One Person. A Hundred Monkeys.

One Person. A Hundred Monkeys.

I got the sad word today. My friend and mentor Sharon had died.

I met her many years ago when I arrived for her five day workshop for abuse survivors.  (She’d staffed and trained staff for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Life, Death and Transition workshops.)

Sharon scared me that week. And yet also made me feel safe. She pushed me to go to places I wanted to avoid and pushed me to do work I didn’t want to do. And when I survived all of it I began to hope that healing was possible.

So I kept going  back to workshops.

I was convinced that telling parts of my story would be the end of me. She pushed, and I told and far from being the end of me, it was the beginning. When I needed to wail with the grief deep in my bones, it was Sharon’s hand on my shoulder keeping me grounded, reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

At the close of one workshop Sharon said, “Perhaps one day after you’ve finished your school (I was getting my graduate degree in counseling) you’ll get the training and work on staff.”

Of course, I didi just that. I did my training and then started working as an apprentice in workshops. What an honor it was to be working with that staff. And what an amazing learning experience. It is no exaggeration to say that at least 75% of what I do as therapist I learned from working with them: Sharon, Shannon, Connie, Nancy and David. They were all brilliant and they taught me things about working with wounded people that can’t be learned in a classroom.

Sharon had a masterful intuitive sense and an absolute commitment to what it took to hold a space safe enough for people to do such deep work. As staff, we could do what we did because we knew Sharon was there. She held the safe space for all of us.

She insisted that being on staff meant taking care of your own stuff first. And it meant taking care of any issue that arose between the staff. We had to be clear with each other before we could work clearly with participants. She also taught me about knowing when to say goodbye, retiring her Safe Harbor Workshops long before anyone wanted her to, but also before she grew tired of doing the work.

She was smart and wise and most of all, loving. She (along with the rest of the staff) changed my life. I’m in private practice today because when I finished grad school, I didn’t want some boss saying I couldn’t take a week of vacation to staff a workshop. She made me an infinitely better therapist and a healthier person.

Staffing was hard and demanding work, but such rich work. Being able to share in it along with that staff is one of the greatest blessings of my life. The gift of it still fills me with wonder.

I know Sharon touched hundreds of lives. Through the work that I do now, both as a therapist and as staff of a similar grief workshop, her influence and her work flows on to many more people.

At the close of each workshop Sharon told a story. It was about the hundredth monkey.

The government started studying animal life on a group of Pacific Islands. They noticed on one island monkeys started washing their food. It spread one to another – monkey see, monkey do. That wasn’t so remarkable, except when the number of monkeys reached a critical mass (for simplicity, we call it the hundredth money), monkeys on another island began washing their food.

“We never know,” Sharon said as we stood in our goodbye circle, “who will be the hundredth monkey, who will be the one to be the tipping point.”

On days when I feel discouraged by the amount of need I see and the seemingly impossible mountains before us, I think of that story. And I press on, for who knows who will be that person to be the hundredth monkey, the one voice that begins to tip the scales in favor of love.

I’ve seen it happen, you know.

I’ve seen a stranger step into my life and tip it in ways beyond my ability to dream or to imagine. For such a life, and that it touched my life,  I am grateful

 

 

 

Learning From Lennox

Some of us who are animal lovers have been greatly saddened by the death of Lennox, who was euthanized by order of the Belfast City Council. The short version of the story is that Belfast has Breed Specific Legislation outlawing pit bulls. Although Lennox did not have any pit in his background, authorities decided he did and that he was dangerous. Many things didn’t add up in the story. Well-known dog trainers in the US offered to take Lennox and provide him a new home. The City Council refused, saying that he was too dangerous to place in another community. Lennox’s family included a child, and they had never had a single incident of biting, attacking or other aggressiveness.

Lennox plays with handler who deemed him the most dangerous dog he’d met.

Every professional who evaluated him found him to be loving, except for the one police officer who deemed Lennox to be the most dangerous dog he’d ever met – and whose report was the only one accepted by the council. (Here’s a picture of Lennox dangerously licking that warden.) Lennox’s family, who’d fought a two-year legal battle to save his life, was denied the chance even to say good-bye to their beloved pet. (You can read more about this story here.)

As I followed the story I felt sadness for the family and the dog and outrage at the City Council. The more I thought about it last night I realized that I was also sad for the men who were making this terrible decision.

How hard does your heart have to be to deny a chance to save a life or to let a family say good-bye? How fearful do you have to be to look at what was by all accounts a loving dog and see only danger?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to say that one of the ways that we combat evil in the world is by doing our own work. When we have not healed our wounds and faced our own fears we project them onto other people – and animals. When we have not dealt with the dark places and hurt places in our own hearts we have to close off our hearts, making them small and hard and fearful. When we are fearful we resist change, for if we stop holding on so tightly for a even little bit it may be the end of us. We cannot listen to another’s point of view – we can only defend our own point of view. We see the world in black and white because it feels safer that way.

I know that as a therapist one of the most important things I can do for my clients is to do my own work. I have to keep checking in with myself (or perhaps better said, with my Self.) Am I carrying hurts around? Am I letting fear have too much of a say? Are there things I need to let go of in order to grow or are there changes I need to allow into my life? Only if I keep my self clear can I be clear for my clients.

Where are the places in your life that need attention? Tending to them isn’t self-indulgent. In fact, the world pretty much needs you  to face them and deal with them. We battle darkness in this world by first allowing our own light to shine.

Listening to a Life: Death

If you came to my house (and please do not consider this an invitation), among my many books you’d find an entire shelf or more of biographies and memoirs. I love reading about other people’s lives. As  I read about how they faced their challenges and followed their dreams I learn lessons for my own life.

So I want to focus a couple of blog posts on learning from one particular life.

Joe Haymes

My father, Joe Haymes, died earlier this month at age 87. He was, by all accounts (and not just mine) an extraordinary man. I learned a lot from him over the years, but I think he still has things to teach us.

So I start with the ending.

My father had Pulmonary Fibrosis, a progressive lung disease in which supple lungs gradually grow hard and unable to take in oxygen, probably the result of nearly 30 years of smoking, a habit he began in the war. At the end, he also suffered from dementia. The dementia really began after my mother’s death and  I am convinced that after a lifetime together, his mind could not accept being in a world where she was not.

In January he began going downhill sharply. He also started to tell us he was dying.

Lesson # 1 – Listen to what dying people tell you. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (EKR) began her work, part of what was ground-breaking (and scandalous at the time) was that she listened to people talk about dying. Before that dying patients were shuffled off into far corners of the hospital where they could be safely ignored.

When my father began saying, “I’m dying,” some of his caregivers became upset and told him not to talk like that. Because of my work and my training, I knew that it was important to pay attention and to begin preparing for the final stages. He was telling us what was coming.

Lesson #2 – Listen for symbolic language. After my father had been moved into the nursing care unit, he asked me one night, “Do I need to pack for my journey?” It took me a few seconds to realize what he was asking, and  I reassured him that no, he had everything he needed. He smiled and relaxed.

EKR used to tell stories of families who tried to correct patients who told them that they were going home the next day. The families didn’t want the patients to be disappointed when they were unable to leave the hospital. But, of course, in a deeper sense going home is exactly what they did.

Lesson #3 – Sometimes dying is a lot like birthing. Over the last weeks as I sat by my father’s bedside, I realized I felt a lot like a midwife. Now I’ve never actually been there when someone was giving birth (well, there was that one New Year’s eve party that wound up moving into the maternity waiting room, but I digress.) Even so,  it seemed so similar to me.

We were waiting for it to be time, a time no one could predict or control. I couldn’t make it happen or not happen. All I could was sit and tend to those elementary needs – a sip of water, rubbing his back, sharing a chocolate chip cookie, reassuring him. I felt like a midwife.

Dying seemed a lot like birthing, and as a Christian, that is exactly true. We believe that death is not an ending but a transition. There are times when our faith demands of us a dying as a gateway to a birthing – and in the end our bodies get in on the action as well.

Lesson #4 – Sometimes death is a friend. After being moved to nursing care, my father developed pneumonia. “I’ll call the doctor about prescribing antibiotics,” the nurse said. “No,” I stopped her. “If you cure this, he is still dying of lung disease.” Actually, pneumonia was known as the old person’s friend because when they were ill and frail with no hope of better, it came in and ended their suffering.

There is a temptation to do a medical intervention just because we can. We feel as if we are being mean or heartless or abandoning them if we do not do everything that can possibly be done (which these days is a lot.)

But we were not made to live forever. At least for now, all of us will come face to face with that point at which our bodies have gone as far as they can go. Even so, with modern medicine, we can be kept here beyond that point. Beyond the point of life having any meaning or value, the point at which there is only pain and discomfort. There comes a time when the most loving thing we can do is to let someone die as their body needs to die.

Lesson #4 – Hospice is wonderful. While Hospice had been involved in my dad’s care for several months, for the last week of his life he had the gift of being at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice home in Winston-Salem. When he first arrived, the doctor announced that they were taking him off all medicine except what was needed to keep him comfortable. (I mean, really – did we care if he had high cholesterol at that point?)

They took it as their mission to make him comfortable and did not rest until they had the right combination of medication that allowed him to be peaceful. They also took it as their mission to care for me and other family members who were present.

I’ve occasionally heard older folks say they didn’t want to go to hospice because “my friend was there and they wouldn’t even give her food and water and that’s just cruel.” They took my dad off food and water for the last couple of days as well but not because they were cruel. It was because they understood that one of the ways that the body prepares for the end of life is to start disengaging from life. The patient no longer wants food or water. They are moving beyond those things. The patient isn’t suffering hunger. They no longer need those appetites.

As  I see it, the purpose of hospice is to create a place where a person may be  gently held as they make this last and maybe most sacred journey, a place where the body is allowed the grace of doing what it needs to do with the only intervention being for comfort. It is also a place where loved ones are held, sometimes literally as well as metaphorically. Families are given all of the support they need so that they can focus on the holy task of supporting their loved one.

For me, it was a place where I could relax and just be present with my father. And that is a priceless gift.

 

Next time we’ll have a little lighter look as we learn from a childhood in which adventures were had.

Nothing more than feelings

Through the graces of Twitter,  I recently read this fine article for caregivers by Wendy Lustbader in the Huffington Post. I particularly liked this quote:

You can’t take away someone’s loneliness. No matter how many times caregivers phone, visit, or take their loved one on outings, there will always be the time in-between contacts for the person to feel the sadness of separation from lifelong friends and the loss of once cherished activities. These are consequences of frailty or illness that caregivers cannot rectify. It helps to recognize the unavoidable fact that the hours of companionship they provide for their relative go quickly and the empty hours still pass slowly.

It’s a challenge for caregivers but not just caregivers. Many people struggle with wanting to take away another person’s pain, grief or struggle. After all, we love them. We don’t want them to feel badly. We want them to have lives of joy, no matter what their age and physical condition.

One of the things that I learned in working with the former staff of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is that we cannot take another person’s grief from them. We cannot protect someone from their feelings. Trying to do so may not be only fruitless but also disrespectful. We all have a right to our own feelings. The grief that comes with the many losses of aging and declining health is hard won. It recognizes the value of the gifts the person enjoyed, whether it was a loving life partner, a treasured home, the ability to do a favorite hobby or even to talk a walk on a nice day. To allow the grief that comes is a way of acknowledging those losses.

Our task isn’t to keep someone from grieving; it is to provide a safe space in which they can grieve. It is to support them. It is to help them with any concrete tasks of life with which we can help. And, if necessary, it’s to help them find ways and tools for expressing that grief.

Years ago pastor Charles Poole wrote a book entitled, “Hard Things Are Hard.” Indeed they are.

When a friend or loved one is going through a hard time, we do them no service to try to pretend as if we could make it be easy.  They don’t need us to take away their feelings. They need us to be able to speak truthfully about those hard things. And then to be present with them in the best way we know how.

If you are looking for a safe place in which to grieve whatever losses you’ve had, I invite you to the Life,Loss and Healing workshop in Durham, NC (March 23-25, 2012.) The workshop gives people a chance to acknowledge many different kinds of losses, to express their own feelings and to find tools for healing. If you’re interested, contact Nancy Mullins at lifelosshealing@nethere.com.