How Death Helps, Part 1

It’s not that I’m obsessed with death.  Okay, maybe it started that way.  I’ve been thinking an awful lot about death ever since I first learned that it’s a thing.  At times, my interest wasn’t exactly healthy.  I spent most of my childhood fantasizing about death, because I was hurting and the thought of an end to that pain comforted me.  That’s not good, but it’s where I was.  I guess, yes, obsessed.

I wouldn’t wish that early part of my journey on anyone, but I also wouldn’t trade it.  Those dark years I spent fixated on death, though painful, were what positioned me on a path toward eventual unimaginable happiness.  It was death that put me on that path.  It’s been death that’s led me down that path.  And it’s death I will follow to its end.  If my level of happiness (by which I mean a sense of excitement, inspiration, reverence, purpose and peace) continues to increase at the same rate it has been on this first part of my life, I believe I will meet my end by vibrating from pure joy progressively until the cells of my body dissipate into a cloud of giggles and glitter.  I mean, a person can only be so happy, right?

rainbows

I wasn’t always happy.  Far from it, I remember the first time I ever felt anything I’d describe as happiness, and I was 15 years old at the time.  But now, I truly feel like I’ve found the secret to life, and wouldn’t you know, it was death all long.

It’s true that my interest in death started because I knew it could end me.  And sadly, I felt like someone who need to end.  But by luck and happenstance, I did not end then.  I went on.  And as I found other, healthier ways to deal with my pain, death lost its appeal.  But it did not lose its familiarity.  It was something I was already accustomed to thinking about.  A lot.  And something I had always thought of as something that could help me.  That was my gift.  Because while I was wrong about the way in which death would help me, I was absolutely right that it would.

How does death help me?  In so, so many ways.  Every day, all the time.  It’s rare that a day goes by now that I don’t notice a way in which death is helping me, in totally healthy, joyful ways.  This might sound weird.  Most people don’t usually think of death as a happy thing to think about.  And I realize that my relationship with death is a bit of a luxury, one that I paid for as a child.  It’s only after spending decades giving heavy thought to death that I now enjoy these rich benefits.  And I’m not sure it’s possible for someone to experience them without having put in the time, without having sat with death and with the necessary pain that accompanies death, for quite some time.

But maybe the benefits can be learned.  Maybe one can befriend death without spending years in pain first.  Maybe if someone knew what to look for, they could skip right to the good stuff!  Maybe that someone is reading this.

I guess before you can determine whether you can experience these benefits from thinking about death, I should tell you what they are.  There are really more ways death helps me than I can list, but I’ll start with a few.

For one thing, death makes food taste better.

PerfectStrawberry

This was the first clear benefit of thinking about death that I remember consciously noticing – the way in which attention to death could bring out rich flavors in my food.  Now I use it kind of like seasoning.  Whenever I think of it, while I’m eating, I take a moment before a bite to think about death.  Not just any death, but MY death.  My real and certain and final death.  I imagine it as if it were about to happen right now.  Then I breathe and take a bite.

I don’t know why this works, but wow, you’ve never tasted anything so amazing as a bite of food flavored by death.  It almost doesn’t even matter what food it is.  I first noticed it with a strawberry but have since tried it on everything from plain bread to salad to cake.  And I actually don’t notice the ecstatic effect any more with cake than I do with salad.  Whatever I’m eating, when I call my death into the front of my mind, will be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

Want another one?   Death helps improve body image.  There’s nothing that will make you love your body quite like acknowledging that it’s not for keeps.  Holding death close in mind, I’m reminded of all that my body has done, and continues to do, for me.  And how extraordinary it is that it’s mine, that I can move it and feel it and inhabit it like this.  Looking at myself in the mirror, right in my eyes, and seeing myself as someone who will die, I see a light in my eyes and a warm softness in my face, and I feel beautiful.  I even appear visibly more beautiful to myself when I look in this way.

girl in mirror

And not only does it make me feel better about my body, it also motivates me to take better care of my body.  Often those two things – feeling happy with how you look and feeling motivated to get in shape – don’t go together.  We either feel good about how we look now or we feel compelled to get in better shape.  But reflecting on my mortality, I actually feel both.  Recognizing that I am temporary, I see myself as precious, and therefore I both love myself as I am and want to take care of myself.  This is good for my body image now and a good sign for my body image in the future.

A third way death helps me is with gratitude.  If you haven’t heard of the many benefits (link) enjoyed by people who regularly practice gratitude, you should look into it.  There are too many to list here.  But it seems there is almost nothing that can’t be helped by a healthy dose of gratitude.  It makes you happier, healthier, more successful and effective, more likable.

stones

But life is often hard and annoying and mundane and stressful.  So gratitude isn’t always the most obvious reaction to what life’s offering.  Even when I can remember to try and feel grateful, sometimes the feeling just doesn’t come.  No, I’m not grateful.  I’m tired, and the house is messy, and my kids are whining at me, and I have a headache.  I can’t force it!

Enter death.  In almost any situation, no matter how stressful or annoying or uncomfortable, a quick pause to reflect on death gives me the perspective I need to count my blessings.  Because none of this is a given.  Not my messy house nor my whining children nor my head that sometimes hurts.  These are all gifts.  The very moment in which I am experiencing those things is a gift.  That I can and will die means these moments are limited and therefore precious.  But I have them.  I am rich in reality, and in life.  Gratitude.

Those are three examples of ways death helps me on a regular basis, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there are at least dozens more.  Stay tuned.  I’ll be back to share some of them.  Until then, may your life feel as rich and vibrant and miraculous to you as mine does to me when I’m thinking about death.

doorlight

 

 

 

Zoom In

snail

Sometimes, I think the key to happiness is zooming in.

Like if you look out around you and see that you are in the center of a wall-to-wall sea of toys and books and clothes (some clean, some dirty) with a baby crying on the floor a few feet away and a disheveled toddler in the corner announcing that she “has pee!” … try zooming in.

Bring your attention inward, follow the breath. Zoom in.

‘Cause then you might see that you are wearing pajamas at 1pm on a Wednesday, while playing your ukulele, perched safely above the mess atop a trampoline. See?

Just zoom in.

Dance Forever

I’m not really one to lament the passing of my childhood.  I value the clarity I’ve gained in adulthood, my focused priorities and the awareness of my limits.  I wouldn’t want to be a kid again.

But I do know kids have a special kind of wisdom that is dependent on the prematurity of those same qualities.  Like this morning, my 3-year-old heard music and said:

“Quick, Mama – dance!”

with an urgency I usually reserve for water near my laptop.  And then later, while we were dancing, she said:

“Let’s keep doing this forever.”

She has yet to learn any reasons why those statements wouldn’t make sense.  And while I wouldn’t want to go back, I cherish these glimpses into that world.

Yes, child.  Let’s dance.  Forever.

dance

What To Say When Someone Dies

Imagine you run into someone you know (a friend, a coworker, a neighbor, anyone) and in chatting, you learn that someone close to them has just died.  Maybe it was their spouse, their child, their parent, their friend, anyone.  What do you say?

If imagining this scenario makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone.  Death and grief are taboo subjects in our culture, and like the rest of us, you’ve probably been conditioned most of your life to avoid them whenever possible.  Because we don’t talk about death, we don’t know how to talk about death.

listening

Over the past year, I’ve had the honor of participating in a number of group discussions about death, dying and grief.  And a subtopic that has been coming up a lot recently is what is (and is NOT) helpful to hear from someone when you’re grieving.  While personal tastes do vary, there is actually a great deal of consensus as to which comments are nice to hear and which are, well, not so helpful.  Many comments made with the best of intentions (including several I might have previously made myself) can actually be annoying at best, and sometimes downright offensive or hurtful.

Since I found these conversations to be so very informative, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned here.  The following is a list of problematic comments one might make to a grieving person, each with a brief explanation and/or suggested alternative.

Note:  Nothing on this list is universal.  The problematic comments I included are here because they’ve been mentioned repeatedly, over time, and in different discussions, by numerous people who have been personally bothered by them.  Any one comment on here might, in a certain context, be totally appropriate.  But if you’re unsure, these are good general rules to follow.  Do know that often, there’s nothing you can say (or not say) that will make a grieving person feel better, and that’s totally fine.  What they need is usually not to feel better anyway, but just to be allowed to feel what they’re feeling.

grief

What To Say When Someone Dies

Don’t say:  “How did they die?”

Why?  Because that isn’t really a question for them.  That is a question for you, because you are curious.  If they want to tell you how the person died, they will.  But there are many reasons they might not want to tell you, or might not want to at that moment.  Chances are, they’ve already had to tell that part of their story more times than they’d care to.   And it may be hard for them to talk about, or it may not be the most important part of the story for them.  So asking that of them to satisfy your own curiosity is a way of taking from them.  You can choose instead to give to them with your questions, when you ask in a way that makes space for them to tell their own story.

Instead, try:  “Do you want to tell me about it?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “I know just how you feel,”  or  “Oh yeah, my brother died last year, and what happened was…”

Why?  Because this isn’t about you.  And it isn’t about anyone else who has died or who will die.  (Otherwise known as “everyone.”)  This is about the one and only death of one totally unique individual, and it’s about the earthly severing of a relationship between two people that was also totally unique.  You do NOT know just how they feel.  And even if you did, telling them so is not helpful.

Instead, try:  “What does it feel like right now?”  or  “What’s the hardest part?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “She’s in a better place now,” or “He’s with God now,” or “She’s in Heaven.”

Why?  The person may not share your beliefs, in which case those comments can be quite offensive.  But even if they do happen to believe what you’re saying, it’s very unlikely to make them feel any better.  Their pain is not about where their loved one may or may not be now.  It’s about them not being here.  Saying where you think they’ve gone just highlights their earthly absence.

Instead, try sharing memories you have of that person, and use that person’s name.  Describe the person.  Say what you loved best about them and what you’ll remember most about them.  Share some way they impacted you or something they taught you.  These are the ways in which the dead stay with us.  You can’t bring back that person, but you can join the grieving in honoring and remembering them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “It’s for the best,” or “His suffering is over now,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Why?  If even true, that is neither here nor there.  It does not address the experience of the grieving person you are talking to.  It is unlikely to make them feel better, and it is dismissive.

Instead, try:  “I’m so sorry.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  (anything starting with “At least…”)

Why?  Because that’s not helpful.  For a great illustration, watch this short video…

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “Is there anything I can do?”  or  “Let me know if you need anything.”

Why?  While there are plenty of things you could probably do for that person, asking in this way puts the ball immediately back in their court.  It then requires them to think of something for you to do for them and to ask you to do it.  Both of those take energy and can feel uncomfortable.  Neither a surplus of energy, nor an eagerness to tackle uncomfortable conversations, are common traits of a person in deep grief.  Do find a way to help them.  But do so in a way that adds nothing to their plate.

Instead, try:  “I would love to bring you dinner.  What would be a good time to drop it off?”  or  “I’m stopping at the store on the way to your house.  What can I bring you?”  or  “Can I take the kids to the park for awhile?”  If they seem reluctant to accept this kind of help, let them know that it would make you feel good to do something for them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t:  disappear

Why?  Death and grief are topics that are widely frowned upon in our culture.  We’ve been well-trained to avoid these things.  (Unfortunate, since they are an inherent part of life.)  As a result, it is common for people dealing with death and/or grief to find that the people in their lives become scarce for a while.  People don’t want to be uncomfortable or don’t know what to say, so they avoid the grieving person altogether.  But what a grieving person needs is not for you to say any magical thing.  What they’re most likely to need is someone to simply listen.  To bear witness to their pain, without judging or dismissing or trying to fix it.  Just to be there.  So don’t go silent or disappear.

Instead, try:  “Wow, I don’t even know what to say.  But I’m here.”

here

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “Be strong.

Instead, you be strong for them.  Grieving the loss of a loved one isn’t a weakness.  Experiencing intense emotions is not a weakness.  If you’re uncomfortable with their feelings, maybe you’re the one who needs to toughen up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “Don’t cry.  It will be okay.”

Instead, try:  “You can cry around me,” or “Go ahead and cry.”  And then be there with them for that.  You might even add, “Let’s just sit here with this now.”  Be present, and accept their feelings.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “Maybe you should talk to a counselor about this.”  or  “Have you looked into a grief support group?”

Why:  Grief is not a disease or a disorder.  Grief is not unhealthy, unnatural or inappropriate.  What is unhealthy and unnatural and inappropriate is expecting people to hide those feelings, keep them to themselves or process them in isolation without the loving support of friends and family.  Treating this essentially human experience as something that needs to be treated or cured is more harmful than any feelings a grieving person naturally has in response to their loss.

Note:  Counselors and grief support groups each have an important place.  But chances are, it is not your place to suggest them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “How are you doing?”

Why?  That question is at once unanswerable and has such an obvious answer it’s not worth asking.  A day in the life of any person, especially a grieving person, typically covers a wide range of emotions and is not easily summed up in one breath.  And at the same time, when you ask that of a person experiencing deep grief, their response (at least on the inside), is likely to be, “How the hell do you think I’m doing?!”  What they’ll probably actually say to you out loud is, “Okay,” “Fine,” or “I’ve been better.”  And it’s likely to feel to them like the millionth time this week they’ve had to answer that same question that same way.

Instead, try:  “How did it go with the lawyer this morning?” or “How has talking to the kids been going?”  or “What’s the hardest part of the day?”  Asking this kind of specific question gives that person a realistic chance at answering authentically and also shows them you’re thinking about them.

Though not specifically about grief, here is a great piece on asking good questions.  Very relevant here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “Wow, you’re so strong/brave.  I don’t know how you do it.”

Why?  This kind of statement can actually feel alienating to someone who is likely to need connection far more than they need compliments.  It can suggest a sort of distancing and separating between the two of you, making it harder for that person to open up and talk about things they may really need to talk about.  Also, they may not feel particularly brave or strong, and they shouldn’t have to.

Instead, try:  “That sounds so hard.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t say:  “You know, this is hard for me too.”

Why?  If you’re the one trying to think about what you should say to someone who’s grieving, chances are, you’re not as affected by that particular death as they are.  And if that’s true, it is insensitive, inappropriate and hurtful to put your hard feelings on them.

If you have your own grief to process surrounding that same death, by all means, do so.  But unload your feelings onto someone who is less affected by that death than you are, not more so.  A great way of thinking about this is the “comfort in, dump out” approach described in this article.

 About “I’m sorry for your loss.”

From what I’ve gathered, the jury is still out on this popular response.  On one hand, I’ve heard people say they appreciate this sentence when they’re grieving.  It doesn’t deflect or dismiss, it’s straight and to the point, and it addresses what is usually at the heart of grief, that sense of loss.  On the other hand, it can sound cliche and sort of automatic.  And when someone has recently lost a loved one, you can bet they’ve heard “I’m sorry for your loss,” from just about every other person they’ve encountered.  So use your judgment on this one.  If you feel comfortable saying something more personal or creative, that could be a wonderful gift to someone grieving.  But if you don’t know what else to say, using “I’m sorry for your loss,” is probably not a bad idea.

soldiers

 

And lastly, don’t expect a person in grief to feel any particular thing.  Maybe her dad died last week, and today she’s laughing at a joke she heard.  Maybe his daughter died 18 years ago, and today he starts crying about it in the grocery store.   Maybe a grieving person is full of energy or can’t get out of bed or wants to go to a party or doesn’t want to talk to anyone.  Let them feel how they feel.  It can be hard when everyone’s expecting you to be sad all the time.  Similarly, it can be hard when people are wondering why you haven’t “moved on” yet.  Grief doesn’t follow any map or timeline, and the grieving shouldn’t be expected to either.

The above list is not meant to be comprehensive.  If you have a problematic comment you’d like to add, I’d love to hear it!  Feel free to share in a comment.

Here’s to living, loving, grieving and dying well.  Thanks for reading.

love

Thoughts on Privilege and Foxholes

Today I saw this wonderful cartoon about how (and why) we should occupy positions of privilege responsibly and thoughtfully.  I welcome reminders of this kind, knowing that privilege is elusive and often invisible to those who have it, knowing that it is my duty to put in any effort required in checking my privilege.  I try to be conscious.  I try to be responsible.  I think I do okay.

Though I surely fall short of my ideals at times, it is at least my intention to be mindful and aware of my privilege.  It is at least my practice to use my privilege only when it will help level the playing field.  It as at least my policy to reject opportunities to abuse my privilege.

Coexist-bumpersticker

But a little voice in the back of my head this morning whispered of atheists in foxholes.  Of course, we’re not really talking about atheism or theism here, though religious beliefs – or lack there of – do dictate certain positions of relative privilege in our culture.  (Ask any atheist who’s run for political office.)  And for the record, I don’t agree with the claim that metaphor is usually attempting to illustrate.  Atheism is not simply a failure to recognize one’s own mortality.  But I suppose there could be individual cases (and probably have been) where the viewpoint of atheism was challenged by the tight spot of impending death.  And I can’t help but wonder if my viewpoint on privilege, and my self-image as someone who rejects the abuse of privilege, could be tested and come up short in certain desperate circumstances.

On January 26th, 2001, I was in India when a devastating earthquake hit the western district of Gujarat.  The death toll reached 20,000, and another 600,000 people were left homeless.  I was safely on the other side of the country in Calcutta, now “Kolkata”, in West Bengal (the little orange place labeled “WB” on the map.)  Gujarat is the red one labeled “GJ.”

India Map

So I wasn’t personally affected by the disaster and did not witness the aftermath firsthand.  But a lot of our volunteers, upon hearing of the earthquake, packed up and headed west to see how they could help.  I stayed where I was, doing volunteer work at a home for malnourished and afflicted children.  After some weeks passed, the volunteers started returning from Gujarat, and their reports of what they’d seen trickled in over the next couple months.

Gujarat Quake

The most striking news they brought back was about how the foreign aid was being handled.  Donations had, of course, flooded in from all over the world, but the distribution of these resources still had to happen within the context of the local culture.  And the local culture in India at that time was (and is) still influenced by the caste system.

Castes

It’s harder to find a better example of systematic privilege than India’s caste system.  It’s officially illegal, and many measures have been taken to undo this system and reverse associated damage.  But even today, this ancient and deeply-ingrained worldview influences many aspects of Indian culture.

After the quake hit Gujarat in 2001, the reports back to us from returning volunteers overwhelmingly included stories of foreign aid being distributed according to caste, with priority given to those of higher status.  This was disturbing for a lot of people who went to try and help.  From a western perspective, the caste system sounds pretty messed up.  But the western world is not without its parallels, nor are we free from oppression, discrimination or assigning privilege based on some pretty arbitrary stuff.  It could even be argued that most of those volunteers, the majority of them Catholic missionaries, were operating from a strong position of relative privilege, and in some ways, abusing that privilege.

Apartheid

(For the record, I don’t know how widespread the use of the caste system in determining who got foreign aid was in Gujarat.  I only know what I heard from our returning volunteers.  It’s possible that these were isolated incidents.  But I believe they were true accounts and am not surprised by them, based on my own experiences in India.)

So back to the whisper in the back of my head.  What if I were a mother of high caste order in Gujarat when that earthquake hit?  What if flexing my privilege were the only way I keep my children from starving to death?  Would I do it?  Would you?

Disaster Relief

I like to think I wouldn’t.  But that view of myself is, in itself, a luxury.  I haven’t been in such a desperate situation.  But I could be.  If a massive natural disaster hit home, and I found myself struggling to protect and feed my family, could I stick to my ideals?  Would I refuse to take help afforded to me by some position of privilege I occupy?  Or would I take that opportunity to abuse my privilege out of desperation?  I wish I could say for sure.

Waiting for Relief

Be the Change (Online)

A popular quotation, usually attributed (whether correctly or not) to Mahatma Gandhi, goes like this:

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Whoever said it, I like the message, which I interpret as, “If there’s something you don’t like in the world, be something else.”  Which isn’t to say that you can change the world by simply not participating in things you disagree with (if only!)… but the value of starting with yourself, and of living your own life in a way that’s consistent with what you want of everyone else, can’t be overstated.

Which brings me to my point for today.  Stop clicking on stupid shit online.  Now before I finish that thought, I just want to say that, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t typically include swear words in my language choices.  That is, not unless a swear word is the only word that fits.  I do not say “stupid shit” lightly here.

Click here!

So back to why you should stop clicking on it.  Ask some random people on the street what they think the internet needs more of.  What do you think they’d say?  Do you think they’d say it needs more information about celebrities?  More advertisements featuring women dressed like strippers?  Maybe more 20-second-long videos of people falling on their faces?  Probably not.  For one thing, content like that is already all over the internet.  And for another thing, I (optimistically) believe… or at least hope that most people know that those things do not reflect the wonderful potential of the internet.  Potential to do good things of actual value.  Right?

The internet has the power to connect people, to educate, to inspire, to challenge the aspects of society that aren’t working, to shine light on injustice.  It can encourage people to know better, to do better, to be better.  Or it can devolve into a sea of boobs and guys getting kicked in the balls.

Now, some reading this might think the latter option sounds just great.  I’m not talking to those people right now.   (Though I did include that special video clip just for them, courtesy of the movie, Idiocracy.)  I’m talking to those of you who would agree that the internet needs more real content of actual value and less trash catering to our ids.

Freud's "id"

If that’s you, I have a request.  Stop clicking on the stupid shit.  If you think it’s ridiculous that some pop star teenager gets so much attention, stop clicking on articles about whether or not he’ll get sent to prison for TPing his neighbor’s house.  If you think that women should be valued for their intelligence or skills or ideas, stop clicking on every picture of a girl in a thong you that comes across your news feed.  Want the news to start covering actual, significant events of our time, through honest, responsible journalism?  Stop clicking on headlines that say things like, “How to enlarge your penis/breasts overnight,” or “Hot socialite caught pantiless at sporting event.”

brainwash

See, this isn’t like when you were little and found your dad’s playboy under the mattress, and you could read it any time you wanted with no one knowing a thing.  What you look at online is precious information, so you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re the only one who knows.  Every time you click on something on the internet, that information is recorded.  And it’s not just used if you get caught planning a terrorist attack.  It’s used all the time.  Ever notice how a few hours after you type in “how to fix a toaster” as a search term online, your social media news feed is showing you ads for shiny new toasters?  Do you think that’s a coincidence?  And do you think it stops there?

The stuff you click on matters, because clicks make money.  What do people want when they put something on the internet?  Clicks.  So what are they going to put more of on the internet?  The stuff you click on.  See how this works?  Consider the internet a restaurant, and the things that show up on your screen are a menu.  Every time you click on something, you’re ordering more things like that.  Consider each click a vote for what you want more of online.  For what you care about and value.  You don’t care about or value stupid shit.  So don’t click on it.

puppets

In closing, I’ll leave you with this quote.  I think it was Nelson Mandela who said it.  Maybe Einstein.  No, wait!  It was ME!

“Be the change you want to see on the internet.”   -me