When I told my daughter that I attended a seminar on Dying and Grief she, jokingly said "that sounds like fun." I realized that it was fun for me. I love learning more ways to understand how we survive the unimaginable. One of my coping styles(along with eating and martinis) is to study and learn as much about what I fear as possible. I have become the Columbo of suffering.
My detective work probably began in childhood but I got my PhD at the lowest point in my life when my 20 year marriage ended I felt worthless and needy. As a result I made choices out of desperation. For example, I refer to this time as my reincarnation period, since the only explanation for some of my "relationships" was that there was unfinished business from another life. Interestingly, some of the most bizarre pairings are ones I now view with more appreciative eyes. Even my view my ex-husband's choice of a 25 year old single woman over me, a 40 year old with teenagers now seems like a no-brainer. The gift of distance and time have enabled me to see how much of my judgment was controlled by what others would think of me. Speaking of gifts - one of the gifts of aging (if you're doing it right) is that you care less what others think. Now when I make a fool of myself I do it with enthusiasm! Except Monday, when I fell at a cemetery and didn't get up,hold my arms up high and shout "Ta Da!"
I guess that's another reason that I've been thinking about death lately. I, and the world, have lost two warm, funny, caring people who struggled valiantly not to go to that "better place" while still in their prime years. Of course, the path my life has taken (sometimes I think all I do is keep my foot on the gas, Someone else is steering) has led me to where I am privileged to spend most of working hours accompanying souls in pain on their journey: in treatment for cancer, coping with the murder of a child, caring for spouses who no longer know them, relating to parents who behave like petulant children.
This path began when I heard David Viscott, MD say that when "you're needy that's the time to give." I volunteered at a hospice and developed a close relationship with one of the patients. He viewed his painful struggle with lung cancer as punishment for the playboy life he led when he was a successful Hollywood choreographer. After one of his frequent Last Rites he asked the priest why Jesus had forsaken him? The priest's answer changed my life forever. He asked, "who do you think sent Judy to you?" "Jesus sent her." I no longer felt worthless. My life had purpose!
My purpose is to bear witness to the extraordinary grace, courage and humanity souls can demonstrate in their darkest moments. I have a gift of being able to bring some light into those moments. Charlie and I had laughed and cried together (sometimes all there is to do is cry). I'm a big fan of an occasional "Pity Party" In fact, I am a Pity Party Planner - which movies, songs, foods, decorations will help to make it a success.
When the day came that I walked into his room and the bed was empty and freshly made my sadness contained large doses of gratitude. Charlie's life is over but our relationship continues in ways I never imagined.
A friend, whose brother was dying of AIDS(this was 1986)knew of my hospice work and asked me to speak with his family. This led me to the next steppingstone on my path - the AIDS Project LA. I facilitated a caregiver group for long time partners with one dying of AIDS which everyone did at that time. I learned about love, commitment, and sacrifice from the group members. Maybe, more importantly, I learned about the value of humor and was given permission to use it during life's most serious moments. That is the only thing other than faith that helps in those moments. "Humor is the soul's weapon against the unfairness in life." My groups are often laughing at the absurdity of life. When a husband with Alzheimer's leaves his wife a tip for serving him dinner, what else is there to do?
Humor makes our step lighter along the path of suffering. I keep looking for ways to avoid it (see my earlier reference to food and martinis) So far, the answer seems to be to have a good time while we're suffering . To do this we must walk the path in gratitude. My clients are grateful an eyelash is growing back, there is energy enough to wash a load of clothes, their spouse said a word for the first time in months, he didn't suffer, treatment is almost over, I didn't throw up today. They taught me that happiness is a choice. Someone once said, "If you never learn the language of gratitude you will never be on speaking terms with happiness."