A Yuletide Wish

Image from Wikipedia


Dearest family and friends, old and new;

Greetings from the slushy, drizzling, overcast, and fog-riddled, slightly-far north town of Eagle, Idaho!  We fervently hope the holiday season is bringing you a lot more sunlight than we’ve seen here over the last month, and that your vitamin D and serotonin levels are correspondingly higher.  I really shouldn’t complain of course.  We need the moisture, and the snow in the mountains is a godsend.  But still. We’ve been buried under low, heavy clouds and dense fog for so long now that it’s starting to feel a lot like Venus.

The family is doing well.  Cal’s had a great year at work and, yes, he’s still traveling back and forth to the Northeast every month and loving the job.  Go figure.  A double life really seems to suit him.  And thanks to both good luck and their stellar work ethics, Lorin and Kit survived the transition and still have jobs after Hewlett Packard bought Palm last year, laying off a lot of the old work force in the merger.  McKenna graduates from Boise State University in a few days with a B.A. in English/writing emphasis and a minor in History and has developed into both a talented academic and a sensible, hard working woman.  We really couldn’t be prouder.  As for me, I was eventually buried under the organizational demands of trying to write a book about dying, so I shelved the project and started a blog about dying instead.  Turns out it’s a lot easier to continue to sound coherent in a few paragraphs than it is throughout hundreds of pages.  Who knew?  I have a deepened respect for anyone who writes an entire book about anything.

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Well, right after I wrote the above paragraphs two weeks ago the tsunami hit and I was swept out to sea by the combined demands of holiday preparations, graduation celebrations, blogging schedule, joining a gym (not the best timing on that one…), and cramming a block of dental/medical appointments into the end of the year to try and catch the insurance benefits before they expire.  That’s how I find myself sitting here a day and a half before Christmas, stuffed and tired, pressured by deadlines, sweating and sore, screened and cleaned, just a wee bit stressed out, and still trying to think of something warm, fuzzy, and holiday themed to say in the yuletide letter this year.

Merry Christmas?

Actually, I say that carefully.  A few years ago Cal and I took a walk along the river on Christmas day and ran into an older couple who wished us a Merry Christmas as they passed by.  When we smiled and wished them the same, to our surprise they became agitated and stopped to talk.  Evidently, they’d wished someone else a Merry Christmas earlier in the day and whoever it was had bristled and taken offense at the greeting.  Our older couple had retaliated by taking offense at the fact that offense had been taken and, lo and behold, in direct opposition to the spirit of the season, the cycle of bad feelings was up and running, passing on its merry little way downriver to us.

I’ve thought about that one ever since.  I realize there’s often tension these days around what Christmas…and other traditions for that matter…are supposed to mean, how they’re supposed to be celebrated, and whether or not they should even hold the prominent place they do in a secular society.  It’s understandable.  I think we all tend to get a little territorial about the traditions that are most important to us, and it’s only natural to resist the intrusion of other traditions onto our own.

The urge to protect the unique rituals, values, and celebrations that nourish, strengthen, and guide us in our lives is universal.  I know I certainly don’t want anyone else messing with the way I celebrate my season.  But having said that, please believe me when I say that neither do I have any desire to dictate how you should celebrate yours.

We weren’t a particularly religious family when I was growing up, so my parents took the Santa Claus track and really poured themselves into celebrating the magic of Christmas.  They went to great lengths to create as much joy, wonder, and sense of miracle for us kids as possible and, funny though it might sound, some of the most important, foundational lessons of my life were learned from the way they taught us to celebrate the season.

First of all, they taught me that Santa Claus was real. That there actually existed a jolly, caring, magical being who was so generous–so loving and happy–that he devoted his whole life to flying through the world to try and touch, enrich, or bring love to every last, living person in it.  Naturally, this understanding evolved quite a bit as I grew up.  (You’ll be relieved to know I no longer believe in Santa.) However, it also instilled a couple of lasting and important beliefs in me:

1) There are powerful and benign forces at work in creation that sincerely desire my happiness, and

2) Gifts aren’t always given because they’re earned or deserved.  Sometimes generosity is just for its own sake.

Secondly, my parents taught me that sometimes miracles come in the night, and I can’t begin to tell you how much courage and hope I’ve drawn from that lesson over the years.  Throughout my childhood and on into adulthood, it’s helped me to be less afraid of the shadows, to trust that along with the monsters, darkness also harbors miraculous, luminous gifts.  And I honestly think the odd faith I developed from that early lesson helped me more during the lean, dark years of my battle with depression than anything else.

Third, my mom and dad required us, from the time we were small, to think about, select, wrap, and give gifts to each other.  And when we finally got to open them all on Christmas morning, we always did it one at a time, each of us taking turns opening a present while everyone else watched and shared in our excitement.  We circled around and around this way, as many times as it took, until everyone was done and it was this ritual, more than any other in my life, that taught me how the giving and receiving of gifts is really a banquet for everyone to sit down and enjoy.  I learned that whether I’m giving or receiving, ripples of happiness can be created either way, and the truer the spirit with which I do both, the wider the ripples become.

There were a thousand other lessons of course, opportunities to develop qualities like patience and self-control, as well as learning how to manage things like disappointment, envy, and greed.  I’ve continued to build on these early lessons all my life, and I feel like the Christmas traditions practiced by my family were actually fundamental and essential to the development of my deepest sense of humanity.  I’ve always known that my family’s way of celebrating Christmas was neither the “right” way nor the only one, but it was our way and that made it beautiful, nourishing, and perfect for us.  It created magical ties of love, faith, strength, and generosity that bound us closer together, and gave us a way to reaffirm each year the things that my family cherished most.  And I’ve done my level best to pass the same gifts and lessons down to my own children.

I guess this is all just a long way of trying to explain that, if Cal and I wish you a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Peace of the Season or any other kind of holiday wish, it’s not because we’re trying to impose our childhoods, or beliefs, or values, or culture on you.  We’re not.  We don’t believe in that.  We love the fact that everyone gets to find and draw meaning for their life in the way that feels right and true and most nourishing to them.  And we love even more that we all have the freedom to do just that.  No.  All we’re really trying to do with the greeting is make a deep, sincere, and heartfelt wish for you from the language of our childhood joy:

For us Merry Christmas means that, no matter what holiday you do or don’t observe, and no matter how you do or don’t observe it, from the depths of our hearts and with the greatest good will, we wish for you all that is best in your world, from all that is best in ours.

With great love and even greater hope,

Cal and Dia

Wikipedia again

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

Life Is Like A Trust Fund

In “Dying” Is Still Alive I talked about the cost of focusing so much on trying to cure a life threatening illness that we risk going straight from being sick to being dead, with no time left for the opportunities that dying offers in between those things.  In the comment section afterwards, Linda of What Comes Next? posed an important question:  When fighting a life threatening illness, is it possible to embrace dying too soon…to forfeit the opportunity to rise above it and live longer? This is a great question and one that a lot of people ask.

What I’d like to do is break it down into two parts.

Part # 1)  Is it possible to embrace dying too soon?

My answer, which probably won’t surprise anyone, is absolutely not.

Personally, I think we should all start embracing dying (i.e. looking at it, accepting it, and using the daily awareness to live as wisely and fully as possible) early on, ideally in childhood.  The opportunities for exposure are rife.  Like the first time we see our father crush a bug, or our mother put a cooked leg of something on our dinner plate, or have a family pet die, or hear about our little friend Emily losing her grandpa.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s never hard to find dead bodies scattered along the side of pretty much any road in America and, if all else fails, there are the innumerable references to, and reports of, dying and dead on the news twenty-four hours a day.

However, since children learn how to embrace dying from their parents, and since most parents don’t know how to teach it, most of us wind up as adults lacking the skill.  In fact, most parents not only fail to teach how to embrace it, they treat it as something unspeakable and do their best to hide it.  The most common metaphor for dying used in our culture is The Enemy, a horrible, looming foe to fight against tooth and nail, both bitterly and indefinitely.

As a result, most of us don’t learn to embrace dying as the last, natural, grueling-but-luminous stage where, if we’re lucky and blessed, we have the time necessary to successfully wrap up our life.   Instead, we deny it as long as possible which can drastically shorten or, sometimes, even eliminate the opportunity to fulfill our end-of-life tasks.   Most people don’t seem to realize that it takes time, sometimes a lot of it, to wind up our affairs, make our bequests, and absolve and be absolved by those we care about.  To link trembling hands one last, aching, transcendent time and say I love you.  I’ve always loved you.  I will always love you.

As a death averse society, we haven’t fully grasped yet that dying at peace, with no regrets, and with our loved ones prepared for a life without us afterwards, is a necessary and worthy goal.

Instead, most us learn to look at dying as the gruesome, terrifying end of everything.  To run.  Run! Hard and fast, for as long as possible toward escalating medical intervention; drugs, surgeries, and treatment regimes that can not only consume most of the time we have left and create more layers of suffering, but actually shorten our lives as well.

In La Crosse, Wisconsin, where end-of-life discussions are the established, accepted norm, life expectancy is actually one year longer than for the average American population.  And a 2006 study by the NHPCO found that the mean survival rate for patients on hospice was 29 days longer than it was for patients who were not on hospice.

For a person who’s spent their entire life regarding dying as something horrific, it’s a real challenge to switch gears, turn around, and embrace it when it finally comes.  Not impossible mind you, but definitely harder.

Helping people make this switch was one of the major goals we always worked toward in our hospice.  We fought hard to help people make the difficult transition from fighting for life to accepting dying because we saw, consistently, what a profound and healing difference it makes.  There’s more trauma involved when the state of dying is embraced late, or never embraced at all.  There just is.  Sometimes this is unavoidable, as in the case of a swift or sudden death.  But more often in today’s medical system, it happens as a result of focusing entirely on finding a cure without also preparing for dying.

Which brings me to the second part of Linda’s question.

2)  Is it possible to forfeit the opportunity to rise above it and live longer?

While this question initially seems to reduce the situation to its simplest elements, I think it’s actually creating a trap.  To explain, I’d like to use a teaching story.

Imagine you were born with a trust fund, and in this trust fund was a billion dollars. All your life you’ve been able to draw from this fund whenever you wanted, using the money for any old thing your heart desired.  While you learned early on that the trust would eventually wind down and close, everyone was kind of fuzzy about the dates on that part.  So in the end you just kind of forgot about it and started spending.

Then one day your lawyer calls to tell you that the termination clause has been activated.  He’s learned that you’re going to lose access to the funds in about six months.  He knows there’s no way to break the clause entirely, but he thinks that if you fight it, you might be able to win a temporary stay.  Buy some extra time.  The tricky thing is, you have to draw down the money in the trust fund to mount the court battle.

You now have three forces at work:

First, there’s the hope:  You might win extra time and still have some money left in the fund afterward.

Second, there’s the real and measurable cost:  You’ll be diverting money to the fight and depleting the funds you need for everything else in your life.

And third, there’s the risk:  Court costs these days can easily eat up most of the trust.  Even if you eventually win more time, the funds might already be exhausted.

Considering these three things, you really, REALLY need to ask yourself some important questions before you decide on a strategy.  The trick is what are the best questions to ask?  Naturally, you want the ones that will give you the most insight and wisdom, the ones that will be most helpful in guiding you in your choices during the time you have left.  So what are those questions?

Linda’s question, adapted to our metaphor, is one possibility.  If I just accept the clause and forgo taking it to court, will I miss the opportunity to use the trust fund longer? The answer?  Well…yeah. Of course you would.  The answer to that one, just from the standpoint of pure logic, is obvious.  Which initially makes the right choice seem like a no-brainer.  Of course you should fight.  Anything else would be giving up.

However, this way of looking at it is actually misleading.  It makes it sound like, universally, there’s only one possible option that everyone should always make.  But that’s not true.  Why?  Because every person is different; with different needs, different dreams, different circumstances, different ages, different strengths, different fears, and different prospects.  All these things need to figure into the choices that each person makes, so the questions we ask need to include them.  Ideally, they’d run more along these lines:

Okay.  Exactly how much extra time are we talking about fighting for here?  Rough guess, what are the odds of my winning this fight?  Am I really interested in betting the farm on longer, riskier odds?  Just how much money is left in the fund to fight for at this point anyway?  Is there something other than legal fees I really want or need to spend that money on?  What will I lose by mounting a fight?  What’s more important to me; having the funds available to spend in the future, or spending them today on what I love?

And what is perhaps the most important question of all:  How much of the fund should I reserve for what I love, value, and cherish the most, to ensure I have no regrets–that my loved ones will still be okay–when the trust eventually closes?

The metaphor of a trust fund is apt because, in reality, life isn’t something that belongs to us. It’s not like our mothers gave birth and then picked up a receipt at the front desk.  Life has never been ours, something we’re entitled to own and control.  On the contrary, it’s only ever been a miraculous, incomprehensible, immeasurable resource controlled by something else too big to understand.  Life is something that we didn’t earn and don’t even necessarily deserve, but that we nevertheless get to use however we want, for free.

To me, life is exactly like a trust fund…only times a gazillion. It’s our fortune.  Our treasure.  A limitless, jaw-dropping, sphincter-releasing wealth beyond our wildest, freaking dreams.  I’m talking real-life fairy tale here, a winning-the-biggest-lottery-of-all-time kind of luck.  A staggering, incalculable store of riches that’s set up in trust for us when we’re born and that we get to draw on and use for as long as we’re here.

But of course, as with all fairy tales, there is that one small catch:  We only have access for a limited time.  And while the question how much time? is certainly a compelling one, it’s unanswerable.  For me it’s more valuable to ask instead, What is the best and brightest use of whatever time I do have?

The medical mindset at work today tends to glorify the fight to live, and skim over the deep human costs involved in such a fight.  This often leads people to continue fighting in the face of increasingly long odds, instead of devoting their remaining energy to fully living whatever time they have left.  It’s surprisingly easy for the fight itself to take over and become the goal.  That’ why it’s so important to remember that the fight is only worthwhile in so far as the life it seeks to preserve is worth living.  When it begins to consume and destroy that life instead, then it’s time to stop.

We’re living in a transitional age where developing technologies have granted us miraculous gifts.  We’ve gone from having little to no choice at all about how we die to an overwhelming explosion of options and, even though we don’t have any more power to prevent death today than we ever did, we’ve developed an extraordinary, mind-blowing capacity to manage its timing.

However, there’s still a gaping hole that exists between these developing powers and our understanding of how best to apply them.  Subconsciously, we’re wrestling with a lot of confusion.  All the old instincts about dying are alive and well and active, lurking just below the surface.  We’re still firmly in the grip of old memes, superstitions, beliefs, and attitudes about it, only now we’ve added layers of wild (and often unrealistic) expectations born of a new, more sophisticated world.  Our collective understanding and response to dying, developed through tens of thousands of years of helplessness, hasn’t evolved as quickly as our intellectual, technological knowledge, creating turmoil and chaos.  But it’s also opened the door for some amazing exploration and new possibilities in how we want to ultimately embrace and manage the way we die.

We’re living in an exciting, intoxicating age where we’re all medical pioneers, where we all get to explore and experiment in our own lives with how best to apply this new wave of knowledge.  I suspect, as we evolve and mature in our understanding of what dying and death mean in today’s world, we’ll become more skilled in balancing our profound desire to live with a deepened, more authentic acceptance of dying.   We’ll discover new and wonderful ways to navigate, treat, live…and still dance…with chronic and terminal illness.  Ways that, today, we can’t even begin to imagine.

I think the current, explosive growth in medical possibilities offers us a parallel opportunity, both as individuals and societies, to grow and develop at a pace that simply wasn’t possible before.  We now have  the chance for our deepest humanity–our collective courage, generosity, insight, humility, and wisdom–to grow at the same exponential pace as our technology.

Personally, I love it.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Stray Thought

I was just thinking about whether it’s possible for anyone to really know what happens after we die and this is my personal conclusion:

1)  I think the people who say they don’t know, really don’t.

2)  I think the majority of people who say they do know, actually don’t.  They just believe they know.  Really, really hard.

And 3) I think there are probably a few people out there who really do know.  I don’t know how they know it, but I still think they do.

However, 4) Their knowledge will never be of any use to me since there’s no way I can ever, with rigorous certainty, distinguish them from the majority of people who believe they know, but really don’t.

At first glance that seems like a bummer.  But is it?


Nope.  I don’t think so.  It doesn’t feel like it anyway.  In fact, I’m a little relieved.  I don’t want anyone telling me what will happen when I die because  then it wouldn’t be a surprise and, to be honest, I’m kind of looking forward to the adventure aspect of the whole thing.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

The Burden of Miraculous Choices

One of the strangest side effects of my years working with hospice was the collapse of my sense of belonging.  I had no idea beforehand, how much of my identity was tied up with the various beliefs I held and the different groups I identified with because of them.  National, ethnic, familial, political, economic, spiritual, you name it, I had come to define most of who I am by the ideals I held.

But then, as I entered homes filled with beautiful, vulnerable, dying people…who it just so happened believed in a wide variety of  things that were frequently different, even opposite, from my own…I made the unwelcome discovery that many of my ideals were actually fed by lurking, unconscious prejudices that lay, seeping and contaminated, just underneath.

I was naturally horrified.

One of my biggest prejudices was against the medical/industrial complex and especially the pharmaceutical branch.  (Please understand, my admission of a prejudice is not to say there isn’t a problem.  I’m not alone in my concerns about our over-prescription, over-use, and over-reliance on drugs.  A lot of thoughtful people, both in and out of the medical field, are worried about it.)

But for complex reasons, including a couple of personal encounters with disrespectful (and in one case unethical) doctors, I went beyond simple concern into deep prejudice.  I began to think badly of medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance people as a whole.  I came to question not only their motives but their basic humanity.

I secretly began to suspect they were monsters.

But then one day I had this irresistible urge to work with the dying and as a result, actually entered into the medical/industrial complex as a participating member.  I joined a hospice, took a class, and became a nursing assistant.  I did my clinical hours in a nursing home.  Visited patients in hospitals.  Worked closely with nurses and doctors and even filled prescriptions at pharmacies, delivering them to the people I helped care for.  And lo and behold!  Somewhere along the line, in the gentle, surprising way that grace frequently delivers its gifts, I rediscovered the value, relief, and miracle that modern technological advances have to offer.

I discovered there aren’t really any monsters after all, just an odd amalgamation of deeply caring, deeply flawed human beings.

As a result of this journey, modern medical technology has taken on a slightly different cast for me.  Not so much a cold, uncaring, manipulative, disrespectful power that takes over our bodies and ignores our humanity, but an offering of something extraordinary, a possibility of the truly miraculous.

I had a patient once.  Maggie–dear, beautiful, polio stricken Maggie Full Of Grace–who wrote a little book about her sixty year journey with the disease and it’s after effects.   I read it after she died and in it I found the answer to a question I’d always wondered but never found the courage to ask her.  How did she feel to be one of the last to ever contract polio?  The vaccine was introduced two years later and the disease, for all intents and purposes, was eradicated.  Did she ever feel cheated?  Did she ever think Why me?  Why wasn’t it discovered two years sooner?

I found the answer in her book.  First, she described the terror she and her husband initially experienced in those earliest days, not for her but for their three small children, the fear that they might also contract the virus.  She’d been nursing her five-week old baby at onset so he was particularly exposed.  That description was then followed by this passage:

“One of the greatest blessings I would later thank God for is the presence of the vaccine, the fact that our children and grandchildren will never get polio.”

I started to cry when I read it.  It was as though she was still there whispering to me.  Still trying to answer the secret question, the real question, I so desperately needed to ask her.  She’d been powerless to stave off infection from the polio virus itself, but somehow she’d successfully fought off the bitterness and regret that so often follows in the wake of such trauma.  How?  In the face of decades of the resulting hardship and suffering,  how in the world did she protect her heart from that kind of collapse?

And somehow there the answer was, miraculously written down for me in her book.  Her love for her children and gratitude that they were spared served as her vaccine.   The power of those two emotions filled her heart with a kind of immunity that no bitterness, however real, however justified, could overcome.   It was something I’d always heard but somehow never really understood before, the simple difference between looking at a glass as half full rather than half empty.  Both realities are always true.  Both have an impact that must be absorbed and coped with.  But the choice of which one to cleave to is always ours, which one we’ll ultimately allow to fill our vision and heart.

I’d never understood before, how often I fill my own with emptiness.  No wonder I’ve struggled with so much sadness.

It was the people I met like Maggie Full Of Grace who started anchoring me back into an older place inside myself, turning me into a person far more tolerant and oblivious than I’d been before.  Over time things like politics and religious differences, economic backgrounds and cultural beliefs, all the myriad and ever-multiplying array of opinions that seemed to matter so freaking much beforehand just didn’t anymore.  Over time I became freer and happier and better and more loving…and increasingly confused by the change.

It was like climbing up to the peak of the very highest mountain in the middle of a vast wilderness where I could finally see forever and ever… but then the wind sucked the map out of my hands and blew it away.  The views were spectacular in a way that knocked me to my knees, sure, but how the hell was I ever gonna find my way back out?

(Don’t delete this photo again dammit…it’s my picture!)

How was I supposed to navigate without the instinctive bearings my prejudices gave me?  I’m still, five years later, struggling to figure that one out.

Maggie came forward in time sixty years to instruct me on the brutal, harsh reality of how it really was back then.  Watching her struggle every single day within her twisted, paralyzed body, hearing her stories of those long, painful, uncertain months in the polio hospital, of how many husbands abandoned their wives, how many crippled children were left behind and forgotten, all these things brought that world to life for me.  I finally got it, why the word, polio, used to strike such terror into the hearts of all who heard it.  Why Jonas Salk was such a hero and how the vaccine really was a miracle of deliverance.

Life before penicillin, immunizations, knowledge of basic hygiene, and the vast array of other developments and discoveries we have today was often cruel.  What we were forced to rely on instead back then was Adaptation with all its tools—the human qualities of creativity, determination, strength, patience, fortitude, and grace.  And now, today, we sit at the junction of these two ages, emerging from a period of helpless vulnerability when we were forced to cultivate our deepest, inner humanity just to cope and survive, and entering into an age of blossoming outer powers where we no longer have to simply grit our teeth, accept, and endure.

We’ve discovered a will, an intelligence, and an imagination within ourselves that can generate miracles…and the breakthrough is heady.  It’s created an insatiable hunger within us for more power, more knowledge, more salvation.  We now dream wild and intoxicating dreams of freedom from all disease, all aging, all pain, all suffering.

Even, perhaps, from death.

But I’ve watched a strange and disturbing thing happening as our outer powers increase.  It seems that our inner powers, the long-cultivated wisdom of our deepest humanity, seem to be diminishing as they lay, forgotten and misplaced in the hallways just outside of research labs and insurance offices and fear-filled waiting rooms.  The ancient tools that served us for thousands of years—things like courage, sacrifice, endurance, surrender, the ability to recognize and be grateful for all that we still have—are threatening to atrophy with a current wave of under-use.  And in their place things like fear, anger, blame, grasping, desperation, and bitterness frequently rise instead.

I have hope though.  I don’t think the current trends will last.  I suspect that we’re simply in the first flush of wild discovery and have yet to understand the limits, comprehend the costs, of pure, unbridled dreaming.  After eons of helpless suffering the pendulum is swinging wildly to the other extreme , but pendulums always swing back.   Someday we’ll remember that we can’t just eradicate things like suffering and death because to do so would also eradicate the great arc of wounding and joy that is life.

No.  I think we’ll eventually settle down, find some equilibrium, and begin the practical task of roping in our miracles, tethering and training them, instead of letting them stampede through our lives, trampling the older, extraordinary knowledge we’ve already developed.

Here’s hoping for a divine marriage between the two someday soon.  A day when our modern technology becomes firmly anchored in our ancient humanity, and when our collected wisdom is further deepened by the discoveries and miracles of today.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Parrot’s Grief

We once had two dogs.  They joined the family two years apart, lived most of their lives together frisky and inseparable, then died at the end, also two years apart.  Our big guy died first.  Swift and unexpected.  He was fine and healthy for years and years, and then one day got sick and three days later died.  Just like that.

Our second dog was lost without him.  For a month following his death she withdrew.  She’d still come to us if we called and try to look happy to see us, but as soon as her duty was done she’d slip away to the corner where they used to sleep together and lie down again, eyes open and unfocused and numb.

We were heartbroken for her and heartbroken for ourselves.  We all missed him terribly.

But time worked its magic and one day, for no particular reason, she returned.  She followed me around the house that morning, trying to flip my hand up on her head with her nose again, and my heart eased knowing she’d be okay.  We had two more wonderful years together before she, too, eventually died.

There’s a lot of controversy on whether animals experience emotions, but the suggestion that they can’t feel things like simple grief makes me angry.  I usually try to respect the beliefs of others but, because this particular belief is so often used as a justification for exploitation, neglect, or abuse, I don’t respect it.  I find it suspect.  The claim is far too riddled with conflicts of interest to take at face value.  Besides, in five decades of living, every interaction I’ve personally had with animals and birds, (and reptile, fish, and even a few insects believe it or not) has confirmed that these other strange and wonderful companions I share my world with feel a great deal, even if most of the time I don’t understand what exactly that is.

A case in point:

One of my first hospice patients had a parrot she said she’d smuggled over the border from Mexico twenty years earlier.  She was a wild, untamed kind of woman and her parrot was just like her.

I don’t remember now what kind he was, but he was smallish, maybe a little bigger than Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and he spent most of his time in those final days perched on the valance above the window next to her bed.  I was a little nervous at first because family members warned me that sometimes he flew down on people, swooping at them again and again, testing to see if they would duck and run.  He was a fierce little thing, tolerating only a handful of people and attacking the rest, but he clearly loved and needed that woman lying on the bed and was made achingly vulnerable by her approaching loss.

He never flew down on me.  I used to speak to him gently when I was on that side of the bed, changing her sheets or dressing or incontinence pad, and he’d closely monitor everything I did, anxious and curious, sometimes fluffing up into a ball of down and shaking his head rapidly, raising his wings for a moment like he just couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore, then settling back down to watch and wait again anyway.  He’d sidle back and forth along the length of the valance, first to the left, then to the right, over and over again like a loved one pacing the corridors of a hospital.  He knew something was wrong and it seemed to fill him with unease.

Once I saw him fly down to the bed while I was in and out of the room, doing laundry.  She was asleep and he seemed to want to just be next to her, to touch her.  He awkwardly waddled up next to her head, curling into the warmth still emanating from her.  He bent his head over next to her mouth as though checking for breath and just stayed there for a long time, frozen, his feathers brushing her lips.  My heart broke for him and I wanted to pick him up, cradle and croon to him, but I knew he’d bite me if I so much as extended my hand.

First her sister told me and then her daughter.  How he wept on her body when she died.  He flew down from the valance to her chest and started nuzzling and nipping at her, trying to make her respond.  Stroke him.  Yell at him.  Anything.  But when she didn’t move he went still and stunned, and it was then that he started making the strange, small noises, noises unlike anything they’d ever heard him make before, like sobs.  His head bobbed slowly up and down to the rhythm of the sounds, and her family just stood there around the bed, surprised and stricken by his grief.

Later, when the men from the funeral home came to remove her body from the room he attacked them.  Viciously.  Angry and hysterical, he dive bombed at their heads repeatedly until one of the men ran  in the bathroom to hide.  The family finally captured him and put him in his cage while they took her body away.

I’ve often thought about him over the years and hoped that he eventually found someone else he could trust, someone he’d allow to love him, to bring him back in healing and wholeness.

Like just about every other person I’ve ever known, the deep emotional bonds I’ve shared with animals over the years have provided me with a well of strength, beauty, unconditional love, and hope.  My ties to these companions have helped shape me, often healed me, and even saved me, more times than I can count.  I really, really hope that some day soon we’ll grow past the economic and scientific need we have to deny the depth of their vulnerability to us, and instead forge a higher, kinder relationship based on mutual respect.  They’ve already given us all so much.  They deserve something far better than what they’ve gotten in return.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

When beliefs change…

I’ve always been something of a spiritual nomad…or possibly a spiritual polygamist,  depending on who’s judging…but it felt destined.  Like I was born into a desert too damn vast, silent, and starlit not to explore.  I had to roam.  Something deep inside would have died or worse if I hadn’t been able to wander from church to temple to tree covered glade, asking all the weird questions that have always haunted me, looking at life through every set of eyes I could borrow.

Desperate and searching for grace.

I wound up assembling a belief system from it all.  A little rag tag, to be sure, but one that helped me navigate the good times and survive the bad and, really, that’s all a good set of beliefs is supposed to do anyway.  It was enough for me.

And then I entered the homes of the dying and all my carefully collected beliefs got blown out of the water.  Kablam!  Just like that.  I looked down at the tattered shreds in my hands, muttering what?  What?! then looked up at a world that was beautiful, luminous, in a way I’d never noticed before.  So much so, in fact, that it was hard getting things done, because it’s challenging to focus when your heart swells to the point where you’re about to burst into tears all the time.

So what do I believe in all these years later?   It’s hard to answer because it feels like the thoughts drained down out of my head and into my chest.  I don’t have words for it yet—what I believe in I mean.  What I have are recollections.  Memories.  Moments of awareness.

Like standing by the bedside of a dying woman in tremendous pain, tenderly, slowly, oh-so-gently bathing her aching, quivering body.  I had the oddest sensation that my hands grew huge, full of something sweet and searing, as if they were cradling her and cradling her family and cradling their home and cradling myself.  And afterwards I walked out to the car and gripped the steering wheel like I was falling off a cliff, trembling and shaken by some vast current I felt flowing through the house.  A current that had come to collect her, surrounding and floating and washing her away to somewhere else.

There’s a memory of sitting, nodding, by a dying man’s armchair as he lay still and quiet, eyes closed.  And suddenly I noticed all the particles inside him, particles in the room.  Strange, lovely, luminous things that rose and orbited through the air, combining and recombining like  miniature constellations and galaxies.  They seemed slow and graceful and ancient to me, alive and vibrant as if they were conscious, and looking at them made me feel like my skin was glowing.  I still remember the wonder I felt, the amazement, like they were tiny, radiant beings coming together to create our bodies, our chairs and clothing and cars, all the diversity of the physical world around us.  But only for a heartbeat before they dispersed again, moving on to create something else after us, new constellations and galaxies, new bodies, new life.

I watched the wrinkling nose of a dying man as he described the stench of the field where the bodies were stacked after the attack on Pearl Harbor.   Listened to a dying woman recount playing beside the ovens of a converted German concentration camp as a child.  Felt the hair rise on the back of my neck as an old mother’s eyes darted from corner to corner, whispering how four of her children all died at once, long ago, trapped in the tree house they built and accidentally burned with a book of matches they found.

There are so many memories now, recollections of standing witness as heart after heart foundered and broke, falling one after another into a waiting pool of stillness.   It was a dark and tender pool, big enough to hold all their pain and all their lives, and each time my heart broke and fell in, too, with theirs.

Each time.

That’s what I believe in now, I guess.  I believe in that pool of tenderness, waiting and waiting to catch my heart each time it breaks.  I believe that my suffering and joy are entwined, inseparable and, in the end, the same, and that I’m fine just the way I am, whether it feels like it or not.  I believe that everything is still okay, no matter how lonely, frightening, or painful it gets, and that the more I surrender and fall, the safer I feel.  And I believe that that moment…that brief, exquisite moment…when my heart breaks and falls and finally remembers, is the biggest miracle of all.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Sense of Presence (Can you feel me now?)

Uncle George, husband, father, friend, and legendary storyteller.

I thought a lot about my encounter with Alf and the Fly this weekend, about how vivid the sensation was when I felt Alf’s presence during the memorial service.  The subject was up again because we drove down to Reno to join extended family in celebrating the life of an uncle who died earlier this year.  During a conversation with one of my cousins (a daughter of said uncle), she described a moment, while going through his things shortly after he died, when she suddenly felt like he was right there with her, giving her an intimate message of love through, of all things, an obscure word in one of the National Geographic magazines that he loved.

She, too, experienced a sense of presence.

Many of you might recognize what she described because you’ve felt something like it yourself.  It turns out that experiencing a sense of presence is fairly common, not only among the survivors of those who’ve recently died but in a variety of other settings as well.  The experience is so common in fact that it’s been given names like the third man, widow effect, and the ever magical imaginary friend of young children. There has also been a fair amount of research done on the phenomenon and I’d like to touch on a few of the studies as referenced in a fascinating book called The Third Man Factor by John Geiger.

(BTW, if you ever get a wild hair and feel like reading a variety of personal accounts of  a sense of presence, here’s a forum on The Third Man Factor website.  These examples are unique because most of them result in a person surviving a situation where otherwise they might have perished.)

Geiger’s book deals primarily with the experience of a sensed presence in extreme, survival situations but he references other circumstances where the experience regularly manifests.  Needless to say, given my focus on dying, I was particularly interested in those dealing with the widow effect, the experience of a sense of ongoing relationship with someone who’s died.  He cites one study by researchers at the University of Arizona at Tuscon in 1988, where about half of the 500 widows questioned reported sensing the presence of their deceased partner, and another survey of 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales which produced a similar finding.

“That study, by W. Dewi Rees, published in the British Medical Journal, found that most people who had the experience reported they had visits intermittently throughout the day, while 10 percent said they ‘felt that the dead spouse was always with them.’  All said they sensed the presence of the deceased; a few also said they actually saw or heard him.  Rees found the experiences were in no way frightening, and concluded, ‘these hallucinations are…normal and helpful accompaniments of widowhood.’  Other research into widows of men killed in automobile accidents in Japan found the incidence even higher, and there, too, the researchers concluded the presence ‘may be a positive sign in helping them adapt to the loss.'”  (pp. 153-154)

Geiger also sites a larger survey conducted in the UK in 1995 that didn’t just look at widows and widowers, but included a broader cross-section of society.  It revealed that “the continuation of an important relationship after death is not confined to those who have lost a spouse.”  People reported sensing the presence of parents and other family members as well as friends.

Clearly this experience of sensed presence is widespread among the recently bereaved.  Yet prevalent or not, as most people are painfully aware, there’s a social stigma attached to talking about it.  I’ve found the majority of people, at least initially, are reluctant.  Some, deeply so.  They’re afraid others will think less of them for believing in “that kind of thing,” or worse, that people won’t believe it happened at all.   But it does happen, to a large segment of the population, and I hope that Geiger’s book will be a watershed, marking a shift in trend where it becomes more acceptable for people to speak openly about their experiences.

Because being able to speak about these experiences is important for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

I found it interesting that Geiger himself expected a lot of resistance to the idea that the experience of a sensed presence is real and was surprised when none materialized.  He realized most people don’t doubt that the experiences are actually happening.   The controversy centers around what might be causing them.

The first thrust of The Third Man Factor is to confirm the experience itself and Geiger lays out evidence that makes it indisputable.  People are sensing something that feels like a presence.  (This is huge.  Absolutely huge. He’s finally provided a framework within which people of all intellectual backgrounds can talk about the subject.)

The second purpose aims at reconciling the traditionally supernatural elements of these experiences with possible scientific explanations and he presents some compelling evidence for the role that stress, loneliness, and neurological function play in the phenomenon.   The book is well researched and, while his conclusions ultimately raised as many questions for me as they answered, I was still wildly relieved to hear the subject discussed in a practical, factual manner instead of the half-embarrassed, half-apologetic whispers that I usually hear.

Now, let me be clear.  While I’ve long been intrigued by the dynamic tension between science and spirituality, and I’m always curious to hear what both sides have to say, on a purely practical level I, personally, don’t care what’s causing these experiences of sensed presence.  It’s not relevant to me.  It’s an interesting question, don’t get me wrong, and fun to explore when nobody’s dying.  But when someone is dying, the arguments are really just an intellectual exercise.

Once you’re in that room and it’s you or your loved one lying on the bed suffering, once it’s you facing down the maw of unbearable loss, once it’s your family that’s been swept away in the maelström of vulnerability that dying entails, you’ll probably discover that the arguments about what’s causing an experience of sensed presence aren’t nearly as important as whether or not it helps.

It’s like drowning in the middle of the ocean.  If a boat pulls up and throws you a life buoy you probably won’t care about where the thing was manufactured.  Nor will you ask to see a business card from whoever is throwing it to you.   What you will care about, deeply, is whether or not it floats and, if it does, you’ll grab it with gusto and hang on for dear life.

I think everyone should be allowed to speak openly about any unusual experience they have during the dying process.  (FYI, there are a lot of them.) Because even though no one can definitively explain them yet, they still provide enormous comfort and reassurance during a journey that’s tough at best and devastating at worst.

I’ve often felt frustrated by the fact that such a luminous, nourishing, (and it turns out commonplace) human experience is relegated to the back of the shame-closet where we stash our bogey men and under-the-bed monsters.  I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel embarrassed because they experienced something that helped them cope and heal.  Neither should anyone have to hide the fact that they’re experiencing something lovely even if it’s odd, because doing so robs the rest of us.  I’ve studied the faces of those listening when this kind of thing is shared and the effect of these stories on others is almost always one of wonder, hope, or relief.

Which are good things, things that are in relatively short supply.  We want more wonder, hope, and relief in the rooms of the dying.  Trust me on this one.  They help.

These days, in rational society, we tend to resist things that involve Mystery.  We have our science and we like our rational explanations and we’re uncomfortable with odd-shaped things that sound weird and don’t fit.  The problem with that is, as soon as we enter the dying process we also enter the Mystery.  The two things are a package deal and the ticket covers both rides.  Everyone has to grapple with the fact that questions grossly outnumber answers at the end of life, both existentially and physiologically.

Whether these questions revolve around an experience of sensed presence, or the surprising level of foreknowledge or control many have over the actual moment of death, or the perennial biggie concerning what will happen to us once it’s all over, or the most basic question of Well…what’s causing this symptom?, one thing is certain; sooner or later something will occur during dying that everyone will guess at but no one will know.  And if that something is a sense of presence that lightens the load or eases the pain?  If it provides a pool of nourishment from which we can drink a little courage, respite, or strength?

Then perhaps the most useful explanation is simply that these experiences of sensed presence are a rare and beautiful gift at a time when we need one the most.  Maybe it’s okay to not know any more than that for now, but open both hands anyway, accept the gift, and whisper thanks.

For anyone interested, here’s a brief interview of John Geiger talking about the book, The Third Man Factor.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Alf and the Fly, Part II

When we left Alf last week he was lying in state at the front of the room while the rest of us sat politely listening to the pastor (who clearly never met his subject) reiterate the sterilized summary of his life as laid out in the obituary.  I was doing my level best to stay awake and fend off the head-bob when the Fly first started buzzing around me.

This was just one of a number of remarkable photographs published in The Daily Mail. It was taken by physiotherapist Miroslaw Swietek at around 3am in the forest next to his home.

I was surprised.  For one thing, it was hard to believe that something as wildish and chaotic as Musca domestica could survive in a place like that.  The room felt as sterile and life-sucking as the sermon currently bouncing off its stark, white walls.   Call me wrong but I’d have bet good money that anything smaller than, say, a finch or a bat would have died and dropped to the floor the instant it hit the atmosphere.  Equally amazing was the fact that the Fly (fat, hairy, and droning) had to negotiate five doors and a security force of germ-phobic staff to penetrate that far in.  Truly, this was one determined fly.

However, my wonder was soon replaced by consternation.  The Fly, after buzzing in circles above my head a few times, commenced a series of land-and-crawl maneuvers targeting places like the top of my head and the side of my face.  At first I just brushed it away while still maintaining my focus on the pastor, but after the third or fourth time The Fly finally had my undivided attention.  I studied the situation.  When I glanced at our Social Worker and Nurse on either side of me it was plain they were outside the fly zone.  Neither displayed the harassed look I was rapidly adopting.  And when I looked around at everyone else in the immediate vicinity I realized they weren’t being bothered either.

Naturally, this annoyed me.   So the next couple of times I swatted the creature towards the Nurse, to see if it would switch victims and crawl on her instead.  But it didn’t.  It not only came right back at me each time, it seemed to redouble its efforts.  That was when it struck me that, for some odd reason, the Fly seemed intent on making my life, and my life alone, miserable.

It got worse.  After a few swipes the thing started dodging my hand, feinting to one side in the air before diving back in to skip across my forehead, my cheek, my nose.  Or, if I swung after it had already landed and was doing the Tinkerbell dance across the back of my neck, it would leap into the air just long enough for me to slap myself before gracefully alighting again in a swift succession of tiny steps.

The Fly was really starting to get to me.

Yet it wasn’t until it began lifting my collar to crawl under my shirt and down my back that I truly began to panic.  What the hell was this thing?  It was like no other bug I’d encountered, intelligent, crafty, and motivated.  Like something out of a Jeff Goldblum movie.   I was right on the verge of making a full-blown scene, shrieking and jumping to my feet, writhing madly while trying to slap my back and tear off my shirt, when something stopped me.  I had the strangest thought.


The Fly stopped in its tracks.  It stayed still for a moment, huddled there under the fabric between my shoulder blades, then turned around and crawled back up out of my shirt, lifted into the air, and began to fly around in front of my face in a figure eight pattern.  I couldn’t believe it.  My mind was spinning.  Just how is that kind of thing supposed to work?  My imagination took off and I wondered wildly whether Alf had temporarily turned into the Fly itself, or if he had just rigged a tiny, leather bridle and bit and was now sitting astride its back, grinning and waving at me with a cowboy hat.

It was at that point that the Alf Cloud descended.  I felt it wrap around me like something warm and soft, and then an image of him…smiling, standing with nary a wheelchair, walker, or cane in sight…exploded in my mind.  It felt like he was right there in the room.  I could almost smell the clean soap coming off him, feel something warm like body heat.  He was chuckling and I almost laughed out loud, too, but then remembered where I was.

It was odd and wonderful and such a relief.  He still felt exactly like Alf only without any of the weakness and strain.  No frustration, irritation, or pain.  He felt strong and easy and laughing, not at me but with me, like he knew that I of all people would appreciate this new-found freedom he’d found.  And I did.  I really did.  The last tattered remnants of sadness and guilt washed away and there was nothing left inside but happiness for him.

I grinned.  You rascal. And as soon as I said it, the Alf Cloud was gone.  The Fly stopped its circling and meandered away, bumping into people and chair backs and walls as it went.

I told our Social Worker about the experience on the way home and we shook our heads, wondered what it all meant, then chatted for a while about what we thought might happen when we died ourselves.  I told him I was hoping for a lot of love.  He said he’d be happy if he could still experience anything that felt like sex.

The next day when I arrived at the office our Social Worker had already been there for some time and was sitting at his desk when I walked in, studying a small fly crawling around near his coffee mug.  He glanced up at me and smiled.

I was just wondering, he said, then looked back down at the fly.


copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

We Don’t Stop Being Who We Are Just Because Our Minds Go

I’ve been thinking about my hospice work and the extraordinary privilege I had of entering these homes–so many of them different (some extremely different) from my own.  And not simply gaining access but entering as a full-fledged, intimate partner to the families.  The whole thing makes me shake my head in wonder.

These are, on the whole, people who don’t really want me there.   I’m never in somebody’s home because a family was just out looking for somebody extra to add to the mix.  No.  These are people in great pain and tremendous overwhelm.  They’re often near drowning in the extraordinary demands of the dying process and this makes them need—often desperately—extra help to meet those demands.  That’s where I come in.  I’m there because I can offer them the kind of help they need, and they’re only letting me in because they have no other choice.

And I can’t emphasize enough the risk that they’re taking in doing so.  There are a lot of vultures out there who prey on the vulnerable in a myriad of different ways and these families, in their exhaustion and bewilderment and deep grief, are exposed.  And they know it.  But here I am, a total stranger with a belief system that often differs widely from their own, coming in to witness every last, little area of their lives; their pain, their limits, their frailties, and their mistakes.

I hold my presence in their home as a huge responsibility.  I feel like part of my job is to create a shield around them with my respect and reverence for their sovereignty over their own lives.  I’m there to learn as much as I can about the moral and spiritual pillars that they’ve chosen so that I can help shore them up against the flood that’s engulfing them, support them from the level of the foundation that they’ve already built.  Because that’s always the one that will serve them best in navigating the dying journey.

After watching the dying and their loved ones take that journey over the years, I’ve come to believe that dying is not the ideal time to begin questioning one’s spiritual framework.  Furthermore, it’s a bad time for someone else to come in, take advantage of a dying person’s vulnerability, and start trying to stir up doubts in order to convert them to another one.  Hopefully, by the time we start to die our values and beliefs are things that have been built up over time, taken from the many questions, tests, ideas, and experiences we’ve faced in our life.  If we’ve had enough time and done things right, our values should have already been put through the fire, tested and confirmed so that, when something catastrophic finally happens, they’re there to fall back on for strength.  For a person with a confirmed faith in any system of beliefs, trying to switch that system while dying is like trying to jump from one kayak to another in the middle of a class-5 rapids.  It would be both stupid and dangerous.

(The one instance where I suppose it might be of help–introducing a possible set of beliefs to someone while they’re dying–would be if the person was floundering and terrified.  If for some reason they didn’t have a spiritual framework of their own and wanted help finding one.  But they would have to ask for it.   Then I suppose offering them one would be more like pulling them out of the water and into any boat.)

One of the patients I worked with was a centenarian whose mental faculties, at 102, were drifting.  She was a devout, lifetime Seventh Day Adventist, a branch of Christianity which I discovered, interestingly enough, does not believe in heaven.  Her daughter/caregiver explained that Adventists believe a person’s soul, rather than going to heaven, stays with their body after dying, sleeping peacefully with no awareness of the passage of time, until the second coming of Christ at which point Jesus resurrects their bodies and makes them new again.

So this was the belief that this woman had chosen and embraced all her life.  But in an odd twist, it was now contributing to an unwelcome side effect.  Sometimes, in moments of dementia and confusion, she spoke of her mother (who had died years earlier) as lying cold and alone in the ground somewhere—the idea obviously distressing her a great deal.  She’d grip my hand, moaning and crying, and it was difficult for me to distract her.  As she was nearing death she seemed to be experiencing more and more fear about being laid in the ground herself (abandoned!) and, listening to her I was reminded of the way children often misunderstand and twist abstract concepts in a way that frightens them.

It was the first time I was confronted with a question that often comes up with dementia.  Part of me wondered whether–for reasons of compassion–it might not be kinder to give her a different, more comforting, view even if it differed from the one she’d embraced before dementia.  If it could bring her more peace, would it be all that wrong to tell her that her mother was not lying cold and alone in the ground somewhere but was actually up in heaven?  (Which seemed like the closest alternative to her own belief system, but it could just as easily have been some other lovely place if she’d buy it.)  Or should I stick with the faith she’d committed herself to throughout her life, the one she chose when she was still strong, rational, and clear, even though it was now causing her some profound distress?

Actually, the question was strictly hypothetical, an intellectual exercise.  First off, as a hospice worker my duty was always to honor the values and beliefs of whatever home I entered and support the family from those.  Making up something else to suit random circumstances just wasn’t an option.  And secondly, her daughter was a fierce advocate for her mom and, even if I had been tempted to take the easy route and tell her mom a fib, I would have been turned out of the house in a heartbeat.  The daughter would have felt that I’d betrayed them all and she would have been right.

But eventually, in spending time in their home, in listening to the family’s stories of the strength of their mother’s faith and in seeing the comfort and joy she still drew—even in her dementia—from singing and praying in the language of her faith, I drew my own conclusions.

Over time I became certain that, if we could go back twenty years to when she was still strong and lucid, and I could explain what was going to happen and ask her what she’d want me to do, the patient herself would be the first to tell me that–no matter how confused she might become in her final days, no matter how much fear and suffering it might temporarily cause her in her dying process–under no circumstances should I ever mislead her, try to support and care for her from any other basis, than the tenets of truth which she had adopted, embraced and lived by all her life.

It was a good lesson for me and deepened my understanding of what respect really means.  The dying are achingly vulnerable.  It would be so easy in this work to fall into pity and coddling, to take shortcuts to try and ease their suffering, but it would be wrong to do so.  The symptoms of dementia, of oxygen deprivation, of disorientation, exhaustion, and loss of memory, do not in any way mean that a person has suddenly turned into someone weak, stupid, or childish.

As human beings we are far, far more than just a brain that is currently running up to speed.  We’re rich and emotional and complex and unfathomable, as well as a whole lot stronger than we tend to believe.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn