Tag Archives: dying

Your words, not mine; your stories, not mine.

Sunset over Charlottetown HarbourI am watching my resident sleep. I’ve been sitting beside her for fifteen minutes now, and the staff members assure me that she will be awake shortly. She doesn’t usually nap at this hour, they say.

I don’t mind as I am narrating a story in my head – all quiet moments are gifts of time.

The last couple of weekly visits have changed – the routine of greeting my resident, talking for a few minutes to reassure her of the reason for my visit (I am recording and writing down her life stories and memories), turning on the recorder, and prompting her with a few questions to stimulate her life stories has disappeared.

Lately, during our visits I notice that she is either very drowsy or somewhat confused, and conversations about her family, childhood, school antics or young married life have dried up.

I have had to adapt, and I no longer ask her questions or give her prompts. Only a month ago I had inquired about her grandchildren and she had responded with a lovely story.

But not today.

When she awakes, I have to remind her who I am (Gwen’s daughter – you remember Gwen – she lived across the hall and you shared many cups of tea together) and she smiles her beautiful smile, and although I can read on her face that she is happy to see me, I sense that she no longer remembers Gwen (or me).

So I try again. More confusion.

In my cloth bag I have a copy of her life stories to date, so I retrieve the typed pages which are in a plain, three-ring, navy blue binder. I place the binder in front of her on the lap tray of her wheel chair and open it to the front page. I have learned an 8” by 11” binder is easily held by a senior.

She stares at the page for a very long time, and I am leaning over to close the book when she reads aloud her name and the words, “Life Stories.”

She looks at me and grins, and I urge her to turn the page.

She begins to read her very own, unique stories of her past. Unexpectedly, I note that she is a good reader and am thrilled because I didn’t realize that she still possessed the ability to read. My own mother had difficulty reading when her dementia progressed, and eventually she lost the ability completely.

I remember the October before my mother died in December, she signed a birthday card for my sister that I had purchased for her. I asked her if she would like to sign the card herself, or would she like me to sign it. She answered (as I knew she would), I can do it myself. She spent a few minutes gathering her strength to sign the birthday card to my sister, Sue. Then, she scribbled (almost illegibly): Love, Sue, instead of Love, Mom.

I loved that card. Because her intention (love for my sister, Sue) was so beautifully evident.

I draw my attention to my resident: She is reading aloud her stories…she pauses at the funny parts to look at me and remind me, that happened to me, also. I realize that she is not completely aware that these stories are hers! I keep re-assuring her that they are her stories, and that I only transcribed them. I keep repeating: your words, not mine; your stories, not mine.

When she reads aloud, she re-reads many of the passages and so I lean over and begin to turn the pages, but she stops me, and goes back to the top of the original page to re-read the story. After 45 minutes, we have only read two pages. I begin to panic and worry that we will never get to the end of the book at this rate.

But then I see her face. I begin to really see her face and read her energy. In that moment of being present (truly present) I am aware that she is completely entranced in the story – her story! She is smiling and nodding her head, chuckling (oh, yes, her stories are funny) and then I have an aha moment. My resident is in the moment.  Her moment! She is oblivious to the natural bird sounds outside her window; she is oblivious to the staff who are talking, and pushing carts in the hallway – the noises of life in a long-term care home are a muted constant 24/7.

My resident is in the moment. Time has ceased. Her face tells me that she is a young child again, living a life of scarcity and hardship, but filled with family love, laughter, and richness.

One thing I have learned when transcribing life stories of the residents is that our memories evolve: they don’t change completely, but we, as humans, re-paint them. We brush over the memories that hurt us, or caused us pain. I, too, find that over the years, my hurts and disappointments have been watered down – I have lifted out the colours that no longer serve me.

Like others before her, my resident’s stories have been blended with other experiences and the passage of time, and now understanding and forgiveness is the rich palette that remains. Through the lens of our journey we perceive our parents’ weaknesses, as strengths; their mistakes, as lessons. A gruff father who never spoke of emotions (or feelings) to his daughters becomes the ninety-year old man with Alzheimer’s who never speaks, but utters, I love you to both his daughters whenever they leave the room.

Through him, I learned that disease, dying, and death are powerful teachers. Forgiveness, reconciliation, love and peace are potent change agents. They transform our stories – blending, layering, pulling out colour, until bleeding the stories into one.

Through the process of reminiscing we begin to connect the dots starting with the point of origin to the last dot You Are Here.

These are the insights I have gathered, and these are similar to ones that I hear time and time again from the residents who I sit with. In the telling of our stories, the bad bits get left out and the good bits grow, and we are left with a richness that we had never seen before – colour laid upon colour. A richness that inspires gratitude.

When a resident comes to the end of her life story, I often hear:  I’ve had a good life. Those were wonderful days and I feel lucky to have lived them. I’ve had a good life and I am at peace. I am ready for my final journey. I am content.

Still reading the first few pages after an hour, I eventually tell my resident that I have to leave, and I know that she is disappointed but she closes her book as I promise to leave the binder with her. Yes, I still have lots to read, she informs me, and she adds, it’s a good story.

My intuition tells me that the time has come to end our weekly sessions – she no longer has new stories to tell me. I believe her stories are still there in the recesses of her mind, but they are not accessible as they once were. Like a locked filing cabinet, I no longer hold the key to open it.

When I leave, she grabs my hand and closes her other hand around mine and gently strokes it. Thank you, she whispers. Please visit me again.

I will, I promise.

As I walk through the hallways of the long-term care home, I am reminded once again that the only thing that really matters is our presence. As humans, we all want to know that we matter – that our lives are spent well – whether we are young or old; healthy or not.

And I am reminded that gratitude, above all else, matters, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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In remembering my mother, I honour her

Climbing, rambling, shrub roses in shades of old-fashioned pinks; ornamental rose hips; fleshy thorns that prick; Zinnias in a riot of oranges, yellows, pinks and reds; A disarray of messy hollyhocks, sweet Williams, peonies and daisies;

Endless cups of tea – lots of milk (not cream) and two spoons of sugar (oh, what the heck, throw in another teaspoon of sugar) – sickly sweet, all the better: “it’s healing, don’t you know”;

Daily sister chats until her sister died;

The aroma of Sunday roast beef dinner and Yorkshire pudding; Hamburgers on Saturday evening, fried in a pan (not grilled), sprinkled in paprika – loved by grandchildren so much that the recipe was discussed at her funeral;

Bed linens so immaculate and taut to satisfy any drill sergeant’s precision;

Hockey arenas at dawn, early hours to scream at the referees. Grand kids skating, ignoring their grandmother’s hollers and shrieks;

Dancing, always dancing. Even a wheelchair couldn’t hold her still;

Hugs that belied her tiny body – hugs that transformed you.

My mother’s legacy. The ephemera of a life once-lived: Moments not meant to last, but do.

These are the images, the scents, the memories that assault me each of the days since she died two years ago this week.

It’s what remains. Not things, not possessions. Just fleeting remains.

When I am in my own garden, I remember the many hours we spent in her garden: a simple garden, no plan, no design. A riot of colour.

Every time my stove top kettle boils and sings, I think of her – she is running (because I swear she lacked the slow speed dial) into the kitchen insisting that we don’t talk or finish the story until she returns. She never wanted to miss out on a word.

She was a cook in the army during World War II and her kitchen skills (and bed-making skills) were a testimony to the time she served.  My grill-loving husband used to shake his head and wonder how hamburgers, fried in a pan on the stove (no less), could be mouth-watering tasty. Her family dinners were legendary, now continued in my home.

But it’s those times when I am hugged, really hugged – you know what I mean? when someone hugs you so long and so deep, you swear that you are loved, fully loved – that I feel her presence so strongly. Because it is her deep love for her family that remains. That endures still.

Her love was a fierce and protective love. And it transcended family. Kindness and compassion transcend family: the underdog, the less fortunate, the lonely, the isolated, the shut-in and the shut-out.

Compassion and kindness remain. It remains in my sister, our children, and in me.

That, too, is her legacy. Her remains.

The Tao’s principles include cyclical growth and principles of harmony and balance: birth and death; all or none. The balance in life does not exist – unless there is birth, there is no death.

Joy and laughter; sadness and sorrow. I am learning that the two states are not exclusive of each other. They are interconnected …my last year’s post https://thegiftsthatweshare.wordpress.com/2015/12/19/migratory-geese-and-lessons/

I see my mother in everything. My mind says she is gone. She no longer exists. But my heart and spirit (and my body) still see her, smell her, and hear her. Last winter, in a dream, I felt her. She was in the form of a young woman, and I sensed the comfort before she came to me and embraced me in one of her Gwen bear hugs that surrounded you in love. When I awoke, I laughed out loud. Classic Dream 101, I thought. (But here’s the weird thing: my sister dreamt of our mother that very same night and she, too, was enveloped in a Gwen hug.)

On my way home today I watched a flock of swallows form a mumuration-like dance– the swallows swirled above me in endless circles – undulating in the late afternoon sky. I parked the car; mesmerized, I thought of mysteries, sweet mysteries.

I still do not understand the meaning of life or death. I only understand this: my mother’s life mattered: in small ways, in small moments. And that her remains endure.

I no longer grieve her absence as I once did. I rarely cry when I think of her. But I often smile, and laugh out loud. Her presence gives me great joy.

In the hours of the day, I feel her presence and I instinctively know that her life mattered, and when we are gone, our lives will endure, too – in small ways, in small moments.

I see the continuity of life in all. I am beginning to understand…Oneness. (Not with my mind, but with my heart.)

And in these moments throughout my day I pause – to fully accept the Now. I honour those moments.

One cannot be both unhappy and fully present in the Now. Eckhart Tolle

I have learned that to honour my mother I must continue her legacy, simple as it is: Love my family. Serve others. Be kind. Express my love (deep and lasting hugs). And dance with joy and gratitude. Honour her by acknowledging that I’m still here.

The peace and love in my heart will ripple through my circle of influence. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of this in Peace is Every Step:

Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.

Dementia, dying and death are great teachers. As I remember and honour my mother’s death, I am grateful for that. All gifts.

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“Oh, grandma. Look at all the other grandmas!”

I’m really getting tired of how people react to a long-term care facility. And I’m really getting tired of how people treat someone who has a dementia as if that person no longer mattered.

Family members and visitors (and once in a blue moon, a staff member) will often lean in and whisper to me, “Just shoot me if I ever have to live here. Just shoot me.”

And even though I understand where they are coming from – fear – it still hurts me when I hear the comment. How can we accept our present moment, when we are living in such deep fear?

What do we fear? We fear getting old, aging, illness and disease, losing our memory, losing our physical capabilities, losing control, and dying. Our deepest fear is that no one will take care of us when we cannot take care of ourselves, and that we will spend our last days in a long-term care facility – alone.

But I also believe that we fear that we will no longer matter.

When we constantly judge long-term care facilities, and when we dread the weekly or bi-weekly, or daily visits to them, do we not deny our loved one who lives in the care home dignity and respect?

Are we not (in a not so subtle way) expressing distaste for the space and, therefore,  disrespect for our loved one? Isn’t there an undertone of dread and dismay? “I’m so glad I don’t live here (thank God!) but hey, mom, hope you settle in here nicely!” I can’t help thinking of that line, See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!

When I wrote an eBook about my experience of caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, I included a story of my friend who visited her mother in a long-term care home and took her granddaughters to visit. Her one granddaughter grabbed my friend’s leg and hid behind her. She began to shake; she was terrified.

Her other granddaughter stopped dead in her tracks, looked around the spacious, open activity room filled with residents, and clapped her hands. With a big, silly grin on her little face, she exclaimed, “Oh, grandma. Look at all the other grandmas!”

From that moment on, her granddaughter was always excited to visit her great-grandmother.

And I am willing to bet that my friend’s mother (and all of the other residents) looked forward to her visits, too.

When we visit our loved ones with dementia, do we visit with an open mind? Or do we visit with dread? I believe that our loved ones sense our state of expectation (or energy) when we visit. What if they can feel the dread?

When I volunteer at the long-term care home where my mother used to live, I see a lot of unhappy residents. But I am also witness to many beautiful moments of love, laughter, joy, kindness and compassion. These small moments are exquisite.

I see wives, husbands, daughters, sons and grandchildren who visit daily or bi-weekly. I wish I had a dollar for every cup of tea or coffee or cookie that accompanies most visits. Many cups of tea are shared with residents and their loved ones. And here’s the beautiful thing: Many of these same visitors bring extras for other residents. (And staff.)

When I visit some residents and enter their personal rooms, flowers often welcome me – some are elaborate bouquets and others are simple posies. Greeting cards, postcards, posters and photos are pinned to bulletin boards or line the window sills. Handmade quilts or knitted afghans line the bottom of the beds, or are draped over comfortable, cushy bedside chairs.

In a quick glance around the room I can usually spot the family who cares about their loved one’s well-being. Books are piled high; bird feeders that overflow with seed hang outside the windows; walls display framed photos of family life, horses, dogs, ships, farms, landscapes and cityscapes from their home countries, angels, prayers, and life affirmations: Family, Love, Laughter top the list.

I’ve witnessed personal support workers who sneak extra cups of tea (and cookies) to the resident who has a sweet tooth; I’ve witnessed staff lovingly hug residents and rock them as if they were new-born babes. And I’ve leaned against the wall with tears in my eyes while a personal support worker has sung to a distraught or confused resident. (You Are My Sunshine is definitely top of the charts here.)

I have witnessed the residents who have no dementia support those who do. Residents look out for one another, and care for one another. Hugs and pats on the arm are doled out freely and frequently. (My mother who wandered the hallways in her wheelchair would often be returned to her room by another resident, Here, Gwen, you live here. And her dining companions would often greet me to report my mother’s latest skipped meal. You should know, my dear; your mother is not eating properly.)

When you witness the small acts of kindness and compassion, you begin to understand the deeper meaning (or at least the lessons within) of aging, disease, dying and death; you begin to understand that we are all connected – that we are all One. You begin to understand that love makes all the difference.

We are not meant to live forever in our physical body. We are all going to age, and one day, to die.

When we accept this unchangeable fact of life, we can begin to let go of some of our fear.

Instead of announcing that I would rather die than end up here in a long-term care home, why not begin to make life easier for those who do live here. Why not visit more often, not less; visit with love, not fear; visit with anticipation, not dread. If you are disturbed by the management and care of your loved one, visit often so that you can become an advocate. Become better informed: visit the care facilities website, the Ministry of Health’s website, and learn what the basic standards are. Speak up if you have an issue. Learn the names of the staff and begin to advocate for your parent. Attend the care meetings. Become a visible presence in the home. That will make a difference.

But recognize your emotions and discern whether you are fearful of the place because I dislike all facilities, like these; or do you have legitimate complaints about care.

Acceptance is a choice.

We can all open our eyes and choose to see the love, the laughter, and the joy that is still present – within the home, and within our loved one. They still matter.

When we choose to experience the joy in the present moment, disease, aging, and death do not disappear. But we will transform ourselves. Because in spite of the suffering, we choose to experience the wonder and awe in the most simplest of moments. We choose to see the beauty in everything – even in suffering. We choose to see the strength, the resilience, the exquisite vulnerability.

Suffering reminds us of some universal truths: We are not perfect. Nor is our body. We are human. Humans suffer. Life is not just. Life is not always balanced. To be whole, we must accept the good and the bad. Love can make a difference. In the last moments of life, love is the only thing that matters.

Over time I have learned that within us is an invincibility – that no matter how life unfolds, we endure. I’m still here. You’re still here.

That self-knowledge matures us as we recognize that challenges in life will not defeat us. Those same challenges (or crises) may fell us to the ground, but we will get up – sooner or later.

That’s one of the lessons that I have learned on my journey. When I visit the care home (or a hospital), I am reminded that when I first entered these halls so many years ago, I was heart-broken. When we had to make the decision to enter my father into a long-term care home where he lived for a short time before his death, I wept for hours. I was felled.

Now I visit with love and joy. I got up. I am still here.

I have absorbed the wisdom and strength that is offered to me each time I visit. I am not hear to cure anyone or fix anything. My presence is enough. (That’s another lesson that I have learned.)

I am here to just visit. My presence alone validates and honours the residents. My presence alone shares their pain and suffering. My presence alone says You are worthy. I care for you.

Laughter, love, joy and compassion tether us to our spirit. Or, perhaps laughter, love, joy and compassion is our spirit.

I challenge everyone who visits someone in a care home (or a hospital) to let go of their basic fears. Remember the little girl who clapped and exclaimed, “Oh, grandma, look at all the other grandmas!”

 

 

Dying and the heart sutra

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

I can hear snatches of conversations out in the hallway. A man’s voice is asking where are the balls?, a woman’s voice is insisting that she hasn’t paid for lunch while another soothing and calm voice assures her that your pension pays for lunch.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love. I have been repeating those words over and over since I arrived at the long-term care facility where I have been asked to sit with a resident who is dying.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love. It is a heart sutra that one can recite while meditating. I feel it is appropriate to meditate on these words while I sit here.

In the hallway life continues. Life has only slowed down in the confines of this room. The door is open and now I hear the medications wagon roll to the room next to the one where I am sitting and I hear the tap, tap, tap as the charge nurse counts the pills, and I recognize the familiar noise of the pills dispensed into a paper cup. Now she pours the water into a Dixie cup. For sanitary reasons, everything is disposable in the long-term care facility.

I recognize the soft padding of footsteps – silent, rubber-soled shoes of residents and staff. For a macabre moment, flashes of the “sidler” from an episode of Seinfeld enters my consciousness.

Thud. Thud. Wheelchairs on rubber wheels are quiet and unobtrusive as residents propel themselves with their feet.

A resident yells. Quick steps. More soothing words. A quiet blankets the hallway for a few minutes.

A resident’s footsteps are hurried; later, he returns, still hurrying. Again, he repeats the trip down the hallway; and again, returns. The repetition of his hallway journey seems never-ending. The resident’s dementia is relentless and won’t let go.

The man who was looking for the balls wanders past my door – he is now carrying a basket of brightly coloured balls. He, too, repeats the trip past my door, over and over.

The resident who I am sitting beside is still. I look around her room so that I can understand her a little – rooms reflect our personalities, our families and our loves; therefore, rooms are autobiographical.

The machines that were stationed beside her bed are gone – they are superfluous now. My resident is on her final journey – one that is solitary, bereft of things and stuff. This is life at its basic core – she is becoming a shell. Soon she will be formless. Spirit.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

The sounds of the hallway. And the silence and quiet in this room. Side by side.

Life and death close by. My mind wanders to my mother’s death. She, too, lived and died her last moments here in this same facility, although in another area of the building.

No one disturbs us. Occasionally the staff check in and linger for a few minutes. Often they whisper words of comfort and love into the sleeping resident’s ear. Their words move me.

I am always humbled when I recognize that words of love come easily when we visit someone who is dying. If only those same words flowed so freely when our loved ones were well and healthy.

Another resident down the hallway is anxious; she is beginning to confront other residents and now they are agitated. But a staff member has intervened and all is well. A few simple words and calmness reigns. Another potential crisis is diverted – peace. Words of comfort heal many sores.

Peace.

The resident who hurriedly travels back and forth, up and down the hallway has been re-directed to “dust” the hall rails. He is completely transfixed on his task and is polishing the rails until they glean. (There are a myriad of rails to dust – he should be occupied for some time.) Happy to be of service, his face is set in determination and purpose.

Harmony.

A personal support worker (P.S.W.) stops to visit our room. I ask her a question about the resident’s life and she captivates my imagination with tales of the resident’s assertiveness and joie de vivre. We laugh together as we honour this remarkable woman’s life story.

Flash cards in my head. I am remembering my mother’s death: as staff and residents filed into her room to say goodbye, they each took time to tell us stories of our mother (humourous anecdotes) that filled us with tears and laughter. Colour loading: two strokes of paint, one colour beside the other colour, side by side. Laughter. Tears. Joy. Sorrow.

Laughter is a lifeline: it tethers us to one another.

Laughter.

A husband pushes his wife’s wheelchair past our room and I recognize him as he and his wife are often at weekly bingo. He is hunched over and moves very slowly. Very slowly. He is like the many other husbands and wives, family members, who care for their loved ones with dementia. Daily visits that last from early hours until bedtime. That is the norm.

When you volunteer at a long-term care facility long enough, you begin to recognize the unsung heroes in the home. Their health is often jeopardized; their health declining at a faster pace than normal.

When I sit and talk with them, they assure me that there is no other place where they want to be. They consider the long-term care facility their home now, too.

A husband in his 80’s once told me that when he takes a respite from the daily commitment to his wife, that he is lost; he finds himself adrift. And so he returns to the care facility, more at peace and comfortable here (living his commitment to his wife) than in the loneliness and quiet of his home.

Love.

This room is filled with love. I see the love in the many family photos that are pinned to the bulletin board, or framed in the cabinet. Cards are filled with heart-felt sentiment; words of family love.

I see my mother in the bed. And I see my father. Now I see my mother-in-law, my aunt and others.

When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside.   Thich Nhat Hanh

Interbeing.

Outside I can hear the birdsong. It’s Sunday so I also can hear the church bells in the distance. Down the hall someone is playing an organ and a few are attempting to sing a hymn and in spite of being off-key and discordant, there is a flow. The sounds are comforting. There is a rhythm in this building that I can sense – a heart beat – and I find it comforting.

Peace. Harmony. Laughter. Love.

May Grace surround my resident as she travels her last journey. May Grace surround us as we honour life and interbeing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pull the car over and just cry

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“Pull the car over and just cry. Give in to your sorrow.”

My neighbour stopped me last Friday, just when I was about to get into my car and run errands. Her mother died a few weeks ago, so I closed my car door and walked over to her.

I need your advice, she said. “I know that your mother died last year and you seem to be coping well.”

I didn’t answer her. I just listened.

She continued, “I drive around and I just want to pull over and cry my heart out. I don’t know what to do with myself or my emotions.”

She said a few more things… about caring for her mother for a long time, and how lost she felt now that her mother was gone. And she talked about how sad she felt. Everything she said resonated within me.

Finally she took a breath and looked at me, “What should I do? Do you have any advice?”

Before I could edit my words that were forming in my head, the words popped out…”Why don’t you just pull over and have a good cry? Give in to your emotions.”

She blinked. She blinked again. She stared at me intently. “Oh!” she whispered.

Her eyes welled up and she whispered, “Thank you.” And she turned away from me and went back into her house.

“Pull the car over and just cry.”

How little we need from each other when we are overcome with grief and sorrow.

While I was writing my Ebook about caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, I took a couple of courses in palliative care, and one of our instructors (a palliative nurse for many years) encouraged us to read a book, I Don’t Know What To Say – How to Help and Support Someone Who is Dying, by the late Dr. Robert Buckman.

When I first learned of Dr. Buckman, an oncologist, he hosted a television show in the 80’s, a show about sex. He was a warm and funny man and I immediately became a fan. When I Googled Dr. Buckman, I learned that he came to Canada in 1985 and worked in Sunnybrook Hospital and later, Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. He wrote a lot of books and publications and made many videos, combining medicine and humour. Interesting – I have always thought that people who combine science or medicine (that is, facts and information) with humour are gifted.

Dr. Buckman’s book set me straight many years ago. It was a difficult book to locate as it is out of print, but I bought a second-hand copy, on-line. I consider his I Don’t Know What To Say… a bedside table book – it is my go-to reference book whenever I learn of a friend’s poor diagnosis.

If I had to identify only one lesson that I have received from this book over the years, I would have to say it is: Listen. Say nothing. Just listen.

So when my neighbour asked me for advice, my other persona (I can fix this! persona) wanted to hijack the conversation; but, thankfully, I could hear Dr. Buckman whispering in my ear, just listen.

I wish I could say that I am a good listener all the time. It is actually the only 2016 intention that I made this year: Listen more. But the reality is that I often talk too much, especially when I am confronted with someone’s need to bare their soul to me. My default reaction is “Okay, I have just hung my armchair psychoanalyst shingle – I’m In – and I am ready to dispense advice.”

But wisely, Dr. Buckman encourages us to just stay still when someone comes to us with their sad news – a poor diagnosis or prognosis or a death of a loved one – and just say nothing.

He reminds us that patients or family members of someone who is ill or dying do not want us to solve their problems; they just want our ear. They want to talk and they need someone to just listen and say nothing. We can murmur yes, or nod our heads, or we can echo back to them what they just said as an affirmation that we are hearing them (correctly).

One of the most interesting things he wrote about was a simple lesson about listening.  A research study was done in the United States in which untrained people were taught to “counsel” volunteer patients – they were taught to just sit and listen and say “I see.” All of the patients thought that the counselling sessions were excellent, and asked to see their “therapists” for more sessions in the future. The untrained people (just by listening) were viewed by the patients as “therapists,” helpful “therapists,” no less.

Dr. Buckman was making a point – listening is a valuable and worthy strategy when dealing with people who have problems. Well, people with problems would include…all of us! The whole Universe (unless you are Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama).

Dr. Buckman’s advice is gold; it’s an alchemy.

Listening is a therapeutic tool because it allows for that sacred space: the space where there is stillness and silence. In that sacred space is where healing takes place and where acceptance lives. It is an energy that is real, and when we most need comfort and support, that healing energy allows us to talk freely, without distraction, without judgment. Listening can transform someone’s pain – just by allowing someone to share their pain and sorrow. When we listen to someone (without giving any advice), we silently transmit a message: I’m here for you; whatever you say, I hear you. And that silent message allows us to connect.

Thanks to Dr. Buckman I learned that I didn’t need to cure/solve/fix my neighbour’s grief.  Nor did I need to advise her – she already had the answer within.

Her first comment to me was that when she felt so sad and overcome with emotion, she just wanted to pull her car over and cry. That’s the answer.

Our hearts and our spirits always push us in the direction that we need to go…that little lesson I know for sure. Her heart was telling her to just cry and let it rip.

Holding on to our emotions is never a healthy coping strategy.  (If you are in a crowded arena with complete strangers,  you might want to hold in your emotional buildup. Like the time I was in a nurse’s office answering questions about my father’s needs on the first day of his entering a long-term care residence – I spotted him on a gurney in the hallway and I let it rip. I was an emotional geyser that blew up. I am sure that I traumatized the admitting nurse.)

No matter our age, losing a parent is a huge milestone in life. And one of the means of allowing ourselves to let go of the grief and sorrow as it wells up within is to…weep.

When we allow the emotions to flow, we show compassion to ourselves. If we feel anger, then acknowledge it. Sit with it. Whatever it is that we are feeling, whether it is sorrow, resentment, or anger – just sit with it and allow it. Do not fight it; or push it away; or ignore it; or look for distractions. Sooner or later our feelings need to vent. The beauty of this technique is it is so simple; no editing, no revising is necessary.

We need to allow our feelings, a voice. Sit with them and accept them and in time answers will arise and we will figure out why we are angry or resentful. And we will learn to let go. But first, there must be awareness.

We are human. And humans feel.

Pull the car over to the side of the road and just cry.

Trust me on this…you’ll feel better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy and tchotchkes

Joy, gratitude, bliss.

All are interconnected.

We live in a small house and raised twin boys in it. When it was time to move to a bigger house, we looked around our cottage in the city and announced that we were already living in our retirement home – the very same small home that we have called our cottage since our babies were born. So we stayed put.

Like many people I have surrounded myself with things that give me joy. When I walk into any room in our home, I am blissfully happy and content – just by looking at the photographs of trips we’ve taken or art bought from local street vendors, furniture that I have found at auction sales and have refinished or restored, and objects such as vintage vases that I fill weekly with the flowers that my husband buys at the local market every Saturday. (When my son got married, I gave him one piece of advice only: Buy flowers for your wife – often.)

I have learned that when I enter a room filled with items that I cherish, a calmness and tranquility comes over me and soon afterwards I feel a rush of gratitude. That gratitude leads to bliss. I feel a loving energy in every room of our home. My awareness and mindfulness of that loving energy leads to more gratitude – our home becomes a true haven for our family because that energy supports us and comforts us. But it begins with the awareness of where I am.

So when my sister told me about this life-changing book about cleaning that she had just read, I was skeptical.

We were sitting at a table in a favourite restaurant enjoying burgers and beers when she announced that her whole way of cleaning had changed her life and given her back…joy!

I raised an eyebrow. My husband burst out laughing and spilled his beer. My sister was not a clean and clutter-free kind of gal. Nope! I got that gene from my mother, not her.

“The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up (the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing) by Marie Kondo has helped me not only clean house and declutter, but it has opened my mind and my spirit,” she announced.

Well, even though I was pretty sure that I could not learn anything new about cleaning house, she got me at the “open mind” part of her statement.  But once I had thought that I was pretty sure that I couldn’t learn anything new about cleaning house, then… well, I just contradicted all of my intentions for 2015 about how an open mind can free up our creativity and potential for growth and expansion.

So I borrowed the book and opened it to peruse the chapter titles…

Really I was just fooling myself. I was not being open-minded: I was looking for evidence! Evidence that I already did all this decluttering, organizing stuff; evidence that I already cleaned house in a superior manner; evidence that I did not need this book. (Damn it, my house already gives me joy.)

The chapter entitled Komono: Keep things because you love them – not “just because” caught my eye. Synchronicity, again.

My mom died nearly one year ago and so lately it has occurred to me that I should be sorting through the boxes of tchotchkes from her home. My mom had a lot of tchotchkes around the house because unlike Marie Kondo (the author of said-mentioned book) my mother saved anything and everything that people gave her – books, key chains, greeting cards, postcards, statues from travels, salt and pepper mementos. Like many grandmothers, she had saved useless Christmas gifts that the kids had given her when they were preschool age…some school projects were now torn or dried out;  while some items were just plain hideous. (Did I help my kids buy these items? Was I high that shopping trip?) Her dressers were filled with unopened boxes of gloves, scarves, and woolen hats that she had never worn, but kept in their original packaging. And boxes…that were empty. She saved those, too. For some reason, I was now the keeper of this stuff.

Well, I am not a knickknacky type of collector. In fact, up until a couple of years ago when I deliberately made the intention that I would not judge people by the crap that they collected (Ha! A lot of judgment in that statement, huh? My meditation teacher would not be happy with my lack of growth.), I could not walk by a front garden full of gnomes and plastic flowers without cringing. Now with all my growth (ha!) I can walk by such gardens and just smile. Whatever floats your boat, right?

Well, it is time to release my mother’s tchotchkes, according to the KonMari technique (author’s name spelled backwards) and this particular chapter on mementos will tell me how to do it, joyfully (apparently).

Take everything out of the boxes and place them on the floor. Now, one at a time, pick up the items and hold them, and only if they give you joy or pleasure, return them into the box to be kept. The rest, my friends, will go to the charity shop or the trash. Well, that’s the difficult part. Who wants to give a shiny, three-inch plastic flower-pot that wiggles when you pick it up to the trash can? Did my mother like this flower-pot? Did she pick it up and laugh? Or, did someone dear to her give it to her? (My sister denies it was her.) Nevertheless, this pink plastic flower-pot is in perfect condition. Plastic just doesn’t die!

In the spirit of the KonMari technique, and because my sister nags me every day, I am going to give it a try. I am going to release the flower-pot that wiggles!

Thanks to the author, I realize now that my mother’s possessions did not give me joy – I was only storing them out of guilt. I feel such freedom. Plus, my closets are now spacious.

Decluttering or simplifying our home, according to the author, is the first step to simplifying our life. When we clear away stuff, we free ourselves. Apparently her technique works as once she teaches clients how to organize their homes, her clients continue to practice her techniques – they live clutter-free forever. More significantly, they learn to release old habits and old thoughts, as well as letting go of stuff.

To me, that sounds pretty spiritual. Letting go of things that no longer work for me; letting go of ideas and thoughts that do not serve me or support me; simplifying life so that I can pay attention to what does serve me – my family, my friends, my home, my garden, my volunteer work. A simplified life frees me to spend more time doing things that give me joy, activities that increase my creativity, that expand my awareness and support my growth.

When I catch a glimpse of the red cardinal in our cobalt blue bird bath, I feel joy.  When I have more time to just sit with a hot tea in my hands, watching the autumn leaves fall from the maple tree at the corner of our yard, I am grateful for the simplicity of my daily life. My life is simple because I have chosen this life. I choose to be mindful of what gives me joy. And letting go of chaos and clutter are life-changing choices, also.

As young people we don’t understand why our parents give away their possessions, or why our parents refuse birthday gifts or return them later. As young people we spend a lot of time collecting stuff, not refusing it or giving it away. But as we grow older, as we grow in self-awareness, it becomes unnecessary to keep collecting, to keep buying…and for those who are ill or dying, they learn very quickly that it is not stuff they want, it is precious time that they crave now: Time to spend with loved ones, time to spend doing whatever inspires joy, and time to reflect on a life well-lived.

Often I repeat something that I learned many years ago…something that I heard again when I took a palliative course two years ago: When we are dying, we never cry out that we wished we had spent more time at work or more time making money to buy more things. Because when we are dying, we are just grateful for the love that surrounds us. In the end, love is the only thing that matters.

On my window sill over the kitchen sink I have a few beloved tokens: three Buddhas with their hands stretched out in loving kindness and generosity, my mother’s ring (which I wear with love always), my gratitude stone, and a tiny porcelain teapot, pink roses on the front, and inside the teapot are two tiny mice, each holding a cup of tea. The tiny, difficult-to-read inscription says,  Mother and Daughter.

This tchotchke gives me joy. All of the other stuff, I let go.

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In our sadness, we look for gifts

This week we learned that our friend has received some news from the doctor about his cancer. His cancer has metastasized. We struggle with the news, slowly try to process it.  After a few days I invite our friend’s wife out for lunch in a quiet restaurant to talk (away from home)…I wanted to give her my presence so that she could vent and cry. Two things are important now – talking and listening.

But I have underestimated my friend’s strength and wisdom because as soon as we are seated at a table, to my surprise, she handed me a piece of paper with the following poem. She wasn’t sure who the author was but I Googled it and found a woman’s name, Sue Rogge. (I apologize if I have not credited the correct author.)

We are all born to a world of change,
Though we may never know why.
We grow and learn, despair, rejoice,
Wonder, and laugh, and cry…
And the days fly by.
And some look back with little more
Than regret and a wistful sigh,
Or worry their way toward the future,
Or do their best to deny…
That the days fly by.
Each moment in time is a gift that comes
And goes in the blink of an eye.
We question, as always, the meaning of life,
And “to live” is the only reply.
So let’s celebrate us in the here and now –
May we live as well as life will allow,
And may our spirits be ever high,
So they, too, fly…
As the days fly by.      Sue Rogge

And just so you know, we do talk. And she did vent. And we both shed some tears.

Talking and listening. Both are gifts that we share.