Death

To my friend Peter F.
You’re one of the tenderest souls the world has known.
Be at peace.
~

Death is yucky.

It’s been on my mind this year. A lot.

One of my first, best work-buddies died suddenly the other day. His name was Peter, too, and we used to set up a cup across the room and take turns trying to throw pens into it. We got into trouble together–a lot. We drank Monsters together and always, always made each other laugh. He did this hilarious thing where anytime you’d tell him anything–anything–he’d whip his head around and, in an exaggeratedly defensive voice snap back, “I know!!!?” So much laughter. Peter was the best, and he was a deep, deep, loving human. . . . One of the hardest things about death, to me, is that you can’t talk with the person about it afterward.

This weird year . . . I’ve watched videos on the news of Black Humans dying who didn’t need to die. I’ve looked at graphs representing hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic. I’ve been there with people barely hold on–wishing I could fix it, knowing I can’t. We’ve adopted a 13-year-old dog who we absolutely adore, but who we know doesn’t have too many more years or months to snuggle with us and eat yummy treats. We’ve talked through preparing for and dealing with “if you or I die,” since that’s a thing adults do, especially this year. And I’ve wrestled with some of my own fears and associations and assumptions and feelings about death.

A close friend recently asked the question: Why aren’t we using this year to reflect on death more? It seems like a healthy activity. But sort of like cod liver oil is healthy. It’s healthy but it is no fun. Cheese tastes better.

Another close friend recently suggested being honest more about the stuff we don’t have all put together. The stuff we aren’t confident about, or don’t know what to say about. The stuff we do struggle with. None of us have all the answers. So it’s good to get real with each other.

So, real from me to you: I don’t like death. Death gets to me. Like all the way.

Since I know you think about death sometimes, too–here are my thoughts–very random and disorganized, as this topic is for me. Once you’ve read this, maybe you can share your thoughts with me? Maybe they’re words I need to hear. Or words you need to say. Maybe you can share those words with others? Maybe we can face these yucky things together more.

First and maybe most of all: When someone dies, there’s this urge to say the right thing to make it feel a little better, to relieve a little pain. Don’t. It doesn’t work. At all. It’s almost hurtful–it is hurtful–to think your words can somehow fix the sting. Death is the worst. Let the pain happen. It needs to happen. Death is awful. Don’t downplay it. Don’t deny it. Don’t “at least” it. Maybe there’s nothing to say, and it’s just time for hugs and for just sitting next to each other.

That being said . . . here are some thoughts to (maybe) help prepare for it? . . . to give the awful experience of death some context. . . .

In some communities, death is very normal. For example, free climber Alex Honnold talks about how routine it is in his community to hear “[this-friend] just died.” Their sport is so full of passion and aliveness. But it’s an incredibly dangerous sport, so they become more used to death. From what I understand it still hurts, but it’s . . . different. It’s more . . . normal. The death? Not surprising. The full-tilt life? Worth the risk, and worth celebrating. “They died doing what they loved.” . . . Sometimes you hear doctors talk about how dying is just a part of the life cycle. In some poor parts of the world, early or painful death is much more “normal,” too. Maybe the experience of death is somewhat subjective.

A Buddhist view on death stresses how natural it is as a part of life. The flip side of the same coin. That it is such a struggle because we try so hard to deny that flip side, clinging to the things we love as if they are permanent, and seeing our individual selves as extra special instead of as one little part of a big, unified, flowing world of life.

“We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.”

~ Geshe Dadul Namgyal, Feb 26 2020 interview in the New York Times . . . maybe you should read that whole interview!

So what about after death? Do you know exactly what happens? Are you sure? Pretty sure? Not a shadow of a doubt? . . . Or do you not know? Are you comfortable with being unsure? At least able to accept it? Is there some “trust” somewhere in there? Do you think you could find a way to know for sure what happens? And do you think it would change things? . . . Do you need to know? . . .

What will you leave behind? . . . You loved and treasured your moment of life. Will you leave behind a better chance for others to treasure their own lives? Will you leave the world a little better, a little happier, a little more hopeful? Your friends and family? Or the strangers you do or don’t smile at?

Death is uncontrollable. But there is a lot we can do to probably influence the quality and length of our life. Taking care of our bodies, of our health. Taking precautions. Not being a free-climber. Never ever eating happy yummy treats. Steering clear of poor inner cities where violent crime is more common. Not volunteering in war zones. See? It’s not that straight-forward. There are some “good” things we can do to probably lengthen our lifespan . . . and there are things we can do (or not do) that give us more days on the calendar, but days with less meaning.

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. . . . You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. . . . You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr

What evil or hurt do we do to each other and to the world in our desperate attempts to cling to our fleeting lives? . . . And what unhealthiness do we inject into our own lives to try to escape death, or to deny its pain and fear? . . . Stop and think . . . . . . .

But the good things we can do–taking true care of ourselves, and not to an extreme . . . pause and ponder how deeply you treasure your life. Imagine knowing your last breath. That deep, unsettling feeling of loss . . . it’s real. Life is worth holding onto, for yourself and for others, in every healthy and balanced way you can. So maybe do eat your veggies?

Just, also eat pizza sometimes. Balance. . . . And consider doing some big, brave (if scary) good in the world.

In other words, while you’re clinging to life, don’t forget to taste life and to help others find their lives, even if it may cost you a couple years.

At the end of the day, you can’t control death. I keep catching myself wondering, day-dreaming, hoping–maybe I can find a way to help our furry friend Willoughby bypass death, postpone it, live an extra whole lifetime. But eventually, reality steps back in to say: You can’t control death. I can’t control my furry friend’s. I can’t control my wife’s. I can’t control mine. And you can’t control yours. It could be an accident tomorrow. It could be disease a few years from now. Or it could just be time to go when you’re old and grey and full of memories. And I think it may help to accept that–the fact that you can’t control death. It may make your grip a little looser, your fears a little calmer, and life a little sweeter.

One sort of sick but sort of true silver lining–which doesn’t take away the sting but might offer just a little peace: Think what will be over at death. What will be no more. What will be done. Life does include plenty of suffering. And our bodies seem to see more and more pain as we slowly grow older. Some live to see such pain and helplessness that they choose no longer to cling at all costs to their life, knowing it is time to stop fighting a brutal fight. And when there is that much pain, the fact that death will someday relieve it is not an entirely unwelcome thought, though it never makes life less precious. Pain can’t last forever. And so we hear people at funerals give the over-simplified, maybe unwelcome encouragement, “At least they’re not in pain anymore,” and no, it doesn’t fix it, but . . . it’s sort of true. . . . There is a natural end to suffering, just as there is a natural end to life.

Yes, it still stings.

What experiences, feelings, emotions, treasures–are only a part of our lives because we know that one day we will die? There is a sweetness. There is a deep love. There is attentive, expressive, desperate love that comes along with mortality. Because every minute counts.

“If we were vampires and death was a joke,
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke,
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans,
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.
Maybe time running out is a gift,
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift,
And give you every second I can find,
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever,
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.
Maybe we’ll get forty years together,
But one day I’ll be gone,
Or one day you’ll be gone.”

~ If We Were Vampires, a song by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Time is a strange and arbitrary measurement of our lives. We crave and cling to our youth, our “prime.” And we don’t want to grow old because we believe growing old means we will lose those things–the things we’re passionate about, the things we do, and love to do. Does this interpretation of time do us a disservice? Does it rob us of what we have? Of the parts of us we never really lose–that just show up in a different “time” of our lives?

“You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished. . . . Why do they count less ten years later? . . . The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.”

~ You still are and you still can, a blog post I wrote a little while ago

Here is the most comforting thought I’ve ever found about growing old–about the irreversible passing of time–though to be fair, I’ve shared it with some who don’t find it comforting–so, in case it does happen to help you, too:

“I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past . . .”

~ Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Nazi death camps, in his beautiful little book, Man’s Search for Meaning

So . . . time. It passes. We grow old. Death comes. But I am still me. You are still you. The reality, the identity, the beauty–it always IS. It will always be real. One day we’ll be done looking back, but all the love and passion and beauty will still be there, will still be real. . . . any comfort in that for you? For me, there is.

But death still hurts. It’s the worst of the worst of the worst. So . . . how do we face it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard that people really need someone there to hold their hand. So maybe we focus on how we can help each other face it. We do need each other.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Frozen II and you don’t want to know any bits of what happens, skip down to the next paragraph. Remember or imagine with me: Olaf the larger-than-life little snowman is suddenly dying. Anna comes over and holds him as he slowly fades. “I’ve got you.” Wrapped in her embrace, Olaf says, “Hey Anna, I just thought of one thing that’s permanent.” “What’s that?” “Love,” says Olaf. “Warm hugs?” offers Anna. “I like warm hugs,” says Olaf, at home in the love of Anna’s arms. And then he goes. . . . And there it is. . . . “Warm hugs.” If we have to go–and we do–can we go with warm hugs? Can we give someone the warm hugs they need? This year, so many people are dying alone in hospital beds, too far from the loving arms that would give anything to be there to offer warm hugs. So–maybe warm hugs aren’t just physical, in-person, immediate. Maybe we can provide each other a love, a sweetness, a tenderness that proves those warm hugs, even just felt deeply in the heart. Maybe it would help to talk about death more with each other . . . to express, to promise the warm hugs, so that when the time comes, we can feel them, no matter how it happens.

Maybe you get the chance to be right there with someone to hold their hand . . . to hold them. That is a gift you can know is good.

So I don’t know what to do about death.

I don’t.

It is indescribably bad.

But the sadness and hurt of death gives you and me a meaningful purpose in each other’s lives:

Treasure people now. Give happiness now, while people are still here to feel it. Life has plenty of hurts, and death is scary. So when we see each other, maybe we can remember the hurt and the fear we’ll each face, and we can take the opportunities we have, while we still have them, to ease each other’s pain in any way we can . . . to bring love and light and laughter and warm hugs into each other’s impermanent, beautiful lives.

Willoughby 1 (2)

8 Strategies for When You’re WAY TOO BUSY

Do you remember the busiest month of your life? A time where you over-committed yourself for a few weeks? Maybe it was a project at work, too many classes in school, a bunch of events–or a mixture of everything. A time when you felt like every day you just woke up, immediately hit the gas pedal, and didn’t slow down till you fell into bed at the end of the day. How did that time of intense busyness make you feel? What state did it leave you in? Stressed? Exhausted? Crabby? Anxious? Lonely? Burnt out?

All of my life’s experience has left me with this big piece of advice to give: DON’T commit to an insanely busy schedule. Being overworked and overly exhausted messes with you in a lot of ways. BUT–SOMETIMES we agree to cram our schedule full for a while anyway. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to grow or to contribute or to do something you love, and it’s too good to pass up, so you take the leap and book your schedule absolutely full for a week, or two, or three, or maybe for a month.

What happens when you do that? Well you already know, it will probably bring with it stress, exhaustion, crabbiness, anxiety, loneliness, and burn out. You may gain a few pounds, you may hurt a few feelings, and you may do a little more retail therapy than you wish. It may still have been totally worth it, but the bottom line is that it won’t be a walk in the park. So how do you make it through as healthily and happily as possible? How can you make the best of a tough period of busyness?

I recently got to experience this when I participated in a three week work project with an absolutely brutal schedule and workload. Long hours, working straight through the weekend, and it was the type of work that just didn’t slow down until you get in your car and drive away. Even then, unwinding took almost until bedtime–if you were lucky. I’ve gone through other times before when I was overly busy, and sometimes it’s gone better than others. This last time I didn’t do so well at staying grounded and positive deep down inside. It actually ended up being much tougher by the end than I had expected. So it left me thinking afterward: What could have made it go better? What will I do differently next time?

After reflecting for a while, I came up with 8 suggestions that I’ve learned by trial and error in my experience. 8 strategies for when you’re just way too busy for a while. Try as you may to maintain balance in your life, I’m sure you’ll find yourself facing another of those exhausting months at some point down the road. I hope some of these tips help you make it through happily and healthily.

When you’re facing a period of extreme busyness…

1. Show yourself compassion and support.

Cut yourself some slack. This is going to be a tough time and you’ll have bad days. You’ll be stressed and overwhelmed and you might not feel like your best self. Accept that this is normal when you’re overly busy. It would be weird if it didn’t affect you. It may help to think about how being overwhelmed and overly busy affects you particularly. Remind yourself on the rough days that you knew it would be hard, and be compassionate and accepting toward yourself.

2. Ask for help and patience from others.

Remember that this isn’t just going to affect you. There are other people in your life–spouse, significant other, kids, co-workers–who will also be affected by your busyness. The closer they are to you, the more they may find your stress directed toward them, no matter how hard you try to stay positive. Talk to them–even ahead of time–about what’s going on. It may feel awkward to say “I might be a little mean to you this month.” But if you don’t talk about it, they may not understand what’s going on and may not see a light at the end of the tunnel. Ask sincerely for their patience and help along the way.

3. Pick a couple things you can’t lose touch with.

Pick one or two or three things that will help you stay grounded and happy. Lifelines. Walks with your puppy. A TV show with your spouse. Daily meditation. Half an hour at the gym. Play time with the kids. What is a thing you just can’t lose touch with? A lot of things are important to you, but if you just try to keep up with as many as you can, you may find them to be so much that you end up keeping up with none at all. So pick just a couple and absolutely commit (meaning plan ahead and don’t budge on your plan) to keeping up with them.

4. Choose sleep over keeping up with other activities.

You’re going to really miss all the stuff you can’t do while you’re overly busy–stuff you normally have plenty of time for. It’s very tempting to give up a couple hours of sleep every night so that you can keep up with all your life stuff. DON’T! You need sleep. This is already going to be a physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting month, and being sleep deprived will make it worse. Besides, you’ll find those life things aren’t that fun when you’re sleep deprived anyway. So keep your sleep, keep your health, and keep your energy, so you can actually enjoy the couple routines you do get to keep up with.

5. Use a little transition ritual to stay grounded.

It is so easy to lose touch with all of your Why’s and all of your What’s when you speed from one busy thing to the next without slowing down to think. Try building a couple little grounding practices or rituals that you can use when you move between tasks or between sections of your day. For example, before you start a new task you can close your eyes for ten seconds and ask yourself the question, “Why am I doing what I’m doing today?” Or you can set aside five minutes after each meal to stand outside in the fresh air and breathe deeply or daydream. Just slowing down and re-connecting with yourself can keep you from getting lost in your whirlwind of a schedule.

6. Waste a little time at the end of your day.

Your brain needs rest. Sometimes, and for some personalities more frequently than for others, you need to let it shut down and waste some time. Not be going-going-going, not worry about accomplishing or being productive. This might mean when you finally get to the end of your ridiculously busy day, you turn into a couch potato for a few minutes. Twenty minutes of mind-numbing TV might be just what the doctor ordered. Don’t get stuck in a cycle of not-having-accomplished-enough. Give yourself a break.

7. Celebrate and reward your hard work.

No matter how stressful or frustrating this busy period ends up getting, you’re doing an impressive thing by working through it and taking on so much all at once. Even though it’s not easy, you’re pushing through, because you’re doing this for a reason–to better yourself, to contribute to a cause, whatever it is. So why don’t you celebrate? Reward yourself a little for all this hard work. Bragging to your friends about your hard work, or getting yourself a favorite treat can help make a tough experience a good one. What if you promised yourself a relaxing spa day at the end of the crazy month?

8. Accept and prepare for recovery to take some time.

This is one step you might not have expected, but it will really help to understand ahead of time. When you overwork yourself for two or three weeks, increasing your stress of all kinds–mental, emotional, physical–it’s probably going to leave you in worse shape than you’d like. You might feel anxious, crabby, out of shape, lonely, disconnected from your closest people, and a little burned out by the time life slows back down. Here’s the thing–those things won’t suddenly feel all better when you stop being too busy. It may take you several days or a couple weeks to feel back to normal–back in touch, on top of your game, and in sync with your relationships. Expecting all the burnout to go away on your first day off will only lead to frustration and blame. Accept the shape your busyness left you in and allow yourself plenty of time and space to recover.

What else works for you?

Happy life-ing and good luck!

 

P.S. For your inspiration…

“Get yourself grounded and you can navigate the stormiest roads in peace.” – Steve Goodier

Lou Holtz - how you carry the load