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Grief Expressed Out Loud

The writer, Martin Prechtel, has a wonderful quote about grief:

“Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

When I think of grief, the image of an arrow piercing through the center of a heart comes to mind. The arrow instantly numbs everything, sending the heart into a state of shock. The reaction may be to pull the arrow out immediately, but it doesn’t budge. The arrow stays in for a period of time and everyone notices. People comment about it and offer condolences to help ease the pain. The heart remains paralyzed.

After some time, the initial shock wears off and the heart begins to soften again. As the heart softens, the arrow loosens. Soon enough, the arrow pulls free from the chest. Once the arrow is removed, the person has the opportunity to catch their breath, something they haven’t done in weeks, or even months.

No more arrow, no more visible pain. What’s left is a big gaping hole.

This is when the grief work begins.

I recently read a facebook post written by a friend who lost her 9 year old daughter after a long battle with Cystic Fibrosis. She wrote openly about her feelings and concerns when it comes to talking to others about her daughter. She stated that she doesn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Most importantly, she wants to convey the large impact her beautiful daughter had on her life.

It is wonderful that my friend was able to express her feelings and grief out loud. This can make a huge impact on people’s lives. The world is hungry for more parents who are willing to speak openly about the loss of a child, including the raw and uncomfortable parts. She is not alone in her pain. There are many people walking around with gaping holes in their chest. Their grief has not found its voice yet.

One of the biggest and most important legacies that our loved ones leave behind is the grief we feel in our hearts. Grief is praise. We must honor these loved ones by allowing our grief to be expressed out loud. Through this process, a person can find tremendous healing. The gaping hole can be filled again.

We will all grieve and it is imperative that we allow it to be expressed in its many forms. This expression is powerful and creates a ripple effect onto individuals at all stages of their grief.

I once had an arrow pierced through the center of my heart. I also had a gaping hole. Today I unapologetically express my grief and praise for my beautiful loved ones who have gone before me.

If you would like to access more resources and tools for grief and death, please check out my website The Conscious Dying Network .

Grieving in Community

In many indigenous cultures, grief is often a collective experience. Through sacred rituals and praise, grief is expressed out loud as a uniting force of remembrance. In the Mayan culture, each individual is given permission to grieve openly and mourn completely at the time of loss. Author, Martin Prechtel, describes grief as a poem, no matter how messy, inappropriate, amateurish, or loud, it deserves to be heard. There are said to be entires villages around the world that understand the importance of honoring grief as a community.

Here in the West, we seem to have placed a time stamp on grief. There seems to be an unspoken expectation that after some time, one will simply get on with life. This concept seems to be wrecking out entire culture. If we are unable to grieve in community, it is nearly impossible for individuals to heal fully. Grief demands to be heard, from all beings. This grieving thing makes us human, it is what unites us all at our core.

Deep in my pit of grief, it was the support of individuals around me that kept me afloat. No one had the “quick-fix” or even the “right thing to say”, but many had the willingness to listen. A month after my loss, I received a bereavement card from a local hospice. There were over a dozen personalized notes and signatures, from complete strangers. This meant the world to me, because not only did it validate my grief, but it provided a collective honoring of someone who I loved very deeply. This type of experience can be a game changer in grief. A powerful shift can occur when grief is validated. Grief is a song, that deserves to be heard, and perhaps shouted from the rooftops.

Though a highly personal experience, grief also requires to be felt in the company of other grief. It is almost indescribable the way grief shifts in the moment it is expressed out loud. In that brief encounter, one’e grief becomes the world’s grief. Although pain-staking and lonely, grief is an invisible thread that connects all of our hearts. It has the power to redefine humanity.

Giving Yourself Permission to Grieve

We all experience grief in many forms. The loss of a job, relationship, house, loved one, pet, and even the loss of our youth. If we pause for a moment and reflect on the losses in our life, we may discover that they happen almost daily. My earliest memory of loss was when the family dog passed away. She died rather unexpectedly. Reflecting back, I recall the sound of my brother wailing in the hallway. That was the first time I was aware of the sound of grief. My brother was expressing the inner ache that he felt.

The first time i felt grief inside my body was at the age of thirteen. It felt as though my stomach had swallowed my heart in one gigantic gulp. This natural feeling of grief was triggered by the loss of my grandpa. He was an honorable man and I intuitively knew, as most of us do, that life would never be the same. When a loss occurs in our life, it’s often abrupt. It is almost impossible to imagine what life will be like without something until it is gone. That is the difficulty of loss, it can’t be processed with the mind alone; it demands to be felt with the heart.

With loss occurring almost daily, how do we stay a float? Grief isn’t exactly trendy. However it is natural and necessary. I have attended many grief groups and I believe there are two common themes

1. We all grieve. It is one of the most common experiences that connect us as humans.

2. Each of us grieve in our own unique way. Giving ourselves permission to grieve is one of the biggest gifts we can offer ourselves.

As we navigate through the losses of life, it is important to remember we are not alone. Where there is life, there is loss. Letting grief move through us unchoreographed is key.

Here are some tips I recommend when grief arises:

  • Feel your grief. This may manifest through tears, screaming into a pillow, or silence.
  • Attend a local grief support group. Healing happens in these rooms, I am living proof.
  • Talk about your grief with someone you love and trust. A powerful release often occurs when we share our feelings out loud.
  • Take care of yourself. You may not feel like resuming the activities you did before the loss and that is perfectly okay. Take time to listen to your body, it will guide you through the process.
  • Dedicate time everyday to be present with your grief. This could be sitting down for 30 minutes to cry, journal, and feel whatever needs to be released for that day.
  • Don’t rush your healing. Grief has no timeline and it is important to honor the inner healing process.
  • And most importantly, remember there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is a highly individual process and it looks different for everyone.

These words were once told to me and I would like to pass them on to you:

“Life will never be the same after a loss, but it can be good again.”

Grief is a journey, it demands a lot of us, and it comes in waves. Ride the waves. In the presence of grief, the astonishing capacity of one’s love is uncovered.

The Intimacy of Death

Working at a Hospice I asked a woman: “What’s it like to know you are dying?” she responded “what is it like pretending you aren’t?”

While sitting in a chemotherapy waiting room earlier this year, I thought to myself “some of these people are actively dying.” A feeling of sadness overwhelmed me and a wee bit of anxiety crept inside my chest. A few moments later, my thoughts shifted to “we are all dying.” In that awareness, the anxiety began to dissipate.

It is so easy to walk around this world with the illusion that we will live forever. In fact, longevity is what most humans strive for. This false idea that humans are immortal covers up the sweetness and palpable intimacy of life. The journey of exploration into the intimacy of life begins with a conscious awareness of death. In this acknowledgement of death, we are free to live more fully.

Here are some ways to become more intimate with death:

  1. Make a list of your fears around death and discuss them with a family member or friend.
  2. Host a death dinner and invite your closest friends to share their experiences and thoughts on death.
  3. Educate yourself about end-of-life care and the death process.  Click Here for a resource list to get you started.
  4. Reserve a time to reflect on what mortality means to you. A good question to start with: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do differently today?

Looking through the lens of mortality, life takes on a whole new meaning. One’s day-to-day experience of life no longer relies solely on the mind, but of the senses too. As fleeting as life is, this present moment living, generated by the awareness of death, renders great stillness. In these moments, life and death have no separation. They are merely dancing partners, shifting the lead according to one’s individual song of life.

Talking About Death – When Do We Begin?

Death showed up at my door at a rather young age. I was entering my early 20’s, where life was nearly beginning and death was just a foggy, distant thought. Aside from that one time when I made my childhood acting debut in a funeral education video, I hadn’t really paid death much attention. The other time I recall being curious about death was during the infrequent and brief drives past the cemetery, when my siblings and I would hold our breath out of fear of the old urban legend.

In our society, many individuals don’t even begin thinking about death until they are greeted by it on a personal level. This typically occurs in the loss of a pet, loved one, or dear friend. In some cases, people won’t begin thinking about death and their immortality until they are faced with a life-threatening illness.

Many, if not most people experience some degree of fear and/or anxiety in relationship to death. It is one of the most common fears and it also happens to be one of the least talked about. Fear is quite powerful because it grabs a hold of us and prevents us from speaking openly about it. The success of various types of therapy groups depends on this one key component, for participants to have the willingness and courage to discuss their fears out loud. Through these group exercises’, the fear slowly begins to lessen. Talking about death with family and friends is the best way to relieve some of our anxiety. My dear friend, Michael Hebb, developed a forum to do just that, openly talk about death with the people you love the most.

Death is unpredictable, we don’t know when we will go and we don’t know how. For my dear friend, Coop, it was lung cancer at age 38. For others it will be heart failure at 82.

As a witness to death in my early 20’s, I am living proof that it is never too soon to befriend this mysterious and unpredictable life experience that we will all undergo. I believe that many of us cheat ourselves out of fully living life, by refusing to discuss death until we absolutely have to. It is nearly impossible to experience the richness of life when we are subconsciously clinging to it.

During my time as a hospice volunteer, I witnessed many people on the clinical staff and on the patient end that were full of fear. Some fear is normal and considered healthy, but the question I pose is: wouldn’t it make for a smoother transition if we worked out some of these fears before witnessing and experiencing our own death?

As the baby boomers become our oldest aging population, it is important that we take the time to discuss end-of-life concerns such as, quality of life verse quantity, dying with dignity, dying in the home vs. the hospital, etc. These are topics that are being discussed more and more, however the need for education and discussion around end-of-life care in our society is higher than ever. Lives are depending on it.

It is concerning that our society continues to put the “hush” on death when it is a common experience that links us all together. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, wrote On Death and Dying to bridge the in-house scientific/academic conversations about death and dying and the gaping need for the information and discussion by the general public. As this book continues to engage people in the 21st century, there are still a lot of gaps that need to be filled.

A simple awareness of death can set this process in motion. No matter how old we are, it is never too soon to educate ourselves on something we will all become intimate with, some of us sooner than later.

At The Table With Love & Death

This morning I had a flash back to last week’s hospice visit where I sat across from a woman who, as they refer in the hospice field, is “actively dying”. Across from her and next to me sat this woman’s beloved husband of 60 years.  Between the two of them, they have 180+ years of life on this planet.

The sweetest part about being with this couple is getting to witness how 60 years of unconditional love blossoms, especially when one of the pair is nearing the end of life. This little wise man shared stories of their life together and he was sure to note that their marriage had experienced many peaks and valleys. He then sealed all of the years together so elegantly with his robust bright eyed smile.

Of all the lunch dates I have been on, this was perhaps one of the most meaningful. Stripping down our roles and physical conditions, it became clear that we were all sitting at the table with two honored guest- Love & Death.

It was pretty magical, yet also very simplistic. We allowed ourselves to be present in the moment, flowing in and out of moments of talking and silence. Everything felt just right. There was nothing to fix, nothing to change, and there was definitely no holding back. We all just met each other in the spaces we were in. It was perfect.

As I recalled this lunch date, I got to thinking about my own impending death. My mind often wonders to what this big adventure is all about, or in what fashion I will be departing. I’m not about to say that I am fearless when it comes to death, I too feel a sense of clinging to life and some sadness when I contemplate my death and the death of those whom I adore.

But you know, this lunch meeting with love and death has got me thinking…Perhaps when we go out, it’s like sitting down at the table with love and death. Before your bottom grazes the surface of the seat, your entire being is immersed in an unconditional love that you have only ever touched the surface of. You look death in the eyes, and then you glance over to love. And suddenly you have an absolute knowing that is all the same. They are not separate. Suddenly all of our fears and concerns melt away and we become one with love.

My beloved teacher Ram Dass equates the experience of death as “taking off a tight shoe”. The more I am sitting with death,  I am slowly beginning to see what he means. But yes, I still have a mighty long way to go.

Speaking of sitting at the table with death, are you familiar with the Death Over Dinner project? I think this project is fabulous because it invites us to sit down with love & death, and you all know how I feel about that experience! But let us remember, that conversations of death can happen anywhere…not just over the table. Conversations about death should not be confined to a time or place.

The more I embrace my life more fully, the less scary death feels. Ya know, I really think the Buddha was on to something when he shared the following:

“The Buddha taught there is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going; there is no same, there is no different; there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.”

Death Is a Great Teacher

When asked the other day about my first experience with death, this was my response:

In the third grade I eagerly volunteered to be a part of a death education film for the Catholic Church. I had not yet developed much of a concept of what death was at that time, in fact I really don’t think it occurred to me what I had actually signed up for, I just knew I would get to miss class and have pizza. In my 11 year old mind, I hit the jackpot!

Little did I know at that time, death would become my greatest teacher.

Since then, death has challenged me, torn me open, brought up my worst fears, kept me up at night, introduced me to grief, put me on a roller coaster of emotions, and it’s knocked me down right when I thought I was strong enough to stand on my own.

Some kind of teacher right?

Well, death has also forced me into the moment, filled my heart with a boundless amount of love, introduced me to inner peace, showed me the beauty of emotions and the power and liberation of a good cry, and how to reach out for a helping hand- giving up my defiant independent attitude.

Death is a teacher that will visit each and every one us one day, guaranteed. Just as we prepare a nursery for the birth of a new baby, may we also prepare the space within our hearts for death, befriending this teacher long before our time to leave the body comes.

I love these words of wisdom from Ram Dass written in Polishing The Mirror:

“The only real preparation for death is the moment-to-moment process of life. When you are fully present in the moment, there is no anticipatory fear, no anxiety, because you are just here and now, not in the future. When we are resting in our souls, death is just another closing chapter in a book.”

My wish is for everyone to rest in the moment, the sacred space where life and death merge together, leaving only one thing in it’s place, eternal love.

“Love & death are magnificent gifts which many of us leave unopened.”  -Rilke

The One’s Left Behind

Earlier this week I received news of a beloved satsang member’s daughter transitioning at the young age of 14. I immediately felt my heart break in a reverent silence for the family and friends, the one’s left behind. Like so many, it is hard to wrap my head around the unbearable and sudden tragic exit of such a beloved young soul. I don’t quite understand the why, but my faith in divine order and soul’s karma assures me this bright shinning star was needed to shine her light on a place much more vast, somewhere our minds can’t even quite conceive of. Our hearts know of this space and when I find myself slipping into anger of this event, I take a deep breath and rest here.

Having been through my own up close and personal experiences with death, I know the importance of grieving and feeling every feeling, for as long or brief necessary. The mind, body, and spirit have a process for this time, all unique to each individual, however none less sacred or less intense. We grieve and we discover a sweetness of life that I believe is only tasted once we have looked death in the eyes through another person’s journey and roar! We are human, therefor a roar is expected, kicking and screaming as well. We fall in and out of the net of hope, we taste the bittersweet tears that fall from our face, and we feel pain like never before. We begin to feel alive in a way we never have.

This is the pivotal point, the moment when you begin to see glimpses of life, real and honest life. Filled with tragedy and death, but beautiful none the less. In these moments, allow yourself to rest here for however long possible. It’s a lot like meditation or yoga, or any practice for that matter. You take baby steps, as long as it takes, but you arrive more whole then you when you started. Trudging this crazy mystical journey of life, for the day when you will look death in the eyes again during your final hour and say “I’m ready”.

For those who transition, they expand. For those left behind, we expand too…it just takes time, love, and human touch to lift the fog and reveal a world in which everything is sweeter.

I have walked this path of grief before, it’s not easy but all we have to do is extend our hands and reach out to the one’s left behind.

I leave you with a poem written by Anna M. Lytton recently posted in the East Hampton Star:

After one camp canoe trip she wrote a poem about the experience that shows its profound impact on her as well as her talent as a poet. The poem, which her parents shared, closes as the canoe reaches the shore:

The dry land welcomes us.
I have soaked up the water like a sponge
And now it is draining out
Along with my remaining strength.
We have reached our resting place
After completing our work.

The Grace of Dying

“Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God, and tell the truth.”
-Neem Karoli Baba

A little over a month ago I flew to my hometown St. Louis to visit a man who I have know since I was born, my grandfather, Don Francis Kern. A week before boarding the plane, my grandfather aspirated, he was rushed to the Hospital and immediately intubated. The day I was arriving would be day 8 on ventilation and the day they would begin removing the tube. They removed the tube shortly before we arrived and he was responding very well. We walked in the hospital room, and to my surprise he greeted me with the biggest and brightest smile. It is a moment that will play in my heart forever.

The course of the next few days was a bumpy one, full of ups downs, moments of hope and absolute certainty followed by  moments of uncertainty and despair. Because my grandfather was still aspirating on his swallow test, the medical solution was a feeding tube. In respect of my grandfather’s continued wish for no feeding tube and quality of life, Hospice became the next step. This is where my opportunity to serve and share about the magic of hospice came into play.

Hospice isn’t an easy word for most people to hear, but it really isn’t a bad thing. In fact, Hospice is a service that is dedicated to comforting, loving, and serving you in your final chapter of this life. I personally can’t think of anything more sweeter then people who are waiting and willing to serve individuals in their time of transition. It’s not a job nor path for everybody, but it is important we know that it is a service available to everyone.

Honoring my grandfather’s final wish to go home, my grandmother made the decision to bring my grandfather home on hospice. A neat thing about is Hospice is as soon as you say the words, you are no longer walking this journey with your loved ones alone. You are instantly armed with the compassion and love from strangers, all ready to serve your family and the person transitioning.

My grandfather’s eyes lit up when he was brought home and sat in his favorite chair! His last wish was fulfilled and you could feel the ease and peace in his spirit. Three days later my grandfather passed away with his wife of 50 years by his side,holding his hand and giving him the permission to let go. True love in the purest form, sitting along side your loved one and holding space for them in their time of transition.

I am beginning to believe with all of my heart that there is no greater service then being with someone who is dying.

I haven’t come to the above realization smoothly, in fact I have faced my own deep grief as a result of loosing two very close friends of mine. Amidst the pain and grief, I somehow found my way out and have always managed to hold on to my faith. My granny and I had many conversations of faith while sitting at my grandpa’s bedside, we both agreed it is the one thing that has allowed us to endure all of the obstacles and heartbreak that life brings.

One distinct moment by my grandpa’s bedside that stands out above the rest was when I wiped his dry and pudding stained mouth with a washcloth and time sort of just stood still. There was no judgement, in fact there were no thoughts at all…just love. It was space of timeless infinite love that could be likened to the feeling of absolute grace.

On the return flight my heart swelled with gratitude and I was in awe for the opportunity to be of service in this way again. It seems to get sweeter each time.

“Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. ” -Mother Teresa