How to Get Over Grudges Before You are on Your Deathbed

As a hospice physician I have had the experience many times of sitting with a patient at the very end of life who was struggling to forgive someone they hadn’t seen or spoken to in years. I’ve recognized that the passage from life to death is a difficult process and going through it with a lighter load of emotional and spiritual “baggage” is helpful. So, many patients are motivated to leave behind their anger and resentment even toward people they’ve spent their entire lives hating.

My patient Anne told me several times that she had already forgiven her sister Mary even though they hadn’t spoken to one another for years. She told me that Mary had always been a troublemaker who had hurt her many times in the past, but again, she insisted that she had forgiven her. However a few days before she died Anne desperately wanted to talk to Mary to tell her that she loved her “just as she was.” Anne admitted that she had been carrying a grudge toward Mary all of her life and that she now recognized that true forgiveness meant changing how she viewed and talked about Mary.

While dying was a powerful motivator for Anne to tie up her own loose ends in life, I’ve realized that getting over grudges doesn’t have to wait until our final breaths are taken. In fact, if we manage earlier in life to actually forgive those who have harmed us we can enjoy the benefits of letting go of negative memories and making room for more positive and joyful feelings. Science has validated this idea by showing in studies that there are physical and emotional gains from the practice of forgiveness.

The problem is that it is not easy to get over the wounds of the past. In fact our brains are hard-wired to hold onto the negative events from the past as a form of protection and our egos are resistant altogether to the idea of letting someone “off the hook” who has harmed us.

So forgiveness is a practice that takes work to accomplish. But it’s so important that I’ve spent my entire adult life working on forgiveness as a spiritual practice. And I also included it as one of the “7 lessons from the dying” in my book What Really Matters. I’ve learned that there are several mindset shifts that have to take place in order to forgive. Here are some of the shifts in thinking that are necessary and a practice that can help you begin to forgive:

Life is a classroom.

The first step toward being able to let go of grudges is to begin to see that life is simply one learning opportunity after another. During our time here on Earth we are presented with a series of challenging lessons and we can choose whether to learn something from them or not.

The people in our lives who cause us the greatest difficulties are actually teachers who can help us grow if we choose to see life from that perspective.

You’re not entitled to a life free from difficulties.

We often believe that the harm that has come to us throughout the course of life should never have happened, that it wasn’t fair or deserved. We hang on to our grudges against other people as a badge to prove how we have been victimized by life. It is true that life isn’t fair but it was never intended to be. We are participants in a cycle of life that contains both birth and death and an equal measure of pain and joy. So we cannot expect that we should avoid pain in our lifetimes and we need to learn to get over being angry that this how things are.

The past no longer exists.

Whatever happened before this very moment exists now only in your memory. You are using your own energy and life force to keep your memories of the past alive and if they are negative memories they can exhaust you, making it impossible to enjoy all the positive little moments that life could offer you right now. No matter what has happened in the past this present moment is brand new and you have the opportunity to enjoy it if you choose. Look around and you’re bound to see something beautiful in your life if you are not totally depleted from carrying around your old resentments.

You can make yourself whole again.

Even if the person who has harmed you in the past has no remorse for their behavior, you can heal the anger you carry for them. You don’t have to sentence yourself to years of “hard labor” hauling the burden of that person’s bad behavior in your life. He or she may never apologize or even recognize the pain that has been caused but you can let go of it anyway. In fact the best revenge as has been said, could be a life well-lived and fully enjoyed in spite of pain and difficulties.

It’s not your job to punish other people.

Life will bring those who have hurt you plenty of difficulties of their own—you can release them from your anger without worrying that you are letting them “off the hook.” Don’t waste your time and energy wishing suffering on others because that will only punish you further. Don’t allow other people to continue to bring harm into your life by hating them—hatred is bad for your health and doesn’t bring you satisfaction anyway.

Look at life experiences from different perspectives.

One healing practice for forgiveness is the “4-View Process” in which you intentionally look at experiences through different lenses. Use your journal to write about 4 Views of the situation that is causing you pain. The 3rd-person view describes the facts of the event as a reporter might write in a newspaper article; the 2nd-person view is from the vantage point of the person you have a grudge against; the 1st-person view looks inside your own memories of the event for other hidden feelings; and the Galaxy View is the perspective of a wise teacher or guide who is helping you see ways you can grow from this experience and find compassion and love within your pain.

Rituals can help you let go.

To finally release an old grudge it can be helpful to use a ritual that symbolizes being done with the past and moving on to this present moment. Some useful practices include burning sticks or pieces of paper in a campfire to represent clearing away what you no longer want to carry, floating flower petals down a stream, or blowing leaves or seeds into the wind. These physical actions can create a powerful shift internally as you mark the transition that has taken place.

Forgiveness may be one of the most difficult tasks we are given the opportunity to learn during this lifetime but it is also one of the most rewarding. You can reap the benefits during the last hours of your life if you want to wait until that moment to let go or you can start whittling away at your grudges right now. The choice is yours to make, but trust me, you have no idea how good forgiveness feels until you’ve tried it!

Download The Forgiveness Toolkit for some additional support in getting over your grudges.

 

The Minimalist Approach to the End of Life

Learn how a new lifestyle trend can revolutionize the way we approach our last days.

In recent years the minimalist lifestyle has been trending throughout the United States, particularly among the millennial generation. Unlike their parents who sought after material goods and wealth as part of “living the dream,” many younger people are choosing to live a simple lifestyle with fewer possessions, tiny homes, and less waste and consumption.

According to author Joshua Becker: “Minimalism slows down life and frees us from this modern hysteria to live faster. It finds freedom to disengage. It seeks to keep only the essentials. It seeks to remove the frivolous and keep the significant. And in doing so, it values the intentional endeavors that add value to life.”

While minimalism provides a more relaxed and meaningful way of life to its youthful followers, this movement could also be an answer to today’s current healthcare crisis surrounding the end of life. With an emphasis on simplicity and intentionality, the guiding principles of minimalism provide a framework for changing our approach to the later years of life and the process of dying and death. Here are some of those principles and how they might be applied to decision-making at the end of life:

Less is more

The current default mentality of our healthcare system seems to be “if some is good, then more is better.” A patient arriving in an emergency room anywhere in the country in the midst of a cardiac arrest will receive full-bore, defibrillated, intubated, catheterized, crash-cart care unless an advance directive and/or a healthcare proxy is available in the moment to refuse that care. And a cancer patient is likely to be offered treatment up until the last breath is taken, even when there has been no improvement from that treatment.

In this medical system more care will almost always be offered and carried out unless patients and their representatives are able to say “no” to that care. The patient’s best defense is to adopt the “less is more” mindset of minimalism and recognize that in many situations more care creates more side effects, more expense, more suffering, and more stress on patient and family.

Opting for less care can create space and time for enjoying moments with loved ones, contemplating what really matters in life and savoring the small pleasures that bring joy and meaning to existence. Less care can mean more quality of life if you approach it with intentionality and informed decision-making.

To be a “minimalist healthcare consumer” you must have an advance directive that spells out your wish for less rather than more care. You must communicate this desire to your medical providers, your healthcare proxy and your loved ones.

But you also have to address your fear of suffering, aging, illness and death, because those fears can drive you to choose more care when faced with a crisis. Complete your paperwork but also do your inner work to confront your deep-seated and normal anxieties about the end of life so that you will be ready to face the natural passage from life to death. You should also practice the “less is more” mindset during your later years by making careful decisions about the non-emergent healthcare you receive from your provider during routine office visits.

Eliminate the non-essential

Throughout your later years as you seek out medical care keep asking: “Is this essential?” Question every treatment or diagnostic test that is recommended to you and demand to know why it is necessary, how it might benefit you, and what could happen if you don’t do it. Don’t accept a procedure or test until you have had time to do your own research or get a second opinion. Some standard recommendations that have been accepted in the past such as the annual physical exam and routine screening procedures are now being questioned as they have been shown to result in over-diagnosis and excessive treatment.

If you take prescription medications ask if they are still necessary and if you can systematically discontinue some of them to see if they are helping or worsening your symptoms. Studies show that seniors who take multiple medications are more likely to experience negative side effects and even unnecessary death from the combination of potent drugs.

Find a primary care medical provider who agrees with your “less is more” philosophy and will help you create a sensible and simple plan for managing your healthcare needs. Don’t seek out specialty care unless your primary care provider says it is necessary. You have a right to say “no” to medical care and to find a practitioner who supports your right.

Individualism

While minimalism may be a trendy lifestyle with many people following the same guidelines, its principles encourage each person to find their own path to simplicity. As you begin to advocate for your individual philosophy of less medical care in later life it’s important to know yourself and seek out what is best for you.

Spend time thinking about the experiences of aging and dying that you may have witnessed with loved ones in the past. What would you like to be different in your end of life? How can you create a better path for yourself that reflects your unique wishes and desires?

For example, if you are a solitary person and prefer to live alone for as long possible then you will need family or community support to make sure you can safely stay in your own home as you age. If you enjoy social interactions with others you might choose to be in a senior living center in the future and you will need to provide for that option financially.

Get organized

One hallmark of minimalism is “keeping everything in its place.” This principle applies especially to your plans and paperwork for the end of life. Complete your estate plan, will, and advance directives and make sure those documents have been shared with the appropriate professionals and loved ones.

Decide what type of “less is more” funeral and burial or cremation you would like to have, perhaps a simple home funeral and green burial, and put those preferences in writing too. Keep your paperwork organized and accessible, including insurance forms, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, titles, deeds, banking and investment information, online accounts and passwords, and medical records.

Live in the moment

A benefit of the minimalist approach is the ability to live lightly and with fewer burdens from the past and worries about the future. When you can live more fully in the present moment you are free to take in the small joys and pleasures that are available to you, like the beauty of a sunset, a bird singing outside your window, or the comforting aroma of dinner cooking on the stove.

However, living in the present moment takes work. You have to consciously let go of the past by giving away things you no longer need and making room for a new way of life. This applies to medical care at the end of life too—perhaps you will decide to discontinue treatments or procedures that have been part of your routine for a long time. Or you might part ways with a medical provider who doesn’t support your choice of a minimalist approach to the end of life.

As part of the medically minimalist lifestyle you will need to adjust to the normal changes of aging and learn to embrace them rather than seeking a medical solution to every ache and pain. Find modalities such as yoga, massage, relaxation, and imagery that can keep you comfortable without taking additional drugs. You may find that you receive positive “side benefits” from these practices rather than the negative side effects of many medications.

Prioritize what really matters to you

As Joshua Becker stated above, minimalism focuses on letting go of what is superficial and keeping those things in life that are significant. You have to determine what really matters to you in order to choose the components of your new less-is-more lifestyle.

This prioritization applies particularly to the non-tangible things like your relationships with loved ones and the time you spend with them. Would you prefer to stay in the community where you have lived for many years? Or would you consider moving to be closer to family as you age? These choices will play an important role as you let go of the complexities of the past and move toward a simpler way of life in the future.

No matter how old you are it’s never too early to start thinking about what is most important to you in life and making those things a priority. When you give your time and energy to the deeper and more significant aspects of life you will find it much easier to let go of all the things that don’t really matter to you.

Find Your Purpose

The key to successfully maintaining a minimalist lifestyle is recognizing that life has a greater purpose than just the accumulation of material possessions. When you know your own purpose you can make choices that support that purpose rather than interfere with it.

The healthcare decisions you make for yourself are important because your time, energy and finances can potentially be drained in later life if you pursue unlimited medical interventions in a quest to reverse aging and prevent death at all costs. The minimalist approach reminds us that the purpose of life is not to live as long as possible, regardless of the circumstances, but to live a life of meaning and quality for as many days as we can. Again, the emphasis is on the meaning and quality of life rather than on the quantity; another example of “less is more.”

***

While minimalism as a lifestyle may not suit everyone, it is certainly worthwhile to apply some of these minimalist principles to the later years of life as we contemplate how to make the most of our last days. As a general rule if we focus on what is simple and has the greatest meaning for us we will be guided to make wise choices for the end of life that reduce stress, wastefulness and suffering from unwanted medical care.

You can start your minimalist approach right now no matter what situation exists for you right now. Think of one thing in your life that you no longer need and let go of it today; then repeat that process each day from now on. The more you practice living simply the easier it becomes as you free yourself from old burdens. Perhaps when you reach the end of your days you will arrive unencumbered, free to move on through the final passage with lightness and ease—that at least is the hope for all of us.

How Reading About Death Can Change Your Life

A new reading group about death, dying and the afterlife intends to increase death awareness across the country.

(Note: This post previously appeared on Medium.com)

For more than a century modern society has been intentionally oblivious to the reality of death. Once dying and death were removed from the home and every-day life by the increased availability of hospitals and funeral homes, it was relatively easy to shove death out of awareness and make it a taboo subject. There was even a belief for a time that thinking about death was pathological and destructive.

But now we know that death awareness—including thinking and reading about death—has positive benefits, thanks to research that has been done in recent years. An article by Kenneth Vail and colleagues from the University of Missouri includes a review of multiple studies on the impact of becoming aware of death and the findings are impressive:

Death awareness leads to increased helping behaviors.

People who had recently been reminded of death were more likely to help a stranger in need. In fact, increased death awareness correlated with an increase in positive factors like compassion, tolerance, and empathy. When we understand that life is fleeting we tend to focus more on the things that really matter, which includes the wellbeing of others for many of us.

Those aware of death are more likely to care about the environment.

Again the understanding that life is fragile can lead us to care more about all of life, including the natural life that surrounds us and the life of our planet as well. Those who do not deny that death is part of the cycle of life are more inclined to be careful with that life in all its forms

Death awareness corresponds with compassion toward those from other groups.

Studies have shown that members of certain fundamentalist religious groups who experienced an increase in death awareness were more likely to exhibit compassion and tolerance toward those of other religions. Peace becomes a more valued commodity when we recognize that our lives have a limited time frame.

Awareness of death leads to healthier behaviors.

It may seem obvious but studies have validated that people who are aware of their mortality tend to make better choices for their overall health. Quitting smoking, increasing exercise, doing breast self-exams, and even using sunscreens are all behavior changes that have been linked to death awareness. We cherish life more when we know if won’t last forever.

The results of these studies show us that our entire society can benefit from getting out of denial and becoming more openly aware of death. In fact, it appears from this information that many of the problems that currently afflict humankind could be alleviated with better awareness of and education about death.

One of the ways to increase death awareness is through reading books that provide factual information about all aspects of the end of life. In addition inspiring stories about the end of life can help us see beyond our fears and get comfortable with the reality of death. Books have the capacity to take us outside our usual experience and expose us to new ideas that stretch our boundaries.

In addition, by reading the stories of others who are coping with mortality we learn that all of us face the same struggles as humans here on planet Earth. The challenges we share are far greater than the differences that exist between us.

 “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin

By reading books about death and dying we can increase our own death-awareness and prepare ourselves to be a source of information and inspiration for others.

To foster this type of positive growth through reading a unique new reading group called “A Year of Reading Dangerously” has been created for 2018. The group will explore death, dying and the afterlife by reading one book on these subjects each month during the year and holding online discussions about each book.

You can join more than 700 people around the world who are all learning about death together by signing up here. You have much to gain by reading about death … in fact, it will change your life!

 

Why Some People Don’t Die in Peace

(Previously published in the Huffington Post)

Throughout my career as a doctor working with patients in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices I have had the opportunity to witness the dying process on many occasions. I have learned that even though the outcome of this process is always the same—the death of the physical body—there are many different ways to die.

In fact, each individual has a unique experience at the end of life. For some patients death is a welcome ending to a life well-lived, for others death is reluctantly accepted even though they don’t feel ready to let go of life, and some approach death kicking and screaming all the way. They “rage against the dying of the light” as observed by poet Dylan Thomas in a poem he wrote for his dying father.

Though I have seen that patients receiving hospice care often die with greater comfort than those in the hospital, there are still people who struggle all the way to their last breath, even when they are surrounded by loved ones at home. What makes the difference? Why are some people not able to be at peace when they die? Here are some of my observations from years of hospice work and my recommendations for ensuring that you have a peaceful death:

They haven’t thought about the end of life

We live in a society where death is still a taboo subject. Many people go through life without consciously considering the fact that they will die one day and are shocked when they receive the news that death is approaching. Since they’ve never thought about death they have no idea what type of care they would like to receive at the end of life and find it difficult to make clear choices for themselves while dealing with the stress and fear caused by a terminal diagnosis.

Recommendation #1: Begin to think about the reality that every living thing on this planet eventually dies and then spend time contemplating the fact that you too will die one day. The Bhutanese people have a practice of thinking about death 5 times a day and have been named “the happiest people” on earth. So make a point of thinking of death on a regular basis, perhaps reading books and watching films to help you get more comfortable with the idea of death.

They haven’t put their wishes in writing

Those who haven’t thought about death also have not made plans for the end of life or completed an advance directive. A recent study has shown that two out of three Americans have NOT put their end-of-life wishes in writing, which means they are more likely to receive expensive and unwanted care during their last days. According to a survey by the CDC, most patients do not want to die in a hospital attached to machines, but that is only possible if they have made the decision ahead of time and completed an advance directive.

Recommendation #2: Start by completing your own paperwork now for the end of life, such as a living will, estate plan, and funeral plan. Think through the options for care that might be available to you and formulate your own opinions—what is important to you? What are your wishes for your last days on earth?

They haven’t talked to their loved ones about their preferences

During a healthcare crisis many patients are unable to speak up for themselves about their end-of-life choices. If family members don’t know the patient’s wishes they will find it difficult to make appropriate decisions for their loved one on a moment’s notice. In my experience, uninformed family members are more likely to defer to medical providers when end-of-life decisions must be made and are also likely to experience guilt and conflict with one another over those decisions.

Recommendation #3: Once you’ve decided what you want for yourself at the end of life it is vitally important that you have conversations with everyone in your life that may be involved in making decisions for you. The more you talk about it the more you will create peace for yourself and for your loved ones when the time comes.

They have been unhappy all their lives

There is a saying in hospice that

people die the way they’ve lived.

I have observed that patients who have held onto bitterness and disappointment about life tend to be unhappy during the dying process as well. Since they had never learned how to be at peace with the circumstances of life, when death is near they remain angry and inconsolable. Woody Allen wrote for the movie Annie Hall that life is “full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” This epitomizes the attitude of the unhappy patient at the end of life, who hated every moment of being alive but is now furious that it is coming to an end.

Recommendation #4: The antidote to this type of misery is to learn to find happiness within yourself long before life reaches its end. Each of us is responsible for creating our own joy in life, even if life hasn’t turned out as we have hoped. Conduct your own “experiment” and figure out what makes you happy—then cultivate those things in your daily life and you will look back one day to find that you have led a life filled with joy.

They are holding on to old regrets and resentments

Many of my dying patients have been ravaged by feelings of guilt and remorse over events of the past. They either have felt a deep need to make amends for some previous action of their own or they have been burning inside with resentment toward another person. Those who have not found their way to forgiveness have remained in this painful state of guilt and blame until their last breath.

Recommendation #5: It is never too early to start working on letting go of old wounds so that you can avoid the overwhelming negativity of resentment at the end of life. Develop your own daily practice of forgiveness and you will find much more peace in your life now, as well as during your last days.

They feel entitled to a different outcome

Some of my patients have been angry about the fact that they were dying because they spent much of their lives doing things they believed would “prevent” them from dying. They devoted themselves to a restrictive diet or intense workout plan or even strict religious practices in order to live life “the right way” and avoid something “bad” from happening to them. When they ultimately had to face the fact that they were going to die anyway they felt cheated and betrayed. They had fallen for a false belief that their healthy habits would somehow entitle them to avoid death.

Recommendation #6: It is important to come to terms with death, and your fear of it, earlier in life so that you don’t waste time and energy trying to prevent what is inevitable. Develop a practice of thinking about death as a necessary part of the life cycle and something not to be feared, but to be respected. Journaling, prayer and meditation can be helpful tools as long as they focus on the reality of death and are not serving as bargaining chips in a futile attempt to avoid death.

They rely on the medical system to make choices for them

Those patients who have avoided thinking about death generally have also not taken time to educate themselves about their own health issues. Without knowledge and information as a tool to guide decisions, they are disempowered when they must engage with the medical system. They don’t know what questions to ask or what alternatives to explore so they simply place all decision-making in the hands of their care providers. These patients may end up with more treatment than they want and encounter more suffering than necessary because they didn’t have the confidence and information they needed to help determine their own course.

Recommendation #7: While doctors are well-educated about disease and treatment modalities, they know very little about you, your life path and what options might be best for you. When you receive a chronic or terminal diagnosis it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can about your options by asking questions, reading and studying, and requesting second opinions. You are the only expert on the subject of “you” so don’t give up your power to another person, no matter how impressed you are with their credentials.

In summary, by looking at why some people don’t die in peace we have seen what is necessary in order to have a peaceful death. Being consciously aware of your mortality, working on your past issues, making plans and completing paperwork for the end of life, communicating with loved ones, and empowering yourself with knowledge are all important steps toward an end of life that offers comfort rather than chaos. But it requires work and dedication on your part to prepare now for what will be coming in the future.

Of course there are other reasons why some people don’t die in peace: they may have pain and other symptoms that haven’t been managed well, they may be alone and have no one to comfort them, they may simply be overwhelmed by the hand that life has dealt to them. But these are issues that may be addressed by finding support from hospice or palliative care workers, if that type of care is available (and reliable) in the community, though there are reports that hospice staffs are stretched too thin in some areas and care at times falls short of what it should be.

But you can improve your own chances of getting good end-of-life care by doing your own inner work, becoming an advocate for hospice and palliative care in your community, holding those organizations accountable to best-practice standards, and supporting causes that help people find peace in their lives. It’s never too early to start!

5 Simple Rituals to Enhance a Grief Travel Experience

If you are thinking of traveling to help process your grief, you might want to consider adding a ritual to your experience to increase the benefits you receive. Rituals have the power to open our hearts, even in the midst of pain, to opportunities for healing and release. This is why we hold funerals and memorial services for our departed loved ones, to help us express our pain and find solace in sharing it with others.

The idea behind a ritual is to create a safe space where we can explore our grief and let go of what no longer serves us. We do not let go of our loved one or our memories through a grief ritual–those remain intact as a pure expression of our love. But the ritual ceremony allows us to release the negative emotions that have become attached to our grief, like anger, blame, resentment, shame, and guilt. Letting go of these destructive feelings allows more room for love and peace to expand.

Creating a meaningful ritual while you are traveling requires some resourcefulness, since you won’t be able to bring along a lot of ceremonial tools and supplies. But you can design your own simple activity for acknowledging grief by utilizing the special places and natural objects that already exist wherever you are traveling.

For a nature-based ritual for grief, spend time outdoors wherever your travel takes you. Even in a city you should be able to find a park or garden where you can wander and connect with nature. Also look for sacred spaces in the area, like chapels, cathedrals or churches. Many are open during the day with free entry to anyone and they can provide a quiet and inspirational place for your little ceremony.

Here are some ideas for simple rituals you can observe during your journey:

Filling the stone

Walk slowly and mindfully somewhere outdoors, like a garden, beach, hiking trail, or park. As you walk, pay attention to everything around you and search for special objects that capture your attention such as stones, shells or pinecones.

Hold the stone or shell in your hands and meditate on the emotion you would like to release during your ritual. Envision pouring your anger or guilt into the object which has infinite capacity to carry everything you need to release. Carry the stone or shell with you for as long as you like until it  feels right to let it go. Then put it in a special place and say a prayer for your  peace and healing as you leave it behind.

I collect heart-shaped stones when I hike or travel and have found them in many places. Some stones I carry with me as reminders of my journey and place in my forgiveness garden at home; others I leave behind on my travels, perhaps at the base of a tree or on a large branch.

Gone with the wind

While you are out in nature on your grief journey you can gather dandelions, small flowers, leaves or tufts of grass to use in your ritual. Contemplate how they represent the impermanence of life, the fleeting nature of everything that lives. You might want to assemble them into a design or shape or just hold them in your hands. Whisper a prayer or a wish for your loved one or yourself into the items you have gathered, then scatter them one-by-one in the breeze or blow on the seeds of a dandelion so they are carried far away by the wind.

This ritual symbolizes the fleeting nature of life–here one minute and gone in the next–and reminds us to make the most of each moment we are given.

 Light in the darkness

Lighting a candle or a small fire is one of the most potent rituals you can perform in a spiritual setting. Candles are part of special ceremonies in every religion and signify hope in the midst of despair and the ever-present light that shines for us in times of darkness.

I love to light large sanctuary candles that burn constantly for 7-10 days during special rituals in my home, but they are not practical for travel. You can easily travel with a few small tea lights in your bag to use for a lighting ceremony or fire ritual, where you burn small pieces of paper with what you want to release written on them.

Since some hotels and establishments don’t allow open flames you can also bring along flameless, battery-operated tea lights to achieve the effect of lighting a candle while you meditate or pray.

At many churches and cathedrals you can donate a few coins and light a special prayer candle. This has been a powerful ritual for me during many of my travels through Europe, which often include visits to religious shrines.

Letting go and receiving

If you are near a river or stream find a bridge that spans the flow of water for a simple but powerful ritual. First stand at the middle of the bridge facing downstream. As you watch the water flow from under the bridge and away from you, imagine pouring everything that no longer serves you into the water and see it be carried off down the stream.

When you have finished letting go of what you need to leave behind, turn around to face the water flowing toward you. Imagine love and light rushing to you, filling all of the new space you have created within. Feel the power of the water as it roars toward you and washes away all that you have released. Receive all of the goodness and peace that is now coming your way.

I often gather flower petals, leaves and sticks and “fill” them with whatever I need to release. Then I toss them into the water flowing downstream so I can watch as they are physically carried away from me.

Mindful tea ceremony

The Japanese have long perfected the art of preparing and serving tea in a  tradition that dates back 1,000 years. They pay special attention to every aspect of the ritual including decorating the table with flowers, making special food, choosing the tea, and using the right utensils and dishes.

You can create your own tea-drinking ritual as an act of releasing grief by being mindful about each step of the process. The Japanese emphasize four qualities during their ceremonies: harmony (ensuring that even the utensils coordinate with the surroundings), respect (approaching the ceremony with humility and care), purity (leaving behind all thoughts and worries), and tranquility, which occurs as the result of completing the ceremony.

For you own personal ritual use great care and mindful intention as you prepare your tea, serve it in a special cup or glass if available, and sip it slowly throughout a quiet session of meditation or prayer.

I once sought refuge in a tea shop during a torrential rainstorm while traveling in Florence, Italy. The ritual I had planned for the day had to be abandoned because of the weather, but the little tearoom in the back of the shop gave me an opportunity to have a special tea ceremony instead. I dedicated it to my Mom who would have loved sharing tea with me that day!


These are just a few suggestions for simple rituals you can perform during your grief travel experience. You can easily create your own ceremonies by paying attention to what is available to you wherever you go and staying open to your intuition.

Whatever you choose to do, your travels will be far more meaningful and transformational because of the special time and attention you give to creating simple rituals for your grief. May you experience tranquility and peace at the end of your journey.

 

 

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Why I’m Feeling Relaxed this Christmas

It’s 2 days until Christmas and I am lounging in front of the fireplace, watching the snow come down, and enjoying a book and an eggnog latte. At least that’s how the fantasy has always played out in my head every year.

But most years at this point in the holiday season I have been frantically running from store to store looking for last minute items and staying up late at night to wrap packages while I bake a batch of cookies. By the time Christmas is over I am usually exhausted and feeling let down because the actual celebration hasn’t matched up to my exaggerated expectations.

Worse than the exhaustion I’ve felt after Christmas, I had begun to suffer from boredom during the holiday itself. Many years of doing the same thing, the same way had left me feeling stagnant and stale. I used to count the days until the whole thing was over.

But this year is different. My fantasy of reading a book and enjoying a fire is actually coming true today. I am relaxed and full of joy and love, which is exactly how I’ve always thought Christmas should feel. I’m also excited for Christmas morning and looking forward to sharing the joy with my family.

So what makes the difference this year? I think it’s because I’ve done a lot of internal work on myself through the year and have cleared out old expectations, attachments and attitudes.  As a result I’ve been able to make some significant changes to my habitual approach to Christmas:

Less decorating

I have a storage room full of Christmas decorations I’ve collected over the years and, to be honest, I feel very sentimental about most of them. I’m working on letting go of my attachments to them but I’m not quite there yet. So for now I’ve decided that I don’t need to display all of them every year.

This year I’ve chosen a few boxes of special decorations and placed them strategically in the house where they’re easy to notice each time I walk into a room. Maybe  each year I’ll pick a different box and delight in seeing some things I had actually forgotten about.

Fewer days of preparation

I used to start shopping a few months before Christmas and begin decorating on the weekend after Thanksgiving. But this year I didn’t even think about Christmas until it was 2 weeks away. Rather than feel stressed because I had so little time to get ready I actually felt more relaxed because I knew I had to limit my activities. I was motivated to choose only the things I most love about Christmas and let everything else go.

Less baking

Since we are trying to eat healthy these days I’ve changed my baking habits for the holidays as well. I used to bake big batches of pumpkin bread to share with neighbors and dozens of dozens of cookies for our family to enjoy. But I’ve narrowed my list to a few special treats that we only have at Christmas and I bake smaller batches. We still get to enjoy our traditional sweets but we have just enough to last for a few days instead of all month.

Fewer gifts

Two years ago my brother suggested that we stop exchanging gifts for Christmas, which inspired me to make the same suggestion to my friends and other extended family members. We now send cards to one another with personal notes and talk on the phone during the holidays.

With fewer gifts to shop for, wrap and mail, my stress level decreased dramatically and I’ve saved time and money as well, which is a huge benefit. Because we take time to write and call one another I don’t feel any less connected to my loved ones than when we used to exchange gifts. In fact, by being more relaxed I’m able to share even more positive feelings with each of them.

Experiences instead of extravagances

Once I discovered how nice it was to give fewer gifts I was able to suggest a change to my immediate family as well. We used to spend hours opening gifts on Christmas morning and I pressured myself to buy a huge number of presents so that there would be a big stack under the tree every year.

But this year we are exchanging “experiences” rather than material gifts, which means we will surprise each other with creative ideas for ways to spend special time together later in the year (like concert tickets, hikes, picnics, or camping trips) so the Christmas spirit will last longer than just one day.

There are far fewer packages under the tree but there’s more excitement about giving and receiving mystery experiences than we have felt about material gifts for many years. (Listen to my podcast about our experience gifts here.)

Embracing simplicity

In the past I put a huge amount of effort into making everything perfect for the holidays. I somehow thought that I could create the “magic” of Christmas by decorating every inch of my house, cooking elaborate and beautifully presented meals,  and giving awe-inspiring gifts to each person on my list.

But this year I’m finding great pleasure in keeping everything simple and allowing myself to be less than perfect. My greatest gift to myself has been time–time to read, meditate, exercise, watch movies, and laugh.

So this year I’m filled with joy and love and “Christmas spirit,” just like I always imagined. I have “unplugged” from the holiday conveyor belt and I’m hoping that you find a way to get free as well.

Stop for one moment and look around: there is beauty everywhere in this extraordinary world. So light the candles, turn up the music, pour the wine, savor the food, and share the love … it’s Christmastime again.

6 Types of Grief Travel – Which is Right For You?

I’ve shared how travel has helped my own grief process in an earlier post and included some tips for planning your first travel experience. But grief travel can have different purposes and take on different forms. If you are going to plan an extended travel experience for yourself you’ll want to know your goals for the trip so you can choose the best type of travel for your needs.

Here are six categories of grief travel for you to consider:

  • Restorative
  • Contemplative
  • Physically active
  • Commemorative
  • Informative
  • Intuitive

Read more about each of them below to see which type might be best for you during your own experience of grief:

Restorative

A restorative grief vacation may be the best thing if you are grieving acutely and not yet ready to return to the mainstream of daily life. Consider visiting friends or family who will help care for you by providing food and shelter, offering companionship or solitude as needed, and permitting you to gradually reenter the world on your own terms. This type of visit is likely to be time-limited since most people cannot drop their own schedules for too much time in order to be of service. But during the early days of grief it can help you immensely to have a safe and nurturing place to just “be” yourself for a short time.

After my father’s death I traveled back to my hometown with my husband and two small children to help make funeral arrangements and be with family. My cousin took us in and housed us in her home for an entire week so we wouldn’t have to stay in an impersonal hotel. She cooked nourishing meals for us, watched my children when I needed time alone, and sat up listening to my stories late at night when I couldn’t sleep. Her lovingkindness made all the difference for me in my own grief process and I left her home feeling much stronger than when I had arrived.

Contemplative

If you are further along in the grief journey you may be ready to spend some time alone so you can dive deeply into the pain you have encountered and explore all of your emotions. For this contemplative type of travel you might want to visit a meditation retreat center, spa or healing resort that will allow you space for your own private experience. Many retreat centers also offer meals and a variety of classes like meditation and yoga that you can join if you want.

This travel experience is perfect if you need to process some deep feelings and are comfortable being alone for a few days. Bring a journal, music, candles, instruments, inspirational books, and anything that helps you connect with your higher self to get the most out of your travel.

Several years after my father’s death I spent a long weekend alone at a hot springs resort in the mountains so that I could do some thinking and writing about the impact of his suicide on my life. I had a profound experience there as I confronted old fears and anger and found a new level of forgiveness for him. But it was only possible because I was there alone and had time to go deep into my own dark emotions.

Physically active

Some of us process our emotions more easily when we have a physical outlet to help dissipate stress. If this is true for you, grief travel that involves physical activity might be most appropriate. You could consider going on a long backpacking trip like Cheryl Strayed who wrote her book Wild about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a way of coping with grief after her mother’s death.

Biking, camping, climbing, sailing, surfing, and kayaking are among many forms of active travel that could be beneficial when you are dealing with grief. A company that provides guided adventure vacations might be helpful to handle some of the extensive planning that is necessary for this type of travel.

I once participated in a 60-mile walk to raise funds for breast cancer research, motivated by the deaths of two friends from the disease and the recent diagnosis of my young niece with breast cancer, as well. I trained for several months before the walk, which allowed me ample time to contemplate the nature of serious illness and death and to dedicate my walk to a higher purpose. During the walk itself I had many inspirational encounters that helped me see the connections between all of us—those who walked and those who were struggling with cancer. Through that walk  I reached a new level of spiritual understanding about death and loss that helped me immensely over the years that followed.

Read the full story of that grief travel experience here.

Commemorative

Travel to remember a special experience from the past with a loved one can be a powerful way to connect with and process grief. Consider visiting the site of a memorable celebration or a place where you felt connected to your loved one in a meaningful way. Returning to a place of positive memories can help you recall your love for another person and also strengthen your sense of an ongoing connection that can transcend the physical realm.

On many occasions after my father’s death I returned to the cabin he had built in the mountains in a place he dearly loved. Spending time there helped me recall happy moments from the past and also provided me with a tangible sense that Dad lived on through the cabin and through the trees, streams and wildflowers that surrounded this very special place. I could sit next to his favorite fishing hole and still hear his laughter and see him casting his fly line above the water: Dad was with me again in those moments and I felt that our connection was stronger than ever before. Though I also experienced pain through these memories, I came to terms with my grief a little at a time with each and every visit.

Informative

Travel that includes historical research can be very therapeutic for grief. If you have questions about the past you might find that an excursion to a particular place to discover new information can be a productive way to work through your emotions. Consider doing background research on the place you plan to visit before you go so you can maximize your time once you get there. Take careful notes, ask lots of questions and search out people who may have stories that can help you fill in some missing pieces.

As I sought answers for my father’s suicide I began to suspect that his experiences during World War II played a key role in the depression and anxiety that had plagued him for years.  I researched the history of his army division to the best of my ability and learned that he had been part of the invasion at Normandy as well as the Battle of the Bulge. On a subsequent trip to France I visited Omaha Beach and many other historic sites in Normandy with the help of a knowledgeable guide.  Walking the beach where so many died during the invasion deepened my awareness of the trauma Dad and other soldiers experienced during the war and I felt that I finally understood him thoroughly for the first time in my life.

Intuitive

This final type of grief travel requires an adventuresome spirit and a willingness to take a bit of risk. To travel intuitively means to arrive at a place without a firm agenda or plan and allow yourself to “wander” and see what experiences arise for you. You might come across a museum or park that seems interesting or be inspired to walk along a beach or enter a certain church. When you follow your intuition you might discover a connection to a certain place that helps you process your grief–a connection that you couldn’t have planned or discovered by reading a guidebook in advance. To enjoy intuitive travel you’ll need an open mind and curiosity about the “mysteries” of both life and death.

Once on a trip to France I felt inspired to take a bus to a small village nearby, without knowing  what I would find there. I wandered the little streets and came upon a church that attracted my attention. When I stepped inside I heard angelic music that filled the entire space. A soloist was practicing her songs for Sunday mass and I was treated to a spontaneous and inspirational  concert as I sat within that comforting space. I could not have planned or scheduled this special experience on my own, but it transformed my entire trip.

As you can see from the examples I have shared, my own grief travel has made it possible for me to heal in ways I could not have anticipated. For this reason I am eager to share my inspiration and travel suggestions with you so that you might also experience the benefits of grief travel. If you decide to travel while you are grieving, first identify your goals for travel and assess what type of travel might work best for you at this time. I’m sending you wishes for meaningful journeys that bring insights and healing to you over time!

 

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Tips for Planning Your First Grief Travel Experience

In previous posts and podcasts I’ve shared some thoughts about the benefits of travel for those who are grieving and told the story of  one of my own experiences with “grief travel.”

Other authors have also written about journeys that were undertaken as a way of coping with grief, like  Cheryl Strayed, who wrote her bestselling book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail about  an epic backpacking trip she took while grieving her mother’s death.

If you think you might benefit from some “grief travel” of your own, it’s important to be prepared. Here are some tips for planning your first journey:

Start local and go small

The first time you venture out into a new place while you are grieving it can help to stay fairly close to home and limit your time commitment. For example, after my mother’s death I planned a special trip to a botanical garden that was just 90 miles from my house. I set aside a half-day for the trip, which didn’t disrupt my schedule much and let me see how I felt when I was outside my usual comfort zone.

Plan ahead

Before I went to the botanical garden I did some research to see what it had to offer. I found that there were lots of walking paths and benches in private areas that would lend themselves to quiet moments and meditation, which was exactly what I needed at that time.

You might feel more comfortable in a busy area with less solitude so it’s important that you know yourself and have a sense of what will work for you. However, during a time of grief you might not know what’s best for you or how you will react and it’s okay to experiment with different locations and settings. If you start local you’ll be able to change the plan quickly if it’s not right for you.

Choose a destination that has meaning

I decided on the botanical garden for my first journey because I knew my Mom would have enjoyed  going there with me. She loved flowers and the beautiful displays at the botanical gardens would have thrilled her.

On other grief journeys I have hiked to places my Dad would have loved and visited places we had all once experienced together as a family. Such special locations helped create positive ties to the past for me and brought back pleasant memories.

Keep your loved one in your thoughts

The day I visited the garden I “invited” Mom to join me on the trip and as I walked along the paths there I imagined what she would say and how she would react. I felt comforted by her presence and was reminded that I could still share special moments with her even though she could no longer be physically present with me.

Remember that grief travel isn’t meant to be a distraction from grief or a way of forgetting the pain of loss.

Grief travel is an opportunity to embrace grief as part of your ongoing life and discover how to live the “new normal” that loss has created for you.

Bring a journal and a camera

Recording your experiences in words and photos will give you a tangible reminder of your journey and help you focus in on the experience so that you don’t just “go through the motions” while you are there.

Take time for contemplation

While I was in the botanical garden I stopped a few times to meditate in the lovely surroundings. It helped me  slow down my pace and notice everything around me, like the beautiful colors and the sounds of flowing water.

The value you derive from your grief travel experience will be determined by the quality of the intention you put into it. So take your time, breathe deeply and utilize all your senses as you engage with your surroundings.

Accept your emotions as they are

On your grief travel experience you might feel overwhelmed with sadness but you might also find surprising joy during the journey, as I did in the botanical garden. Allow your feelings to arise naturally without judgement and observe them as they flow through you. Then take time to reflect on any memories or emotions that come up by writing about them in your journal.

Notice the “small things”

Another way to deepen the meaning of your grief travel experience is to pay attention to the small signs and symbols around you that might otherwise go unnoticed. On my journey through the botanical garden I had several experiences that reminded me of my mother: a chickadee singing in a grove of trees, a tiny waterfall in a nearby stream, and a “scripture garden” that would have filled her with joy. These little moments enriched my visit that day and helped me feel connected to Mom and to all living things.

Find your own unique path

Wherever you choose to go on your grief travel adventure, the path will be uniquely yours as you explore your loss and pain. Go slow, listen to your heart and be gentle with yourself. Stay flexible so you can make changes when needed and accept any obstacles that arise.

Grief comes into our lives to change us and help us grow–but that doesn’t happen easily. Wishing you meaningful travels and inspirational trails in the days ahead as you plan your own journeys!

 

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How to Find Comfort for Grief Through Travel

During a trip to Italy a few years ago, my husband and I received the shocking news that our dear brother-in-law had died suddenly back at home. Unable to change our flight reservations to return home immediately we had to finish our planned travel, even though we desperately wanted to be with family.

But we found a certain comfort during those days as we wandered around in unfamiliar surroundings and we soon discovered that travel can bring solace in the midst of grief. You can listen to my recent podcast about this story here.

You might wonder how travel could be a positive experience for someone who is already devastated by the death of a loved one. Though it seems counter-intuitive, here are some of the  benefits I have received from my explorations in “grief travel:”

Get out of the “comfort zone”

The death of a loved one is an event that has the potential to change everything in our lives. In fact, after a death we gradually discover that things will never be the same again, even though we desperately long to go back to what used to be “normal” in our lives.

We can resist this “new normal” that has been ushered in by grief for some time as we struggle to accept what has happened. But travel to an unfamiliar place actually helps us accelerate the process of change and get comfortable navigating through new territory, which is exactly what grief is trying to teach us. When we leave behind our “comfort zone” we open up to the possibility of inspiration and growth, even in the midst of our sorrow.

Find a new perspective

When you travel you have opportunities to meet  new people from cultures and religions far different from your own. You can see the monuments they build, the ways they express love for one another, the activities they value, and how they cope with day-to-day life.

You soon discover that everyone, no matter where you go, must deal with death, loss and grief as a normal occurrence of life. Your own broken heart is one of an infinite number of heartaches that have been happening since the dawn of humankind. You begin to recognize that you are not alone in your pain, even though the way you process loss is uniquely yours.

While standing in the middle of Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, I came to understand that all human beings have a need to memorialize the dead as a way of coping with the pain of loss and the fear of the unknown. I felt comforted by seeing the many thousands of graves there that had been washed by tears of love, just like the tears that were flowing from me.

“I am human in every way,” I realized, “and this grief is what it means to be human. I have come to this life to learn to love and to learn to grieve for those I have loved.”

This was a profound shift of perspective for me and it demonstrated that travel makes possible a new way of seeing our existence.

Discover small moments of joy

One of the most difficult parts of grieving my father’s death when I was in my 30’s is the fact that I remained in a state of numbness and shock for nearly three years. I simply could not pull myself out of the darkness that surrounded me.

But my travel experiences have introduced me to a wealth of new sights, sounds, smells and tastes which have helped me awaken from the cocoon of numbness to discover joy in the tiny moments of day-to-day life.

Hearing a bird’s song in the mountains of Switzerland, feeling the mist from a waterfall in Iceland, smelling fresh croissants in a French boulangerie, listening to a spontaneous operatic solo by a street singer in an Italian piazza, and tasting a cool draught of German beer were all experiences of the senses that awakened me from numbness and brought unmistakable joy in the moment.

Get in touch with what really matters

On my travels I have met and observed people of every race, culture and ethnicity and have seen how they connect and care for another.  I have been reminded that love is the most powerful force on the planet–in fact love is what really matters in all of existence. Grief is a form of love that I have learned to cherish, even though it is painful and heartbreaking.

The greatest tribute I can pay to those who have died is to carry my grief with grace, feel the pain of grief to my core, and continue to live fully in every moment.

Travel for me provides a pure and spontaneous opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest and love even the pain that comes from this human existence. Rather than stay tightly wrapped in a cocoon of  sadness after the death of a loved one I have learned to  wander in strange places and to find my comfort there. Travel has helped me love life, no matter what life has brought to me.

May your own grief inspire you to take new journeys to unfamiliar surroundings and may you learn unexpected lessons on your travels. How has travel brought comfort to you in the past? Please share your stories in the comments below.

 

 

 

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Flowers for Mom

Finding an unlikely way to remember my mother on her birthday…

The email arrived today, just as it always does, 5 days before my mother’s birthday: “It’s time to order flowers for Margaret!” The florist that sends this reminder has been in business in my hometown for over 100 years and has provided flowers for every birthday, wedding and funeral in my family for as long as I can remember.

I search through the available bouquets featured in the email: Sunny Siesta, Fields of Autumn, Country Sunrise, Butterfly Effect. I think Fields of Autumn is perfect, with orange lilies, green hydrangeas and yellow dahlias. Mom will love the colors and the wild, just-picked look of the arrangement.

But this year marks the fifth year that I won’t be sending mail order flowers to Mom; the fifth birthday when I won’t be calling her and hearing about her special celebrations with friends; the fifth year since her death, when I mark her special day by lighting an orange candle in a private celebration of my own.

Each year when the email reminder arrives I feel a familiar twinge of pain and loneliness as I imagine Mom’s face lighting up when she opens the front door to receive the flowers I’ve chosen for her. I see her placing the bouquet on her kitchen table, near the window where she always looked out to watch me play in the park across the street.

I wonder why the florist doesn’t know that Mom has died? They provided all of the flowers for her funeral, including the casket spray she had ordered and paid for several years earlier. I’m sure some people would be upset about the emails they send every September, but somehow I’ve grown to cherish them.

Choosing a special birthday bouquet for Mom is a long-held ritual for me and one of the last connections I have to our relationship. There’s an indescribable emptiness that occurs with the death of the only person who loves every school photo of you, including the ones with missing teeth, pigtails, and geeky glasses; when the only person who would save your report cards and crayon drawings in the bottom of her lingerie drawer is gone; when you can never again feel the relief that comes from the sound of her voice calling you “honey” over the telephone.

Mom’s belongings, the special treasures that she had gathered over her lifetime, were sorted and scattered within a few months of her death. And her house, where I spent my childhood, has been remodeled by its new owners. The kitchen window no longer exists and the bedroom where she died is now unrecognizable. The cabin in the mountains where we used to camp and fish is now the playground of some other family.

But in my memory Mom still opens the front door for the deliveryman and claps her hands with joy over the Fields of Autumn bouquet he holds out to her. She still clears a special spot on the table where the sunlight will show off the orange and yellow blossoms and arranges the attached card so that everyone can see who sent her birthday flowers. She still sits patiently in her reclining chair with the telephone in her lap, waiting for my birthday call. And I still whisper “I love you Mom,” as I celebrate the fact that she was born to one day be my mother and raise me to be a mother myself.

So this year as I study the floral arrangements available to order and choose the perfect flowers for Mom, I have one lingering hope: that the florist keeps sending my reminder email every September. To them I say: thank you for still remembering my Mom’s special day, for helping me maintain my last remaining tribute to her and for the way my face lights up with joy when I see the orange and yellow colors of the Fields of Autumn bouquet.

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