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.
I’ve been considering a talk I’m giving on Sunday about healing. It’s a challenging consideration as I wonder how to approach this, especially along the lines of grief and being hope free. Currently, I am sitting with two different aspects of healing. They are real, I would guess, to each of us, and they are connected. I’ll shoot a few arrows up and see if they land by the end or if they make sense. If not, that’s ok… maybe after a week’s time or maybe at some point before the end of your life.
The first aspect is that healing happens and it doesn’t happen, and often we don’t know why. Often healing happens to those who have done everything “wrong” and it doesn’t happen for those who have done everything “right.” Now I’m tempted to throw the whole framework out the window, but it is worth diving into because it is so real for so many people. Jesus says in Matthew 5, “God causes his sun to shine on evil people and good people. He sends rain on those who do right and those who don’t.” I wish he didn’t preface that saying with “You will be children of your Father who is in heaven” because honestly, it doesn’t really make me want to have that kind of father. The truth is there, though. The sun… the rain… they are indiscriminate of evil and they are indiscriminate of good. What about the sun that burned so hot, with no rain on so many parts of our country while fires burned homes of so many of our fellow earth brothers and sisters? Indiscriminate? And what about the rains that have fallen on Texas and Florida and all the destruction that was wrought there? Iniscriminate. And what about the rain that fell on the people in Las Vegas from the window of the Mandalay Bay hotel? Indiscriminate. And what about the drip, drip, drip of the medications that have no effect on people I see every day in the hospital. Again… whether they are do right or whether they don’t. It doesn’t seem to make a difference.
The author of Ecclesiastes writes, “ I’ve seen it all in my brief and pointless life—here a good person cut down in the middle of doing good, there a bad person living a long life of sheer evil. So don’t knock yourself out being good, and don’t go overboard being wise. Believe me, you won’t get anything out of it. But don’t press your luck by being bad, either. And don’t be reckless. Why die needlessly?” (I love this version from the Message). So wisdom… over rated. Being good… over rated. Being bad or reckless… over rated.
Mary Oliver seems to have a response.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. The world goes on and no matter how lonely, how distressed, how broken down, this same world that continues to go on, offers itself to your imagination and announces your place in the family of things. You belong. The rain falls on you and the sun shines on you. And we are held, as one amongst the many, in the midst of our sadness and sometimes anguish of not finding the healing when we would give everything to receive just that.
This leads me to my second wondering, is there healing even when there IS no healing? As a chaplain, this is, of course, a rhetorical question. Anthony de Mello tells a story:
To a distressed person who came to him for help the Master said, “Do you really want a cure”
If I did not, would I bother to come to you?”
“Oh yes Most people do.”
“Not for a cure. That’s painful. For relief.”
To his disciples the Master said, “People who want a cure, provided they can have it without pain, are like those who favour progress, provided they can have it without change.”
De Mello taught that healing comes from dropping sickness… getting rid of that which is causing the sickness. Our natural state is health. So when someone has an infection, we want to get rid of the infection. When someone has cancer, we want to get rid of the cancer. We don’t add anything to be healed and we don’t add anything to be happy. So just at health is our natural state so is happiness. Happiness comes from dropping our illusions… our programming. This is the natural way of things. We are as natural as the world around us and where it is natural for us to be in a state of health, so it is natural for the world to be in a state of health. The world doesn’t need us to survive. The world will go on just fine without us.
Interestingly enough, the author of Ecclesiastes concludes his reflection on the overratedness of striving with the consideration that “it’s best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it.” This is why earlier, I said I would rather just throw out the whole paradigm that healing might happen to some and not to others. Reality demonstrates otherwise.
Our healing comes from embracing the reality and the paradox and letting it transform us. We are meant to grieve. We are meant to feel the absolute heartbrokenness that comes from those who do not experience the healing they so desperately desire. It increases our love which opens us to more and more areas in our world that desperately need healing. There is always healing that can happen and there are always things to grieve. And as we embrace, we heal, and the world heals, and we see that the more grief we can hold, the more joy we can hold as well.
Listen carefully to these words by Kahlil Gibran, and hear how closely this resonates to all I have been saying so far:
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say to you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily, you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at stand-still and balanced.
I like this photo, because it was taken in a good moment. I can’t even say, a good day, because our ebbing and flowing these days does not even happen on a daily basis. I am constantly reminded that the photos we take and the posts we make are often made when we are at least good enough to reach out to the outside world. They are only part of the picture though, for me, for Kat, and I would assume for any of us. I can demonstrate some strength, Kat can offer some wisdom and insight… but that’s on the good days… I mean, in the good moments.
On the bad days In the bad moments, it is a nightmare for us. Kat’s need for emotional expression and care clashing with my need to have space, to do, and to NOT talk. There is a chasm there, enough for either of us to wonder (Kat out loud and me inside), is our marriage going to make it?!? More of this later… and note that I wouldn’t go as far as to really believe that there is good/bad in the difficulty of “coping” as a couple, but the shoe fits. What I can say is, it is agonizingly hard. I never thought I would say, “Fuck you!” to anyone, let alone my own wife. And I never imagined that word would be used so often in my marriage relationship. Well, the woman that Life sent my way to love (and to duke it out with) for all my days, or hers, was a glorious surprise and yes, we swear… these days, often. Life did not see fit to give either of us a life of daffodils and moonbeams, and this is our lot. But damn, we love us some good flowers and a good full moon. We know, though, that we only love the flowers so much because we know that one day, they will not be. And we only love that moon so much because we know that it will wane and grow dark.
“Coping” is used so much in the hospital, in therapy, in chaplaincy-talk and I don’t like it. It smacks of “getting by” or something passive that happens as a result of stress that we may or may not be able to make a conscious choice about. I like the term “adaptive strategies” rather than coping skills, as adapting and strategizing are active and intentional. I steal the term from Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin from a book that they wrote entitled Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn. I use this resource extensively and it has been so very helpful in my work with grief groups and supporting those in the hospital and in my spiritual direction sessions. Doka and Martin’s way of framing grief styles has given me the awareness that Kat and I, in all of our shitty annoying processes, are not better or worse in how we grieve, we are just different.
Without divulging their entire theory and getting into too many spoilers, Doka and Martin assert that grievers exist on a spectrum between intuitive and instrumental grief. Intuitive grievers are affective in their grief, feeling strong and powerful feelings, and needing to vocalize their grief process. Instrumental grievers are doers, needing time and space to process, think, and make meaning of their grief. They have emotions, but they are much less dynamic and vibrant than those of the intuitive. Men and women fall somewhere on this spectrum, tending more towards some blend of the two poles. It is far from gender-prescriptive, but men tend to fall more on the instrumental and women more towards intuitive.
The very distinct benefit of seeing grievers on a continuum is that there is affirmation for a less emotional style of grieving. For years, therapists, chaplains, and grief “specialists” have said that the only way to process grief is to feel all the feelings. Even in chaplaincy residency, I was expected to verbalize feelings, verbalize feelings, verbalize feelings… maybe much more than is within my capacity. There was benefit to it, but I am a chaplain, not Joe Smith who works his blue collar job and fishes and hunts in his free time. Many people, men AND women, are active and cognitive with their grief, even when they are unconscious that it is their grief that they are working through.
Just last night, to give a perfect example, I got home from my final grief group session in this series and said to Kat, “I can’t talk much right now. I need to sit with this last session and decompress from it.” She said a few minutes later, “You can’t really support me in the way I need to be supported, can you?”… because she wanted to vent and feel. My response was, “Well, I support you in many ways, don’t I? Can I be the support for all your feelings? Probably not. No more than you can get up and go to work for me, when I don’t even want to get out of bed. But I have to do that. I have to get my ass going and do it anyway.” So this morning, as I walked out the door at 6:15, I said to my sleeping wife, “Can you go to work for me today?”
“Sure,” she said as she rolled over and went back to sleep.
And this is how we do. It sucks to not get all your needs met from your spouse. But how many people when I ask how they are handling things as a couple (insert “coping”) say, “Not good. Really not good…” They don’t know why, though, that’s the thing. I just want to say, come to my grief group. It will help. Kat and I, as much as it pains us, know that this is just going to hurt. It sucks. It really fucking sucks. But we do the best we can. In our worst moments, we can’t even talk to each other. In our best moments, we hold each other. And most days somewhere in between, we ask all the unanswerable questions, swear cry and talk, and at least sit next to each other on the couch while we are on our smart phones.
I wish this were an easy answer, but unfortunately there are countless reasons why people have so much trouble dying. There are a few things that I am fairly certain about and that I have found that resonate with patients and family members. More often than not I find that people really DO have a difficulty with dying. Whether it be fear, denial, anxiety, or just avoidance, there is an underlying difficulty with dying.
Many people aren’t so much afraid of being dead, as they are of dying. I say this with intention, and I offer this to patients, in order to make a distinction. I have read in numerous places that it is best to think of living until we are dead. If we don’t then we could get depressed or think that our life is over as soon as we admit to dying. Think about it this way. “Dying,” an active tense word, is very different from the words like “dead” (adjective) and “be killed” (passive tense). There is no passive tense of “dying.” It is active, and so there for something we DO. It is something we live in, participate in, and include others in. So how do people want to go about their dying time? This is a good question to ask of people and to reflect on ourselves. We don’t just live until we are dead. These are the people who want to go out in their sleep or want to end their lives prematurely. There is no active participation in their dying there.
For many, unlike our ancestors, being around death and dying can be a very foreign experience. It used to be that loved ones would die at home attended to by family members in the upstairs bedroom. Now it is so often in a hospital or nursing home behind closed doors. The announcement comes from the RN or the doctor and the family comes in after a person has died. So many are not familiar with the signs of dying. They think a dying person may be on the road to improvement when they wake from days of sleeping and not eating and want to tell stories. These moments of clarity are often part of the dying process. Dying also is a very personal experience, different for each person, and something that each person can only go through once. If a dying person doesn’t share what it is like with their loved ones, they offer little of help to the next generation when it is their turn. But people are afraid of causing too much hardship to their loved ones by talking about it too much.
Dying in the hospital is very difficult because health care professionals are trained to cure, to heal, and to “fix.” In and of itself, this is not a bad thing at all. But when it comes to dying, there is no “fixing.” I have heard doctors say that having a palliative care team meet with a family is “giving up too early.” I have seen many many times doctors and nurses shy away from using the “D word” with families when the writing was clearly on the wall. Many will say a person who is accepting their dying is “giving up” or someone who is feeling sad about saying good bye is “depressed.” Too, too often do doctors trying treatment after treatment until a patient, who wants to die at home ends up unconscious while still hoping along with their family that they are going to “pull through.” Or a patient holds off going home on hospice because a doctor or social worker feels trying out rehab first might be good, only to die the next day at the nursing home. I tell patients if they want to be an active participant in their dying experience, join hospice while they still have the capacity to choose for themselves.
If we can just begin to see how much death is a part of life. Dying is not a “bad” thing. It is a beautiful, sacred, natural thing. Not to say it is a “good” thing either. It just is. It is part of what happens to all healthy, mature, and connected to the earth beings. Going from living to dead is going around this natural process. As Stephen Jenkinson wonders, “How connected is someone to their life when they have to be told they are dying?”
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