[NOTE: This entry is more personal than our usual posts. Last month's piece, Facing the Inevitable with Grace and Wit, generated such a positive response that I was moved to go a step beyond Chast's memoir and share my personal account of love, loss and learning. May it serve you well in your work with seniors, and in your own life journey.]
I was desultorily browsing the greeting cards at my local bookstore when I spied a card that would be perfect for my parents’ anniversary; it bore an image and tagline unique to their surname. I’ve loved finding such cards over the years, and would buy them months in advance. But instead of triumphantly purchasing this card, I turned away with a lump in my throat, tears brimming.
My mother died a year ago.
Perhaps this is what medical professionals mean when they refer to an “Anniversary Reaction”: the upwelling of sadness that rises like catarrh, seeking release. But we can’t just expel our grief; memories are indelibly etched in the heart, evoking moments and days and years, a lifetime of love that time does not erase.
I feel like I lost all my elders in 2014. My lifelong friend Ellie made her transition in September, just after her 101st birthday. While her death was not unexpected, I recalled a conversation we had when she was in her mid-90s, about her beloved husband Ira. At the time, he’d been gone for more than 20 years. Yet my upbeat friend, who’s been a spiritual beacon for me, admitted, “I miss him so much!” I developed a deep understanding of aging through my heart connection with Ellie, but didn’t fully grasp how grief transcends time and space until she said that — and until now.
One of my pivotal teachers, Angeles Arrien, passed in April. Cheryl Case (known to her friends as Snake) left in October. Each of these deaths was a shock, because they were totally unanticipated. I learned of Angeles’ departure when I picked up the May/June issue of Common Ground, a free Bay Area magazine, and turned to the final page, appropriately titled Last Words. I found a wise quote from Angeles Arrien gracing the page, and below her name, two dates with a dash between them. It took my mind several seconds to process what this meant. NO! I screamed silently. Angeles can’t be gone; she’s just 74. She’s in the midst of a teaching schedule for her newest book, Living In Gratitude. She’s a pillar of wisdom. And now, she is an ancestor.
As a cross-cultural educator and author, Angeles’ gift was her extraordinary ability to meld anthropology, psychology and comparative religions to show others how to “walk the mystical path with practical feet.” I took her weeklong Four-Fold Way Training at the Esalen Institute in January 1994. I’d read her book, The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary the previous summer, and the evening talk I attended then convinced me she had much wisdom to share.
Yet what Angeles brilliantly modeled transcended the personal growth genre. Her books and practices are used in corporate, academic and medical milieux, as well as in the non-profit sector. When I think of her, some of the words that come to mind include authenticity, generosity of spirit, wholeheartedness. And joy.
Finally, in December, I happened to see a request on a local online bulletin board for a ride to “Snake’s Life Celebration.” As with the “dates with a dash”, I had to process what “Life Celebration” meant. I looked at the day listed. The event had taken place that very afternoon. Snake was dead.
How was this possible? She was 68, healthy and fit. I’d last seen her in late August. When I searched for an obituary online, an article popped up that described how she’d gone on a solo hike while visiting her stepfather in Arizona last October, and never returned. An experienced hiker and world traveler, Snake once led an all-female expedition through the Himalayas, and later hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone, from Mexico to Canada. Like Ellie, like Angeles, Snake was a generous spirit who demonstrated this munificence numerous times over the 17 years I knew her. In addition to her full time job prior to retirement, for the last quarter century she was the publisher of Women’s Voices, the nation’s second oldest women-focused newspaper, where I was privileged to publish many times. (In face, my tribute to Ellie originally appeared in Women’s Voices, when Ellie was 92.)
I’ve been having spontaneous conversations with both Snake and Ellie on the etheric plane. You could argue that these are simply random thoughts arising within my own mind. But the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung conceived of the collective unconscious. It’s not that big a stretch to think we might connect with individuals who have crossed over, if both they and we have the desire to communicate across the veil.
So my empathy for all who have lost their loved ones has grown by a factor of heart these last months, as I experience what elders do as they watch their dearests depart, and learn to live without their presence. I find myself wanting to share stories about the beauty and talent and love of these great souls who blessed my life by being in it.
This may be the greatest gift you can bestow on the older adults you serve as reverse mortgage professionals: to encourage them to talk about those they love, both the ones who are still here and those who have departed, and to listen fearlessly, not shrinking from the truth of our own mortality. It is an honoring. Someday it will be our turn. Hopefully others will remember us with the same joy and grace.
In his landmark book, How We Die, surgeon and medical professor Sherwin B. Nuland (who also transitioned in 2014) quotes 16th century French social philosopher Michel de Montaigne: “Your death is part of the order of the universe…’tis the condition of your creation. Give place to others, as others have given place to you.” And with wisdom and veracity he admonishes, “The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little.”
We use our time well when we hold the hearts of those we serve, whether relatives, friends, clients — or strangers. The woman behind me in line at the post office a few days ago spontaneously told me, “My best friend died last night.” In that moment, I was invited to hold the space for her fierce, fresh grief. From my own wild, wounded and wide-open heart, I answered the call.