Grief. It comes to fill our hollows of loss. To accompany our loneliness. To be with our pain.
So when you’ve lost someone important in your life, by death or distance; or if you’ve lost a certain hope for the future; you may find a sense of grief. Or maybe it finds you…
It’s all a bit of an enigma sometimes. For grief is a something in the middle of a new nothing. A heaviness in the emptiness.
And, often, with grief can come tears. Even if you don’t always let yourself cry them…
At this time of year, with all the special occasions and anniversaries and expectations, all those un-cried tears – both old and new – can make themselves felt all the more.
So where do you keep yours?
Where do you actually carry them, your un-cried tears*?
If you’ve read this blog a bit, you’ll know I often draw on existential therapy and how the idea of death – and really engaging with it – can help you live a more vivid life.
But this time I don’t just want to talk about ideas. I want to talk about the nitty gritty stuff. The real stuff. The physical realities of this dying business; and the way that many of us in the western world will probably die (and whether that even gets close to how we might like to die when we finally do).
Because it’s important stuff to talk about.
And, as Jean Kittson put it: “there are no Apps for this stuff.”
I’ve spent the last few days at a conference on palliative care* with some really inspirational people (doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, volunteers, pastoral care workers and therapists) who all work with life and death. Who aspire to help us all “live until we die.” Who are guided by principles like these:
“You matter because you are you.
You matter to the last moment of your life.
We’ll do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully,
but to LIVE until you die.”
- Dame Cicely Saunders, Hospice Movement Founder
So let’s talk…
It’s easy to be seduced by the idea of “later”:
(I think I’m slightly addicted to it, myself…)
And the thing with this “later” business is that you have to believe that there always will be a later. That maybe you get some kind of say in how much “later” there’ll be (a lot, thank you). That your time – your life – can be controlled, planned, predicted.
Yet, existentially, none of us can really do that.
For the end of our days – the end of all our “laters” – will come when it comes, and however much we procrastinate, it seems that’s something that just won’t be put off. One day, it will simply be too late for your “laters”…
So then what?
Where does that leave you with “later”?
(And where does it leave you with now?)
This photo is of my study. See the chair? It’s a brand new (old) one, bought only hours ago from a junk shop down the street.
Though I’ve been doing a bit of a clean-out lately, and didn’t want to buy anything new for a while, I just couldn’t walk past it. For something about it speaks to me of the stuff I love – old, weather-worn stuff that’s lived a full life. And it whispered to me that it could be a great chair to write in.
And that’s the key, really. For I’ve been trying to build a space for more writing in my life. I’m not really sure why, or where it could be headed; I just love doing it, and that’s enough.
So what are you building a space for in your life?
What are you like with endings?
Just cast your eye over your shoulder for a moment and have a look back at some:
Are there any similarities to be found here – any patterns you can detect in the way you handled these times?
For instance, do you tend to anticipate endings long before they actually happen, and spend time building up to them (perhaps silently noting a stream of ‘lasts’)?
Or maybe you get caught up in the lure of the new and gloss over the ending altogether.
Or perhaps you wish it didn’t have to be this way, and do all you can to ignore the warning signs, either reviving or re-living what you secretly know is lost.
Whatever your style of coping with loss, it can be important to get to know it better – because it could be an insight into how you are with your life. A doorway into what it means to be you.
So let’s peer through that keyhole for a moment…
There’s a well-known existential exercise that’s supposed to really ‘bring death home’ to you. And in so doing, really bring life home…
You might already know it. Basically, you take a moment to imagine your own headstone in a cemetery. And then you write what it would say about you. How it would capture a snapshot of your life as it is (which can sometimes highlight the gap between there and where you might yearn for it to be).
Or maybe you’ve heard of the other idea of writing your own eulogy?
Or perhaps you’ve felt moved by the Canadian blogger Derek Miller’s last blog post, which he wrote to be published after his death (of colon cancer, last week).
But have you ever done these sorts of things?
Personally, I’ve only ever thought about them (which is so different than actually putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keys, and making it all more ‘real’). They always seemed too ‘big’ somehow – too involved or something.
Until the other day…
I just bought this bunch of everlasting daisies from the cemetery florist. It seems more than a little ironic… For wandering between the old, sunken headstones out here, the knowledge of the temporary nature of things – of life – sinks in a little deeper.
How we like to forget this… to remain hidden from it in the everyday. Shielded. If you believed the stronger messages and myths that our (western) society spins, you’d think that youth can last forever (if only you buy the right face cream or get the right surgery or adopt the right frame of mind).
But the hundreds upon hundreds of graves out here all tell a different story.
What price might we pay, collectively, to do this to ourselves?
And what might it be costing you (and your loved ones) if you stay hidden from the thought of your own death? From the impending truth of it?
So much seems caught in this handful of words (on another strangely insightful billboard*):
“One day could change your life.”
For, existentially, all of our lives seem certain to change one day – changed forever from the life we know into something we can only understand as an ending; as death.
One day, life; one day, not.
Yet how easy it is to forget this. To, instead, get caught up in the other kind of ‘one day’ – as in: “One day, I’ll get around to fixing that broken step/heart/relationship”. Or, “One day I’ll finally have the courage to test out my dream of …” Or, “One day, I’ll eventually let myself be the kind of person I secretly feel myself to be.”
(Just not today).
“No Leave No Life.”
This billboard is only meant to be about taking time off work. Just going on holiday; planning a trip; embracing a bit of tourism.
But if you read it again, a little differently, it seems to whisper at something much bigger.
Something more like: if there’s no leaving, there’s no life.
Or: there’s no life without leaving.
Suddenly, it seems to be about mortality, our ticket out of here, already booked for and paid in advance. For, in a way, we’re only tourists here, in this life.
It’s pretty big to think about.
So how can we bear this knowledge – that we have to leave at some time? Leave this life, leave all the people we love, leave all that we know.
(Maybe even leave all that we are…).
I attended a workshop on hope* today. It particularly looked at what it means for medical practitioners and counselors to work with hope in light of serious illness and death – and how to support people’s many versions of hope in those spaces.
But hope can be such important territory for all of us to explore, in all sorts of phases of our lives, so I’d like to share some thoughts from the workshop with you, and also to invite you to share your own definition of hope here, too.