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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‘Tis the season for brushes with an unseen world.

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The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

Halloween approaches, so it felt like a good time to tell a couple of recent stories about a sense of presence; those moments where a person inexplicably feels the intimate, invisible presence of someone or something benign.

The two stories I’d like to relate here involved the sensed presence of loved ones who died, one fairly recently and one some years back, but experiences of a sense of presence can also, of course, involve the presence of religious figures, friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, and can happen in all manner of situations from childhood isolation to survival scenarios.  But I think the majority of people are most familiar with it during bereavement, where studies put it’s occurrence at anywhere from fifty to sixty-three percent and possibly higher.

As such, I think the experience deserves to be talked about more openly, but then perhaps that’s just me.

The first story is from my sister-in-law and involves the recent loss of our nephew Cam who could sing like nobody’s business.  I’ll never forget the first time I heard him open his mouth and start belting out White Christmas.  My mouth dropped.  Everyone’s mouth dropped.  It was unexpected in the way that Susan Boyle singing The Dream I Dreamed was unexpected, only Cam was fourteen and not as polished yet.  But still.  See for yourself.  He starts singing about eleven seconds in.

You see?

Anyway, my sister-in-law was working alone a couple weeks ago and, out of the blue, one of Cam’s favorite songs popped into her head and she found herself singing it aloud, which wasn’t the strange part.  What was strange was the fact that she was singing it perfectly, because before that moment she hadn’t really known all the words.  But somehow she was singing them all anyway. She confided that in that moment she could feel Cam there with her, sharing the infectious joy he found in song while he was alive and which, it seems, he continues to enjoy afterwards.

Her story made us all laugh and helped lighten the load we’re carrying at his loss a little, which, IMO, is the real, deep, and abiding gift of these kinds of experiences.

The second story was my own and it happened on my mother’s birthday a few weeks ago.  She died four and a half years ago now so, unlike with Cam, I’m already past the initial disorientation of a world knocked sideways by her loss, as well as most of those sharp pangs of grief that used to accompany each memory.

In fact, I didn’t even remember it was her birthday until around noon when I was out shopping and glanced at a calendar for the first time that day, at which point I remembered and felt the usual brief wind of loss I feel each year, quickly followed by all the other, sweeter memories that fill the lion’s share of my heart now.  I savored them for a moment and then folded them away again, going on about my business until I got home, at which point things turned decidedly strange.

While putting everything away I wandered over to the dining room table, a piece of furniture which we never actually eat at but instead use as a long-term depository for all the official papers we’re trying to avoid.  It’s kind of like a limbo world for documentation…behind the veil so to speak…and as such it’s usually invisible to the naked eye.  Or at least to my naked eye, as I trained myself long ago to ignore everything on it.

So I’m not sure why I walked over there that day, or why, out of everything lying there, I happened to notice the back of an old greeting card lying near the corner, a little ways away from everything else.  I absentmindedly flipped it over and thought it looked familiar but couldn’t place why.  So I opened it up to read the inscription and that’s when the memory came flooding back.

It was the last birthday card my mother ever sent me, a scant three months before she died…back when I knew she was ill but didn’t know yet that she was dying.  I’d found it among my things shortly after she passed and grieved over it for a long time before finally putting it away in a box of secret treasures I keep on a high shelf in the closet in the back room.

Which is where it’s been for the last four years. Or so I thought.

I stood there for a long time just staring at it in my hands, confused and reeling a little, trying very hard to figure out how it escaped the box and made it’s way back out onto the dining room table for me to find on her birthday of all days.  I wracked my brain trying to recall when I could have taken it back out again, why I would have, but came up with nothing. Nada. (Which isn’t necessarily saying much since I’m forgetting a lot these days.) But still, it felt very strange.

I’m hardly a died-in-the-wool skeptic when it comes to the possibility of unseen mysteries. For instance, I have no problem believing that we’re all bound together in intricate, beautiful, and frequently mysterious ways, and that the love we forge is probably the most enduring of all these links. It’s long seemed to me that if anything was strong enough to transcend the boundaries placed between us by death, love would be the likely culprit as it seems capable of transcending just about everything else.

But on the other hand, I’m a practical woman and as such lean towards practical explanations.  While I have no problem entertaining the possibility that my mother’s love could bridge death, I have a harder time believing that her hands could. It seems unlikely that she could have pulled down the box, opened it up, rifled through the contents, found the card, and then carried it out to the dining room table to leave it there for me to find.

I’m not saying that she couldn’t do that, mind you…I’ve seen a lot over the years and have decided to stay open to all possibilities.  But still, there are just other, simpler explanations that seem more likely.

However, the timing  of it all was truly serendipitous and that’s what took my breath away.  While that birthday card could have been sitting on the table for a very long time without my noticing it (our unfinished wills have sat there untouched for six years now…yes, six) the fact that I walked over, picked up the card, and opened it on her birthday of all days is what made me feel the brush of some vast and unseen mystery. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d reached between dimensions and nudged me.

In any case, as my overwhelming love for her spilled out to meet her undying love for me, in that moment I really could feel her there again in the room with me, her presence fresh and sharp and immediate, surrounding and enveloping me like a warm and gentle cloud of Mom-ness.

I don’t know. Perhaps, as the tradition claims, All Hallow’s Eve really is a time when the veil grows thin and we’re able to reach across the divide and touch one another again. I love the thought.

Happy Halloween to all!

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

When odd ducks finally find each other.

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Well, I don’t even know how long it’s been since my last post.  My daughter got married this month and, while life at the wedding-zoo was fun and magical and fascinating and celebratory and emotional and very, very important, I was still relieved to take the last guest to the airport at the end of it all and return to an empty home.

Silence cannot…I repeat cannot…be overrated.

A few of my favorite highlights:

1) Daughter is a costume maker and she and old friend Bombshell Bridesmaid dressed up one night in an authentic can-can dress and 17th century French court dress to go to a local, Idaho bar.  When I asked her she grinned and said nobody paid much attention because “they all know me by now.”

2) All the girls wore crowns. Daughter loves crowns and feels everyone should have them.  She sometimes wears one on bike rides.

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3) Daughter loves a production and enrolled the weather gods to help.  After a heat wave that lasted weeks the wedding day dawned overcast and chilly with breezes.  Black storm clouds rolled in during the garden ceremony (with the wind occasionally blowing over the microphone to sound like thunder…pure genius) but nary a drop of rain ever fell.  Shortly before sunset the light broke through to make a rainbow that lasted close to half an hour for photo ops.  I mean really.  Bravo you guys.

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4) The original wedding cake (a bass drum in honor of the drummer groom-now-son) slid off onto the baker’s garage floor during transport.  This was the back-up cake.  Note protective box.

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The baker deserves a medal for this.  I mean, really.  Stunning.

5) The stylist for the girls was a no-show.  Enter, Son’s Bay Area girlfriend who just happened to have all the make-up and styling equipment necessary to prep five women for a wedding.  She swooped in and made them all gorgeous then zipped off to whip together her own exquisite coiffe.  (Who was that masked woman?!!)

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7) Daughter and New Son just laughed, drank champagne, and waved every setback off.  They were totally in it for the ride.

8) Daughter included the promise to obey in her vows!  Naturally, nobody believed it but the dramatic effect was magnificent.

6) My aunt who’s a quilt maker pulled an unfinished quilt out of mothballs that my great grandmother started close to seventy years ago.  Originally pieced together from old pajamas, shirts, and house dresses but never backed, quilted, or edged, it passed first to my grandmother then my aunt fifty years ago.  Aunt decided it was high time to finish the thing in honor of great-great granddaughter’s marriage and I can’t be certain but it felt like the full lineage of matriarchs was present for the opening of the gift.  (Great group of old broads btw.  They were no doubt cracking bawdy jokes about the wedding night.)

On a serious note, I feel very, very fortunate that my daughter chose a good, kind, unflappable man with a huge heart and a quick brain, and that the two of them are SO well matched: eccentric, artistic, and profoundly laid back.  She can happily dance to his drumming for hours and he genuinely enjoys the weird and wonderful way she so often dresses.  Really, it’s kind of heartening that two such odd ducks could even find each other in a huge world full of trillions of people  like this, and even more surprising that they actually got married since I thought they’d just live together happily ever after.  Life is a mysterious, generous, magical thing sometimes.  It truly is.

To my daughter and new son: With all my heart I wish you a long and beautiful life together full of love, courage, willingness, and continued trust and faith in one another.  May the storm clouds forever mass on your horizons for dramatic effect, never actually break, and delight you afterwards with enduring rainbows.

I do so love you both,

Mom

p.s. I’ll cover Random Hot Tip About Dying #5 in my next post.  It seemed a little incongruous to add it here, even to me.

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

This post is a continuation (well done, me!) from the last one: Important Writing Skill: Follow Through.

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2 went something like this:

“Accepting dying might not always make it easier when it comes, but being horrified is guaranteed to make it worse.”

Once upon a time on a flight from Denver to St. Louis I found myself seated next to a late-boarding, extremely chatty, middle-aged woman from New Jersey who kept up a non-stop flow of conversation with everyone who would listen from the minute she first came through the front door till I got off the plane in Missouri.  I’m fairly friendly when I travel but this woman put me to shame.

I was on the aisle, she was in the middle, and a handsome thirty-ish man sat next to the window on her left.  Predictably, she engaged Mr. Handsome first and they conversed for close to half an hour before she finally turned towards me, smiled brightly, and commenced her interrogation.  We got through where are you coming from? and where are you headed? in less than a minute after which she asked me the question I’d been waiting for: So what do you do?

I smiled and said, “I work with hospice,” then sat back to watch the show.

She didn’t fail me.  In fact, she was magnificent, it was hands down the best display I’ve ever seen.  She froze at the word hospice and went pale, eyes widening and mouth forming itself into a mute little “o” as if she’d just discovered she was sitting next to the grim reaper.  She stared into my eyes for probably ten full seconds (which is a very long time to just sit there and stare at a complete stranger without saying a word…go ahead, time it) and then turned her back on me and engaged Mr. Handsome in forced conversation for the rest of the flight.

I chuckled and went back to my book.

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Illustration of Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

Her reaction was extreme but hardly unusual.  I’d guess somewhere around ninety to ninety-five percent of the people I told over the years fell somewhere along this squirming-to-bugeyed spectrum when they learned that I worked with the dying.  Only a handful were open and willing to talk about it, which tells you something about us.

Needless to say I never chuckled when I saw this kind of horror in a person who was currently dying, or someone who loved that person who was dying, mainly because it’s so. not. funny. in real-time.  It’s tragic.  In the person who’s dying it can produce varying degrees of self-loathing and bitterness, while in a loved one it either keeps them away or, if they do force themselves to swing by and stand uneasily near the bedside for a half hour, it can make the dying person feel so bad that they wish they hadn’t come.

Look.  Dying is challenging, even for those who are ready for it.  I’d be lying to you if I told you otherwise. Physiologically, it’s full of graphic processes that are uncomfortable, undignified, and unlovely.  Emotionally, saying good-bye to everything you’ve ever known and loved is a bitch.  And existentially, everyone has to face that this is it and decide what kind of afterwards they’re looking at and deal with that if necessary.

It’s a lot of work, but just like any other kind of work, how you approach it makes a world of difference.  During my years in hospice I saw a lot of people die well, with dignity and humor and sorrow and regret and suffering and love and acceptance all bundled together in a final package of overall grace.  Without exception, these were people who eventually accepted that they were dying and found something in their life to care about to the last anyway.

And BTW, they didn’t do it alone.  They did it with a lot of help and support from those who loved them, as well as the hospice team who was working like crazy to make it happen for them.

I should mention here that everyone is a little bit horror/little bit grace when it comes to dying. That’s part of being human, to encompass the full range, and if you find you’re currently coming down hard on the horror side of things, don’t worry.  It’s perfectly normal for the shift to acceptance to be gradual and erratic and to some degree it keeps happening all the way to the end.

But it does take effort which is why accepting dying is a good goal to set your sights on now, wherever you are in your life.  It can not only improve the quality of your dying time when it comes, it can also improve the quality of your life long before then.  Not to mention that it also improves the quality of life for everyone else you know who’ll be dying before you do.  Dying is a social activity that affects the entire community so ideally we’d all be pitching in to support and include whoever’s turn it is more than we do.

Trust me, whether you’re dying yourself or visiting someone else so engaged, compassion and acceptance will do far more good than revulsion and dread ever could.  Dying is hard enough work without piling that on top of it, too.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The Darling Slob

I just served up dinner for Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt and had to laugh.  He was, as usual, beside himself with anticipation, and even more so because he saw me place the core of the apple I’d just been eating into his bowl before scooping his dog food in on top of it.

Apple cores have become a serious problem in our household, so much so that we can no longer eat an apple at all if Dane is near enough to hear the crunch.  We have to put him in a bedroom, or outside, or in the garage, because he has overactive salivary glands and, when stimulated, they produce enough drool to solve a small municipal water crisis.

And for some reason nothing…I repeat, nothing…stimulates his glands like an apple core.  Go figure.  It’s not so bad with popcorn or miscellaneous kitchen scraps.  He doesn’t do it for chicken skin, carrot ends, squash rinds, browned lettuce (lettuce!) or any of the other produce whittlings that I toss him while cooking.  But an apple core…a fucking apple core…triggers something in his perpetually starving little imagination that sends us into hazmat suits.

So we attempt retraining.  We no longer give him apple cores from our hands, right after the last bite.  No ho.  We take them out to the garage and place them into his out-of-reach dog bowl to be incorporated with his next meal.  We’re determined to teach him the value of delayed gratification no matter how much he dislikes the concept and, even though his dragging body/droop eared/tragic-eyed reproach is disconcerting, I think we’re making progress.

He dines in the garage and only in the garage.  Today’s dinner consisted of said apple core and dry kibbles with a spoonful of digestive enzyme powder dumped in a clump and then a generous drizzle of stinking salmon oil over all.  He gazed at me in adoration as I slopped it all together, prancing around and shaking his head a few times to make sure all the long drool tendrils wrapped firmly around his face and then, once I set the bowl down, offered up a small puddle of slime oblations to the garage floor while waiting for the actual command to eat.

He always does this.  Always.  I don’t know why it struck me as so funny today but it did.  Sometimes I have to shake my head and wonder why we love these ridiculous, slobbering, undignified creatures…who lick themselves and eat each other’s shit no less…so much, but there you have it.  Their disgusting habits even endear them to us…which is so weird I can’t even think about it.

But really, what in the world would I ever do without this guy?

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copyright Dia Osborn 2013

I’m more afraid of being overtreated for dying than I am of dying from it.

I’m still plugging away at completing the old advance directive I started way back in February.  I know a lot of people say just do it….  

Just.  Sometimes I hate that word.

Although frankly, I didn’t think it would be that big a deal when I started either.  But clearly, my inertia is telling a different story.  The hubster and I actually filled out the forms months ago and, as expected, that part really wasn’t a big deal.  We educated ourselves, we weighed our choices, we made our decisions, and we wrote it all down.

Check.

It’s the next step that’s killing me.  All the follow-up conversations I’m supposed to have with loved ones, alternate medical proxies, and anyone else who’s likely to get involved if I ever hit the point where I can’t make medical decisions for myself.

Fear is a powerful, powerful thing.

But finally, last week I sat down with the friend I’ve asked to be my medical proxy in case the hubster can’t do it and we started feeling our way through the labyrinth together.  It was a fascinating conversation and helped me to really boil things down to my own bottom line.  After some initial flailing and panic while trying to explain, there were a couple of important realizations I came to that helped settle me back down.

A FEW BASIC TRUTHS ABOUT MYSELF:

1)  What happens to the hubster and kids during that kind of crisis is as important to me as whatever is happening to me.  I love them and I don’t want their needs or wishes disrespected or ignored anymore than mine.  Even though it’s not my first choice, I’m absolutely willing to go through some additional suffering and linger for a while longer if they need the extra time.

2)  Money is a very big issue for me.  I do not…DO NOT…want a massive wealth transfer happening at the very end so that nothing’s left afterwards for the hubster and kids.  So don’t anybody feel guilty about considering the financial consequences of any decision.  In fact, feel guilty if you don’t.

3)  Control is an illusion.  All I can do is try and communicate now the best I can.  In the end though, whatever is going to happen, will.  I need to try and remember that, breathe, and surrender again. (And again and again and again.)

4)  The one, single, most important, overriding principle I need everyone to remember and steer by is this:  I’m more afraid of being overtreated for dying than I am of dying from it.

So in a choice between erring on the side of choosing too little intervention or choosing too much, always, always, always err on the side of too little.  I’ve lived a huge and magical, unexpected life full of wonder, surprises, love, companionship, adventure, learning, and near constant amazement.  From a distance, I haven’t really minded the pain all that much.  If I was to go tomorrow, I’m so very, very, very good and grateful with it all.

So the bottom line is you don’t have to worry about cutting me short.  You can’t.  It’s impossible.  Honestly?  I kind of can’t believe I made it this long.  You guys just take whatever time you need…(just again, sometimes I love that word)…to get your hearts wrapped around the whole thing and say your good-byes, and then let me go.

And remember…I love you.  I’ve always loved you and I always will.  There are some things that can’t be killed.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Your Early Exposure to Death: Was It Scary Or Curious?

“Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world”.  From Children and Pet Loss.

(This post follows Five Major Influences that help Shape Our Acceptance Or Fear of Dying and Death.)

Before I start, I want to say that every person is unique, so of course the relationship they forge with death over time will be unique, too.

It’s like a lifelong dance we do; each successive loss is a new partner that whirls us about the floor for however long it lasts, then drops us in our chair by the wall again.  Every encounter is different and our perspective on dying evolves with each one.  As John Gray over at Going Gently wisely reminds me from time to time, there is no right or wrong way to look at dying.  Each person’s experience just is what it is, and that makes it absolutely true for them and deserving of respect.

Having said all that, it’s also important to remember that both trauma and beauty are inherent in the dying process.  And with increased, gentle awareness, it’s possible to help ease the first and strengthen the latter.  (That’s actually one of the main goals of hospice and palliative care.)  In practice though, this shift happens a lot faster with a person who’s already open to the good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while there really is no right or wrong way to look at dying, there are some perspectives that might be more helpful than others.  (Of course, anyone currently reeling with a loss is sacred and off-limits.  Period.  I’m not talking about you trying to change anything right now.  You have enough on your plate.)  But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to consider at least trying to tweak our view of dying before our next up on the dance floor.  It could make a difference.

So what shapes any given perspective?

Well, early impressions sure pack a punch and go a long way towards forming our view of dying thereafter.  There are a number of variables that feed into whether our first brush with death leans toward the strengthening or scary side, but the top three would probably include, 1) how big the loss is, 2) how the people around us respond, and 3) the manner of the death.

A friend of the hubster’s came for a visit a couple years ago, and when we ventured onto the topic of my work with hospice and my perspective about the beautiful side of dying, he disagreed that there was anything beautiful about it.  He related the story of his first experience with death and, truly, it was not a good one.  He lost his father to illness when he was in his teens, a time when he was particularly vulnerable and unprepared, and he was still, some forty odd years later, carrying a burden from that loss.  In his experience, dying really had been something bleak and terrible; there wasn’t anything good involved to help counter the pain.  Dying was a force that stripped him of the father he still desperately needed and then left him struggling alone in the vast hole it ripped in his life.

So when I spoke about the beautiful side of dying I encountered in my work, he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.  Because beauty had played no part in his primary encounter with death, it was difficult for him to even consider it as a possibility.

My aunt had a similar devastating encounter with death when her husband died in his forties of colon cancer back in the eighties.  The battle for a cure beforehand had involved five years of grueling, toxic, and unproductive treatment and then, on top of it all, towards the end of the fight his pain was poorly managed (as happened more often than not, back then.)  His death was not pretty and the scars it left for my aunt were profound.   So when my grandmother, her mother, died a peaceful, easy death a little while later, my aunt declined to be in the room when she passed because her prior experience made her believe that dying, by nature, is gruesome and harsh.

I always wondered (privately of course, I never said anything to her) if being present at my grandmother’s benign death might have helped heal some of the earlier trauma but, of course, there was no way to know.

But then my mother, her sister and best friend, died a few years ago and my aunt wound up accidentally being in the room when she passed in spite of her intention not to.  The moment was profoundly beautiful for all of us assembled, a final gift of grace from a woman whose life had been all about love, and it provided me with a means of finally learning the answer to my question.  When I asked my aunt about it later she answered that, yes, witnessing my mother’s good death really did help ease the burden of horror she’d been carrying for so many years.  She felt a little more peaceful with it now.

It was a revelation for me…the realization that our initial perspective on death isn’t written in stone.  That, if the luck of the draw brought us a difficult first death, we’re not helplessly doomed to tremble at the thought forever after.  It is possible to ease some of the fear of dying and create a measure of peace.

Of course first brushes with death don’t always involve a primary relationship, in fact they usually don’t, and these milder, less threatening experiences can provide an opportunity to get one’s toes wet a little at a time.  One of the most common ways that children get a first look at death is through the loss of a family pet or other animal, and these encounters provide a golden opportunity for teaching them how to navigate the dying world with courage and strength.  Children take their cues on how to respond to death (and everything else for that matter) from the adults around them so it’s important what we model for them.

I found the following story on a forum where people were discussing the potential value or harm, for children, of holding funerals for a pet.  I thought I’d include it here because it’s such a great example of how a parent’s response can so profoundly shape a child’s perspective of not only death, but the value of life:

“My parents’ dog died at home when I was two and a half — they hadn’t wanted to put him down at the vet’s. I recall him quite vividly lying there on the kitchen floor on some sheets of newspaper, and I also remember the questions I asked my mom and dad as I grappled with what had happened. I asked if I could pet him, and they said that would be okay. They were quite attached to the dog, which they’d gotten before they were married and had been a fellow-traveler with them in their journey together, and so they both cried a little. I remember trying to comfort my mom, telling her it’d be okay. Later, I watched my dad dig a large hole out in the woods, carry Jonathan out in a fuzzy red blanket, bury him and mark the spot with a large piece of white quartz.

I was very clear on what was happening, for the most part, even at two and a half. I think your daughter would be fine with it at six.

Those events left a very strong impression on me, evidently: they’re my very first memories. Though sort of melancholy, they’re by no means bad memories. My dad still lives in the same house. Occasionally, when I go back home to visit, I notice that piece of quartz a little way out in the woods, half-buried in leaf litter. I think: that rock is a testament to a life not taken for granted.”posted by killdevil at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2007 [28 favorites]

For anyone looking to learn more about how to guide children through the loss of a pet (or anyone struggling with the loss of a pet themselves) The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a really terrific website.  A lot of people deny that the loss of an animal relationship can be just as devastating as the loss of a human one.  Whoever runs this website is not one of them.

So our early exposure to death goes a long way towards shaping and sizing our lifetime fear of it, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t change.  I’d love to hear some accounts of other people’s first exposure to dying or death.  Did it influence you more towards acceptance or fear?  (Or no influence at all?)

In the next post I’d like to talk about the influence of the attitude of those who teach us about death.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Bone Monsters And The Evolution of Vocabulary

In the spirit of Halloween, here’s a spooky story.  And because I am who I am and can’t help myself, there are a few thoughts on dying that follow. (It’s like a tic.)

Without further ado I give you:

My Son And The Bone Monster

One night long ago, on a full moon in July, Father was away on a business trip leaving me, his pregnant wife, and our just-turned-three-year old son alone in the house to sleep.  It was a warm and peaceful summer night, not the kind where spectral things usually wake and wander, yet my sleep was restless and I woke up several times during the night to glimpse something shadowy passing down the hallway outside my bedroom door.  Each time I shook it off and went back to sleep, thinking it was just my imagination playing tricks on me.

In the morning I was jolted from slumber by the high-pitched screaming of my son, and I threw back the covers, leaped out of bed, and ran down the hall before I was even half-awake.

I entered the room to find him wide awake and sitting bolt upright, his back pressed hard against the headboard of his bed.  The bright morning sun streamed through the windows illuminating the entire room, yet he was looking into the empty corner near the foot of his bed as though he could see something.

As I approached the bedside he dragged his eyes away from the corner, looked at me and screamed, “It’s a bone monster!  A BONE MONSTER!!”  And I, of course, responded by doing what every good mother does; I tried to reassure him that nothing was there.  That the suspicious corner was actually empty, that bone monsters don’t really exist, that he’d just had a nightmare.

But he only shook his head in frustration, looked me straight in the eye, and said in a low, urgent, rational kind of voice, “No, Mommy.  Not that kind. This is a REAL bone monster!!!”  His voice rose back up to a scream by the last word and he raised his arm and pointed into the empty corner, as though the proof was right there before both our eyes.

That did it for me. The hair rose on the back of my neck and I climbed onto the bed, scooped him into my arms, and pressed my own back against the headboard.  I flashed back to the strange impressions I’d had during the night, of shadowy things passing down the hallway toward his room, and the coincidence gave me just enough pause to quit telling him he wasn’t experiencing something.  His terror was certainly real.  He’d done a remarkable job for a three-year old of communicating that he understood what a nightmare was and that what he was currently experiencing was something else.  I respected the effort and decided to bail on a rational approach and go with maternal instinct instead.  Here’s what She had to say:

Honey, he’s facing a monster here.  Imaginary or not, are you gonna let this thing fuck with your child?

Well, not when you put it like that.  No.

So I planted myself firmly on the bed, gripped my trembling son against my chest, and crooned ferocious words of protection into his ears.  It’s not gonna get you, sweetheart.  I won’t let it.  I will rip that freaking monster bone from bone…tear its head off, smash it down in the street, and run over it with the car a million times…before I’ll ever, EVER, let it get anywhere near you.  And trust me, I meant every word.

I continued along these lines until Bone Monster seemed to throw in the towel and leave.  I realized we’d won when my son suddenly relaxed, looked up, and told me he was hungry. Hallelujah.  We got up, got dressed, and traipsed out to the kitchen to make pancakes.

As far as I know, the Bone Monster has never returned.

Now, I don’t know why my son and I saw the things we did that night but, since it never happened again, not knowing doesn’t matter.

What’s more interesting to me is that my son called what he was seeing a Bone Monster.  Frankly, the term confused me at first.  (And apparently, only me.  Everyone else who hears the story immediately recognizes that he’s describing a skeleton.)  But when I realized what he’d done…that in lieu of the word skeleton which he hadn’t learned yet, he’d put two words together that he did know, bone and monster…the linguistic elegance of the feat just about knocked my socks off.

Think about it for a second.  The two words he chose had a lot of depth.  Both are multiple use, ancient words that have existed in pretty much every language since the dawn of time.  Bone is steeped in anthropological and folklore traditions as well as modern medical and scientific understanding while monster, still used to describe everything from childhood scary things to giant construction equipment to the heads of despotic political regimes, is quite simply one of the greatest words of all time.  (In fact, with the emotional relief its capable of delivering, I think monster ranks right up there with obscenities.  It can be that powerful.)

So separately they pack a punch, but putting these two words together created a description that was unbelievably sophisticated.  It conveyed not only a physical description of what he was seeing (a collection of bones-sans-flesh that were still arranged in the original shape of some kind of creature) but the intense emotional impact as well (monster–communicating supernatural animation, malice, and immediate threat.)

And it was all because he didn’t know the word skeleton yet.

But children do this all the time, you might argue.  So what?  And of course you’d be right.  Small children are wizards of language right out of the gate, which is probably why we usually take the sophisticated achievement that it is for granted.  I honestly don’t know why I woke up for a minute and saw it this time, but I did.  I goggled.  Positively gaped.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting.  The thing is; It’s not just kids who do this, falling back on old words to describe new thingsIt’s what we all do, whenever we try to communicate about rare experiences. Common names don’t exist yet for uncommon things so if we’re going to try and talk about them anyway, we always have to cobble together existing language in a new way.

And, finally, here it comes…

This is what I feel like I’m up against when trying to talk about my work with the dying.  I mean, I have to use the word dying.  I have to.  Physiologically, that’s just what’s happening.  But it’s also a misleading word, because when I say dying most people hear horror + terror + suffering + death, and then they shut down and that’s the end of the conversation.

For a lot of people dying is the Bone Monster.

But it means something different to me.  After working around it a while, caring for and learning from the people who were doing it, the word dying gained more grace and lost some darkness.  When I say it now there’s still horror in it, of course, but there’s also something strange and luminous involved that takes my breath away.  Its terror is countered by first hand observation of our inherent reservoir of courage, and its suffering is buoyed by my discovery of unsuspected strength.

And death?  It’s still there, too.  But now its death + the dawning awareness that our lives are so irrevocably entwined…our dreams, emotions, cells, and breath are so deeply woven into the physical fabric of the world itself…that on some weird, tangible level that I can see and touch and smell and hear and yet still can’t name, we’re indestructible.

I guess for me, dying is the whole package now, instead of just its worst parts.  I think of it as both Bone Monster and everything that protects us from bone monsters at the same time.  It reminds me of my son’s bedroom that morning; where there was a terrifying source of darkness in the corner, but there was also a fierce, radiant bond of love on the bed. That radiant bond exists in the rooms of the dying, too, and I saw it over and over again, a benign force that seems to emanate from everyone involved but also from the environment.  Almost as though it’s structural, like something we’re made out of.

Sorry, that’s the best I can do.  I don’t have adequate language to describe it except in the most primitive terms, which is incredibly frustrating and part of the reason why I started this blog.  I realize I keep harping on this over and over again.  I think it’s just my way of trying to work out some viable language.

Currently, we have hundreds of common ways to describe the horrible aspects of dying but almost none that describe the beauty involved.  It’s no wonder so many people are still dying bad deaths.  Maybe if we start developing some language for the good parts, too, it’ll get easier to start building good deaths for everyone?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Good Skill Set For Depressives (With or Without Drugs)

I’ve been living with clinical depression for a couple of decades now.  It can be challenging terrain…lots of sheer cliffs and deep canyons that are way too easy to get lost in, especially in the beginning when they can feel inescapable..but after twenty years I’ve learned how to get around.  Mapped out the local territory, made friends with the natives, and built a beautiful life there that I really love and am deeply grateful for.

I’ve done it without antidepressants.  And before anyone gets their panties all in a bunch, I’m not opposed to pharmaceutical treatment. (I so dislike that whole battle.  It’s divisive, distracting, and a waste of precious resources.)  It’s just that, back when I slipped into my first severe episode, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  Depression wasn’t the by-word it is today.  It took a while just to figure out what I was dealing with and, once that became clear, I still couldn’t afford long-term, continued access to drugs.

So it was fortunate I’d already pieced together an alternate treatment plan that was working for me.  It’s complex, eclectic, and tailored specifically to my life and strengths, so there’s no point in going into detail here.  But there were a handful of important skills I had to develop in order to make the whole thing work and I suspect they might be helpful no matter what treatment plan a person turns to.  So just in case that’s true, here they are:

A DEPRESSIVE’S SKILL SET:

1)  Develop emotional endurance.  A lot of it.  Do exercises.

2)  Trust your instincts, you’re not crazy.  Some studies have suggested that depressives actually have a more realistic view of the world than non-depressives.

3)  Question your conclusions.  Depressives can take that aforementioned realistic view (especially in a severe episode) and translate it to mean everything is futile and unbearable when it’s not.

4)  Develop emotional endurance.  Really.

5)  Depression annihilates confidence so cultivate stubbornness instead.  (Desperation is also a surprisingly effective motivation for short hauls but it’s tough on the adrenals.)

6)  Did I mention develop emotional endurance?

And 7)  Look for light.  It’s a discipline that can save you.  If you can’t find any immediately, then hang on to memories of old light until you can.  Living with depression is a lot like living at night.  Colors fade out and disappear during a descent, and the whole world falls into shades of gray.  But once you figure out where to look and start to see them, the stars in there will knock your socks off.

The Pillars of Creation

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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

Building Immunity: Dying isn’t avoidable, but the horror of it is.

So what drove me to work with hospice in the first place?

Dying encompasses a significant chunk of our total life experience yet, because our society has such an ingrained revulsion and fear of it, we tend to quarantine, hide, then ignore the people who are actually doing it.  And because I grew up in our society, I dutifully learned to wrinkle my nose, too, to try and avoid things like illness, decay, ugliness, aging, abuse, and death.  Poop and throw up.  Sadness and sagging.  Helplessness, wrinkling and loss.

Everything was going along just fine until one day I started to notice that, with aging, more and more of the people and places I loved were passing under the shadow of these things.  This, of course, made avoiding the necessary things more difficult and I started to chafe.  But it wasn’t until it reached the point where avoiding the scary stuff became synonymous with avoiding the people I loved who were experiencing them, that something inside me finally mutinied.

The system clearly wasn’t working the way I’d been told it should.  So, after some thought, I dug my spear out of the closet, painted and crossed myself, then marched off into the heart of darkness to investigate that big, hidden chunk of life for myself.  Go explore it.  Learn my way around.  Find out if it was really as bad as everyone said it was, and discover if I had the stomach for it or not.  I quickly found a hospice where I could volunteer, then approached my first bedside and sat down with a catheter bag knocking against my knee, the fumes of urine wafting steadily up into my nostrils, for the next two hours.

And in direct contradiction to all I’d been led to believe, I survived.

So I continued.  I stepped in and volunteered some more.  Decided to go a little farther and return to school to get certified as a nurse’s assistant.  I gave my first naked, elderly gentleman his bath, wiped fecal matter from the wrinkled genitals of a younger woman whose multiple sclerosis had left her paralyzed, and slipped my arm and strength behind the shoulders of a grandmother who could barely raise her head from the pillow while she heaved up blood into a trashcan.

And, lo and behold, I still survived.

So I relaxed a little and started falling in love with people.  I listened to their stories, sometimes over and over again, and fell deeper into love.  I studied those struggling in the depths of decline and loss; witnessed those who once walked stopped walking, those who once spoke stop speaking, those being left behind look around blindly, their hands reaching out, bewildered and lost, for something they’d never find.

And I started to do more than just survive.  I started to change.

I began to see through the blood and wasting and smells, the crushing overwhelm, occasionally catching glimpses of something shining behind the clammy skin and unfocused eyes.  I occasionally heard something in the way people spoke, something gentle just beneath their words that was so vast it wrenched my heart and stole my breath.  And sometimes—sometimes—I’d feel that thing there in the room, flowing all around us like a current of air or water, an underlying, pulsing love that was so searing and tender it left me sobbing over the steering wheel afterwards, shaken to the core.

Something transforming me, bit by bit by bit.

The concept of immunity fits well with the changes I’ve experienced.  You see, it’s not that the dying process isn’t as hard as I feared.  It most certainly is and, what’s worse, I now have all the details.  No.  I didn’t become magically oblivious to the horrors involved.  What seemed to transform was my ability to witness and contain the dying of others without being devastated by it.  It was a gradual process of course, requiring a gradual exposure, but over time, as I discovered how much stronger people are than I’d previously suspected I felt myself growing freer from my fear for them, and as my fear dissipated it allowed me to see their strength more clearly.  It became a self-perpetuating feedback loop of expanding perception and depth inside me.

This developing immunity involved something inside me growing larger with each passing day.  I’ll say it one more time because I feel it’s so important to understand—it’s not that the suffering I witnessed diminished in any way.  The hardships endured by the people I was serving remained just as real and grueling as ever, and my heart never ceased breaking for them because that’s what a heart is designed to do when confronted with the profound human suffering of others.

But as my immunity to the horror grew, my heart began to break in a different way.  Not in the destructive way that leaves smoking ruins and rubble in its wake, but more like the way an egg cracks open to release a new and different form of life into the world.  That’s what it felt like time and time again; as I watched a frantic daughter stumble into the room at the last minute to collapse by her mother’s bedside, sobbing with relief because she’d reached her just before she died, or a husband, desperately struggling out of a morphine fog for a few moments to take his wife’s hand and tell her how sorry he was for not recognizing her.  That inside, where he still existed, he would always, always love her.  Each time I felt the enormity of their love and loss inside me like a physical blow, felt a sharp pain inside my chest as something smaller and restricted cracked violently open allowing something fragile and dripping, unfolding and new, to spill out and fill me.

It was as though I was dying a little too–each time—and then being reborn again as something clearer, larger, and calmer emerged from the shards.

In a very real sense I felt like I was being vaccinated with the pain and dying of these people, so that my own capacity to bear such things, to understand and contain them, could grow.  I’d always thought of immunity as a physiological response but the capacity seems to exist on the mental, emotional and spiritual levels as well.  It became increasingly clear to me that, while the benign and loving experiences of my life are what nourish and prepare me, it’s the injuries and hardships along the way that force me to harness and deploy that strength.

I’d like to leave you with a quote that best describes this process of immunization for me, as well as its resulting gift of strength.   It’s from Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist who survived imprisonment at Auschwitz and afterwards authored the book Man’s Search for Meaning, and he captures the insight far more succinctly:

That which is to give light must endure burning.

image

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

“Love For No Reason” Book Launch Today

The book my wife-in-law, Carol Kline, just spent the last two years of her life writing with Marci Shimoff is finally launching today!  It’s after 11:00 and even though I’m sneezing, coughing, blowing all kinds of disgusting stuff out of my nose, and should be dragging my suffering carcass off to bed, I HAD to write a quick CONGRATULATIONS CAROL!!!!!!  You totally rock, girl!

(BTW, yes.  She’s the wife of my ex-husband.  She’s also the co-mother of our children and…after all the years of blood, sweat and tears it took to raise the Wild Things…a dear, DEAR friend.)

I just got an email from her and Love For No Reason is currently sitting at #9 on the Amazon best seller list and #3 on the New York Times!!  (Marci worked her butt off on the marketing end of things and she’s a powerhouse.  NOT to be denied!  Wow.)  Carol gave me an advanced copy for Christmas a few weeks ago, so when I say that the book is a great and worthwhile read, I speak from first hand experience. It’s all about cultivating a state of unconditional love in oneself that can stand against virtually anything the world throws at you.  It’s simple but incredibly profound, and just reading it gave me a badly needed lift. 

I can’t believe how far away I’ve gotten away from even thinking about trying to live with some degree of unconditional love.  I used to strive for it regularly through meditation and all kinds of spiritual practice but over the last five years have fallen off the wagon into some lazy habits.  It was something of a shock when I did the initial exercise in the book and discovered I am now almost nil for “love for no reason,” living mostly in “love for good reasons”, but still harboring a (very difficult to look at) amount of “love for bad reasons” too.  It was kind of a wake up call.

It feels great to immerse in some knowledge again that’s cultivating the highest.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading more about it, go here:  http://www.TheLoveBook.com.  It has links to both Amazon and Barnes and Noble there if you’re seized by an urge that just can’t be denied.

And just one more time for the road: GOOD ON YOU CAROL!  We’re all so proud of you for pulling yet another one out of your hat.  Great job!

 

Update:  I forgot.  Here’s Carol’s biography.  I’m just SO proud of her!

Carol Kline is the co-author with Marci Shimoff of Love for No Reason: 7 Steps to Creating a Life of Unconditional Love and Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out. She also co-authored five books–with over 5 million sold–in the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul® series, including Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul and Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover’s Soul, and the #1 New York Times best-selling Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul 2. She is also the coauthor of The Ultimate Dog Lover and The Ultimate Cat Lover. In 2006, she co-wrote You’ve Got to Read this Book: 55 People Tell the Story of the Book that Changed Their Life with Jack Canfield and Gay Hendricks.

A freelance writer/editor for over thirty years, Carol, who has a B.A. in literature, specializes in narrative non-fiction and self-help. Carol is also a speaker, self-esteem facilitator, and animal welfare advocate. In addition, she has taught stress-management systems to the general public since 1975. At present, she is at work on several writing projects on a variety of topics.