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)

namaste

What if every time you spoke to someone, you first stopped to remind yourself that the person you’re about to speak to is a human, just like you? With feelings, with needs, with scars, with longings, with heart . . .

And that to be human is a miracle. Sometimes a powerful miracle. Sometimes a fragile miracle.

What if every word you spoke–every look you gave–to another human honored this shared divine humanness?

What would you say differently? What would you stop saying? What would you say more?

namaste

I have anxiety and that’s okay

I have anxiety.

 

Some days I am in the zone, killing it.

I am a manager and I’m good at it.

I am great at sales and customer service.

I am great at leading projects.

I am the president of a Toastmasters club and I think I’m a good leader.

I am a really good friend to lots of people.

I have gotten straight A’s in basically every bit of education I’ve ever had.

I write a blog that lots of people read and find helpful.

I am a badass public speaker and can give a great presentation.

I make really beautiful piano music.

I have run half marathons.

People come to me for advice.

I survived and escaped a very toxic environment I grew up in and chosen to live life a different way.

I am really, really smart.

I am funny (don’t ask my friends).

I love to help people and at least sometimes I am good at it.

 

Some days I bury my head in the couch pillows and hyperventilate.

Some days I spend the entire day near-panicking about what would be the best way to spend the day.

Some days I randomly start crying.

Some days I feel this non-stop heavy sadness.

Some days I worry myself sick that I might get sick and die soon.

Some days I am pretty sure my whole life might be a lie, that the people who said they love me, who are supposed to love me, really don’t.

Some days I feel like crying when someone lovingly teases me because I honestly don’t get that it’s teasing.

Some days I worry that lots of people are actually unhappy with me and are out to get me. That if I’m not a good enough leader, I’ll suddenly be surprised by getting booted out the door. That if I don’t make friends or family happy, they’ll tell everyone I’m a bad person.

Some days I worry that I’m actually some really hopelessly awful person.

Some days I’m afraid that I’m just “one of those people” who will never quite be good enough, always find a way to fail.

Some days I feel like I’m floating away and I can’t reach out and grab the world I know, it’s too far gone, and I’m just stuck floating out here where nothing feels right, nothing makes sense, I can’t find anything.

Some days I lay in bed terrified and feel the room spin, and feel like the ceiling is fading away, and I stop seeing what’s around me.

Some days I can feel the *thump* *thump* *thump* of my heart beating really hard and fast and all I can feel is that my heart can’t keep up with the intense panicky drowning “Oh no” feeling.

Some days everything feels yucky and sad and scary and I finally sit down on the floor and cry and cry.

Some days I see people who always make me happy, and I realize that they probably don’t really like me, that they probably are just nice about it.

Some days I try to smile and be in a good mood and be super friendly, but I truly can’t, so I just want to get alone.

Some days everyone and everything is unsafe.

 

If I had to describe anxiety, as I’ve personally experienced it, in one sentence, it would go something like this: Watching in terror as everything you need, everything you thought you had, floats just out of your reach, and in its place, all-the-danger surrounds you.

 

Some mental illness is so serious that someone can hardly function. Some mental illness leaves people functioning well some days, struggling on others. And some mental illness injects a little bit of struggle and sadness into a mostly thriving life.

Minds are weird things. And whether someone has a diagnosed mental illness or just happens to deal with the weird stuff that happens in the mind of a human–whether someone feels good 90% of the time or 10% of the time, or maybe 0% of the time–whether someone has a severe anxiety disorder with regular anxiety attacks, or someone “just” gets pretty anxious pretty often–it is okay that you struggle. And it is okay to SAY that you struggle.

 

Some mental illness just happens, because you just happened to be born with a brain that functions a certain way.

Some mental illness happens because of a thing that happens to your body, like a disease, or like a traumatic injury.

Some mental illness happens because of sudden trauma, experiencing something like watching someone die, being assaulted, being molested or raped, or watching while some tragedy unfolds.

Some mental illness happens because of a life full of trauma, like emotional or physical abuse from your parents, or like growing up with a belief system that makes the world a dangerous place, or like getting bullied a bunch as a kid for being different.

Some mental illness gets better. Some gets worse. Some just sits there.

 

I don’t know why I struggle with anxiety as much as I do. I’ve had a professional tell me I have anxiety, but I’m not really sure if it counted as an official diagnosis of a disorder, or if it just was a statement that it’s something I deal with that doesn’t quite warrant a label. Actually, maybe it shouldn’t need to warrant a label. Maybe you don’t have to be this-far-broken to be able to talk about being broken.

I had two concussions in the last few years, and the second one sent my anxiety through the roof and it hasn’t quite come all the way back to where it was–or where I imagined it was–back when life felt more “normal.”

I started seeing a therapist after my second concussion, and very quickly he helped me realize that it was probably a good thing for my mental and emotional health that I had my anxiety and my feelings shaken up a bit so I couldn’t keep stuffing them.

I learned that I’ve naturally always had a very codependent personality in all areas of my life. I felt like my feelings weren’t important, which helped to bury my anxiety. Sort of. Until I realized that no matter how much I tried to make everyone happy, I would never stop being anxious about it.

I wish I could say that I have anxiety because of the 18 or 19 years I lived in a home that I think was full of very damaging abuse.

But I’m not sure, because I always heard from my mom that I was always a super anxious kid. (I wish she had gotten me some help about it.)

I cried pretty constantly through most of my childhood. I worried constantly about getting sick and dying. I lay awake many nights worrying that I’d end up in hell for eternity, picturing what it would feel like. I sucked my thumb long past the rest of my siblings, because it was soothing and safe. I asked my younger brother to hold my hand when he slept in the bunk above me so that I wouldn’t feel alone. And like I said, I cried. A lot.

Knowing what I’ve learned as an adult about the mind, I can identify significant anxiety attacks I had as a kid. And I remember one year I spent over half the year crying and panicking alone in my room most of every single day.

So I don’t know. Was I born with anxiety? Probably. Did an unhealthy childhood make it so much worse? Definitely. Has it actually gotten worse since my concussions? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely gotten clearer and tougher to deal with.

 

I’m a pretty normal person, I think. If you know me well, you probably know me as generally positive and fun. I look like I’ve got my stuff together.

You probably haven’t seen me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.

A lot of mental illness, people can handle well. You can try not to take it out on everyone around you, you can keep it together while you’re in public and not make a scene, you can differentiate between situations where it’s safe and appropriate to open up about your feelings or where you need to be professional, respectful, or just get stuff done.

So you probably won’t see me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.

You probably won’t see almost anybody do that.

Which means when it happens to you, you might think you’re the only one. You might think you’re not normal, you’re not okay, you’re a failure, that nobody would like the real you.

 

Saying all of this is not comfortable or fun at all. I don’t want attention for it. I don’t want to be treated like I’ve got it especially bad, because, all in all, I don’t. I’m not making a statement about me.

I wanted to share all of this just because this shitty life stuff needs to be okay. Okay to experience and okay to talk about.

If you have intense anxiety or mild anxiety, you are not alone and you’re not weird and you’re not stuck hiding. Lots of people will love you and help you, just like you want to love and help them.

If you struggle with other mental illnesses, like depression, you are not alone. You’re not weird. You can be real about it.

I don’t want to minimize the seriousness and impact of some extreme mental illnesses. For example, some people have such severe mental illness that they can’t function well enough or consistently enough to take care of themselves, and they need real help–from family, from society, from community. Some people have such severe depression that they literally can’t find the strength to get out of bed in the morning, such severe OCD that no matter how hard they try, they can’t stop washing their hands even when their skin is falling off. I don’t want to downplay how much caring support and attention we should be giving those who genuinely can’t make it through without physical, financial, tangible help.

But I honestly think that struggling with mental health is a pretty universal thing. Mild or severe.

And sometimes we just need to know that it is okay, and we need the people around us to know that it is okay. Sometimes the mind and feelings just get weird.

I challenge you to treat your mental health just like your physical health. That means when you need to see a mental health doctor, see a mental health doctor. You go for a physical once a year. Why do we save mental health help for when we’re at the end of our rope? Let’s make mental health care normal.

Don’t be afraid to be real about yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for friendship. Don’t be afraid that your struggles–little or big–with mental health make you less.

A surprisingly huge number of us are right there with you.

We’re all in this together.

#makeitok

 

P.S. It’s okay to say “me, too.” It’s also okay to NOT say “me, too.” You can be as open or as private as you need. Just know you’re not alone, and you can at least talk to someone.

P.P.S. I wrote this a couple months ago and didn’t post it about 10 times before I finally decided to. I want to help others know they’re not alone, help others have a safe space to be exactly who they are deep down–that’s my passion. It doesn’t mean that it’s “better” to be public about your mental health. So again, there’s no pressure and no need to be vocal. You be you. Just know that who you are is okay.

 

“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.” – Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

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you’re not alone