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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A Simple Ritual to Ease My Grief

The Aramaic word for grief can also mean “to wander.” When I was left wandering and bewildered after the death of my niece a small ritual helped me find my way again.

A few months ago my niece died of breast cancer at the young age of 47. I was somewhat prepared for her death because of her 14-year journey with cancer and the inevitable decline she had been experiencing for several months. Yet in reality death always arrives like a lightning bolt that pierces to the core.

There is no way to prepare for death’s appearance or to be unmoved by the jolt: your loved one is next to you in one moment and then gone after a single breath. You don’t know you are at the end until the end has already passed.

So the news of Tracey’s death hit me hard with a mixture of emotions—disbelief that she could really be dead at such a young age, pain for her son and her parents as they coped with this loss, guilt that I hadn’t done more to help, and a trace of relief that finally there was no more uncertainty and no more agonizing over what suffering the next hour or the next day would bring to her. Her journey here was finished.

As life would have it, with its curious synchronicities and juxtapositions, I was scheduled to do an interview with two women who had written a guidebook to end-of-life rituals just a few hours after news of Tracey’s death reached me. I didn’t even consider postponing our conversation because I knew that this timing, though difficult, was perfect.

My guests, Donna Belk and Kateyanne Unillisi, talked about the importance of rituals for making sense of life’s tragedies and painful events and they shared their suggestions for creating our own simple rituals. I understood deeply the importance of this subject and that I needed to somehow find a way to mark this day with some special ceremony, though I had no idea where to begin.

The next morning I took a long walk on a path next to the Blue River and thought about Tracey. I was filled with regrets – Why hadn’t I visited her one last time? Why hadn’t I called her for that talk about forgiveness that I knew she wanted to have? Why hadn’t I been there more for my brother?

As I walked more and more slowly, weighed down with all of the guilt I was heaping on myself I suddenly heard laughter—and it was unmistakably Tracey’s laugh. I felt as if she were standing right next to me and I heard her say “I understand everything now! It’s all okay.”

In that moment I was surrounded by joy, peace and love. I looked down and saw beautiful flowers I hadn’t noticed before at the side of the path: fragrant wild roses in bright pink, Tracey’s favorite color. I instantly knew what to do next and asked Tracey to join me.

I began to gather wildflowers from the banks of the river and was surprised by the variety I found growing there when I really stopped to look: mountain lupine, bluebells, yellow daisies, poppies, chicory, cinquefoil, wild geranium, blue flax, columbine and more.

By the time I reached a small stream that flowed gently into the rushing river I had a handful of blossoms of many colors. I spread them out on a tree stump to create a mandala of sorts—an array of beauty and a reminder that life changes constantly but ultimately continues on.

I said a prayer for Tracey and for all of our broken hearts that were missing her so dearly on that day. Then I dropped each blossom—one at a time—into the stream and watched it drift gently away. With each flower that tumbled into the stream I felt a lessening of the burden of grief and a gradual influx of peace. And all the while I heard the faintest hint of laughter floating on the breeze.

 

 

 

 

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10 Things To Do for Pain Instead of Taking Drugs

In the past we only heard about deaths from prescription-related drug overdose when high-profile celebrities like Whitney Houston or Heath Ledger died unexpectedly. But the startling fact we must grapple with today is that drug-related deaths in the US now outnumber traffic fatalities and gun deaths. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the death toll due to drugs has nearly quadrupled since 1999 and emergency room visits tied to the abuse of prescription painkillers have jumped 111 percent over a five-year period.

Some experts believe that the use and abuse of pain medications has now reached epidemic proportions, having been fueled by a change in physician prescribing practices over the past decade, resulting in more liberal use of highly addictive narcotics for moderate pain. The US consumes approximately 80% of the world’s opioid supplyPharmaceutical companies, always seeking profitable new markets to tap into, are in the process of developing even more new forms of the addictive opioids.

Clearly, many patients with legitimate pain are becoming unintentionally addicted to the medications they have been prescribed because the drugs are so potent and can cause tolerance and dependence in a relatively short time. But what if you are experiencing chronic or acute pain and don’t want to risk becoming a victim of the drugs that have been prescribed for you? One piece of advice is to use pain medications very sparingly rather than on a regular schedule. Whenever possible try other techniques for coping with pain rather than reaching for a pill:

1. Laugh.  

Laughter causes the release of natural endorphins in the brain, which help increase your ability to tolerate pain. So watch a funny movie, humorous videos on YouTube, or enjoy a laugh with friends.

2. Listen to music.

Music has been shown to be effective at reducing the experience of pain for a variety of reasons including increasing relaxation, causing distraction from negative feelings, and also creating neurochemical changes in the brain. Try various types of music that you enjoy to see which is the most effective for you.

3. Exercise.

Moving the body has been shown to reduce pain by releasing endorphins and improving function. Go for a walk, dance, do yoga or just move any part of your body that you can use without further injury. Check with your doctor or physical therapist first if you have a condition that makes exercise difficult.

4. Get a massage.

Studies have shown that massage can be as effective as pain medications for alleviating discomfort and can also help with inflammation, swelling and stiffness. In addition, massage also causes the release of endorphins, which have already been discussed.

5. Use guided imagery.

 

This form of relaxation/hypnosis has been shown in multiple studies to provide effective pain relief as well as improve sleep, elevate mood and increase motivation. You can listen to audio tapes or CD’s that talk you through the process of guided imagery to get the most benefit.

6. Color.

While it hasn’t been studied scientifically yet, many chronic pain sufferers use coloring to distract them from their pain. These colorists say that creating beautiful designs on paper reduces stress and provides a means for self-expression that makes it easier to live with pain.

7. Practice deep breathing.

Deep breathing helps increase relaxation, reduce stress and improve energy levels. Try it multiple times throughout the day and combine it with other techniques for the most benefit.

8. Love.

Experiencing loving feelings and sexual intimacy can help alleviate pain by releasing endorphins, generating positive emotions and decreasing anxiety. Ask your partner for a massage for added benefits.

9. Pray or meditate.

Prayer and meditation have both been shown to be effective at reducing pain by increasing relaxation, providing distraction and alleviating anxiety.

10. Practice EFT.

Emotional Freedom Techniques, also known as tapping, has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing pain symptoms and studies are now showing that the practice can help reduce cortisol levels and stress. It is a simple technique that can be learned quickly and requires no special tools.

If you have been given narcotic medications for chronic or acute pain, view your prescription as potentially dangerous and use it with caution. By utilizing some of these techniques you should be able to reduce your reliance on drugs and feel calmer, more alert and in better control of your symptoms. Be sure to keep your medication away from children, dispose of any unused medication safely (such as through a pharmacy take-back program) and never share any prescription with another person.

 

About the Author: 

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the host of End-of-Life University Interview Series and author of “The Tao of Death” and the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/KarenWyattMD and on Twitter @spiritualmd 

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How to Make Peace With Negative Thoughts and Emotions

There has been a great deal of emphasis in the New Age movement over the past few years on the power of positive thinking, with strong recommendations to eliminate all negative thoughts and emotions in order to enhance the benefits of being positive. In fact, some teachers have urged their students to break ties with any negative people in their lives to avoid being contaminated by their less-than-ideal energy.

But what happens when you feel negative emotions such as fear, doubt or anger arising within you? What do you do when your thoughts turn to the dark side? Again many teachers recommend shutting out these thoughts and feelings by ignoring them and replacing them with a positive outlook.

However, from the study of human psychology we know that you cannot actually rid yourself of negative emotions – you can only repress them, which causes those feelings to retreat into the Shadow. Once your negative emotions find a hiding place within your subconscious Shadow, they are free to create all sorts of chaos in your life, as has been discussed in other posts.

But is there a better way to manage your own negativity so that it doesn’t poison your efforts to create a positive attitude or sabotage your attempts to grow as a person? The answer can be found within a poem written by Rumi, the Sufi philosopher who was born in the year 1207.

Rumi says to think of your psyche as a guest house that has a new arrival or unexpected visitor every morning, such as “a joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness.” He recommends that you welcome all of your thoughts and feelings “even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,” for they “may be clearing you out for some new delight.” In the last lines of the poem Rumi concludes:

            The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

What a novel way of looking at these troublesome thoughts and feelings of ours – as guests who have arrived for some purpose even though we don’t really understand what that might be. And we should not only allow them to have a presence in our lives, but we must tolerate the effects they have upon us because those negative parts of ourselves play an important role in our growth process.

When we reject our own negative feelings it is as if we lock our “house guests” in the basement where they remain hidden from us and we lose sight of their influence on our behavior. But when we openly welcome our negativity, we keep it within our vision where we can monitor it until we become powerful enough to gain control. By acknowledging and owning our negative thoughts we gain the ability to analyze and work with them and can then understand ourselves better and eventually grow in consciousness.

So remember to keep the doors of your “guest house” unlocked and ready for any visitors that choose to show up. Be prepared for some difficult times when you won’t be able to find many positive “guests” at all. But also be aware that there is a purpose for everything you think and feel. Enjoy exploring the mysteries that arrive in your life. Let them clear you out and make room for the next “visitor” to appear – because it might just be the joy you have been waiting for all along!