A client or friend tells me they’re concerned about someone whom they love, a family member, significant other or friend. “They’re not handling things well,” they tell me. Sometimes that person about whom they are concerned is their very selves. Because words mean different things to different people, I ask them to explain.
Usually it comes down to this. The person has had a significant loss. They are sad. They are grieving. They may even be a bit depressed. I point out that such reactions are perfectly normal given the situation.
We have a skewed idea of what handling things well means. We praise people saying, “She did so well. she never cried during the funeral.” Excuse me, but aren’t most funerals at least little sad? You miss the person and your going to be missing the person the rest of your life.
Having a feeling doesn’t mean you’re not handling things well. Now if you cannot get out of bed or your anger is peeling the wallpaper off the walls, then we need to talk. But simply being sad because you’ve had a loss comes with the territory.
Losses come in all shapes and sizes. Join me on my free webinar (late January/early February) as we talk about other kinds of losses and why they matter.
This week in one of my Facebook groups the posts have been filled with pictures and memories. A woman who’d been with us in many training sessions died after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer.
Her friends reflected on her ever-present smile and the fun she brought to even the most mundane workouts. In fact, sometimes they missed the turns they were supposed to take because they were having so much fun. She trained with the training groups sponsored by our local running store and she served as a mentor for other training programs. She was always ready to encourage someone else, trying to seduce them into loving running as much as she did.
I spent some time looking at the pictures they posted and yes, she was smiling in every one. She was strong and she was fit, but she wasn’t petite. Still, she was a runner.
As I looked at her beaming face, I thought about how many women keep themselves from such joy simply because they don’t think they’re the right size. They’re afraid of what someone might think. Their fear of what doesn’t matter (what other people might think) keeps them from doing things that really do matter.
When I bought my first tri suit the saleswoman warned me, “it’s going to show every bulge and you just have to step out anyway.” She was right, it does. But she was also right in that I did. Now I’m training for my seventh triathlon. More than that, I have the joy (okay, and sometimes the agony) of all of those races. I didn’t let the fact that my body wasn’t perfect keep me from a perfectly good time.
Lynn was average size with a bigger-than-average heart. And she was a runner.
Thank God for that, for through her running she blessed us all.
From time to time I look over listings of ministerial job openings, mainly to make sure none of them are saying, “We need Peggy Haymes to come and let us pay her a large amount of money which she will be happy to tithe.” Haven’t found that yet.
I do see, however, music ministry openings whose requirements include being able to lead the Praise Band. I’ve heard of lots of churches that have Praise Bands. I keep looking for one that has a Lament Band.
There’s no reason not to, if you think about it. If you keep track as you read the psalms you’ll find that there are many more psalms of lament than songs of praise. The psalmist gives thanks but the psalmist also pitches a fit, wails in deep sorrow and directly questions God.
Both the praise and the laments of the psalms create a container for the realities of our lives. There are times when we can say with glad and grateful hearts, “God is good.” And there are times when we must shake our fists at the heavens and scream, “If you are so good, God, then where are you?”
Why do I suffer?
Why do I lose what’s most dear to me?
Why do the bad guys get to win, running over the good guys time and time again?
This hymnal of the church doesn’t provide easy answers. But it lets us know that there is no part of our human experience that is off limits to our faith and no feeling that we need to express that God cannot hear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been checking Facebook a little more eagerly these days. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the updates from all of my friends. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the videos of dogs singing and cats exacting revenge. But there’s something a little more important – no, a LOT more important going on these days.
I woke up one morning to the news that my friend was going in for a heart transplant. Since he’s a Welshman, I took it as a good sign that he got his new heart on St. David’s Day, the patron saint of Wales. I’ve not known this person for a long time but to know him is to love him and appreciate him. He has met challenge after challenge with strength, resolution and an infectious grace. He speaks of the blessing he’s found in our faith community but I am quite sure that we have received from him far more than we’ve given.
According to the updates, so far so good. With a new heart, he has a new chance at life. And we have a renewed chance to be blessed by the gift of him in our midst.
But my friend’s story wasn’t the only big thing happening in the last week. Someone, somewhere had to reach through their own shock and grief and loss to give the okay. Someone made the unimaginable decision to give up the heart of their loved one so that my friend could have a chance at life. I’m sure it wasn’t only a heart. Chances are that a liver, kidneys, eyes, perhaps even lungs and pancreas were also harvested and sent off to be transplanted into the bodies of other people who were down to just this last hope.
My friend isn’t the only one I’ve known who’s received a transplant. Many years ago a kidney transplant enabled a friend to realize her dream of becoming a mother, allowing her to live to adopt a baby girl. A pancreatic transplant enabled my cousin, who’d battled severe and unpredictable diabetes since childhood, to have years of life without a constant shadow hanging over her head.
The joy of all of these transplants has been tempered by the realization that they are only possible through the death of another. That’s still the case. Maybe one day we’ll be able to grow organs, but we’re not there yet. There is only one hope for people who wait; that somewhere a family will be brave enough and selfless enough to give the word to go ahead, to share the physical body of their loved one with those in need. No greater gift can be imagined.
Some people decline because they cannot bear the thought of their loved one being cut open. But if you’ve ever gone to a viewing at a funeral home, you know that after death the body is but a shell. A shell to be treated with respect, to be sure, but a shell that no longer houses the true soul and spirit of the person you loved. Some people fear that if we agree, then our loved one somehow won’t be able to enter heaven without a functioning heart or kidney or liver. Really? It seems that this would be the least of God’s challenges. If God can handle the whole eternal life thing, I think God can handle the details.
The decision is hard because it is the first acknowledgement that your loved one is not coming back to you. It is the first of the final steps. But sometimes it is hard because you have not talked about it. You know how you feel – but what would they want?
As we move through the Lenten season, we journey towards remembering the gift of a life, a selfless and loving gift. What better time to have conversations with our own loved ones about our wishes in such a situation? Make it clear to them that your wish is that if anything can be used, then allow your body to be used to give life. With any luck, we’ll all live such long lives that our bodies will be quite used up by the end. But if that’s not the case, we have a chance to change someone else’s life – forever.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.