Category Archives: dying

Emotional burden not burnout

Down time, some quiet, a couple moments of peace between one emotional, heavy day in patient rooms and family waiting rooms and another heavy, emotional grief group tonight… I spoke with a young man today as we reflected on finding our path and doing what we feel most passionate about. I told him about my work, something he seemed genuinely interested in after he completes his two years in college missions work for the Catholic church. “You should do it,” I said. “It’s such good work and so rewarding… as long as you don’t mind being heart-broken every day!” We laughed, or maybe I did so I wouldn’t start crying. He noted that it must be a lot of emotional burnout.

Emotional burnout? No… Emotional burden. That’s what I would say about what it is like to do the work I do. And I feel that carrying this with people is an honor and a privilege. Getting close to them and what they are going through, even for a few moments, changes me as much as it might change them. It is good work. And it kicks my ass sometimes.

I can’t even begin to describe how much sticks with me. In two weeks… no let’s make it one. Drug overdose, suicide by hanging, death after death, cancer, depression, abuse, three hospitals in one month… it all makes me want to weep. I started up with a new round of grief group which is a whole other level for me, being with men and women for six weeks (more if I was with them in the hospital) as they process really complicated grief sometimes that they have been hanging onto for two or more years.

So I grieve. Martin Prechtel writes, “It’s definitely safer to not actively grieve in the modern situation. But the modern world is definitely not as sane as it thinks it is to have lost the arts of grief and praise. There has to be a way.” I, personally, got us a puppy, what Prechtel calls, a “grief orphan,” because animals can absorb grief in a way that people often can’t. I don’t have such good ways of grieving on a daily day basis. Probably because I don’t have such a good habit for praising, something Prechtel notes goes hand in hand with grief. The world itself needs us to grief as much as it needs us to praise. We grieve life we have loved and we praise life we are gifted with. Read The Smell of Rain on Dust. It’s a start.

So all of this does really become an emotional burden. I was asked once how I am doing with all this. My response was to start shuffling my feet with my head down as I said, “Like this.” But emotional burdens are not bad. They are not something to be avoided as much as they are to be welcomed as ways to draw ourselves deeper into life as the world experiences it, in all her mystery. Emotional burdens make us wider, more able to embrace those who hurt, both human and more-than-human. I know I want to see life as it happens, not pretend it is different than as it is. This is the mystic way. There is room for grief as much as there is room for the kind of praise that makes me want to whistle to the chickadee as he sings his spring song, “TEE HEE.” I walked to my car last week as a crow cawed. “HELLOOOO CROOOWW!” I said… and he kept right on making his racket, with that wild bobbing head thing that crows do when they make a lot of racket. But he flew along with me, greeting me after a long day.

Praise eases the burden. Using my language, the true power of the human being. Recognizing life in its many forms as it happens, even through death. Glory to the world and to the Life-Force that flows through it all.

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The Sick and Aging are part of the community

We in our modern society tend to build upon a myth of an ideal society, consisting of selected and approved individuals – of “normal” human beings, with average intelligence, average bodily health and with a sufficient degree of psychic maturity. These selected and privileged individuals have – it is true – the obligation on their shoulders, in the name of humanity, to take care of the others who do not belong to this class of the “true ” society. This kind of care does not, however, acknowledge the sick as belonging to the body, unless they recover. One might say the sick people do not belong… The prevalance of this idea among us is obvious if we think of how we speak of the sick [person‘s] return to society, as if [one] had not been in [the] society while sick – especially if [one] had been in the hospital. Racial discrimination is not in any way an isolated phenomena among us! It is as though the human defects and illness do not belong to our proper life and that individuals who had by accident succumbed to the fate of being ill (or dying!) were not actual, proper members of society-unless they recovered-unless they could be made healthy again.“ (Dr Martti Siirala)

The failing aged will never be made healthy again, they will never again become proper members of a society of the well, so we must invite them into a community where membership is not dependent on health and productivity. To tell someone yes, your life is over and you feel useless, but you are not an outcast and I will not shun you, requires that we look into the mirror and accept our own aging selves, accept the part of us that is infirm, incontinent, and unproductive. This acceptance, to be a source of hope, must go beyond recognition; it must be a deep form of acceptance, “an entrance into the fact that takes hold of the fact, but not with the grip of evil.”

William Lynch recalls a Christian legend about the wicked angels who fell from heaven because they were given an anticipatory vision of Christ‘s humanity and refused to adore it. They cared only for the light.

– from The Dark Night of Hope, Annette Brownlee

Can’t go on, must go on

What do I mean when I say this, and what difference does it make for me and for others? “Can’t go on, must go on” is a mantra for the moment to moment mourners, the grief-learners, the ones who journey daily through slivers of light and stretches of shadow. To live in this awareness or to remind myself of this is to learn that there are times in life, sometimes daily where I need to be honest about two things: one, that there is more than enough heartbreak and trouble to go around and it is real and it hurts like hell; and two, that my place is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and walk with wonder and fullness in this heartbreak.

“Can’t go on, must go on” is not a declaration of self-pity. It is not depression, nor is it desperation. It is the look I see in the eyes of people day after day after day who courageously lean into their own sickness or the trouble of those whom they love dearly. These words are words of the lean-in, the hold-to, the push-forward, the hang-on to something… anything.

But most people don’t say the words. I see it but I don’t hear it. And some stop half way. “I can’t go on, and I won’t go on” is expressed often and it truly is a dark day, when someone stops there, especially when it doesn’t have to be true.

“I can go on, and I must go on.” This, too, doesn’t carry any weight, and often in many ways is heartbreaking in itself. No… ultimately you can’t go on. Or you won’t go on. Listen to what they are telling you. As Brendan told me yesterday, “Nothing lives forever, Dad.” Thank you, six-year-old chaplain’s son, thank you.

If we want to learn compassion, learn to have joy, to witness ourselves expanding both up AND down, words like these need to be said among us. Words like these need to be felt deep into our beings. I feel like I am at the end. I feel like I can’t take any more. I’ve got nothing left and I can’t cope with one more stress/tragedy/heartbreak. I can’t go on… and yet… I know this is not the end. There are still things for me to do. The world, my home, my land, my people, they need me. I will call upon whatever strength I might have and whatever strength I am given by the mysterious out-there/in-here. Divine Life will enliven my spirit and/or my body… to take one more breath… until there are are no breaths left and my spirit and my body will enliven others. Even then, we go on. Nothing is lost. Everything comes from somewhere.

Winter – little deaths, seasons, and the end of life

“Transcript” from a talk I did. Another from the series is on Dying well.

What I want to do today is get into winter. Really get into it. Last week we talked about our dying time and how we might see it as one of the most important things in our life we can undertake. I received a question, “How do you help?” Tied with it is another question, “Do we have a choice in how we die?” While I don’t think we have a choice in what we die FROM, I do think many of us, if we are so lucky, will INDEED have a choice as to how we die… or another way I would answer this is that we have a choice in WHO WE ARE WHEN WE DIE. Does that make sense?

So who we ARE, at our own dying time and who we ARE when we are with others at their dying time really is how we help. This is how we HEAL and how we help others HEAL… and actually how we help the community and the EARTH heal, too. See it’s bigger than just us and our little lives! We help and are helped by getting into the NATURAL way of things. I said last week that dying happens to all healthy, mature, and connected to the Earth beings.

This is why I think reflecting on WINTER can be so helpful. Winter happens, well at least around here (not so much in California), every year, and it has happened for thousands and thousands of years. It is a necessary part of the cycle of life. The plants, the animals, the land, the water… they all depend on winter. Dormancy, hibernation, cold, death… these are part of the circle. And just as it happens to the Earth, so it happens to us. And our life cycle as well… birth/the new growth and becoming of spring, early adolescence/the fire, consumption, and excitement of summer, late adolescence and early adulthood/the shadows and mystery and preparation of fall… and adulthood to elderhood/the maturity, work, embracing, and then winding down of winter.

“December finds himself again a child
Even as he undergoes his age.
Cold and early darkness now descends,
Embracing sanctuaries of delight.
More and more he stares into the night,
Becoming less and less concerned with ends,
Emblem of the innocent as sage
Restored to wonder by what he must yield.”

~ Nicholas Gordon 

But what does our modern world tell us is good? If you were to consider a season that gets highlighted more than any others, what would it be? Summer. Movies, music, adolescent culture. And is it reasonable to think that this then affects how we view the later part of life… or how we idealize certain aspects of the NATURAL way of things?

So what can we do? How can we live into winter more deeply? I want to take some time to talk about this as a group. But first a reflection or a letter to the garden in December.

“It is December in the garden,
an early winter here, with snow
already hiding my worst offenses —
the places I disturbed your moss
with my heavy boots; the corner
where I planted in too deep a hole
the now stricken hawthorne: crystals
hanging from its icy branches
are the only flowers it will know.

When did solitude become
mere loneliness and the sounds
of birds at the feeder seem
not like a calibrated music
but the discordant dialects
of strangers simply flying through?
I have tried to construct a life
alone here — coffee at dawn; a jog
through the chilling air

counting my heartbeats,
as if the doctor were my only muse;
books and bread and firewood —
those usual stepping-stones from month
to freezing month. but the constricted light,
the year closing down on itself with all
the vacancies of January ahead, leave me
unreconciled even to beauty.
When will you be coming back?”
–  Linda Pastan, The Letter

Group reflection:

What are some of the rituals that you find restorative, or that you might try, to make your way through the “winter?” Literal OR Figurative

 “On the first day of winter,
the earth awakens to the cold touch of itself.
Snow knows no other recourse except
this falling, this sudden letting go
over the small gnomed bushes, all the emptying trees.
Snow puts beauty back into the withered and malnourished,
into the death-wish of nature and the deliberate way
winter insists on nothing less than deference.
waiting all its life, snow says, “Let me cover you.”
–   Laura Lush, The First Day of Winter