Little Hilltop Shrine Stories

A while back I posted about a little roadside memorial shrine the hubster and I stumbled over in the Sawtooth Mountains, one which I found unusually moving. Well, we found another one last month that grabbed my heart, only this time it was up on a mountain peak overlooking a section of Hells Canyon and the Snake River.

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20160508_164719I think part of the reason this one hit me the way it did was because it was still fresh…the flowers, the grief, the love, the remembering. But it also felt personal because there was something we shared with these people; an obvious love for the place we were in.

It got me thinking about how often we do this, those of us who have lost a loved one, instinctively turn to a physical place like a mountain peak, a gravesite, a body of water, a steam engine (more on that little gem below.) As though, with their bodies gone from us, we need to find something else…something still here…to center around instead. I know for me, when my mother died, finding a place satisfied an illogical but still aching and very real physical need, especially in the early days after her loss. It was where where I could locate her, where I could head when I wanted to be near her, or talk to her, or just remember her afterwards.

(Of course these places can also be the spot people avoid when they want to forget somebody, or desecrate when they need to punish…think urinating on a grave or dumping somebody’s ashes down a latrine. It’s always important to remember and respect that not every relationship lost is a good one. However, for the sake of clarity, it’s the loving relationships I’m writing about today.)

After my mother died in Nevada my brother took most of her ashes home with him to scatter over Waimea Bay per her request but I needed something more than that. For all the tangled, aching, complex reasons that shape every journey through grief I wound up also placing her in the Ely cemetery with my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, second cousins, and a twice great uncle whose grave I have yet to find but am still hellbent on trying. It’s actually the place where I eventually want my ashes to go, too. (Or most of them anyway. I’m totally okay with my kids using whatever they need for their own grief journeys just like I did with my mom’s.)

Interestingly, I also find her in the full moon (which, frankly, even I don’t understand but am happy to go with whenever I’m out and about that time of the month.)

It’s curious, now that I think about it, that I actually find her in multiple places; Waimea Bay, the Ely Cemetery, and the full moon. Here’s an article written by another woman who’s linking her husband to multiple places by scattering his ashes all over the world; The 9 Things No One Tells You About Scattering AshesIt’s a great read…not too long, moving, funny, with some truly useful information to boot. If you’ve been afraid of talking (or thinking) about the topic of grief rituals Tré Miller Rodríguez’s column is a worthy place to start.

Anyway.

There’s one particular ash-scattering story that’s a favorite of mine. Ely, Nevada, besides holding the remains of much of my family, is also home to one of the few still-up-and-running steam-engine powered trains. It’s called the Ely Ghost Train and is something of a mecca for steam train enthusiasts who come from all over the world for a chance just to drive the thing.

A staff member once told me the story of a mother and son who showed up at the train asking to ride up in the engine compartment in memory of the steam-engine loving husband and father they’d recently lost. This being Ely they were of course welcomed aboard after which, about halfway through the ride, they revealed to the engineer the real reason they were there. They pulled out a bag of ashes and proceeded to beg permission…according to the wishes of the deceased…to empty them into the firebox where the coal was currently burning. I’m happy to say that the engineer perfectly understood and instantly agreed.

I love this story for two reasons. On the one hand it’s just a great story (and classically Ely BTW. They don’t do anything by the book there.) However, it’s also tender and poignant for me because it reveals that primal instinct again…the way that mother and son traveled to a place where they could anchor into the enduring spirit of the man they loved while, at the same time, surrender their final claim to the warm, beautiful body that had held them, spoke to them, kissed them, gazed at them, and touched them in the thousand ways that only a body can. That’s a lot to finally and irrevocably let go of.

I don’t know. Good-byes just don’t get any bigger than that for me, they don’t, which is probably why these little, wild shrines speak to me the way they do. They remind me of all the final good-byes I watched unfold during my hospice years and how sacred each one was, the times when I stood completely forgotten by a bedside witnessing the final exchange of intimacies so private and pure and searing that they seemed to fill up the room with a pulsing grace that erased everything…everything…but the love of that moment.

They completely changed me over time, those moments. How could they not? So that now, when I come across memorials like this so full of that caliber of love, I can feel the grace swirling around me again.  And while my heart definitely breaks a little each time, these places also remind me of the Big Thing the dying helped me see…that I have to keep loving as much as I can, as long as I can, with whoever or whatever will let me because over time, really, that’s the only thing that’s ever made me truly, completely happy.

I’ll leave you with the final view this departed Veteran was left with. Who wouldn’t love to hang around this place forever?

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Of Storms and Stars, Whales and Grief

“People gonna be okay, storms never come to stay, they just show us how bad we need each other…how bad we need each other.”

— Mark Scibilia

I’ve been at something of a loss for words over the last few months with the successive hits that mine and the hubster’s families have been taking. Two suicide attempts by young members (one successful and one thus far not) as well as the dignified and loving departure of a beloved elder seem to have taken their toll on even my desire to talk about dying.

Who would have thought?

But this morning I came across an old Yuletide letter I wrote back in 2002 and the tender perspective expressed in it helped me remember the rich beauty and wonder I once found in the rooms of the dying, sprinkled in among all the horrors. Reading it again reminded me that what I saw back then is still true today…the dying world really does contain profound and graceful gifts…even if I can’t currently see any of them in the aftermath of recent events.

suppose this is where some faith helps. I needed reminding that the stars still hang up there in the depths of the night sky and that they’re just as luminous and lovely as ever. Certainly once this storm has spent all its fury and the clouds have finally cleared I’ll be able to find them again.

In the meantime, I can always read my old stories. 

I thought I’d go ahead and paste in the old Yuletide letter here, just in case anyone else is slogging through heavy weather and hoping for a break. Maybe it can help.

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Dear everyone that we hold with deepest affection:

 Cal and I (and all unbeknownst to them—the kids) send our warmest greetings in this season of silence, celebration and relentless Christmas catalog barrage.  Here in Idaho’s banana belt we’re experiencing an inversion—a meteorological event where the warmer air at higher elevations traps the colder and dirtier air at lower elevations and those of us down under reap the harvest of all our months of collected carbon emissions in the form of smog.  A ban on wood burning is currently in effect in the valley so the cord of wood we just split stands leaning precariously by the garage while the fireplace waits cold and patient.  Cal’s primal and eager impulse to poke around in a nest of flaming materials is temporarily thwarted so for his sake I hope a low-pressure system returns to the area soon.

 This year seems to have flown by faster than any year before (a trend we’ve been noticing of late) and I suspect that it speaks to the fact of our aging.  When I think about it, it seems logical enough.  Between the two of us Cal and I now have almost 94 years of collected living to our names with all the learning and memories, laughter and heartbreak, wisdom and foolishness that that much life of necessity contains.  Think about it for a second.  When held up and compared to such an accumulation of time how long can a single year really take to pass after all?  Sometimes I think of an old-growth redwood or an ancient mountain peak or a star and I wonder what a year seems like to them.  I imagine it would be like a breath or a blink.

 A solitary heartbeat lost in aeons of warm and pulsing rhythms.

 Two great things happened this year for us.  One was a cruise to Alaska—a generous gift from Cal’s dad up one of the most magnificent coastlines I could ever imagine—and the other was the work I began with hospice.  Somehow the two are closely entwined although I’m not entirely sure how. 

The cruise was something of an enigma for me.  It was our first time and in preparing for the trip I found myself conflicted around issues of the seemingly decadent opulence of American spending and a very real anticipation of fully immersing ourselves in it. 

The food was everything I’d ever heard it would be.  We ate lobster and shrimp and French dishes and baked confections in lush dining rooms with scores of people waiting on us hand and foot.  All we had to do was ask (frequently we didn’t have to ask at all) and nothing was denied us.  There was even one climactic moment when we were sitting with our aperitifs at a linen-covered table, gazing out a huge window at the dark and choppy waters we sailed through when suddenly, Cal said, “There’s a whale!”  And when I turned to where he pointed a giant humpback suddenly breached about twenty-five feet off the side of the ship, surging up into the air with a mass and drive that staggered the imagination.  As it rose it gracefully spiraled 180 degrees, arching its body back and outwards as it twirled in a movement that looked like some kind of liquid ecstasy, before plunging back into a whitened maelstrom of water to disappear again beneath the surface.

 I felt overwhelmed by the wealth of it all—both the riches of human civilization and the priceless treasures of the wild.  Cal and I tended to forego the lure of bingo and Broadway shows, naturally gravitating toward the decks and railings of the ship where we spent our time watching the mountains and islands and vast tracks of forest gliding by.  During one shore-leave we hiked on a mountain in Juneau, climbing up beyond the hordes of camera-snapping, cruise-line tourists (no doubt attempting to elevate our own camera-snapping activities to a higher moral plane) and on into the mist and muffled silence at the top where I sang to occasional marmots and ptarmigans who tipped their heads in curiosity. 

Throughout the seven days we saw harbor seals whelping, bald eagles flocking, glaciers calving, and ice so old and compressed that it had turned a luminous color of blue.  At the peak of the cruise we sailed up a fjord (I felt such a smug sense of satisfaction to finally experience the thing that carries such an exotic name) and on that morning I stood alone out on the deck for hours, shivering in the drizzling rain and cold breezes, held spellbound by the sheer, green cliffs rising up from icy waters—their towering heads hidden by clouds, their sides split time and again with plunging waterfalls fed by spring-melting snows—and in the cold, wet, wildness of it all a silence of great age, of vastness, weighed upon me, somehow aging me, too.  Lending me a temporary grace that I suspect only comes enduringly with advancing years.

 And I recognize the same vast silence I felt that morning each time I sit by the bedside of someone dying.  It’s such a paradox to me, the moments that exist—tucked in among the bathing and dressing and care of wounds, among the laughter, overwhelm and expressions of tremendous sorrow and tenderness, among the changing of oxygen tanks and long hours of just listening and listening and listening—when I feel that same great weight of grace I felt in the fjord pressing down upon me again.  Whispering to me of an indescribable beauty of great depths and muffled echoes and mist.  And in spite of the moments of horror and heartbreak, I feel strangely uplifted. 

I’ve come to wonder if much of the difficulty in dying lies in the necessity of having to give back all the many and deeply treasured gifts we’ve been loaned for the process of living.  There’s so much to love in a lifetime be it brief or long, so much to wonder at and remember and touch with trembling fingers one last time. There are all those whom we love and our many achievements, the mountains and moonlight and extraordinary beauty of the world, the gifts of walking and laughter and being able to feed ourselves and go to the bathroom alone, and in our last moments the necessity of returning even the gifts of sight and touch and breath.

But in the end, while the gifts themselves must be returned, somehow the deep love and gratitude that they forge within us remains, growing ever more quiet and measureless upon being freed.

 I remember again the brief instant of that breaching whale.  The suddenness of it and surprise, the delight and the awe, the twisting, the power, and the arc of it’s body that seemed to express not so much purpose or deep import as a simple moment of sheer and unbridled joy.  A moment of irrepressible delight, driving it to rise high and higher for an instant of unforgettable and breathtaking splendor.  And so I’m coming to think of life.  Something so brief and unpredictable and extraordinary surging up from invisible worlds, rising within us with such drive and vitality and joy—learning through us, loving through us, touching and being touched for what amounts to only a fleeting heartbeat in the vast rhythms of creation—before ultimately returning once again to the deep and gentle mystery of the waters that are its source.

With our newly graying hair and sagging bodies we wish for you all, this year and always, that each moment of the great wounding and joy of Life will be just such an arc of unforgettable beauty.

With all our love,

Cal and Dia

There’s a whole lotta love coming out of Oklahoma

20130812_131340_resizedBook Review: Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death by Becki Hawkins.

Some of you may remember an old post I wrote called Someone Else Wrote My Book: What Now? where I expressed some angst at the discovery that a hospice nurse/chaplain from Oklahoma had just published the book I was trying to write.   Well, after a year of dark muttering in my cups I finally read Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death by Becki Hawkins and loved it.  Loved.

Her book brought it all back to me again in the best way, what it used to feel like when I worked with hospice and how the people I served strengthened, nourished, and changed me.  Transitions provides an authentic portrayal of the endless number of ways that people face catastrophic illness and death, not in a clinical or grisly way, but in terms of the beautiful and vulnerable humanity that inevitably surfaces.

More poignant still, Becki reveals the transformative power generated by something as simple as accepting the overwhelm and grief of another human being.  There are some terrific reviews over on Amazon that do a better job than I could at describing her gentle, loving handling of the subject matter (especially the one titled Nurse Conquers Attack Geese, Copperheads, Sceptics which I wanted to copy and paste in full here but didn’t for fear of getting caught) so I won’t try and cover that ground again.  I’ll just mention a few of the particular reasons why I loved the book so much myself.

Number one, Becki’s career spanned decades and her stories are written through the eyes of someone who’s seen people die from a lot of different things, something that’s actually pretty rare.  I got to take the journey again with her as she evolved and changed through the work and it took me right back to the mystery, magic, and intense vulnerability one experiences while roaming the dying rooms.  The way that each person winds up teaching what an extraordinary, mind blowing feat it is to live an entire life from beginning to the very end.

There is no such thing as a boring life, just boring ways to talk about it (something one encounters both in and out of hospice.)  But with some practice, good listening skills can overcome that problem and Becki’s clearly a master listener.  She draws out the thoughts of those she worked with in a way that allowed a quality of luminous, trembling soul to shine through and the book is full of the kind of dignity and strength that results from that level of respect.

Which brings me to the second reason I loved the book.  Becki not only captures the full range of experiences of what it’s like to work with the ill and dying, she captures it in the abundant charm of the Oklahoma vernacular.  She has quite an ear for the spoken word and delivers her stories in an enjoyable blend of modern medical language and the older, traditional language of her people. For me, the book was as much a loving portrayal of the culture and people of rural Oklahoma as it was of their health status, and when reading her stories I felt like I was peering in through a window to catch glimpses of an old wisdom tradition passed down through the generations.

A quick head’s up for those who are not of a religious bent, a lot of this wisdom tradition is couched in the religious terms of the region and from a couple of reviews I read this was a stumbling block for some people.  It was actually part of the reason it took me so long to read the book myself but as I got to know Becki personally over the last year I discovered that she’s one of those people who can love her own faith while also respecting and supporting the beliefs of others and that knowledge helped me relax and let down my shields.  I’m really glad I did, as I would have missed something beautiful, heartfelt, and universally true otherwise.  No matter how we express it individually, we all die with the same aching mixture of heightened longing and love.

And the final reason I loved it that I’ll mention here is because in the last section of the book Becki reveals how her professional work with the ill and dying eventually helped her navigate the illness and dying of her own loved ones, and I found her experiences to be a confirmation of my own.  While the illness and death of a loved one is just as overwhelming for those of us who’ve worked with the dying…the loss as great and the grief as piercing…still our familiarity with and intimate understanding of the dying process helps enormously when the time comes.  I can’t say this enough.  A knowledge and understanding of dying is an anchoring influence for everyone involved.

Of course everyone can’t go out and become a nurse and work for decades in the field to gain that kind of familiarity and understanding, but everyone can read books like this and begin to arm themselves with the knowledge of those who have.

I know I keep saying this over and over again but it’s only because it’s so important: We all need to be better educated about this last and greatest journey of dying, and we need to start doing it now.  The number of aging people approaching their final threshold is growing daily and in the next few decades dying will become a central, collective social event.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be a sad, tragic, and horrible era.  At all.  With the tools and perspective that hospice and palliative care provide it’s entirely possible for us to collectively craft a thoughtful, courageous, and wiser way to approach the end of our lives, one that’s dignified, loving, generous, and ultimately life-nourishing for us all.

Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death is another book among a (thankfully) growing number that provides a window into such an approach.  I highly recommend it.

Other references:

Here’s a Youtube video of an engaging talk Becki Hawkins gave in Sedona, Arizona about some of the spiritual experiences she saw in her work.

And here’s a link to Becki’s blog Transitions.

Dead Bodies Need Love, Too

…only I think more for our sake than theirs. 

In the last week I had two different friends tell me stories about the death of a close family member and the extraordinary experience they had with the body afterwards.  In both cases the body was handled in a way that’s unusual by American standards, yet both women told me (with deep conviction) that it made all the difference in helping them cope with the loss.

The first is a friend who’s older brother died last year of a sudden heart attack in his early sixties.  He lived and died in a different kind of community in the midwest where a lot of people practice a spiritual discipline with deep roots in the Indian Vedic tradition. Naturally, his cremation was attended with some of the chanting and ritual derived from that part of the world.  It involved an open casket viewing in a small room within the crematorium following the funeral itself.

The ceremony was beautiful, heart wrenching, and mesmerizing to watch.  My friend had a small video that was given to family members, and she shared it with me.

Only the most intimate friends and family members were allowed to attend.  Once everyone was seated a woman, who’d evidently spent a number of years in India learning how to do it, gave a brief explanation of the ceremony and then began singing what had to be one of the most beautiful, soothing, dynamic songs I’ve ever heard.  The words were in Sanskrit so I couldn’t understand any of it, but the melody, repetition, and deep resonance of the woman’s voice was like being cradled in strong arms.

All of the (many, many, many) flowers from the funeral had been brought into the room and two women were busy in a corner stripping all the petals and placing them into a basket near the head of the casket.  As the main woman sang that unearthly song, everyone in the room stood up and began to file past the body in a circle, picking up a handful of petals out of the basket each time they passed and sprinkling them over him as they whispered their final good-byes.  

At first I was just struck by the surprising beauty of the whole idea.  But then, as I watched his white face…his entire body…. vanishing beneath the deepening layers of soft, tender flower petals, I got it.  How much kinder and gentler this was, how much truer to both the profound love and profound loss of the people in that room, to bury him in flowers rather than dirt.  It took my breath away.

His mother nearly collapsed her first time around, under the unbearable weight of her grief.  But it seemed to get easier for her after that.  My friend told me that more than anyone else, the ceremony helped her mother come to grips with the loss.  Neither Friend nor any of her other family members actually lived in that community.  They’d all dropped their lives to travel from across the country, stunned and stricken.  Friend confided that initially she, herself, was reluctant to view his body, to see him like that.  She wanted to remember him as he was.  But then somehow as she watched him disappear beneath the flowers, the pain and shock of his death was transformed into something else.  Something more manageable.  Closure, she said, and her eyes looked unutterably grateful and sad.

Eventually, they all went down to the furnace and, together, rolled his body in.  But by then they were ready to let him go…which I realized was the ceremony’s intended gift.

My other friend’s loss happened at the other extreme.  She lost her elderly mother after a decade of slow, horrendous decline.  In fact, her slide had taken so long that when she finally…finally!…began actively dying it was hard to get her doctor to believe it.  In the end she was only transferred over to hospice care a scant three days before she died and this made my other friend sad.  She would have liked the extra time necessary for everyone to gather and say their good-byes, to turn their familial head downward toward the birthing canal, preparing for their transition into the next world without her.

Then she told me how they didn’t call the funeral home right away, to come and collect her mother’s body afterwards.  Instead they kept her at home for a night so she and her daughter could sleep beside the bed, one on each side, loving it through the first long, dark hours of its new state.  They called in the morning and watched her taken away in the brighter light of day.  My friend shared that, by then, she was ready to let her go and I recognized that closure thing again.  That elusive, emotional line we all have to track down inside ourselves and cross before we get to begin our ascent back up the other side.

In both these stories I was struck by the double loss we experience with the death of a loved one…how we lose both their them-ness AND their body…and how important it can be to separate the two and honor them both.  Not only as a final gesture of respect for our departed, but for our own healing as well.

first photograph: Cherry Blossom at Washington Memorial by porbital

second photograph: A Study in Pink by Maggie Smith

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Do’s and Don’ts Around People Who Are Wounded And Reeling

L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas

I was thumbing through the journal I kept during the hospice years and came across this entry:  [Identifiers have been changed BTW.]

“Gertie was visibly shaken yesterday.  Her mom’s youngest brother, aged 94, died this past weekend and, as she stared down at the coffee table she told me, “I’m afraid she’ll go now, too.  She’s the last one you know.”   Grammy’s appetite has been off and Gertie doesn’t think she’s eating enough to survive.

She’s not.

All the other times when Grammy was going through one of her diminished-appetite spells, Gertie would worry and I would try to gently explain that loss of appetite is natural toward the end.  But she always acknowledged and dismissed the fact simultaneously.

The truth is she’s just not ready to lose her mom and I’m now beginning to suspect she never will be.  Watching her yesterday—the way she stared off into nothingness as she spoke, eyes turned inward, searching and frightened—I wondered how long she’ll survive herself, once her mother is gone.  I even wondered if she’d go first. [Gertie was 83 at the time.]  For such a strong, stubborn, tenacious woman she is remarkably fragile underneath it all.

And quite ill herself.

So yesterday I said nothing.  Didn’t ask her, “Are you ready for this?” Or say, “You know Gertie, she may be getting ready to go now.”  Of course she knows.  Shock is already starting to creep in, an early mist rising to help shield her from the unbearable loss lying just ahead.  Instead I just sat there, as still as I could.  Quiet.  Listening.  Trying to catch and contain as many of her scattering pieces as I could.

I didn’t want to move or breathe or do anything to disturb the tendrils of mist gathering around her.   She is so achingly delicate.”

As I read it all came back to me in a rush; how grieving people (and those who are catastrophically ill or dying) are sacred.  The wounding and shock caused by any kind of profound loss makes a person vulnerable; and a society’s traditional job is to close ranks around them, shielding them until they have a chance to stop reeling and reorient.  To get through the worst of it and find their footing again.

In older times this understanding of the sacredness of those in deep grief was fairly common, but I think we may have grown a little fuzzy about it since then.

Although…I do think most people still feel this sacredness instinctively.  I often see it in the awkward pause that happens after someone confides they’ve lost a loved one, or that they have a catastrophic illness.  The person receiving the news is usually aware that something huge just fell out of the sky right in front of them, but they frequently appear confused as to what they’re supposed to do about it.

So even though I frequently fail to follow these myself (they’re appropriate…not easy) here are a few of the Do’s and Don’ts about how to interact with a person who, through no fault of their own, has become temporarily sacred:

The DO’s:

1)  Do no harm.  The disorientation of the deeply wounded is the emotional equivalent of a compromised immune system.  Even if they try joking about it or brushing it off as embarrassing, remember that their shields have taken a hit and are not functioning properly.  Be gentler, be kinder, be slower, be quieter.

2)  Do acknowledge their wounding.  Go ahead and be silent for a moment, then look at them (really look at them…don’t shuffle your feet and look at anything else but) and say I’m sorry.  Then be quiet again. That’s it. This is the traditional ceremonial acknowledgement of wounding in our culture and, when genuine, it’s enough.  Even if it’s been years since their loss took place, it’s still okay to say this.  You’d be amazed how long some wounds can last.

3)  Do follow their lead.  If they feel like talking about it and you have time, then listen.  (Listening is actually one of the greatest gifts you can give.  People usually need to tell the story of what happened, or is happening, multiple times in order to coax events out of the weird, limbo world of shock and back into practical reality where they can harness and deal with it.)

On the other hand, if they don’t want to talk about it, then it’s okay to let it go.  They don’t have to.

And if, as is often the case, they don’t know what to say and stumble around awkwardly searching for words, then just be quiet and patient while they figure it out.  Let them know you’re fine with awkward. Wounded people are bewildered and need extra time. Giving it to them willingly is like encircling them with a protective charm.

Which leads us to the final Do:

4)  Do be willing to be silent.  Sometimes words just aren’t big enough and, in that case, compassionate silence says everything necessary.

Then there are The DON’Ts:

1)  Don’t give advice unless specifically asked.   Everyone has to find their own way through this one.

2)  Don’t abandon or ignore them.  Even if you feel awkward or uncertain yourself, being willing to stay anyway is worth it’s weight in gold. Wounded people already feel a little disembodied and unconnected.  Ignoring them could make this experience chronic or permanent.

3)  But Don’t rub their noses in it either.  Everyone grapples with grief and loss differently and if they prefer to deal with their emotions privately, then respect their ability to know what they need most.

4)  And finally, Don’t try to save them from their task.  You can’t…and it’s not necessary anyway.  Wounded people are vulnerable, not incompetent.  Believe in them. The journey of illness and loss is hard but it can be strangely deepening, too, and those who navigate it with courage and grace enrich us all.  It’s more than worth our while to give them whatever help they need.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Disappearing Pools And Our Deep Love Of Places

Sunken Gardens inside Lehman Caves

Editor’s note:  This post is a sad one.  Sorry.  I tried and tried but just couldn’t get it to come out any other way.  I know a lot of people who are struggling with these kinds of losses right now (I don’t know, maybe we all are to some degree, there are certainly sweeping changes afoot…) and, while fear and anger are perfectly natural responses, I personally just needed the room to feel sad.  Thought I should let you know.  Dia 

Sometimes we develop relationships with physical places that feel as intimate and necessary as anything we share with people.  It can happen with a childhood home, the family farm, a neighborhood, a church, or a sports stadium.  A stretch of coastline or a forest behind the house.  A garden, an old tree, a park, or a mountain.

Opportunities for this kind of bonding are pretty endless.

And once we sink our roots into one of these places, losing it for any reason can also be as wounding as the loss of a human relationship.  Yet these kinds of wounds are seldom recognized or acknowledged for as serious as they are.

I’m not sure why we’re so resistant to admitting that losing anything other than a first generation relative can be devastating, but we are.  I’ve seen people reel just as much or more from the death of a friend, a pet, or the loss of a home, as from that of an immediate family member.  I’ve watched them struggle just as hard to climb back out of the resulting hole and rebuild their lives afterwards.  But I’ve rarely seen them granted the necessary room to grieve.  Our reluctance to accept and dignify these other losses is both powerful and entrenched.

(But then again, we barely give each other room to grieve the loss of a close family member so I suppose this isn’t surprising.  Y’know, we really need to stop doing this to ourselves.  Communities riddled with chronic wounds aren’t healthy for anyone.)   

I bring this up because I lost a place like this a few years ago.  It was a still, dark pool hidden in a cavern deep underground, and the loss of it is still haunting me.

My mother’s people come out of Ely, Nevada in Spring Valley.  It’s one of those little towns out in the middle of nowhere that you drive through and wonder Why in the world would anyone live here?  Five generations of my family have though.  Four inhabit the cemetery.  Seven have walked the streets of the place and, even though I never lived there myself for longer than a summer, I bonded to it like it was home anyway. It was the central, unchanging hub of my early nomadic life, the one and only place my family returned to again and again, no matter how many times we moved or how many homes we abandoned.  Its high desert, mountainous lands became the geographical North Star off which the rest of my life was mapped.

Surprisingly, underneath those dry, desert lands…winding through a vast system of tunnels and caverns carved out over millions of years…is water.  A lot of it.  And when these subterranean aquifers are relatively full (as they have been for aeons), they seep up to the surface as springs, creeks, and small lakes that support an ancient and delicate ecosystem that would quickly perish without them.

This secret water also collects in countless pools underground that are, for the most part, eternally hidden from human view.  But a few of them are accessible.  When I was growing up there were a number of such pools in the Lehman Caves at the base of Mt. Wheeler which is a little over an hour’s drive from Ely.  The caves were discovered back in 1885 and when my great grandparents first moved to Ely in the early 1900’s, they used to go over and take the “tour” that was available back then.  It involved miner’s carbide lights and crawling through tight cracks (with colorful names like Fat Man’s Misery) to access the spectacular caves that are a part of the system.

Lehman Caves, Mt. Wheeler, and its surrounding lands are such a treasure in fact that they were placed under protection in 1986 and declared Great Basin National Park.

Every generation of my family since the great-grandparents has toured the caves, and it was during my own childhood visits that I became acquainted with a particular pool.  I could never see very much of it because the water stretched back into a recess outside the range of the electric light illuminating the walkway.  But what I could see of it was dark and absolutely still.

Now, some of the pools in the caves tend to ebb and flow with outside water conditions, but this pool had been there far longer.  It stirred something old and unsettled inside me as I learned about it.  How the pool was thousands of years old.  How it had always existed in total darkness and never reflected anything.  How it had never known a current because no wind ever touched it, no living thing ever swam in it, and no water ever flowed in and out to create one.  It seemed so lonely and pure to me.  So dark and foreign.  And yet, in some deep, secret place way down inside me, it was familiar, too.  Like being so sad, for so long, that finally you don’t even mind anymore, and so can be happy again at the same time.

Everything about it mesmerized me.  I wanted to slide my fingers into the water and wiggle them in that dark wetness but didn’t, because the rangers said it would harm the pool somehow and I didn’t want to hurt that still, silent, ancient thing.  It had a tangible presence that enfolded me in a sense of age and weight and peace.  It both soothed and suffocated me a little at the same time, and as a child I responded.

I fell in love with it.

Eventually, I grew up though, and there followed a gap of decades where I didn’t return.  When I did finally go back, I discovered something unexpected and devastating.  My secret, ancient pool was now half empty.  It was slowly draining away.

As the explosive growth taking place hundreds of miles to the south in Las Vegas demands more and more water to support its expansion, aquifers from farther and farther north are being tapped to supply it.  The local water tables are dropping as a result and the dark, beautiful pool I fell in love with as a child is just one small example of a much larger kind of collateral damage taking place.

The system of large, interconnected aquifers that exist throughout the Great Basin is fragile.  If more water is pumped out of it than is flowing back in, the system sustains structural damage.  Caverns can collapse without the support the water gives them, but an even greater harm comes when the layers of soil dry out and ground subsistence sets in.  The sinking, hardened, compacting earth no longer allows enough water to filter down from the surface to refill anything.  There comes a point where the aquifers can no more be recharged with water than a dead human skull can house another living brain.  As with biological life, the ancient, geological processes that created these systems only work in one direction.  In a very real sense, aquifers can die.  Indeed, this has already been the fate of the aquifers of the Las Vegas valley itself, which is why the desperate city has been thrusting its pipelines northward.

And standing there that day in the Lehman Caves, watching my dear little pool slowly drain away, I couldn’t bear to think about what was happening, much less see the evidence of it with my own eyes.  I finished the tour, climbed in the car, and then left the cave, the park, and the state behind me and stayed away for a few more years.  Eventually though, I couldn’t bear that either and I’ve gone back to the park a number of times recently, but I still haven’t been able to make myself go down to the caves.  A park ranger told me that the pool I loved is gone now and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever go back in.  I spend my time up on top of the mountain instead, where the vast changes taking place below haven’t shown up yet.

In my years with hospice I learned how to be around human dying, how to navigate all the emotions that our final passage entails, but this is different.  Geological dying is so achingly slow.  When a person dies, no matter how important or how beloved they are, it happens and then it’s over with.  Even a long dying process finally ends and then survivors can move on with the tasks of grief and rebuilding.  Sooner or later they can climb back out of the shadowlands into sunlight.

But this? These aquifers, these ancient systems, take so much longer than that.  The disappearance of my pool was only an early symptom of a dying process that could continue for…I don’t know how long.  I don’t even know how to define when they’re alive and when they’re dead.  What does the death of a geological system look like?  They don’t have heart beats and brain waves so what am I supposed to measure instead?

I think that I’m still reeling from the loss of that pool because on some deep, genetic level I can’t make sense out of it.  I don’t have any ancestral memory for this kind of thing.  My predecessors didn’t survive global shifts of this magnitude and speed often enough to pass down the instincts I now need to navigate them.

I guess what I’m really trying to understand is this:

What am I supposed to do now?  What is the last person standing at the end of a thousands-and-thousands-of-years-long line of people supposed to do when the music suddenly stops with her?  What is my duty as witness here during the dying of a small, dark pool and the larger changes that it entails?

And as I wrote that last sentence the answer suddenly came clearer.  I guess that is what I’m supposed to do now…just bear witness and continue to love these places.  I need to do the same thing I did while working with hospice.  I never turned away from those rooms, never refused to look at those who were dying or tried to pretend like they weren’t.  I didn’t ignore or abandon them.  I was there to help and to care.  To listen and touch them as many times as they still needed to be heard and touched.  To witness their dying and affirm their lives, and to catch and contain as much of the wonder and miracle of them as I possibly could, so I could carry it forward in my own life afterwards.

I guess it’s time for me to return to the empty pool now.  I need to go back and touch its dry, limestone bed, to remember and say good-bye, thank you, and I really, really miss you.  And, for both our sakes, I also need to keep visiting, touching, and caring about the caves and mountains and high desert lands that I love so much.  Because no matter whether it happens in my lifetime or some far-off day in a different age, the dying of these places was never meant to stop my loving them.

In closing, here’s a photo of one of the larger, ebb-and-flow pools.  Beautiful, no?

Great Basin National Park Photos, Lehman Caves

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Links about the impact of a pipeline:

Will Federal Study Save Great Basin National Park?

Sparks Tribune:  Wandering Water

For Constance And The Other Pets We’ve All Lost

I learned that a big, flatulent, snore-prone, asthmatic bulldog died suddenly of a heart attack over in Wales a few days ago.  Her name was Constance and her bereft humans are John and Chris.  The news made me sad.  They’d only had her for about ten months…she was a kinda, sorta rescue dog…but in that short time they fell for her pretty hard. 

(Which was something of a puzzle to me, as it often is to non-bulldog people.  Bulldogs are not the most attractive of animals and she could be quite a bitch besides.  But I think that’s part of the reason WHY John and Chris loved her so much, because she was always so fearlessly and unapologetically herself, warts and all, and really, when I think about it, I kind of love that, too.  You go, girl.)

Today’s post was going to be about the dying music that’s come down to us through time, the valuable information embedded in that music regarding how to die, and how in the hell we’re supposed to extract said information all these years later, across changing attitudes, languages, and cultures.

But it doesn’t seem right.  Not today.  Instead, I’d rather play one of the songs I had in mind and dedicate it to Constance and the other beloved, joy-bringing, innocent, vulnerable, and deeply missed pets we’ve all lost over the years.  They’ve mostly died quiet and unnoticed by the wider world.  For some strange reason, we’re not usually given much room to grieve our animals when they die, in spite of the fact that their loss can be as painful and devastating as that of any other family member.  So today, I thought I’d make a little more room.

Goodbye Constance, and all you other beauties who graced our lives for a little while.  We love you.  We miss you.  We thank you.

Lyrics:

Oh all the money that e’er I spent
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

Oh all the comrades that e’er I’ve had
Are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had
Would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Their Body: It’s Not Them Anymore But It Still Deserves Our Thanks

(This is the conclusion of the previous post, It’s OK To Still Love Their Bodies Once They’re Gone.)

The hubster and I returned to Mr. B’s house the following day and, not having been around a dead body this far after the fact before, I wondered if it would smell.  The answer, happily, was no, even though the house was quite warm.  I’m not sure what the usual rate of decomposition is, but in Mr. B’s case, twenty-four hours hadn’t been long enough to pose a problem. In addition, not only had Mrs. B and I carefully bathed his body shortly before I left the day before, she and Cousin A had bathed it again in the evening.  I admit that even though I was prepared to accept whatever state his body was currently passing through, finding it clean, cared for, and odor-free was definitely better.

After greeting the family and catching up on events of the night, I finally walked over to the bed to see him. The difference a day makes is profound.  Mr. B no longer looked even remotely lifelike–on the contrary, he looked unearthly.  His skin was white and flawless, like fine porcelain.  As though an artist had slipped in during the night and shaped an exquisite replica of Mr. B’s face down to the tiniest, loving detail, kissed it, and then left it there against the pillow before slipping away again.

He was resting beneath a lovely, homemade quilt a friend had given him during the fruitless months in rehab and, being the tactile person I am, reached down and laid my hand on his chest.  I knew, of course, he would have hardened by now.  I was expecting that.  It was the cold that surprised me.  Strangely, he felt even colder than the room, but that may have just been a mistake of expectation.  He might have seemed colder because some deep, unquestioned instinct in me–the one that has to believe my loved ones will always, always be warm–was inexperienced.

I stood there for a minute, waiting for another wave of some emotion to hit me…loss, repugnance, regret, relief…but there was nothing really.  Just peace.  He was still and I was still.  The storm and wild ride had come to an end and now all I felt was finished.  It was as though Mr. B had retired the day before with great fanfare, gratitude, and good wishes, and now I’d returned to work in the morning to stand gazing for a minute at his empty cubicle.

Although, no.  Not a cubicle.  His body wasn’t like that at all.  A cubicle is just some sterile, temporary workspace that we work in for eight hours before we get to go home at night.  His body was so, so much more than that.  It was everything that had been solid and warm and real, the part of him we got to touch and dance with and talk to.  His body was the strong and loving arms that reached out and held us when we were small or lonely or afraid.  The voice that whispered to us, and laughed out loud, and trembled sometimes with the strength of emotions he could barely contain.  It was the seeds that brought children, and their children, and their children into this world.  And it was the lips that shaped a lifetime of slow, thoughtful words and then kissed us, warm and reassuring, against our cheeks or foreheads or lips.

No.  Mr. B’s body was nothing like a cubicle.  It wasn’t him either, but it was still something amazing and beautiful and longed for…something we were so grateful to know and touch while we had the chance, and that we’ll ache for now that it’s gone.  I think when someone dies like this, it’s actually a double loss; we lose THEM…that vibrant, animated, unique pulse of Life that was their miracle and gift to this world…as well as the intimacy, comfort, and warmth of their physical self.

It’s so much, this loss..so huge.

And yet, easier to bear somehow because this time at least, our good-byes were lingering.  Because he stayed with us for just that little while longer…giving him the time he needed to unwind from his body and us the time we needed to unwind from him.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

The Jewish Do Not Leave Their Dead Bodies Alone

(children intuitively understand)

One of the great sorrows when my mother died was leaving her body alone in the hospice facility after she died.  Indeed, for my sister it went beyond sorrow into trauma.  The problem was that her death was unexpected and she hadn’t done any advanced planning for the disposition of her remains.  All any of us really knew was that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in a bay that she loved.

None of us (ten kids frantically assembling from all over the world) had a clue what to do.  We didn’t know the laws governing human remains and it was a shock to find out 1) how much paperwork is involved and 2) how much time it takes to complete it.  To our dismay we discovered that due to the lack of advance planning it would take a full week before she could be legally cremated.  None of us was in a position to wait that long…it had been hard enough just to get there in time…but more importantly, even if we could have stayed, there wasn’t really any way to stay with her body.  Cremation facilities don’t provide waiting rooms next to their refrigerators.

Turns out our culture isn’t very family-friendly where its bodies are concerned.

So instead my sister and I closed the door, gathered warm water and cloths, and bathed her body ourselves there in the room where she died, loving, tender, and stricken as we said our final goodbyes.  Then we reluctantly walked out of the bedroom and facility, climbed into a car, and drove away.

It was awful.  Leaving her all alone like that, vulnerable and helpless with no one to protect her.  It felt like we’d abandoned her to strangers and I’ll always have deep regrets about it.  But lacking any kind of long history and established customs for that kind of thing we just weren’t prepared to do it any differently.

Which is why I was fascinated to run across a beautiful, poignant article in the New York Times titled Keeping Them Company At The End.  It’s written by Joy Levitt, a rabbi with congregations in New Jersey and New York, and in it she tells the story of sitting with a woman and the body of her dead husband until the doctor could get to the house and pronounce.

It caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  One, she refers to a kind of awareness that I often hear described by people working with hospice; the recognition of “what an unusual and extraordinary privilege it was to be in that bedroom.” And she also does a wonderful job of capturing the illuminated quality of love which so often permeates the room around the time of dying.  But what started me reminiscing about my mother’s death in particular was her description of the Jewish tradition of guarding the bodies of their dead.

“Jews do not leave dead bodies alone. Communities appoint people called “shomrim” — protectors — to watch over the deceased from the time of death until the funeral. It is considered a “mitzvah” — a commanded act — and a holy thing to do, but its origins probably date to a time when there weren’t adequate ways to protect bodies from rodents (or perhaps evil spirits) during the night.”

What a great tradition.  It made me wish I was Jewish for a minute.   Not surprisingly, the white-Protestant-repressed-denial-of-death background I come from doesn’t have much to offer in this area.

I was just looking around online and found some of the following resources for anyone interested in a non-traditional approach to care of the body and funerals.

Home Funerals (lots of great links in this one)

A Family Undertaking (trailer for a really, really beautiful and inspiring documentary.  I watched this a while back and just loved it.)

Final Passages website

And to find out information on the actual laws governing disposition of human remains in my state, I did a search for Idaho laws governing disposition of human remains and found the existing legislationI imagine some variation of that would work for most states.

And by the way, if any of you have a minute, I’d love to hear about experiences you’ve had or resources you’ve found, too.  Thanks!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Film: Departures

I finally watched the Japanese film Departures last night and was astonished and blown away, both.  The 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film also captured thirty-four other international film awards and, in my humble opinion, deservedly so.  It took the difficult subject of “encoffining”, the ceremonial (and totally fascinating) bathing and dressing of the recently deceased which is performed in front of the family, and treated it with a lightness of touch and reverence that made it both moving and accessible.  Add in a stunning soundtrack and cinematography and no wonder it was such a hit.

I’ve caught a rabid cold from the hubster so, much as I’d love to go on and on about it, I don’t have the energy.  It’s hard to juggle a parade of soggy tissues and tea cups while trying to type so I thought I’d just leave you with the trailer for the movie.  That way you can get a flavor of it for yourself.

The one thing I will say is that this movie captured the beautiful, uplifting experience I had over and over again with the dying and their families.  It somehow managed to portray a little of everything that’s involved; the grief and joy, anger and humor, the awkwardness that so often arises in circumstances of profound intimacy, the need for forgiveness, the graphic elements involved, the enduring love, and the ultimate affirmation of life that comes when death is received with dignity and grace.  It also captures how the gifts of those who die can pass outward in a spiral, swirling back into the lives of those left behind to aid in healing their wounds, both new and old.

I give this movie two thumbs up needless to say.  Here’s the trailer:

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Of Troughs, Wombs, Longing, and Loss

Today is the sixteenth month anniversary of my mother’s death.  Her birthday was a week ago and I’m experiencing some sort of strange sadness-lag.  Kind of like jet lag, only emotionally.  I was fine on her birthday.  I actually had a great day with lots of fun and happy thoughts about her.

The hubster and I spent that day taking his father on a belated birthday, airboat ride down in the Snake River Canyon.

There were storms rolling in across the southern part of the state later in the afternoon and we were treated to thunder echoing off the canyon walls, one of the most spectacular double rainbows I’ve ever seen, and some distant lightning.

“Hand of God” looking isn’t it?

(Smiting?  Anyone?  Anyone?)

It was wild and intoxicating and celebratory, the kind of day my mom would have adored, and there were a few times during the day when I secretly felt like what was going on in the sky was the meteorological equivalent of confetti and giant candles on a big afterlife cake.

But that was the anniversary of her birth.  Now I’m at the anniversary of her death and the happiness engines have reversed and I’m feeling sad instead, gliding back down into one of the shadowed troughs between waves on this huge ocean of grieving.  I thought I’d grown accustomed to the ups and down of the whole process but this slide has taken me by surprise.  The troughs have grown farther apart over time, and I guess it’s been long enough since the last one that I actually forgot and thought I was done.

Silly, silly me.  Like the waves of the sea are ever done.

Maybe in the end this isn’t so much an ocean of grieving as an ocean of love, and this vast, rhythmic fluctuation of ups and downs, joy and sadness, fullness and loss is simply a continuation of the love my mother and I always shared…and still seem to share in some new yet confusing way.

On the morning that she died my sister and I gathered water, soap, and washcloths by her bedside.  We closed the door to the room and together bathed her for the last time, gently touching her arms and legs, her face and hair, all the intimate, beloved parts of her body that granted us entrance and life so many years ago.  At one point I stopped and rested both hands over her womb.  I closed my eyes, struggling to remember what it was like back then, when I was infinitely fragile, tiny, and curled.  Waiting and dreaming.  Contained and safe in the first home I ever knew in the world.

Perhaps this ocean of love I’m drifting up and down, up and down in now is like some second, larger womb I came into when I exited the first.  A continuation of the warmth, protection, and nourishment she enveloped me with after I left her body and began to grow outside of her.  What she smiled and still cradled me in as I pushed her away, developed into a woman, and came to believe I was somehow separate.  Only in the end, not quite so separate as I thought.

Thank God.

And now, even with her beautiful body collapsed and dead and returned to ash, I can still float along in the waters of this other great womb that her love for me once created, and my love for her now sustains.  It’s probably okay to welcome today’s weight of longing as much as I welcomed the joy of a few days ago because in the end, they’re each a different expression of the same exquisite gift.

I miss you, Mom.  I’ll always miss you.  Thank you for loving me.

Thank you for everything.

Taken on her 70th birthday, playing in a tributary of the Salmon River: The River of No Return

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

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




Observing the One Year Anniversary

Tomorrow will be one year to the day since we lost her.  June 10, 2009.  Karling Evelyn Shaver Wheelock Kolter died peacefully, surrounded by family that all loved her.

Now they all miss her, too.

As I sit here and hail back to the events of that day, I thought I’d post the notification letter I sent out a week later so you could hail back as well.

This is in memory of Mom.

June 17, 2009

To all those who’ve been holding my mother and all of us in your loving attention:

Our entire family was deeply touched at the outpouring of love and support that came in response to my last email…I can’t tell you how much it’s helped.  The stories so many of you shared about the way in which Karling touched your lives were profoundly moving.  We knew, of course, how much she had influenced our own lives.  We suspected she had influenced a great many more but we honestly didn’t realize just how many or how much.  Thank you for the education.

For those of you who have not yet heard, Karling died a week ago yesterday of colon cancer.  It seemed sudden to us all, primarily because her symptoms didn’t seem severe enough to indicate an illness that serious until a few weeks before the end.  She actually died a serene, peaceful death in a beautiful hospice facility in Las Vegas surrounded by gardens and fountains, a central courtyard garden and an aviary full of the birds she so dearly loved.  It was soothing to be in a place of peace and calm, surrounded by people who view dying as a profoundly valuable time of life.  The entire family made it to her bedside in the end—her husband Jim of course, all ten kids with their various spouses, her brother, sister, and a dear nephew, a smattering of grandchildren and great grandchildren and a few close friends.  We were a boisterous, emotional bunch but the hospice staff welcomed that, too.

She was largely unconscious for the last four days, resting for the most part in a state of deepening silence–we think she was probably just waiting for the last of us to arrive from the far flung parts of the world where some of us reside.  There was a strange thing happening to her body, too, as she lay there.  At first we thought that perhaps it was just our imagination but every day she began to look younger and younger–her wrinkles and age spots simply disappearing.  Her skin grew increasingly soft, supple, and clear, taking on a translucent quality that appeared almost radiant, and at the very last her face looked more like that of a young girl in her twenties than the seventy two year old woman she actually was.  It was really quite extraordinary and made us sometimes laugh out loud and wonder.  During this time she also seemed to be making the rounds.  It’s amazing how many of us either felt her around us, dreamed about her talking to us, or actually heard her laughter or voice at different times.  (These kinds of experiences continued to a lesser degree in the days immediately following her death, which has really helped as we try to navigate the transition into a world without her arms, her voice, her smile, and all the other myriad, everyday gifts of physical presence.)

India 1969

Through an extraordinary set of seemingly random and disconnected events, most of us wound up assembling in her room minutes before she was to take her last breath.  Various family members read scripture passages or said prayers from a variety of spiritual traditions, which seemed absolutely perfect.  She had helped to foster a deep love of spiritual life in each one of us, always embracing Grace in whatever form it happened to present itself—it seemed right that it presented itself in multiple forms at the end.  For myself, I had a kind of vision as she seemed to be leaving her body that both surprised and comforted me.  It was as though I could see her–feel her–filling up the room, filling up the facility, getting bigger and bigger as she spread out over the city, over the country, finally blanketing the entire world like a gauzy layer of blue and rose tinged atmosphere.  The expansion made me think of descriptions I’d read of supernovas and I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that her physical body had managed to last as long as it did–trying to contain something that huge for all these years.

She died a good death–just as she lived a good life–and I’m deeply grateful for the final lessons and insights she gave us even in her passing.  She was always, always a great teacher.

UC Santa Cruz, 1989, Bachelor of Arts

…with grandchild

And now, for some of us, the winding journey of bereavement and adjustment begins.  For myself I find that it’s constantly changing.  Sometimes I remember and ache, sometimes I remember and laugh, and sometimes I forget for a little while and enjoy a brief respite, dreaming that the world is still the way it always was.  I realize this passage is going to take time and some parts will just hurt, but it feels like it will all still be okay. This is my first time with a significant loss and I still have much to learn.  But I suspect that as pain goes, the kind that comes from loving without limit through the wounding of great loss is probably about as good as it gets.  Certainly, my mother is the one who taught me the courage and wisdom of loving that much.  Strangely enough, I wouldn’t trade this sweet, sweet ache of loving her for all the gaiety and happiness in the world.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you all for loving her, holding her in your hearts, and valuing her through her final passage.  And thank you, too for surrounding us all with your kind thoughts and gentle concern.  I can’t begin to describe how the waves of prayer and support and beautiful, loving attention coming from all over the world really, physically helped and sustained us in our final efforts to care for her during her transition.  We all felt it.  It was like being spun in a cocoon of light and grace and strength with her at its core.

Jai Guru Dev

Dia

Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho, 2006

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

And Now A Grief Support Group

It’s coming up on a year since my mom died.

The anniversary is a scant three weeks away and after all these months of just trying to put it behind me, I received a phone call inviting me to join a grief group.  I’d forgotten about the whole grief group thing.  The hospice I once worked for sponsors them twice a year and, in an early effort to Be Diligent and Do Grieving Right, I’d looked into joining one a few months after she died.  But the timing was off and I fell into a crack between sessions.

Which wasn’t a problem mind you.  I’m not really much of a group person.  I look askance at help.  It’s more my style to see if I can’t just cope with the pain on my own.  In fact, I like doing things alone so much that a frustrated friend once pointed out that my name itself is an acronym for it: DIA – Do It Alone.

By the time the chaplain called  to let me know a new group was forming I was polite but no longer interested.  I didn’t want to join for a lot of reasons but mainly because it didn’t seem like I should need to anymore.  I mean, it was almost a year already.  It wasn’t time to start something new, it was time to wrap things up.  The official mourning period was drawing to a close and, I’m so sorry but really, there’s a schedule to keep with this kind of thing.

But somehow, when I opened my big, fat mouth to give him my answer, that stupid orifice surprised me and said yes.  What?!  What did you just say? And now I find myself stuck in a room for two hours a week, on Wednesday nights, with people that I don’t know, don’t trust, and don’t want to listen to, struggling to face a whole lot of emotions that I’d actually managed to avoid for nigh on a year by staying away from all the people that I don’t know, don’t trust, and don’t want to listen to.

(Which seems to be just about everybody these days.  Sigh.)

There have been two meetings so far and they’ve been pretty much as uncomfortable as I feared.  Mostly I sit there with my mouth closed (oh…so now you shut up?) and vacillate between fighting back tears and mentally picking apart whoever else is speaking.  I get so irritated.  It’s like I have this shitty, angry, little bricklayer inside me who’s trying to build the walls back up again as fast as they come down, but no matter how furiously he works he can’t seem to protect that place in the middle that’s so raw.  There’s no way.  I can’t seem to hold these other people off no matter how hard I try.  I hate it.  I hate them. I hate me.  I hate the chaplain.  And I hate grief groups.

I like the cookies though.  They always give us really great cookies.         

So two meetings down so far, six to go.  I’m sticking with it because the intelligent, compassionate, long-sighted adult in me knows that something good is actually happening and the pay off will be worth it.  But honestly, today this is what it feels like to the little kid in me:

Talking sucks.  Listening sucks even more.  And having to hang around these other fragile, struggling, beautiful people who’ve also been touched by shattering loss sucks most.  They make me remember.  All I really want to do is go into the garden, forget the whole world and dig in the dirt.  Because earthworms and compost don’t care if I’m irrational, bitchy, or sobbing until the snot drips off the end of my nose.  They just don’t.  They accept me the same way they accept the weather.

Sun or storm, baby.  Sun or storm.  It’s all just part of the gig.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn