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Death can either bring out the best in you or the worst in you.
Why is that? I think it’s because we lack understanding of the process of dying; we don’t talk about death until it is imminent, if at all. When we or someone we love is dying, strong feelings flood in or bubble up and get in the way of rational behavior because we are human beings and we are in pain. I have seen this pattern repeated over and over again in my work and in my personal life.
Death is breaking us down, as individuals and as families, every day in this country. Death is an experience that can be so painful that we harden our hearts and souls and close ourselves off from others, but it can also open a door for us to a deeper understanding of the very essence of love and life and purpose.
Death is an accelerated learning process. When we encounter death, it can be a time of great honesty and compassion that takes us to a higher level of understanding of ourselves and others, if we are prepared and thoughtful. In our culture, however, death is more likely to be a time of fear and avoidance, often leading to conflict and anger.
What I am trying to say is this: we have an active choice to make when we encounter death. We can allow death to transform us to a higher level of understanding and come away with a renewed commitment to life, love, and purpose, or we can hide in a closet, avoid facing death, and learn nothing from the experience.
In my post on hospice care, I wrote that facing your own death is a calling to sacred space. In this sacred space I suggest that it may be important for you to consider whether it is possible for you to leave behind your conflicts, emotional baggage, past hurts and offenses and reconcile with those who are caring for you or who want to be with you. Sometimes it is not possible to have certain people join in this process with you because the pain is too deep, or it simply isn’t safe emotionally or physically. I am only suggesting that it is worth thinking about when you consider who you want caring for you or to visit or be present at your death bed.
The conflicts, anger and dysfunction of a family is automatically set to a high boil when a member of the family is dying, so how do we set aside all of that “stuff” and come together around the dying person to care for them?
For some people, family space is not a safe space emotionally and, maybe, it is not physically safe either. We are not all raised in perfect, happy, smiling families. You may find the post When Your Abuser or Abandoner Dies: How to Cope helpful if this is a concern for you.
What I am suggesting here is not easy to do. It may be the hardest thing you will ever do, but someone in the situation needs to put the idea in motion that all involved should/could create respectful, nonthreatening time and space around the one who is dying and the funeral process.
If you are in a family where a death is imminent and there is conflict, then you need a plan to create safe space for yourself, the person who is dying, and for your siblings or others who are present with you.
Maybe your plan to reduce conflict includes sharing this blog site with family members and asking them to read this post as a starting point. Maybe you send an email with a subject line titled “Cease Fire Agreement” and tell your family and other caregivers that you will commit to set aside your differences with them and ask if they will commit to do the same with you and everyone else so that you can all focus on the one you love who is dying. If you send an email like this to your family please make sure you live up to your offer to be respectful, peaceful and to do your part to care for the person who is dying.
Your behavior is the only behavior you can control – hopefully – and you need to take time to decide how you are going to act when someone you love is dying. One suggestion I often make to people in these situations is to set goals for yourself around this impending loss. For example, one goal may be something like this: I will feel good about myself if I get through the death of my mother/father without raising my voice to anyone, without voicing my anger or raising old wounds with anyone, and by being thoughtful and kind to all who are present. Even if you have to “fake it until you make it,” stay focused on your goals, and monitor your behavior (e.g., think before you speak/lash out/scream).
It should be easier to be nice to each other while someone is dying. As we all know, the real fighting often starts after the death of a loved one. Am I right? Especially when it’s a parent who dies and you lose your natural “referee” who used to call the fight to an end, declare that there was no winner, and send you to your respective time out corners.
So, can this actually be done? Yes, it can! Both of my parents have died so I know this space all too well.
There are 5 “kids” in my family. When you have 5 very strong spirited (e.g., stubborn) and opinionated (e.g., someone always thinks they know best) adults who all have different lives, careers, and ways of interacting and communicating there are bound to be disagreements. There are old hurts, new hurts, chafing of all sorts between us because of decades of history together. And yes, I’m the youngest of the 5 and much younger than the older siblings. I was the later-in-life baby born when my parents were 39 years old.
When my mother died, I knew what her wishes were for her funeral, but I also knew I had to compromise on things because we all just had to get through the event of her dying, her funeral, and her burial. Here is one example of the compromises I made. My mother did not want a wake, but my siblings wanted a wake. I did not object, I had room in the budget so I just added that cost in, and it was a wonderful gathering. My goal and plan was to make the events as stress-free as possible for my brother Michael, who was the Executor and Mom’s favorite, because I knew she would want me to help him any way I could. By helping my brother, who had the final word on all decisions, I felt that I was honoring my mother. When Michael asked me for my opinion on a decision, my standard response became “what do you want to do, what feels right to you?”
So, am I some altruistic saint? NO! I am no saint! Just ask my four older siblings. Really, they will testify under oath to the fact I am not a saint.
The reason it was fine by me to take a back seat at my Mom’s funeral was because I had taken the lead and planned my Dad’s funeral and burial 9 years before. Why did the four older siblings step back a bit to let me run with our Dad’s funeral? I think they did it because I was very close to my Dad and knew what he wanted. I hired a Scottish bagpiper to play at the door of the church as people arrived for the service and it was great to have those beautiful songs playing as a greeting to all who came. Only one sibling actually supported that choice of a bagpiper, by the way. I had Anchors Away played slowly by a solo trumpet player as a recessional hymn after the service was over. My siblings thought this particular recessional idea was a truly horrible idea, but after voicing their concern they all took a step back and let me run with it. Anchors Away played slowly as we left the church and it was beautiful – Navy veterans from World War II had tears in their eyes and all involved agreed it worked well.
Believe me when I tell you that there were far more contentious and difficult compromises made by everyone involved when our parents died, but we all got through these events with relative peace and with dignity – and you can too!
If you cannot act from a place of compassion for the one who is dying or for your siblings or other caregivers when emotions are running high, then act from a place of personal integrity. Here is a suggested checklist to refer to:
- set clear goals for your own behavior;
- always think before you speak;
- think about why you are reacting to an issue so strongly and ask yourself if it is worth fighting about;
- put yourself in a “time out” when things get crazy, even stay away if you have to for an hour or two;
- take a long walk, go for a run, get exercise and clear your head;
- meditate or pray to let go of anger or pain;
- talk with an old friend who knows you well and get advice before you REACT; and/or
- BREATHE DEEPLY, IN AND OUT!
ALWAYS ASK YOURSELF: Am I going to let death bring out the best in me or the worst in me?