Death: the True Elephant in the Room. ~ Juli Arnold-Kole

Via elephant journal
on May 17, 2012
get elephant's newsletter



“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.” ~ Mary Oliver, Wild Geese


My withdrawal from the world of the living began three years ago, when my father was first diagnosed with cancer.

Everything came to a standstill for me. I found myself naturally cocooning, preparing for this monumental transition within my clan: the loss of our leader. I later came to call this time Anam Chara, which is Gaelic for “soul friend.”

My Irish ancestors had a ritual for the dying. Similar to a midwife, someone who takes on the role of a soul friend is there to help a loved one pass from this world onto the next.

How appropriate. My father ushered me into this world (with my mother’s help, of course). I would help my father move onto the next blissful phase, just by being present to whatever showed up for him.

My beloved father passed in the fall of 2011, a few days before his 81st birthday. We celebrated his entire span of life that day, not the beginning of a new year.

Unfortunately for me and perhaps for others who are grieving out there, society doesn’t necessarily consider death as a time to celebrate with great fanfare and joyful trumpets. Unlike a birth that’s usually a time of rejoicing within one’s community, death seems to be a time to be silent, to withdraw, to wait until the grief has subsided and only then re-enter the world as your same ol’ usual self.

As the time of illness and suffering ended for my father and my own grief journey began, I found very few folks who would talk to me about grieving, death, dying. I was ready to come back to the world of the living, but people weren’t ready for me. Few broached the topic of grief in all its guises, as if the topic was too taboo, as if talking about it would cause bad things to happen, as if suffering and death don’t exist.

How ironic, I thought. When we are born, we are all given both life and death. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. And it’s a crucial piece of the whole puzzle, giving us reason to celebrate life each day knowing it will indeed end at some unknown point in time for us, for our loved ones.

To all those grieving out there, I want you to know, you are not alone.

Here are some self-nurturing tips that helped me during this trial; perhaps they will help you too, today or one day:

• Find your true resources: family, friends, perhaps even strangers who have recently experienced a loss themselves

• Forget the cynics who say, “Shrinks are only for the crazy.” Consider yourself temporarily insane and seek grief counseling, someone who is paid to listen intently without judgment

Give yourself lots of room for any emotion to come through: anger, sadness, ecstasy, whatever; anything goes with grief

• Put any guilty feelings on the shelf for now: the grieving process has a life of its own, and it may take more time than anticipated to integrate the loss

• Ask for help. Don’t assume people will come to you and offer it without solicitation

• And perhaps most importantly, be kind to yourself, and re-discover what self-nurturing looks like to you; if you don’t know, be curious and try different things: like being in nature, kayaking, getting your hands dirty in the garden this summer, salsa dancing, whatever floats your boat….

What have you found to be helpful when grieving a significant loss? Community and communication are both extremely important during these rollercoaster times of life. Please share your ideas. Someone out there might find them very life-affirming.

Juli Arnold-Kole is an animal advocate, writer/editor, former ballet dancer and sometime trickster, based in Boulder.

  Like elephant family on Facebook.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta


Photo: flickr


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter. Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive—and get your name/business/fave non-profit on every page of Questions? Send to [email protected]


10 Responses to “Death: the True Elephant in the Room. ~ Juli Arnold-Kole”

  1. Marti says:

    You are a wonderufl writer and your comments are so true – I wish I had your wisdom and had read this many year ago. Thank you for sharing this iwth me.

  2. My friend Julie shared this article with me to give me a photo credit…though COMPLETELY moved and appreciative that she took the time to brighten my day by showing me my name published with her article, I must admit, I am MORE moved by her article addressing how we approach death and grieving. Our socially "taboo", but secret desire to confront our loss conflicts with our human nature to connect with those around us. Consequently causing additional grief and guilt for somehow dishonoring their life by disregarding their death. Celebrate life WHILE you're living it, but equally as important should be celebrating life even when it's been extinguished…after all, at the end of this journey, I hope…no, I insist that my loved ones look back at my life and find pride my journey and that they dance wildly and exclaim loudly, "OH SNAP! YES.SHE.DID!" Dance at my death, sing of my sorrows, rejoice in my journey and take pictures…lots and lots of pictures.


  3. Tracy says:

    Great post filled with beautiful insight. I've been laboring over a post about death myself for quite some time now. I find myself getting caught up by how others will take it. My father died of cancer, he never faced his impending death and died unready, fearful, even angry. That broke my heart above all else. I'd hoped he would face it sooner, use his time better, meet the end- and his new beginning- with love and faith and peace. I don't say that as a criticism, simply as a wish I had for him.
    How could preparing for death, in any way, stop a miracle of the magnitude needed to waylay death(for a while, since none of us will avoid it forever)? How is preparing the same as giving up? I don't think they are anything alike. Making peace in this world and preparing your loved ones for your passing only makes life richer. If you are miraculously cured, what would this preparation have hurt?
    I am at peace with my father's passing, but I can't begin to express how much it would have meant for me to have special words or letters or video to cherish, along with my memories. I wish that he could have looked at each of us and told us that he was proud of us and had faith in us. I wish he could have enjoyed more of his last days with us. I wish that he could have died at peace, with less fear, and certainly without anger.
    I do not believe that preparing to die is akin to giving up on life. On the contrary, I think it is liberating and life-affirming. It makes me sad that some people believe that this means that I do not have hope. I have hope in abundance, but prayers are answered as they're intended, not in the way we demand. It's a lot easier to live on after preparing for death than it is to recapture time once it's up.
    Again, these are not criticism. They're observations because death waits for me one day as well.
    "When we are born, we are all given both life and death. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. And it’s a crucial piece of the whole puzzle, giving us reason to celebrate life each day knowing it will indeed end at some unknown point in time for us, for our loved ones." I couldn't agree more.

  4. Tracy says:

    Ack! Written too quickly with too much feeling and too little discretion. Could you please delete the paragraph about my friend? It's not likely she'd stumble across this, but I certainly wouldn't want to take that chance!

  5. […] Loss is an inevitable. But we can help children through it by dealing with it directly. Honestly facing that inevitability with courage and compassion is important for mental health and building the courage to face all of our tomorrows. […]

  6. […] how about after having a total of three near death experiences? It’s not even an option to return back to a fragmented state of being and living […]

  7. […] deaths as some sort of failing on the part of the parents is an all too convenient way to sidestep the elephant in the room, which is that when young people die we are confronted with the uncertain certainty of our own […]

  8. […] I’m on my yoga mat. In fact, ever since it became clear, a little over two weeks ago, that his death from cancer was, finally, truly imminent, David has had everything to do with my […]

  9. […] my family I grew up with the two polar opposites regarding death. On the one side death was a taboo, a curse and a bad joke while the other side approached it as a curious phenomena, a fact of life, […]

  10. […] forward through the New York chapters to the dying mother chapter and then, in a moment, to where we are […]