Just like that, it seems fall has arrived. We still have beautiful warm afternoons, flowers blooming and gardens bursting, and the promise of at least another month of hiking in the mountains, sunsets on the beach, and grilling in the backyard. But there's no mistaking the days have gotten shorter. The air is cooler in the morning, the fog lingers, and the sky has turned that unique shade of blue. And the sadness that comes creeping in each September is also here.
Fall has always been my favorite season, not just because of the changing leaves and the way the sun sparkles on the water in the afternoons, but precisely because of the sadness.
There’s something in the sound of foghorns in the morning and the soft golden light in the evenings that gives us permission to be wistful. I’m not sure if it’s regret for the summer fading and the list of things undone, or back to school memories that remind us that childhood is another year further in the past. Maybe it’s the knowledge that these beautiful fall days are so ephemeral— that the rain is coming again and we’ll be back inside for another long, dark winter.
Whatever it is, there’s a part of me that embraces the bittersweet nature of September, the same way I appreciate a poignant book and relish a good cry at a sad movie. I think it’s important to practice being sad—just a little, here and there—in order to know that we can endure sadness, and to know that happiness comes around again.
I think many of us feel particularly somber this year. So many of our summer highlights didn’t exist, back-to-school looks different than ever before, and the impending winter means that what little socializing we’ve been able to do safely outdoors is also coming to a close. It’s no wonder there’s a collective sadness among us.
But September gives us the opportunity to grieve and also be grateful. As we mourn the loss of summer, we’re also enveloped in the loveliness of autumn— the sound of geese winging south, the display of leaves turning, and the sunsets that go on forever. I’m leaning into the exquisite sadness of September, and it couldn’t be more gratifying.
In the book Approaching Death: Improving Care at the End of Life, the authors note, "For most of human history, dying—like being born—was generally a family, communal, and religious event, not a medical one. Because many deaths occurred at home, people were likely to care for dying relatives and, thus, to have a fairly personal and direct experience with dying and death." For the past 50+ years that has not been the case, and the result is that we don't know how to talk about death and dying.
As a society, over time we learned to avoid the dying and stay away from those who are grieving. Very few people have directly experienced a death. We shield (and confuse) children from death with euphemisms like, "we've lost Grandpa."
With a trend back toward dying at home and a growing "death positive" movement, there is hope that we will eventually find our way back to talking about death as the inevitable part of the life cycle that it is. Maybe it doesn't need to take decades, either.
My daughter was recently getting ready for a job interview and asked which mask she should wear with her outfit. I suddenly realized that in just four short months we have completely adapted to a new norm. We wear masks, we've stopped hugging and shaking hands, and we stand far away from each other—largely without even thinking about it. That's a really short amount of time in which to acclimate to a whole new way of interacting with each other.
It made me think that we CAN adapt fairly quickly when we need to and that perhaps we can learn to talk about death again more easily just by starting to do so. We can all advocate for a healthier culture around dying just by sharing our stories, using more direct language, and most especially, not being afraid to have conversations with people at the end of their life.
Thanks for reading— you're helping already!
I am as weary of the pandemic as the next person. I'm grateful for the nice weather and the ability to gather outside with a few friends and have some semblance of a non-Zoom social experience, but I'm missing normal. I'm also missing kindness and civility.
I think the thing that makes me the saddest about the last few months is the front row seat to really awful behavior toward each other. It manifests itself in hostile glares at the occasional unmasked person in the grocery store, but is especially evident in conversations online in social media or neighborhood newsgroups.
I'm so saddened by the threads on Facebook and NextDoor that are righteous, indignant, sarcastic, and just downright mean. Posts go on and on, with retorts becoming increasingly rude and resorting to name calling. There is obviously no consensus on the value or lack thereof of wearing a mask. There has been inconsistent messaging from the top down on this; it stands to reason that we can't agree. I fail to see ANYONE being persuaded to think differently after being called an ignorant moron or a mindless sheep, however.
What's the most painful for me is that these are people I know saying these things. The other day I was almost in tears over a lengthy Facebook diatribe when it suddenly occurred to me: every single one of these people is going to die one day. Including me.
Is this how we want to spend our days? Is being "right" so much more important than being kind? Ironically, the debate is over keeping people healthy and NOT dead, but we are squandering our lives in a crusade that can't be won.
Let me say that yes, I wear a mask in public. I happen to believe it helps contain the spread of the virus, but even if I didn't believe that, I would wear a mask out of respect for people's fear and a desire to deescalate it. From now on I'm going to stay away from ugly discussions online and elsewhere. I'm going to try to check my own irritation with unmasked shoppers. I'd rather spend my time being compassionate than constantly crabby.
We're all going to die. Let's be nice to each other while we're here, huh?
At our Death Over Drinks virtual gathering last month, one of the participants mentioned his ongoing "fascination and fear" around death. I think we probably all have that to some extent, right?
In exploring end-of-life wishes with clients and helping them complete their paperwork, one of the first hurdles is getting people to even think about their own death. Fear breeds denial. Another Death Over Drinks participant once said, "I don't plan on dying. So far it's working."
One of the things I love most about working with people in this area is watching the fear subside as they start to talk about what is important to them in life and what they would like the end of their life to look like in a best case scenario. Planning brings peace, and allows more exploration of the fascination with death.
One client recently completed her paperwork and was shocked at how much comfort she derived from having thought through possible endings and having made concrete plans. She went on to plan her burial arrangements, and we spent a lovely afternoon in the sunshine on her patio reviewing various green burial options. She's currently planning a road trip to visit Herland Forest Natural Burial Cemetery (pictured above). Picturing herself in this beautiful spot among trees, with flowers blooming above her in the spring, and baby goats frolicking about (seriously, there's baby goats there!), brought complete relief from her previous fear of her eventual demise.
The last few months have been challenging. The constant, unrelenting news of Covid 19 and its impact on our health, economy, and social structure has created an atmosphere of fear and distrust. I contend that a great deal of the anxiety we're experiencing has to do with our fear of death. I invite you to breathe into that fear a little bit and embrace the inevitable. Picture your ideal ending. Talk to your family and loved ones about what that looks like, and put some things in writing. And then get back to living!
"He who doesn't fear death dies only once." ~Giovanni Falcone
At this point, for better or worse, most of us have adapted to the strangeness of being cut off from each other somewhat abruptly last month. I had a strange experience at the beginning of April when I turned the page on my calendar, got out my correction tape, and proceeded to eliminate the vast majority of commitments, obligations, and social opportunities. I can't remember ever having such a blank month. And while I have waves of sadness about the loss of my face-to-face community, I'm also grateful for the opportunity to slow down.
For one thing it's been one of the longest, loveliest Springs I can remember—blooms go on forever. We've had time in our garden to weed and plant and then just sit and enjoy how beautiful it is. I got some sourdough starter from a friend and learned how to make amazing crusty loaves of bread. I took a walk in the woods and saw a fairy slipper orchid. The dog is getting multiple, lengthy outings each day each day. I'm savoring the impromptu conversations with friends and neighbors who are also out walking, sitting on their porches, or working in their yards. Everyone seems hungry for some connection, and simple exchanges tend to have more depth to them.
As we adjust to the new normal, my calendar is beginning to fill in again. There are phone consultations with clients and Zoom meetings and webinars and virtual birthday parties. I feel like I'm being more careful about what I commit to and what I add to the calendar, though. What initially seemed like a hardship has turned into an opportunity. I hope everyone is able to find a little comfort in the slowness of this unprecedented time.
"At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can." - Frida Kahlo
Every year around this time I see my few remaining tulips come up and I berate myself for not having ordered and planted more in the fall. We've had a problem with squirrels digging up the tulips the past few years, so I keep thinking I'll address that before ordering more bulbs.
And then suddenly it's Spring again.
I've lived in this house and watched this garden come to life for twenty-two years. It's pretty easy to say "maybe next year" I'll plant those bulbs, because there's always been a next year. It's true that the toddler who was just out smelling the tulips actually graduated from college almost two years ago, but still, Spring keeps coming. And every year I look ahead to NEXT year's yard, with less chaos and more tulips.
As I've gotten older, however, I've begun to recognize the folly in always looking ahead. In the past year I've been witness to two sudden deaths, an Alzheimer's diagnosis, a stroke, and a fast-moving brain cancer that went from initial seizure to death in exactly one month, just in my immediate circle of acquaintances. There will never be another Spring exactly like this one for any of these friends, not will there be for any of us, really.
Instead of being overwhelmed with sadness about that, I sat out in my yard the other day, with the last few remaining tulips emerging and the weeds coming on strong, and I noticed something. In their haste to steal my tulips, the squirrels must have dropped a crocus bulb. There, in a spot I didn't plant, blooms a beautiful little clump of purple crocus. It's quite lovely.
This little sign of Spring is reminding me to appreciate the beauty, even in unplanned forms, that is right in front of me. I still plan on planting more tulips next fall, but for now I'm going to enjoy the Spring that's here, and not assume I have endless more.
I came across a music video that slayed me a few weeks ago - Monsters by James Blunt. Blunt's father is dying of chronic kidney disease, and in the song he very emotionally says goodbye to him.
The day I saw the video happened to be, coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of my dad's death. My dad and I did not have an easy relationship, but his dying of pancreatic cancer over a five-month period (2,000 miles away) provided a unique opportunity to address our issues. His impending death forced me to evaluate who he had been in my life, and gave me the chance to choose what I would remember. I'm so grateful for the challenge that time provided... I had to say goodbye with complete finality each time we parted, and that boiled our relationship down to a pretty pure essence at some point. I think that's why James Blunt's verse, "I'm not your son, you're not my father / We're just two grown men saying goodbye," spoke to me.
Ultimately, I think about how meaningful those goodbyes are when you can really face your own fears surrounding death and acknowledge that you will likely never see someone again. I have had a handful of those truly meaningful goodbyes. I have also had the ones where no one in the room wants to admit that death is imminent, and I'm always sorry I didn't tell the person what they meant to me, or that I was glad to have known them.
Our interactions with each other are finite and precious. Don't bank on tomorrow. And always err on the side of being real and telling someone what they mean to you.
I think about death and dying a lot. Not in a morbid way, but because I really believe we can be happier and die better if we're willing to think about it from time to time, and I love to have that conversation with people. That said, while reflecting on the past year, I thought about how many tragic losses we experienced in our community in 2019.
Unexpected or untimely deaths are different... they leave people with unanswered questions and unresolved grief. We experienced a very close, sudden loss in our lives this year. I was grateful for the fact that we had a good visit the day before and that we'd said we loved each other. My New Year's wish for us all is that we remember to say good bye with intention when we leave each other. That we are conscious of beautiful moments, however small they may be. That we hold our loved ones close and appreciate the time we have together. And mostly, that we not let fear of death stop us from living!
"Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire." — Edith Sitwell
While you're gathered with family and friends during these next few weeks, consider letting your end-of-life wishes be known. Having a conversation about what's most important to you before a crisis arises is truly a gift...
Wishing you all a peaceful and purposeful holiday season, filled with conversation and connection! Need a little help getting the conversation started? Consider ordering a copy of Hello, a board game designed to get people talking about end-of-life issues in a fun and meaningful way.
Today is Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. According to Wikipedia, "the multi-day holiday involves family and friends gathering to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and helping support their spiritual journey. In Mexican culture, death is viewed as a natural part of the human cycle. Mexicans view it not as a day of sadness but as a day of celebration because their loved ones awake and celebrate with them." I like the idea of the veil between life and death being a little thinner for a day, and taking a moment to remember and celebrate all the people in lives who are no longer with us.