Category Archives: Death

Death Cafe

Last night I drove through foggy fog to a meeting of Death Cafe.Death Cafe
I heard about this national organization and its local chapter at an event last summer where Death Cafe had a booth. It stopped me in my tracks. “What do you do?”
The woman smiled. “We get together, eat cake, drink tea, and talk about death.”
My kind of organization, for sure.
Most of the people there were middle-aged. Many were Hospice workers. Perhaps there were more women than men, but I thought it was pretty evenly divided. We sat at six different tables of five or six, and then proceeded to spend 90 minutes eating cake, drinking tea, and talking about death.
It was fantastic. I am a firm believer that our culture needs to open up a public dialog about this completely natural aspect of life, but it is shrouded in mystery, in secrecy, in pain and grief and a wretched (in my never-humble opinion) compulsion and dedication to staving off the inevitable, no matter the cost to the dying person or the community.
I say “community”, because that’s who pays the exorbitant end-of-life medical bills, as we try to delay or avert what is a natural process.
Would you send your son to the hospital and have him put on all manner of drugs because he was nearing puberty? Of course not. Death is just as natural a process, but because we don’t talk about it enough, we don’t understand it, therefore we fear it.
At our table last night we had a young woman who is terribly afraid to die, we had an older gentleman who has been a Hospice worker and volunteer with a local organization called Nobody Dies Alone, and has been personally present at 25 deaths in the last five years, another woman who has only witnessed one death, but who dreads her own death, and another woman who doesn’t fear death at all, but doesn’t know how to think about the potential of excruciating pain for her elderly mother–or herself, for that matter–that might accompany a death unaccompanied by medical professionals.
We talked, and talked some more, covering a variety of important related topics in quite some depth. Surprising depth, actually, for a group of people who had never met before. We could have talked another hour or two without difficulty. One person said that a son-in-law went through medical school and they didn’t talk about death hardly at all, because a doctor’s focus is prolonging life.
This Death Cafe group meets once a month. Only two people had been to a meeting before; the rest were there for the first time, like me.
One of the takeaways for me was the importance to talk more about death with everybody. Talk about your own death with your parents and your children and your friends and you neighbors. Talk about your parents’ death with them. Open up the dialog. Explore the mysteries.
Our culture is very peculiar about death, and it is time that changed. We need to stop being so afraid of it and start seeing it as an inevitable process of life.
You can find a local chapter in your area by going to http://www.deathcafe.com
I found it to be an evening well spent, and I believe you will, too.

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Fighting Cancer

That’s the phrase: Fighting Cancer. We call ourselves “warriors.” But is it really the cancer we fight? Sure, there’s an element of that, and I can’t speak to the whole range of waging war from first diagnosis to final dying breath. I’ve been lucky. But I’ve had cancer twice now, and I can speak to the war that I wage.

I fight fear.

I don’t want to live my life in fear. I want to live in love and light and joy. I don’t want melanoma to rob me of that. It may, sometime in the future, but not now. Now I am only Stage 1, for the second time, and still the fears begin to collect in the wee hours of the morning. And believe me, there is enough to fear.

With each thing I read, with each conversation I have with those who have only the finest of intentions, with every glance at the tumor on my shoulder, and soon the scar where the tumor used to be, the fear nibbles at my consciousness. People who love me say all the right things, but even “Good that you caught it so early,” sparks fears that I didn’t catch it early enough. “You’ll be fine,” translates to a slow, steady march toward an ugly black death.

It’s nothing to make a doctor’s appointment, to get an injection, an excision, an infusion. It’s nothing to get a scan and wait for the results. That is medicine battling cancer. My war is much different.

A wise person said to me not long ago: “The only struggles you will ever have are with yourself.” I have found that to be true then, and true every day since then. And so it is with fighting cancer. This is a struggle between me and me. Between my heart and my soul. What cancer does to my body I can do little about except hope to make the all the proper decisions at the appropriate moments.

Meanwhile, I wait for my surgery appointment and work hard not to torture myself or others. I try to educate people about sunscreen and sun protection and checking their moles regularly for changes. I want people to be screened regularly by their dermatologists. The problem is, the best way to get the attention of others is by revving up their fears. I show them the scar on my ankle (a 3” diameter skin graft), and catch myself saying, “Aren’t you glad that’s not on your face?” And I’m ashamed of myself for working so hard to keep the fear from my own mind while pouring it onto others.

Be kind to those who are fighting cancer, for their enemies are legion. For me, for today, I’ll let the doctors fight my cancer, and I’ll concentrate on fighting my fears.

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Filed under Cancer, Death, Spirituality

Hi, Dad.

Hi, Dad.

I understand that you’re nearing the end of your journey here. We’ll miss you when you cross the threshold, but it won’t be that many years before I’ll see you on the other side. I know you don’t think that’s in the cards for us, but to my mind, this whole earthly experience would be meaningless if relationships weren’t carried on—for eternity, if we choose.

I hope you can look back on your life with great pride in your accomplishments and very few regrets. We’re all human, subject to the vicissitudes and frailties of human existence, but your unshakeable, unwavering faith in God has always been an inspiration to me, even as we all fall prey to our baser natures now and again. Take with you all your exquisite memories of joy and peace and family and love, and just leave the other memories behind. They’re the product of a material existence, and will have no reality in the next world.

I’ve come to understand that the veil between this life and the next is very thick and impenetrable when we’re young and it thins out as we grow older. Now, I expect, you’ve got a foot in both worlds now and then, perhaps even crossing over when you’re sleeping, and stepping back into this world when you awaken. Don’t be afraid to just look over your left shoulder at the light and walk toward it. There’s no reason for you to linger in a world of pain and disease. Your angels will help you make the transition if you ask them and then listen carefully for their instructions.

I believe that what you find there will surprise you; the next step on a marvelous eternal journey of love and universe adventure in our Father’s service. Grandpa is already there, and I hope you’ll look him up, or maybe he’ll be there to greet you. I’ll certainly look for you when I arrive, and we’ll have a nice time talking over old memories of our strange earthly association from the new perspective of spirit.

I’ll love you forever.

–Liz.

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Filed under Aging, Death, family, Graduation, peace, Spirituality

Evan Engstrom – 1942-2010

Heaven is richer today for the presence of my former husband and one of my best friends of all time. Evan Emil Engstrom died yesterday after a 26-year battle with cancer. The man was a warrior. 

I first met Evan when we were both struggling to get sober. I knew his sister and she was everything I wanted to be. Shortly thereafter, I met his mom and his kids, and knew this was the family for me. We married, I adopted his two wonderful children, and we set out to have a full life together. Evan was incredibly smart, the master of the one-line zingers, handy and clever, but most of all, he cared. Deeply. About everything, all the time. He wanted to do the right thing in all situations. My honorary Uncle Paul told me to marry “a man I could live up to.” Evan was just such a man, and he provided a moral compass for me from the moment we met, as well as everyone with whom he came into contact.

It wasn’t long after we married that Evan’s dentist found a small lump under his tongue. The surgery to eradicate this squamous cell carcinoma took the floor of his mouth, all the lymph nodes and big muscle on the left side of his neck, and required a skin graft from his thigh. The doctor told me: “The chances of his being here in two years are slim and none.” Well, they didn’t know Evan.

We moved from Maui to Oregon to provide a broader perspective of life for the kids, began to eat organically, raising most of our own food, and for a long time life was good. Eventually, however, we began to see that while we were really good friends, we did not make good mates. We discussed the fact that friendship is eternal while marriages are likely not, and we were in danger of losing our friendship as we toiled to maintain a broken marriage. So we separated, and eventually divorced, still committed to one another, still connected to one another via the heart, forever, in this world and throughout the next.

When I married Al, Evan came to our wedding. His classic comment: “I’ll come to all of your weddings, Liz, if there’s a meal in it for me.” Al had to know that my commitment to Evan was part of my family unit. And when Evan and Sharon discovered each other in a new way, we all became one big happy weird family, impossible to describe, but precious in every way.

Evan’s cancer came back. Again. And again. And yet again. He never gave up the fight against it, not after all the rest of us thought it might be a good idea that he just let go and let God. But he wanted to see his kids grow up. He wanted to see his grandkids grow up. And for the most part, he did. He leaves his two wonderful children, Nicole and Eron, and five grandsons, Luke, age 19, Joey, 17, Edison, 8 and Dean and Davison, both 3.

Evan left us too early. I particularly grieve that he and Sharon had such limited time together to explore their new relationship, to travel the world in happy retirement. But it is what it is, and we are all richer for knowing and loving him for as long as he was on loan to us.

Congratulations on your graduation, Evan. We all look forward to seeing you on the other side.

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Filed under Aging, Cancer, Death, Dying, family, Graduation, Marriage, relationships

We Choose Our Lives

Those of you who are parents have undoubtedly said to your pre-teen or teen, “You’ll remember these times as the best times of your life.” We worry that they want to grow up too fast, cutting short many childhood experiences, in quest for the more alluring adult activities. I was one of those kids; perhaps we all were. Eager to get out of high school and get a job, get out of the house, get on with life.

Well, the same holds true for today. Now that I’m “of an age” I’m in no hurry to get older, but am I taking advantage of who and where I am right now? Am I enjoying my life today to the degree that some day I’ll look back and say, “Man, those were some good times.”? Or am I too busy worrying about this and that and making appointments and meeting deadlines and paying the bills to stop and think: “I’ll never be a human again. I’ll never be in this type of material body with its strengths and its difficulties. I’ll never live on such a magnificently beautiful planet like this again. I better literally stop and smell the flowers.” It’s true that I don’t know what lies on the other side of the veil any more than anybody else, but I have my idea about that, just as you have your idea about it. My point is, from every place I find myself in the future–whether it’s next week or a thousand years in the future–I want to be able to look back and say, “I took advantage of everything that was offered to me back then.”

We’ve also probably counseled our children not to burn bridges or close doors on our options, because they don’t know what the future holds. The same holds true for us. We don’t know what doors we’re closing on our future when we act irresponsibly.

There are long ugly stretches of my history that I would just as soon forget, but those are long behind me and that is not the way I choose to live today, or tomorrow, or for the rest of my days. I want to be conscious, aware, engaged, happy with who I am and what I’m doing. I want to be able to look back and know that I was present, not pining for what was, nor spending my days daydreaming about what could be in the future. There’s value in some of that, certainly, but I believe that we will some day have the benefit of perspective on our lives that we currently have on our childrens’ lives.

We’re only here once. Let’s do good works, be kind to one another, and be proud of who we are today.

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Filed under Aging, Death, dreams, Dying, Fun, Goodness, Possibilities, regrets, relationships, Social Consciousness, Spirituality, time, years

Those Waves of Grief

It’s been two years since my mother passed away, and every now and then I am blindsided by onrushing waves of grief that are so intense and severe that they verge on disabling. They don’t last very long, because I refuse to dwell in the guilt that always accompanies grief, but when they happen, they always surprise me.

My mother and I were good when she died. We had a stormy relationship from the very beginning, but by the time she breathed her last, we were good.

Last week I realized that the waves of grief stem from personal reflection and memories of things I wish I could apologize for. I’d like to just call her up and say, “Mom, I’m so sorry I was such a little shit.” But I can’t. She’s gone. And I have to live with the fact that there are years of amends I can no longer make to her. She never demanded or even asked for any kind of apology. She loved me with a parent’s unconditional love and affection, rewriting history in her mind as she grew older until we were all perfect children in her memory.

I have only to trust that I’ll see her again, and if those things are still important in that place where we’ll meet, I’ll have the opportunity to make it all good then.

In the meantime, these waves of grief and guilt are testimony not only to my enduring love for her, but my personal spiritual growth that allows me to reflect and realize these things. Wherever she is, I know she understands.

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Filed under Aging, Death, family, regrets, relationships, Spirituality

Let’s Talk About Dying

No, really. Let’s talk about it. Let’s everybody talk about it.

We’re all going to die sometime, and while I’m not advocating hastening anybody’s death, I think death should be met with as much grace and anticipation as birth, puberty, or any other naturally-occurring event in our lives.

I participate on internet forums where people are spending their families into bankruptcy, making themselves sick beyond comprehension, all in a futile effort to stave off the inevitable. I can understand that when the sick person is a youngster, or a young person with children, but when the victim is elderly, has led a long and fruitful life, why not go gracefully to the other side? Instead of encouraging them to cling tenaciously to the physical body, we should be holding graduation ceremonies for that person and celebrating their contribution to the world.

I don’t get it. I really don’t. Except, perhaps, we don’t talk about it enough. My family knows (at least I think they do, I hope they do, I will make sure they do) my wishes about how easily I intend to slip beyond the veil to the other side. I can’t imagine that there is anything to fear there. We’re all going to go there, so why would anybody want to be dragged kicking and screaming, making it an unhappy, miserable event for everybody?

I hear people who have incurable, terminal cancer say: “I’m going to fight this with every ounce of energy left in my body, to my last breath.” And I say: Why? Does the God of your understanding have something horrible in store for you? I doubt it.

I ask you to think carefully about this topic and bring it up around your dinner table. Make certain that you understand how your loved ones feel about their deaths, encourage them to put those feelings in writing so there is no mistake about it, and make some arrangements for yourself while you’re at it. There’s no question that the death of a loved one or family member is an emotional time, and illness is a very stressful time. So that is not the time for these decisions to be made; that is not the time for these discussions to take place.

Watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyHLxPlQ_To

Get your mind right and get your earthly affairs in order. Then, when the time comes (and we never know when that will be), things will be easier on everybody.

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Filed under Aging, Death, Dying, Social Consciousness, Spirituality