December 9, 2018

When Death came to Dinner & Taught me How to Live.

Right Livelihood

I have spent the last year immersed in death.

One might think such a year would be filled with darkness and dread, yet for me, it has been quite the opposite.

The first appearance of death was of the symbolic sense.

The sudden death of my 25-year career path appeared when a new executive chose to bring along her assistant from the previous company. I was out of a job, but also liberated from the corporate world.

At first, it felt a bit unsettling, but my life experience up to that point had assured me there was nothing to fear. Throughout the years I have learned that when it’s time for change, and I have not yet found the courage to move forward, the universe conspires to make it happen anyway.

Each time the universe has moved me into discomfort, it has also revealed a path I had not previously seen—leading to beauty and wonder I had never before imagined.

I have learned to find peace in the discomfort and patience in the becoming.

After all, becoming takes time.

The cliché “everything happens for a reason” doesn’t necessarily resonate with me—as there are terrible things that occur in this world that clearly have no good reason. However, I do believe that many life experiences can move beyond regret, and into celebration through a shift in perspective.

After being a long-term employee, losing my job suddenly, and then changing jobs several times quickly thereafter—I wondered if I really could find “the gift” in the circumstance this time.

The answer I received was twofold; the first was to understand that this career path no longer brought me joy, and the second was that there was someone I needed to meet.

I’ll get to him in a minute.

I didn’t immediately figure out that I would never return to the work I had always done. I initially planned to take a break and start seeking more of the same in the new year.

Thank goodness Death stepped in to save me.

Slow to recognize the cloaked figure in the corner, I now realize Death was in the hospital room with my friend Lynn last October. I had just walked out of another toxic work situation and accepted the call to sit with her—as doctors tried to rescue her blood count from Leukemia.

She and I shared an 11.5-hour day—which I have since dubbed one of my favorite days of all. In my sweet friend that day, I was witness to such grace and beauty. A teacher and philosopher in life—at the edge of death, she was showing me the way forward.

We lost Lynn less than two weeks later.

And I have thanked the universe every single day for pushing me out of that workplace. I would have never known the magnitude of my loss, had I missed that day of deep conversation and gratitude I shared with Lynn. We spent our sacred day summarizing and celebrating 25 years of friendship—from our first meeting to this unexpected last.

Then in the following three months, two other friends were diagnosed with colon cancer and they stepped onto the arduous path that hopefully leads to wellness. I made hospital visits and learned how to set up Caring Bridge pages—created to keep loved ones informed of each step on their journeys.

These friends guided me to the warrior path in their willingness to stand up to all of the difficulties that are presented.

This year in February, Death came to dinner and put me on a path of my own.

A year ago last summer, I met Brian on the first day of a job that I have since left. We both experienced a sort of soul recognition in each other, and determined that we wanted to remain connected. Since then, we meet for dinner whenever he’s in town for business.

It was at such a dinner that he shared with me his diagnosis and prognosis—prostate cancer had metastasized in his bones. Until this point, those I have lost to death were either at an advanced age, or they were unwilling to acknowledge their probable future.

Brian’s courage to share his truth with me has turned out to be a gift to us both.

That evening I asked him, “You have this deadline hanging over you, yet you continue to work where you’re not feeling appreciated or valued—is this how you wish to honor your last days? Is this your joy?”

His reply, which set us both on our new paths was, “Melissa, no one has ever asked me that before.”

In the weeks following, he and I both began our journeys of discovery.

His was to seek and discover his joy, and how he wanted to spend his days. And through the often creepy system of Facebook algorithms, I would learn about becoming an end of life doula.

“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” ~ Tao Te Ching

Though I had never noticed that particular Facebook ad before, right after discussing my interest in becoming a life coach—and my friend’s suggestion about becoming an end of life coach, the advertisement appeared in my Facebook timeline to light the way: Quality of Life Care with Deanna Cochran, offering a certification course as an end of life doula.

I’d heard of a birth doula—guiding and supporting women through pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and postpartum depression.

But this was my first introduction to the idea of guiding and supporting someone through dying.

The ad also came just when I was trying to determine what work I might do—since what I had always done was falling away. So I reached out to Deanna and decided to purchase her self-paced home study course. My original intention was to try it out and if it wasn’t the path for me, at least the information would be valuable for my parents and others close to me as they get on in years.

The course work required a great deal of self-exploration—before one can serve others, one must truly know themselves.

Here are two themes that I have determined from my studies, so far:

The Umbrella Principle

When layoffs were occurring at work in the years before I left, I made the effort to update my résumé. I told myself that much like the times when I carry an umbrella, it often seems less likely to rain. So with that logic, if I carried a current résumé, it may also go unneeded. This had been my method for planning for the inevitable, and a way to find comfort in doing so.

The one guarantee we have in life from the time of our birth, is that we will die. When I was younger, whenever my parents took trips abroad without my brother and me, they updated their will. I actually had my first will drafted before I was 30, when I was suddenly aware of my own mortality after losing a friend to an HIV-related illness when he was only 32.

But when preparing for the end of our days, there is so much more to consider.

We have the opportunity to not only designate what we are leaving to whom, but also to free our loved ones from having to make difficult decisions on our behalf. An advance directive (also known as a Living Will) informs healthcare professionals of our wishes regarding serious illnesses, and for the type of end of life care we want. We can go beyond declaring that we wish not to be resuscitated or kept alive by machines, and even request that certain music, lighting, and scents surround us in our sacred space.

Many people discuss whether they wish to be buried or cremated, but not many consider that they can also be involved in the planning of their memorial, or better yet, plan a living wake to be held before they are gone. As a part of my coursework, I actually planned my own sacred ceremony, and have even recorded a meditation in my own voice to be shared with those I’ve left behind. I prefer a celebration of life while I am still living, but if I leave in an unexpected manner, I now have a backup plan.

Just yesterday, I attended a service for my friend’s father. He was in his late 80s, and died six short weeks after a brain cancer diagnosis literally dropped him to his knees. To the solace of his family, among the files in his office were pages he had prepared. They included an obituary and a eulogy—in his own words. When so many people are left to wonder about the inner lives of their loved ones, this great man left no question unanswered. What an incredible gift to his family. He started carrying his “umbrella” seven years before it was required. Once that was done, he was left to the important work of being fully present.

Quality Rather Than Quantity

In each of the books that are required in the course, stories of vulnerability and grace are prominent.

In Dying Well, Dr. Ira Byock, shares stories of families receiving hospice care. The message here was that making peace with death—by moving past the fear and bitterness for the one who is dying—allows the family to lean into love. If we are able to go through the stages of grief and come home to acceptance, rather than pushing love away, we give our loved ones the opportunity to serve us. And when we are gone, knowing that we openly received their love, they may find comfort as they heal.

Through the book Die Wise, by Stephen Jenkinson, I feel I learned something else of great importance. As a social worker, he visited many patients receiving palliative care. A common theme in the stories he shared was regret. The regret of those dying was not about what they may miss out on later, but what the palliative care had delivered to their final days. Again and again, he was witness to the anguish of survival. In an effort to prolong life, the dying were burdened with prolonged death instead. Through various treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, some patients were granted more days through which they were forced to suffer. For many, there was no energy left for living—all they could do was keep on dying. The language he uses is harsh, but it really does make a clear point.

My friend Brian recently learned that his cancer is still spreading. However, his original prognosis was that he would not live through summer, and yet this recent news was received in the fall.

So there is still much to celebrate.

Brian has also completed the necessary paperwork and made his own arrangements. He determined, without a doubt, that his husband is his joy. Through my prompting, he is also filing for short-term disability at work, so he can spend his remaining days being fully present with his beloved. He is also receiving radiation to slow the spread of cancer, but will refuse chemotherapy if it means only prolonged suffering. He says he feels good and is not in pain, and this is how he hopes to share the days ahead, be they many or few.

When Death came to dinner last February, I had no idea how we would dance together in a tango of give and take.

I have given Death my attention, my devotion, and my respect. I have learned not to fear his arrival, but to prepare for it and welcome his embrace when my time comes as well.

He has taken my friend Lynn, who inspired me to seek grace at the end of life. She still walks with me through my daily discovery. Most recently, as her wife and I were moving books from a shelf, I discovered two of her books that were about death and dying. We did not discuss this topic on my favorite day by her side—one year ago—but it is clear that she helped guide me to where I am now.

Someday, Death will take my friend Brian too.

As he has declared his choice to live in quality, I asked Brian to let me know how I may serve this endeavor. His reply? “You have done more than you know already.” I shared with him that he is one of my most important soulmates and how grateful I am that we found each other. He told me that he feels the same, and that he knows everything will turn out fine.

And so it shall.

As for me, I am making choices for my future that are authentic and mindful.

I may not know my expiration date, but I know that day will come. Instead of waiting for a prognosis, I am choosing unlimited joy now.

One small part of that endeavor is writing.

So here I am!

Thank you for walking this path with me. May all of your remaining days be filled with presence and joy.

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