and moving into another realm, an inner journey that opened him to a oneness with the divine, and an absolute peace he had never before imagined. His prayers had been answered. At the moment of his passing, Father More's last words were, "I'm coming home to God."
Father More's confrontation with death opened me to possibilities that were nonexistent in the scientific and intellectual traditions in which I had been raised. Over time, I began to explore realities that transcend those we know through science and technology. As the physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote, "Scientific concepts cover only a very limited part of reality, and the part that has not yet been understood is infinite."
Medical science teaches that we are biological beings, functioning according to physiological principles that are governed by genetic codes and their biochemical elaborations. Father More showed me that such reductionist notions are simplistic, and don't begin to recognize or value the vast complexity of human beings. William James said, "Rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all around it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different...No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these disregarded...They cannot furnish formulas. They open a region, though they fail to give a map."
All of us have experienced moments when we are lost in a sunset, the rapture of love, or a religious experience. At such times, the ordinary sense of our separateness evaporates, and we often feel at one with the universe. Perhaps in those moments, we have briefly entered another reality not dissimilar to what Father More described during his out-of-body experiences.
Were Father More's experiences hallucinations--abnormalities of brain chemistry and nerve function caused by oxygen deprivation? Or were they visions--vivid, life-altering occurrences during which something appears within one's consciousness that profoundly effects the heart and soul, perhaps even under the influence of a divine or spiritual dimension?
What I do know is that Father More's experiences altered my consciousness. When I sat holding his hand as he died, I sensed an unmistakable presence. Normally, watching one of my patients die devastates me. But at the moment of Father More's death, I was filled with wonder. I too felt released from ordinary reality, and was witness to a profoundly spiritual process. Losing a patient for whom I cared deeply no longer tormented me. Everything about Father More's passing seemed right, even holy. In that moment, my own state was so blissful that it frightened me. The foundation of my everyday being had fallen away, and I too was perfectly at peace. As inexplicable as it was, nothing has ever seemed more real.
Father More's teaching about death allowed me to see that it may not be an end, but a possible path to other realities. Human consciousness has been called spirit or soul--the part of us that religions throughout history have referred to as eternal. The animating energy that is consciousness--something medical science cannot locate in the anatomy of our physical bodies--might at the moment of death, simply change to another form within the miracle of existence.