Recently I saw someone I love die. I mean I literally saw him die. Some of you may have seen this many times. Others of you may never have seen this. But I am guessing that most of you will understand that it was a profound experience for me
At my mother’s memorial service twenty years ago, one of her best friends, Sister Mimi Bodell spoke. She said watching all of us be there for my mother as she passed away was like watching loved ones help a new mom give birth. I was pregnant at the time and would soon learn the wisdom and kindness of loved ones and professionals holding my hand and reminding me that everything would be okay, that I could do it, even when I thought I couldn’t.
Honestly, she was right. It’s not so different helping someone die.
We ignore it. We don’t want to think about it. And yet it too is simply another one of life’s passages. How many things will we go through and adapt to before we are ready for our last adaptation? Our own birth. Graduating High School. College. Job gain. Job loss. New relationships. Relationships that end. Children coming and then going. Illness. Health. New technology. Moving. New careers. The tragic death of loved ones and the more expected but losses that are still tragic in their own ways. The list maybe long or relatively short, but each of us will need to learn to adapt to all of this newness and all of these endings.
I wish they taught Adapting 101 in college but most of us learn this instead from the School of Hard Knocks. The closest I have come to book learning on the subject has been Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s Stages of Grieving. Her ideas have been enormously helpful to me and many others. Her ideas are most helpful when we don’t think that she is defining a ‘proper’ way to grieve and worry that if we don’t grieve in the exact way she describes we must be ‘doing it wrong’. Hopefully Ross’s work can remind us of the opposite: that whatever we are experiencing is probably ‘right’, ‘normal’, ‘important’, or at least our own.
So I began to think that maybe there could be an addendum to her Stages of Grief and I came up with 8 Stages for Adapting to Change. I thought it made sense to begin where the Stages of Grief end:
- Acceptance.My mother’s friend Sister Mimi was filled with delightful contradictions. My favorite one is that she is a Catholic Sister who taught natural childbirth. After my mother died she knew I needed a birthing coach. The best thing she taught me was simple. She said, ‘”Don’t get too attached to how your birthing experience will actually happen. Accept that whatever happens it will be your own experience. It will become part of your life story. And your child’s. That’s all.” This is apparently true of dying as well. And everything that happens to us in between.
- Awareness. Mostly that uncertainty doesn’t last forever. Generally speaking uncertainty is, what terrifies us the most. But the good news is we end up somewhere. We don’t stay in uncertainty forever. The adaptation process is like playing with the lens on a good camera: Things become clearer to us, then fuzzy again. Meditation helps us see through the glass, not quite so darkly.
- Hold hands. Find someone’s hand to hold. Find several people’s hands to hold. Metaphorically hold your own hand. Even when you are whining or saying things to yourself that you are fed up of hearing, be kind. Re-direct sparingly but even then do it with kindness unless you or someone you love is in danger then you can feel free to shout, “Stop!”. Empathy is everyone’s best friend. If it is in your repertoire, you could also imagine God holding your hand and saying kind things to you. Do this especially when you are holding someone else’s hand.Mimi Bodell taught me this too. She said, “When you are nursing your baby in the middle of the night imagine your ancestors, or God, nursing you.” It helped me so much when I was missing my mother the most.
- Visualize. Imagine where you would like to end up. What kind of new home would you most like? Would you be happy adopting if you can’t have a child of your own? Or would you prefer to ”birth” your own career, travel and pour your love into pets and extended family? Do you want to die at home? Alone? Surrounded by loved ones? In my Lamaze classes they showed videos of different women giving birth to give us a sense of all the different ways it could go. I remember one lady who I nicknamed the Zen Goddess. She was quiet and focused as her partner lovingly held her hand. I thought, “I want to be like that”. Of course I wasn’t. Sometimes I was. Sometimes I screamed and once I even got off the table and said, “I’m going home now”. Many of the things we imagine won’t come true, but because some of them will, it’s very helpful to have a focus.
- Concretize. Take what you have imagined and somehow make it more concrete. It will help you focus even more. A ‘To do’ list. A candle during childbirth. A special prayer or saying from childhood. A photograph of a loved one. Your next breath. An informational interview at a job you’d like to have, even if there isn’t a job opening yet. A visit to a city you’d like to live in one day. A sketch of your dream home. A belief in a happy afterlife where you will be welcomed with open arms. This is the fun part. Enjoy it. For the time being forget obstacles, or at least put them aside.
- Plan what you can plan.
- Let go of what you can’t control.
- Repeat as needed and not necessarily in this order.
It is perhaps most important to allow part of you to be fully immersed in each of these experiences and cultivate another part of you that neutrally and lovingly observes you from a slight distance. Too often in life we ignore our intuition.
It is beautiful and important to become more and more attuned with both our observing part and our intuition as they both generally want what’s best for us. I think the more we listen to them the less anxious we become. And the less anxious we become the more present we are to whatever is changing in and around us. I am forever both sad and amazed at the on-going and intersecting arcs of my lifetime.
I am glad to finally be accepting this process at least a little more. In AA they simply call it, “Accepting life on life’s terms”. I am also eternally grateful to the love and wisdom of those who have gone before me. Even as I miss them terribly, I know they are my road map for the life yet to come.