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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5 Questions to Ask Before Naming A Healthcare Proxy

You may already know what kind of healthcare you would like to receive when you reach the later years of your life. But, to ensure that your future healthcare wishes are followed, one of the most important steps you can take is to name someone you know as your “healthcare proxy.” This person will speak for you if you are unable to communicate and will make sure your medical providers know your preferences.

This crucial role shouldn’t be entrusted to just anyone, so it’s wise to make a careful decision. After all, your oldest child or nearest relative may not be the best person for the task, even if that person seems like a logical choice. Write down the names of several people you are considering for your healthcare proxy and then ask these 5 questions about each of them:

1. Does she understand my healthcare wishes?

A recent study at Yale University showed that only about 20% of the healthcare surrogates they interviewed accurately understood the wishes of the patient they represented. To speak on your behalf your proxy must have a very clear grasp of your preferences. Pick someone who not only comprehends what you have chosen, but who also recognizes why you have made your choices.

2. Does he agree with my wishes?

Ideally your proxy should be in agreement with your decisions and have no concerns about them in order to advocate for you. Some people may be able to support your wishes even if they don’t agree with them, but you need to be certain that your feelings will take priority in any situation that may arise.

3. Will this person be available to speak for me in an emergency?

Your healthcare proxy may need to travel to the hospital on short notice at inconvenient times to speak on your behalf. The person you choose for this role should be someone who is flexible and cares enough to go out of the way for you.

4. Is he or she emotionally strong enough to make a decision in a crisis situation?

The person you choose may have to make difficult decisions for you on the spur of the moment. Make sure your proxy will not allow their own grief feelings to interfere with acting on your behalf. They may also have to stand up for you if family members and medical professionals disagree with your choices so choose someone who can handle those challenging situations.

5. Do you trust this person?

Your own “gut feeling” is important to assess when you consider your choice for healthcare proxy. Make sure you trust this person completely since you may be putting your own future in his or her hands. If something doesn’t “feel” right to you about this person, spend some time thinking of someone else who is a better fit.

No matter who you end up choosing to be your healthcare proxy, that person needs to understand the requirements of this important role. Schedule time for a long conversation and bring along your wishes in writing. Be prepared to answer any questions that arise and suggest a follow-up discussion if needed. You might want to download and print this helpful handout: Guidelines for a Healthcare Proxy.

Your next steps are to put your wishes and the name of your healthcare proxy into writing by completing the appropriate advance directive (or living will) forms for your state of residence. Then share them with your family, friends, clergy and healthcare providers. Congratulations on taking the time now to protect your future wellbeing and increase your peace of mind.

 

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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Why I Think About Death Every Day

I was 16-years old when I first began to think about my own death. A classmate of mine died from a fall while hiking, which caused me to recognize that it is possible for a young person (including me) to die at any time. For the first time, death became real to me and since that event I have thought about death every day. In fact I might say that I have kept “death on my shoulder” like the character Billy Jack from the movies of the same name that were popular in the 1970’s.

But I am not alone in my tendency to dwell on thoughts of death. In fact, contemplation of death is a spiritual practice in Tibetan cultures. Moreover when I recently interviewed a priest about the Catholic perspective on death he quoted St. Benedict as saying, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.”

While this might sound like a morbid practice, I can assure you that it is not. Recognizing my own mortality on a daily basis has actually changed my life in profound ways and provided many benefits:

Gratitude for every moment of life

Knowing that life is fleeting helps me appreciate each experience and every moment to a deeper degree than ever before. I no longer take life for granted and value the time I have been given.

Restructured priorities

With the briefness of life in mind I am able to focus on those things that really matter to me (like love and relationships) and let go of the superficial and trivial details that compete for my attention. I don’t “sweat the small stuff” now because I know it’s not really important.

Taking responsibility for my life

I now see that life is precious and the meaning it contains is up to me. No matter what has happened in my life, I am responsible to make the best of it and create as much love as I can. I no longer waste time blaming other people or circumstances for the problems I encounter.

Looking within myself for answers

I also have learned to seek my own answers from within rather than looking outside of myself for guidance. No one else can understand my life or my purpose better than me so I need to find my own path and follow it.

Finding joy in being alive

The French value the concept of joie de vivre, which literally means “the joy of being alive.” Recognizing that death could arrive at any time helps me cherish the gift of life. I wake up joyful each day because I am still here with another opportunity to experience life on this planet, even if I am sick or if life’s circumstances aren’t exactly what I would have chosen. Simply being alive is enough to create deep joy.

Being prepared for anything

Since I have spent a considerable amount of time contemplating my own death, it won’t really be a surprise to me if or when I hear the words “You are going to die” from a doctor some day. I have already known that fact for most of my life and I have made sure I am ready every day. While I may not be happy to hear those words I won’t be shocked or angry or depressed. Death is an important part of life and I am prepared to face that truth.

So for me, thinking about death is a simple spiritual practice that has changed and exhilarated my life. I wish I could teach everyone that but our society remains entrenched in fear and avoidance of death.

But now is the time when we need more than ever to find joy in every moment, to be grateful for all of life, to be prepared for the future, and to shift our priorities to what really matters. Now is the time to learn to truly love life by embracing the reality of death.

(Learn how you can start a simple practice of contemplation of death here.)

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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A Farewell Letter From a Dying Monk

As part of an ongoing series on various religious and cultural perspectives on death, I recently interviewed a priest about the Catholic approach to dying and after-death care. During the interview he shared with our audience a letter that had been written recently by a fellow monk from his monastery, Father Mark, who was dying of stomach cancer.

That letter was a poignant and instructive guide for how to approach death with three virtues that Father Mark said he valued most in his last days on earth: comfort, grace and gratitude. Father Mark, who has subsequently died, agreed to share his words and his wisdom with people far and wide, with a humble wish that others might be helped by reading about his experience.

Father Mark’s letter can be read in full here, but the following is a summary of the lessons shared by Father Mark as he lived his final days:

“Keep death before your eyes daily.”

Father Mark interpreted this quote from Saint Benedict quite literally as he recommended a meditative approach to death to help ease fear and live fully. He himself was able to find joy and positivity even within the natural anxiety that comes from facing death full on and acknowledging its inevitability.

Be willing to hear the truth.

Father Mark described unflinchingly how his doctors told him truthfully that there was nothing more they could do for him. He listened to their prognosis and embraced the limited time left for his life without fear.

Let go of curative treatment at the right time.

When it was clear that the cancer was spreading quickly Father Mark recognized that it was time to stop treatment and focus on saying goodbye, which was the motivation for writing the letter.

Embrace palliative care.

Father Mark described how helpful his palliative caregivers were in guiding his decisions for the last chapter of his life. With their advice he expressed his love to others, made amends and planned meaningful activities while he still had enough energy to pursue them.

Be grateful for everything.

In his letter Father Mark expressed his deep gratitude for life itself, love, his community, career, and spiritual life. He looked back upon his years of life as a blessing filled with rich meaning and growth.

See beyond sadness.

Because of his belief in an afterlife, Father Mark could express his sadness for all that was coming to an end in his physical existence but also look forward to something more that would continue on. His great faith allowed him to embrace his death with wonder and awe as he prepared for whatever lies next.

Through his thoughtful words Father Mark was able to translate his dying experience into meaningful advice that can change the perspective of all who read it from fear to peaceful acceptance of death. Indeed Father Mark accomplished his goal of achieving comfort, grace and gratitude in his own final days and also transmitted those three virtues to each of us who have received them.

We don’t need to be Catholic or even religious to grasp the meaning of Father Mark’s teaching, for he is communicating the universal language of death:

 These are the words we were born to hear; this is the lesson we came here to learn: embrace life fully and look death in the face every day.

Thank you Father Mark for so generously sharing your last days and thoughts of life with us and for continuing, even in your death, to be an enlightened teacher.

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 and the 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/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd

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How I Found Joy Again After My Father’s Suicide

Since my father’s suicide death 28 years ago I have been on a long journey of grief with many twists and turns, detours and dead-ends, which I have chronicled in a series on my End-of-Life University podcast. After the devastation of his death I wondered if I would ever be able to feel joy again in my life. But I am here to say now that it is possible to feel joyful, alive and grateful after enduring such trauma, even though the grief will never disappear.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts that warn readers “What Not to Say” to a person who is grieving. The authors advise against such platitudes as “Grief is a process,” “You’re on a journey,” “It will get better one day,” and “You’ll learn something from this.” I’ll admit that in the first few years after my father’s death I couldn’t even bear to hear the word “suicide” and I too ran away from well-meaning friends who tried to console me.

But so many years later … after a great deal of work and struggle … I have to say that for me, grief has been a process that has taken me on a journey and things have gotten a great deal better as I have learned many lessons about life and death. For me there has been “a light at the end of the tunnel.” And while I would never push my current perspective onto someone else who is grieving, I can wish for that person to find solace and comfort as they deal with the pain in their own unique way.

I do believe that there is value in sharing my process and what I have learned through years of grief and guilt. So these steps of mine are not meant to preach to others who are grieving, but simply to share my experience of what it has taken for me to find joy once again.

Patience

I had to learn right away that my grief would not be resolved quickly (or ever) and that it was important for me to allow plenty of time. As much as I wanted to be done with the pain and go back to living my old life, I had to slow down and wait patiently for tiny glimmers of hope to appear. Each time I tried to take shortcuts through my own healing I ended up prolonging it and having to start over again.

Grief has its own timing and cannot be rushed.

Stillness

While my mind was busy racing with “What ifs” and “Should haves” about my father’s death and my emotions were erupting on a regular basis, I wondered why I could never feel joyful. But over time I gradually recognized that joy arises from stillness. I learned to create quiet spaces in my life and in my thoughts. Eventually I spent more and more time being still and allowing glimpses of happiness to appear within me.

Create still spaces inside that joy can fill.

Facing Emotions

Many of my emotions during the years of heavy grieving were chaotic, frightening and destructive so I constantly tried to hide or ignore them. But I slowly learned that healing would come only after facing up to those feelings and going through them. I had to embrace all of my emotions as a natural part of who I am in order to soothe them and eventually lessen their intensity.

Learn to face and accept all of the turbulent emotions of grief.

Allowing Change

For several years I would say to myself every morning “Some day I will wake up and be like I used to be before …” I kept expecting the pain to just disappear so that I could go back to who I was in the past. But grief is an experience that is meant to change us. Grief holds the keys to who we are right now and who we are going to become. There is no going backwards; focusing on the past just prolongs the pain.

Grief transforms you into who you really are.

Letting go of expectations

Ultimately in my long process of healing deep grief I had to adjust my expectations. I had to recognize that life would never be the same again, I would never be the same person again, and I couldn’t expect anything to turn out the way I wanted it to be. There was a “new normal” for my life and that included finding quiet joy in small moments each day rather than over-the-top jubilation. I would learn to connect together moment after moment of simple happiness until my life became filled with what I though of as “Buddha joy,” with the slight smile and the calm presence that Buddha statues exhibit.

Real joy is simple and serene.

So after 28 years of work on my own grief, this is what I have learned. But I am still growing and changing every day so I don’t doubt that there are many more lessons ahead for me. Now I wake up every morning grateful to be alive, looking forward to what the day might hold, and in awe of the mystery of life. Grief has led me here and I honestly would not go back.

This place … this moment … this stillness … is perfect for me right now and I am in need of nothing more. For everyone else struggling with grief at this time … I see you, I honor your experience, and I hold you in my heart with love.

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 author of 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/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd

 

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