Two plus years ago when my aunt was on hospice, our extended family kept vigil around her bed in a hospice "house". We talked, laughed, cried, told stories, and sometimes just sat in silence. And we drank wine. We had a happy hour or two in her honor; nothing crazy, just a bunch of family enjoying a short Solo cup of red and, as we told the nurse who panicked when she found us with the wine (we didn't realize it wasn't allowed), sharing a very holy communion.
Last night I met with a family who was saying its goodbyes to their beloved matriarch in the hospital. The room was full of her grown children, her adult grandchildren, and other extended family. Like my family, they wept, they laughed, they shared memories, and they sat in quiet, soaking in their final hours with their mother and grandmother. Then they did what they've done with and for other loved ones--they raised a toast to the wonderful woman dozing peacefully in the hospital bed. Someone had dashed off to Walgreens and brought back a bottle of whiskey and while they drank shots out of medicine cups, they listened to "The Parting Glass" sung by the Wailin' Jennys (I've included the audio at the end of this post; it's beautiful and such a perfect "sending").
I have a short written list of songs I'd like played at my memorial service. I keep it in my phone. My husband knows it's there, and he mostly knows what's on it. Originally he was bothered by the fact that I'd picked out songs for a time such as that; a time we both hope comes many moons from now. But now he's more accustomed to me, to what I think about, and to what matters to me, so when we hear a particular song on the radio and I say, "That's the one! Remember, I want that as the recessional", he smiles a small, patient smile and nods.
What about you? Have you given any thought to what you'd like when the end of your life comes, also hopefully many moons from now? For some people, it's imagining who they want (or don't want) around them at the time of their death and what atmosphere they want (lively and social, quiet and contemplative, etc.). For others, it's imagining the after-party--whether it be a quiet graveside, a blowout celebration of life, the scattering of ashes by their closest family and friends, or simply nothing at all (that's a valid choice, too).
Maybe it sounds morbid to you. To me, given the brevity of life, the gift of opportunity we have to make at least some choices and decisions now, and my fierce determination to ensure that there's zero organ music at my memorial, I figure jotting down a favorite Beatles tune along with a few others isn't going to hurt.
(Cheers to you, Auntie Pat and ML! xo)
"The Parting Glass": www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUK-8M3Vhzc
I'm terrible with seasonal transitions. I get all out-of-sorts and edgy and I want the next season to just hurry up and BE here. The weather's caught in-between, my wardrobe's caught in-between, and don't even get me started on what retail stores do to me with their summer clearance/Halloween candy/Thanksgiving decor displays all at once.
Right now is one of those transitional times, and things feel, to quote a friend I was with this morning, "swirly." There's a lot in the air. Lots of change, lots of loss, lots of grief, lots of letting go. All around me people are talking about the changes and losses in their lives...in their relationships, their jobs, and their homes, to name a few. And the grief, oh, the grief. It's palpable. People having to say goodbye to their children, their siblings, their pets, their parents, their friends, their jobs, their health, their partners. People facing things they never have before and never should have had to ever face. People missing people and "things" that will fundamentally change them and their lives forever.
But remarkably, here's what else is swirling around me: the amazing resilience of the human spirit. The same people sharing about their tremendous losses are also sharing about their gratitude, their memories, their hopefulness, their courage, their futures, their joy. This juxtaposition of pain and fortitude is what I am holding onto in this swirly time, as well as my immense gratitude for people who are brave enough to talk about all of this and more with honesty, candor, and almost without fail, a sense of humor (again with the resiliency!).
This living thing? It's not for the faint of heart, but we humans are designed to carry on. To forget? No. To stop loving? Absolutely not. To never grieve again? I wish. But to carry on into the next season, whatever that may be, when the time is right? Yes, without a swirly shadow of a doubt.
We've hosted 13 guests over 22 nights this summer, and we've loved it. Thanks to visiting friends and family, our home has been filled with joy, laughter, stories, adventure, discovery, new and deepened relationships...not to mention amazing food and fun. (As a side note, our guests are so gracious--they sleep on a hide-a-bed and share our only full bath. I like to think that what we lack in luxury, we make up for in love.)
In addition, as we're human, and we've been living our very human lives both during and between the bright spots of our company, we've also experienced plenty of emotional guests as well: anxiety, concern, relief, sadness, excitement, disappointment, gratitude, pride, fear, confusion, embarrassment, anticipation, frustration, grief, and expectation, to name a few. It's all been, to quote a former colleague of mine, "very life-like."
What feelings have been visiting you lately, and why? How do you welcome them? Do you greet your "easy" emotions more readily, like you do your "easy" friends and family, or do you try to extend to each of your guests at least some sense of genuine hospitality? When the harder emotions come to town, do you try stuffing them into a suitcase and then add to your luggage pile a tote bag of shame or guilt?
If grief (or anger, or sadness, or...you fill in the blank) has been your primary visitor, what kind of welcome are you offering it? Do you open the door wide and let it inhabit you now, deeply and fully, so that it doesn't feel the need to hide out in your attic or basement, only to surface later in even more challenging ways? Grief visits us all at one time or another, paying no attention to what timing is "best" for its hosts, and unattended, it can become the "guest who wouldn't leave." I am convinced, from experience both personal and professional, that unless we swing the door open to grief when it comes, unless we open our arms and embrace it, unless we let it stay as long as it needs to (perhaps the hardest part), it can readily come back and knock down not just our door but our whole house.
Welcoming challenging houseguests isn't easy, but when it comes to the emotional ones, it is such important practice. In the end, if you're able to say "yes" to these often unexpected, unwanted arrivals, the house that is your life, your wellness, your sanity, will be better shored up and able to host future visitors of all kinds.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
"Brave" is one of my favorite Sara Bareilles tunes. With a chorus like this, how can a coach not love it?
"Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave..."
Nearly every week, clients tell me things they wish they'd said or done differently when someone they loved was dying:
My advice for making full use of these "one chance", end-of-life opportunities is two-fold. On the one hand, let the person you love lead. They may be eager to talk about what's on their mind and heart or they may choose to hold their cards close; to go more internal. Remember there is no right or wrong here. Often the closer people get to death, the more "real" they become and the less tolerance they have for small talk or b.s. Let them guide you regarding what they want to talk about...and what they don't. Honor them; meet them; don't push.
On the other hand, if there's something you feel called to ask, share, or explore with them, I encourage you to gently do so; to be brave enough to go there. You may open up a conversation they've been eager to have but didn't know how to, perhaps because they feared burdening or upsetting you. You may offer them words of affirmation, gratitude, memory, love, or reconciliation that make ALL of the difference in their dying experience.
One last thought on a similar note: Don't hold off on making phone calls or sending notes of remembrance, thanksgiving, or "just thinking of you" to those in your life who are facing illness and/or death. You can say a lot or a little...this isn't about your way with words or your handwriting or grammar. The important thing is that you follow Bareilles' advice to "let your words fall out honestly"; that you convey that you care. Trust me when I say the person on the receiving end will appreciate how big your brave is.
"Brave" music video: www.directlyrics.com/sara-bareilles-brave-news.html
Long ago I was an English major. Though some may say my degree has been under-utilized, my love for the written word remains, and sometimes my words turn out okay.