Category Archives: Life Transitions

Once We’re Gone…

Unless we are presented with an opportunity to think about our own death (a diagnosis, loss of a loved one, serious car accident), it isn’t something that most of us want to spend time doing.  If left to our own devices, we tend to imagine that we’ll live, if not forever, at least for a very long time.  However, once in a while, we are given a non-traumatic invitation to think about what will happen once we die.

A while ago I discovered Magareta Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning:  How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter in my local bookstore.  Having been somewhat captivated by the Marie Kondo phenomenon that swept North America after the publication of her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I wondered if Magnusson’s book was going to be more of the same.  However, I was sold enough on the title to make the purchase. What followed was a trip I hadn’t expected.

Down the Rabbit Hole

This is a deceptively simple book.  It can be read in an evening.  Rather than finding directions on the correct way to fold socks and organize my closet, “Death Cleaning” took me down an existential rabbit hole.  It wasn’t only a matter of doing family members the favour of paring down my possessions so that they would not have to take on this task once I am gone–I’m somewhat of a minimalist, so the job should be fairly easy.  Instead, it forced me to look at the items that I have held on to from the perspective of those I have left behind.  Would they know the story of a cherished mug or why I kept a moth-eaten sweater?  What is the ‘value’ of my stuff?  Does it really matter?

As I pondered these questions, I was reminded of a scene from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.  Late in life, the main character, Hagar Shipley had her first manicure.  She was so astounded by the positive feelings she experienced during the treatment that, once her nails had grown, she kept the nail clippings in a match box as a reminder of being cared for.  After Hagar’s death, when her children find the box, they can’t understand why their mother would keep such a thing, and put it down to dementia.  Hmmm….

Not Everything Is the Same

Imagine that you are looking at your things through the perspective of your loved ones, after your death.  Some things we leave behind will spark feelings of humour (I can’t believe that Mom kept every card I ever sent!), confusion (a box of nail clippings?  Really?) or neutrality (the contents in the bathroom cupboard).  Unfortunately, some possessions are emotionally charged, and it is these items that require more thought and action.

A Story…

After their mother’s death, Sylvia and her older sibling Paul had the task of cleaning out the family home in preparation for sale.  Their father had died two years before.  As the siblings started working through the house, they were astounded by the amount of things that their parents had collected.  Neither parent had wanted to discard anything, and the house was a museum of their lives together and as a family.

Over time, many car loads of items were taken to charity shops. Family members and friends were invited to choose an item to remember the couple by.  A dumpster was placed in the driveway to get rid of decades of newspapers, magazines and assorted other ‘junk’.

On most weekends, the siblings worked together on this project.  It was going well…until…they found…THE BOX.  Hidden in the back of a closet was a box of journals written by their father.  They covered the years from being newly married until Paul’s birth.  Sylvia and Paul were excited to discover a record of their beloved father’s thoughts and feelings and looked forward to learning more about him–in his own words.  Unfortunately, as they read, their excitement turned to hurt and confusion as they realized that their father had never wanted to have children, but did so as a concession to their mother–whom he had loved deeply.

Suddenly their relationship with their father came under the microscope.  Did he change his mind?  Did he ever love them?  Was the time he spent with them only to please his wife?Since they already had one child, was Sylvia planned?  Because both parents were dead, all these questions were left unanswered.  The siblings could be trying to come to terms with this information for the rest of their lives.

When We’re Ready the Teacher Will Come

As I continued to look at my possessions from the perspective of not being able to explain them to those I leave behind, asking myself what (if anything) I should get rid of now in order to spare them any future pain or misunderstanding; I met Jill Sadler.

Jill is the owner and principal consultant of Parosol.  She describes her company as “estate planning redefined”.  Parosol’s promotion material explains:

“We work with you to document and create a complete care, legacy, health and aging plan that you can share with the important people in your life–making sure your wishes are known and you are in control of your future.”

I wasn’t looking for Jill. Yet she came across my path as I was asking myself difficult questions about how to make decisions easier for my family if I was no longer able to provide direction or explanations.  As I learned more about Jill and her company, I realized that she would be a valuable resource as I move along this path.

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It

While the story of Paul and Sylvia is fiction, unfortunately their experience isn’t uncommon.  I have worked with many clients who struggle with information learned after the death of a family member or with having to make decisions without knowing a loved one’s wishes.  And, as I learned from Jill, we don’t have to be dead to be unable to communicate what we want–an incapacitating illness will do it!

I encourage you, no matter your age or life situation, please take some time to look at your ‘personal’ belongings from the perspective of those you leave behind.  It may be a bigger bequest than anything you leave in your will.

And now…for those of you too young to recognize the last heading…some vintage Mission Impossible (before Tom Cruise)!  Enjoy!

 

 

Is This Normal?

Another common question I hear from clients during therapy is “Is this normal?”.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions depending on the area of ‘normal’ you are looking at.  Since we’re not talking about the areas of science or math, I’m using the definition of “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” as a jumping off point for this post.

Individually, we often come up with our personal idea of normal by looking and comparing ourselves to others.  That’s how we determine what is the standard or regular pattern.  However, what happens when what we are experiencing is unlike that of our those around us?

Another Definition

Miriam-Webster also defines ‘normal’ as “occurring naturally“.  From a life perspective, I think that this meaning is more helpful, and forgiving.  Every person is an individual–with their own reactions, thoughts, and feelings.  These occur naturally based on our experiences.

In Buddhism there is the concept that we are the sum of our experiences.  We can be a mixture of the happy five year old and the despairing teenager; the ecstatic newlywed and the stressed parent; the toddler and the senior.  It all fits organically into who we are at this moment.  Therefore, while there can be a range of ‘normal’, I suggest that this range is very broad.  The challenge comes when ‘our normal’ negatively effects our life or the lives of those around us.  That’s when we may want to seek help.

The Only Constant Is Change

Another Buddhist concept is that everything changes–nothing stays the same.  This means that we are constantly in transition.  Sometimes the changes are minor–we gain or lose a few kilos, we need to change our route to work, a house plant dies.  At other times, the changes are major–we lose a partner, or we get sick.  Changes don’t always have to be negative.  Maybe a new member joined our family or we started a new relationship, moved to a new city.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living writes:

“Even inanimate material is subject to continual change:  continents, mountains, rocks, beaches, the oceans, the atmosphere, the earth itself, even stars and galaxies all change over time, all evolve, and are spoken of as being born and dying.  We humans live for such a brief time, relatively speaking, that we tend to think of these things as permanent and unchanging.  But they are not.  Nothing is.”

“The point is that life is constant change from the word go.  Our bodies change in countless ways as we grow and develop over the course of a lifetime.  So do our views of the world and of ourselves.  Meanwhile the external environment in which we live is also in continual flux.  In fact, nothing at all is permanent and eternal, although some things appear that way since they are changing so slowly.”

So if everything is in constant change, how do we find normal?

Coping With Change

When we think of change/transitions the concept of resilience comes to mind.  Resiliency is our ability to adjust and recover.  We build our resilience by practicing self-care (sleep, diet, exercise), having realistic expectations about what we can do, avoiding toxic thinking, being able to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing a support system.

When we are able to cope, we are working towards a ‘new normal’.

A Story…

Peggy was an 84 year old woman who had lived in her home for 60 years.  When she arrived to the house as a newlywed, it was a mess.  The previous owner had let the place go, and it was in much need of repair.  Peggy and her husband Ron renovated the home themselves–learning the necessary skills as they went.  Once their children were born, the house moved from it’s new pristine condition to the patina caused by a busy family.

Peggy’s memories were tired to her home.  She could tell  you the origin of each bump on the wall or scratch on the floor.  When working in the kitchen, she could “see” the face of her late husband sitting at the table.  Peggy could “hear” the hurried footsteps of her children as they raced up and down the stairs.  On cold days, she could feel the draft coming through the living room window–the window that had defied their attempts at weather proofing.

Change Arrives

One night, Peggy awoke to the smell of smoke.  Looking outside her bedroom, she saw that the hallway was filled with smoke.  Peggy called 911 from her room and fire fighters were able to rescue her through the window.  As Peggy stood outside, it was clear that the house could not be saved.  The property was well insured.  Peggy would be able to afford a new place, but her home and many of her belongings were gone.

Peggy moved in with her son while the insurance was being settled.  Because she liked her privacy and independence, Peggy knew that living with either of her children was a short-term solution to her housing situation.  After a few months, Peggy found an apartment that she liked.  It was close enough to the library and her favourite grocery store that she could walk there when she wanted to.

The months between the fire and actually settling into her new home were busy. Peggy was distracted from thinking in any great depth about what had happened.  However, once the last of her new furniture was in place and all was quiet, the enormity of the change hit her.

Now what?

The New Normal

How many times have each of us, after a major change, said…”When things get back to normal…”?  But what if the change, like Peggy’s, is the new normal?  What if we have experienced a life-changing event?

Major changes, even good ones, usually involve loss.  Peggy’s loss is easy to see–her home and possessions.  However, some are more difficult to determine, and may not become apparent until we are faced with post-change life.

While Peggy liked her new apartment and it’s proximity to places she regularly visited, she missed the walk through her old neighbourhood.  She was accustomed to checking on the progress of her friends’ gardens or greeting the cat who lived on the corner.  At the beginning Peggy was a little late for appointments because she forgot to factor in the time it took for her to get from her unit to the parking garage.  In the kitchen, preparing meals too a bit longer as she had to hunt to find utensils that were in new places.

Everything felt difficult and feelings of grief began to emerge.

The Mourning Process

When we experience a loss, grief is a natural response.  For Peggy to be able to be able to move to and embrace her new normal, it was important for her to work through the tasks of mourning.  Peggy’s next steps:

Task 1:  Accept the reality of the loss.  Peggy has already started this task as she spends time in her new apartment and becomes aware of how much has changed–both large and small.

Task 2:  Process the pain of grief.  The key to completing this task is to give ourselves permission to feel pain.  Rather than turning away, we acknowledge that we are hurting and missing what we have lost.  When we pay attention to our pain, we may notice that it has isn’t as sharp as before, or doesn’t visit as often.  During the first year in her new home, Peggy would often find herself caught up in a grief cycle, as she moved through the “year of firsts”.  She discovered that if she sat with her tears, they would eventually subside. Peggy learned that she would feel sad leading up to a major family event or holiday.  These celebrations now took place at her son’s home as she no longer had the space.

Task 3:  Adjust to a world without what was lost.  As time went on, Peggy found that she thought about her house less often.  The depth and frequency of her sadness started to ease, and she started to think about what a future in her new home could look like.

Task 4:  Start a new life, while keeping a connection to what was lost.  One day Peggy was surprised to notice that she was looking forward to her walk to the library.  She had started to pay attention to the houses on her route, and was curious to see how a recently-started renovation was going.  When the next family event approached, Peggy suggested that it be changed slightly so that a new version could be held at her home.  As she became more comfortable in her apartment, she started to host smaller dinner parties for friends and family.  Peggy was starting to create new memories in her new home.

As Peggy became more comfortable and life felt less difficult, she was approaching her “new normal”.

 Embrace YOUR normal!

‘Normal’ can fit into a broad range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So long as your normal isn’t negatively affecting you or others; then I suggest the wisdom of accepting what currently is.  Life can be stressful enough without comparing ourselves to others and questioning ourselves when our normal is different from someone else’s.

And now, a lesson in ‘normal’ from SpongeBob SquarePants…enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Comings and Goings…The Circle of Life

People come and go in our lives for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it’s because we meet a new friend, or a relationship ends.  Maybe we’re the one coming and going as we change jobs or move to a new city.  At some point, our entrances and exits are more substantial…we are born and we die.  That’s the circle of life.

In the Not So Distant Past

While both birth and death are an unavoidable part of the human experience, I suggest that as a modern culture, we treat each of them very differently.  However, this hasn’t always been the case.

As a big fan of Call the Midwife, I never tire of watching the sanitized TV version of babies being born. The series takes place in an East-London neighbourhood, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Among other things, it chronicles the progression from the norm of home births to hospital births; and the resulting changes in the expectations of everyone involved.  I’m not advocating one birth experience over another, just noting the shift of birth taking place at home vs. taking place in a medical setting.

Like birth, death has also moved locations. In the past, the common practice was that we died at home–circumstances allowing. Ideally, the dying person was surrounded by family and/or friends who were there to offer comfort to the individual and each other.  Family members shared the final tasks of preparing their loved-one for burial. Visitation was held in the family home. Birth and death were very personal, yet community, experiences. Now, most of us can expect to die in a hospital, and prepared for our final resting place by funeral home staff.

A Semi-Current Picture

According to Statistics Canada, in 2014 approximately 259,000 Canadians died. The Fact Sheet published about Hospice and Palliative Care in Canada reported that 70% of those deaths occurred in hospitals.

On the flip side, 2014 saw approximately 384,000 Canadian births (142,000 in Ontario). A December 2015 Toronto Star article outlined a three-year McMaster University study that noted midwives attended 10% of all births in Ontario (2014 is included in their data).  Of this 10%, 20% of these births occurred at home.

The bottom line…most of us will come and go in a hospital.  However, the picture may be changing.

Thoughts on Current Practices of Life… 

Midwifery, was regulated in Ontario in 1994, as a publicly funded service. Currently there are more than 700 registered midwives in Ontario who provide neonatal care to pregnant women, attend their deliveries and look after the mother and baby following birth.  With the 1994 law, midwives have hospital privileges (including access to hospital staff and resources). The blending of the two options gives expectant parents more choice of where to deliver their babies.  It is no longer a binary decision of at home with a midwife vs in hospital with a obstetrician (most family doctors no longer deliver babies).

According to the McMaster study, for women with low-risk pregnancies, babies delivered at home were at no greater risk than those in hospitals. We can have the best of both worlds.

…and Death

The same choice has begun around end of life decisions as well. The number of hospice centers and palliative care support is growing steadily.  According to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care position paper:

“Ontario is working to provide patients with more choices for palliative and end-of-life care.

This includes investing in more hospice care across the province and expanding caregiver supports that help families and loved ones support palliative patients at home and in their communities. Ontario will also support more public education about advanced care planning so that patients’ wishes for end-of-life care are understood. The province is establishing clear oversight and accountability for Ontario’s palliative care services, to further advance patient-centred care.”

It will be interesting to see the effects of assisted death legislation on end-of-life location options.

Speaking of options, there are now death doula’s or midwives who spiritually help individuals and their families through the death process.  Training programs to become a death doula are now available throughout Canada and the US.  Both MacLeans magazine and Global News have covered this subject.

Death is Making an Appearance

While our culture tends to hide death–even in the language we use to describe death (“passed away” or “passed on”);  I have started to notice some changes.  Besides the increased visibility of hospice and palliative care and debates on assisted death, end-of-life has started to take up space in our current frame of reference.

At first it was something I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.  A colleague had mentioned that he had attended a weekend workshop on “home funerals”.  The event took place in a private home, and included information about the rules and some basic skills for taking care of your deceased loved from death until burial. While not for everyone, this is a fascinating alternative to the current practice.

Next, over the six-month period, numerous articles appeared in the local paper:

  • A story about a Romanian cemetery (called the Merry Cemetery) where the crosses are etched with colourful epitaphs and drawings describing the deceased’s life and/or personality;
  • A helpful article about “tying up the loose ends of life”;
  • Another article assuring readers that “death doesn’t have be so frightening”;
  • A commentary of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead–a family celebration that sees family members and friends having parties in local cemeteries as they visit their loved ones;
  • And finally, a review of the book  “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter.”  A new reason to declutter.

I came across information about the Good Green Death Forum (an event organized by the Green Burial Society of Canada) and DeathCafe.com (a social event where people talk about death with the goal of increasing their awareness of life).

Ideas about death appear to be popping up in popular culture.

Why Does This Matter?

As a therapist, I tend to look at things through the lens of mental health.  While birth is usually a happy event (no matter where it takes place), I have concerns about how we deal with the end of life. With the movement of death from plain sight over the past decades, it has become scary.  Combined with our culture’s fixation on youth, this fear has escalated.  As with most things in life that we don’t understand, when we push them away they become something mysterious, and to be feared.

But do we have to continue to treat death this way?  Instead can we use a familiarity with death as a tool to help us live more aware and fulfilling lives?

Another Way to Look at Death

In many Buddhist traditions, a purposeful contemplation of death is one practice that is used to help individuals become aware of the constancy of change and life’s fragility.  The concept is that when we realize that nothing in life is permanent and everything is easily broken, we look at events in our lives differently.  We may appreciate to a greater level not only what we have (including health, relationships, and things), but also the people we love.  From this perspective, while we may grief loss (from the breaking of a favourite cup to the loss of something greater), we understand it to be part of a greater whole.  As well, to quote a best-selling book title, we “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.

Death as an Exercise

I’ve come across a few books over the years (The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and She Means Business (to name a few) that advise readers to become comfortable with their own death as a way to add focus to their lives.

These authors lead a guided exercise in which the reader imagines, in detail, their own funeral or memorial service–paying particular attention to what their family and friends are saying about them.  These imaginary statements become nuggets to be mined as you set life goals.  I’m not sure if it works, but could be an interesting exercise.

Finally…

We can’t hide from the comings and goings in our lives…whether it’s us or someone else.  However, we can become less fearful and more mindful.

And now…somewhat predictably, but none the less still moving after all these years (movie came out in 1994)…The Lion King – Circle of Life.  Enjoy!

 

 

Welcome to the Transition!

Traditionally, in Western culture, we often think of January 1 as the beginning of a new year, but for me it’s always been the day after Labour Day.  Just like the week before December 31 is taken up with New Year’s Eve preparation, for me, the days leading up to the first day of school involved choosing new supplies, deciding what to wear and checking the school office window to discover the name of my new teacher.

Living in a city that is home to two universities, it’s clear that the September start of a new year doesn’t only apply to children, but to young adults as well.  The beginning of their new year is obvious as the streets become filled with U-Hauls and the traffic in the city core picks up.  For some (and their families) it’s not only the start of a new year, but the start of a new life–with lots of feelings of excitement and trepidation. Continue reading Welcome to the Transition!