Posts Tagged With: death and dying

Best Advice I’ve Gotten In the Past Year? “Practice Radical Self-Care”

Great recs found here.

Great recs found here.

The best advice I got during the past twelve months wasn’t directed at me. And it arrived through an unlikely source, a Goodreads question and answer session.

I don’t usually follow or sign up for these sorts of things. I think the author’s work normally speaks for itself. But I made an exception this one time.  When Anne Lamott, the author of “Help! Thanks! Wow!” among other hilarious, heartfelt and honest books, accepted a stint on the Featured Author Chat over at Goodreads, I jumped on board eager to pick up some writerly advice and a few laughs.

The directness in Anne’s writing reminds me of my best friend who passed away early this year. They both have a no-holds-barred approach to communication. Say it like it is. Don’t worry about offending anyone. Speak truth. Let it all fall where it ought to.

Feels like I get an infusion of new oxygen in my blood after reading Anne’s books. I figured I’d more than enjoy reading what she has to say in a different medium.

Little did I know how helpful it would be.

Sure, she answered queries about writing and about her personal life. But then, a surprise question and an even more surprising answer came through.

In response to a reader’s question about how to deal with depression and discouragement, Anne Lamott’s answer jumped out at me as if it’d been highlighted with fluorescent green marker.

“Depressed and discouraged is really hard, and plenty to deal with. My response, if it was me, was to practice radical self-care, by being exquisitely kind and gentle and patient with myself, exactly as I would be with a friend. Love and gentleness are always the answer. “ – Anne Lamott, from a Goodreads discussion 12/12/13

“Practice radical self-care.”

I’ve said that to myself over and over ever since I read it. Even more so since a funeral and burial and the ensuing grief that’s hovered all year.

So we’ve all heard that “self-care” part of the equation over the years, right? But “radical?” And how do you care for yourself in a radical way?

I turn to my usual sources. I like the third Merriam-Webster definition of radical.

“Radical: very different from the usual or traditional : extreme.”

So I’ve looked at how I normally care for myself and I attempt to do the opposite, or at least a ninety degree shift.

Sounds difficult. But I’ve given it a try anyway.

So how do I “practice radical self-care”?

  • Letting myself ignore all my lists occasionally and the usual side of guilt they’re served with
  • I say “not right now” instead of “sure, anytime, anything”
  • Simply sitting and letting my mind go blank, often
  • Crying when the tears want to leak out
  • Laughing even if it goes against all reason or feels wrong
  • Planning something unprecedented, like getting a manicure, or a spur of the moment trip
  • Saying “No”
  • Reminding MSH that I’m not depressed, just grieving
  • Practicing my depression treatment steps, just in case
  • Accepting that sorrow and faith can coexist in the same brain
  • Journaling, several times a day if necessary, letting words carry some of the weight
  • Napping, earlier bedtimes, later wake times
  • Talking about how I’m feeling

The other part of what Anne said, I’d applied in situations involving others, but rarely with myself.

“Being exquisitely kind and gentle and patient with myself.

The key word there: “exquisitely,” as in “acutely perceptive, discriminating, intense.”

Kind, patient and gentle with myself. How could I go wrong? That was easier the first month or two after my friend died. But then I hit some preconceived notion of “times up” on the grieving thing and stopped being so easy on myself.
Photo by Kettie Olsen

Photo by Kettie Olsen

So I try again and again. And I remind myself again, as Anne said, “Love and gentleness are always the answer.”

I get radical. I care for myself. Practice exquisite patience and gentleness. I apply the concepts of love and kindness to myself. Kind of extreme ideas for me.

It’s a daily, sometimes hourly process working through depression, discouragement and grief.

I owe big thanks for such unusually worded advice from someone who’s been there to someone still wandering the path toward a new normal.


Categories: Cancer, Death, Hope | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caskets, Headstones, Tears and Laughter

Somewhere in the top ten worst things to have to deal with as a human being, I’m just guessing here, I imagine picking out a casket or a headstone for a loved one would rank in the horrendous category.


Headstone (Photo credit: Karen_O’D)

Also in that same range of horrific would be picking out your own casket and headstone. Worse, if you happened to be younger than fifty.

Can’t even get my head around those things.

A few years ago Mom and Dad bought their shared headstone. They had it engraved with all us kids’ names on the back. On the front they have their names with their birth dates and then the dash.  The blank after the dash will get filled in eventually. Hopefully not for a couple more decades. They had it set in the ground next to my brother’s resting place. Some fifty odd years ago they had the wisdom to buy a couple of plots when they purchased his. Brian wasn’t even a year old.

Talk about horrific things in life to endure. That’s surely the absolute worst. Losing a child. How does someone survive that? I don’t ever want to know.

They made that purchase to save us kids the expense and hassle. That’s just like them, always thinking about everyone else. Not long after they did this I was visiting and they wanted to show me the headstone. I gotta’ tell ya’ I was a bit freaked out by the idea. Once I got there, I was okay with it, sort of.

A beautiful cemetery. It’s in the northern foothills of the town I grew up in. A green sloping knoll with a few small trees. The view from their plot overlooks the entire valley north to south and east to west. In my younger days we used to visit every Memorial Day, place flowers in the metal vase, pull a few weeds, try to figure out where to stand so as not to be disrespectful. That’s Memorial Day to me. Remembering my brother that I never met, since I wasn’t born yet. But we remembered him.

The last 8mm reels Dad transferred to DVD had scenes with Brian and my other older brother. It felt like Memorial Day watching that. I wanted to reach out and hug him, say hello, ask how things are going up there. Part of me pictures him as growing up, getting married, hanging out with the rest of us. Part of me pictures him staying small, sweet and cuddly. Part of me wishes I’d had a chance to know him.

Isn’t that odd? He’s family though. So it shouldn’t feel odd, I guess.

This isn’t what I thought I’d say today. Surprising what sneaks out of your heart when you open the door a little for something else you stuffed in and quickly slammed the door on.

Maybe what I really meant to write isn’t for public consumption. Maybe what I really need to say about death and dying can only be spoken in the language of tears.

Of course, there’s an exception to that. I know someone who can talk about death in the language of laughter, too. She has a braver and more urgent reason to speak about it. Sure, she cries the words, too, sometimes. But the mixture of the two languages is  part of what apparently keeps her sane in the face of something very nearly unspeakable.

Death and dying.

Tears. And Laughter?

I think I need language lessons from her.


Related Posts I’ve written:

My Closest Friend is Dying

Sudden or Slow?

Riding the Killer Waves


Categories: Death | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laughing at Death

I became best friends with someone on Death’s fast track.

That was not my plan.  I had simply volunteered to do some driving.  My schedule was “whateva” and her schedule was whatever the Mayo Clinic said it was.

Boy, can I just tell you I was nervous that first day I drove.  I’d never been on a first name basis with cancer, chemo or the effects of either.  Within minutes of getting in her car she had set me at ease.  It was like some cog in the universe clicked into place and machinery started running.

We talked about anything and everything.  The comfortable nature of our conversation surprised and delighted me.  She is a direct and open person who says exactly what she thinks, how she feels, what’s in her head and her heart.  That freedom unlocked my usually reticent nature and I opened up with an honesty I didn’t know I had in me to give.


I became a pretty regular driver for her.  She has been patient with me as I learned when to talk and when to keep to myself as she rides the waves of nausea or works her way through the gauntlet of pain for that day.  I’ve became familiar with her body language which can tell me when her pain meds aren’t enough, or signal me that she might have forgotten to take her meds altogether.  She recognizes, even through the chemo/cancer fog, when I’m having a crappy day.  She manages to get me to talk about whatever is on my mind.  And she listens as if my little worries are really important.  She never makes me feel like my stuff is stupid in comparison to her incredible hourly battles.

She is a phenomenal listener.  Sure she can talk up a storm and tell the most outrageously funny stories, but when it comes to listening, she is focused and following every word, even as a disintegrating rib grinds at her or one of her glass shattering migraines threatens with an explosion.


Her kind of cancer, multiple myeloma, with the three out of four chromosomal deletions in her DNA chain, means she won’t be around to see grandkids born, will probably actually miss  most of her kids’ weddings, will miss most of her youngest daughter’s teen years.  It’s kept her from bouncing on the trampoline with her youngest which has really miffed them both.  This cancer has forced her to look death in the face and prepare for its inevitability.

Most of us don’t think about those things if we can help it.  We don’t plan our own funerals, pick out our own casket, make baby blankets for grandbabies we will never see, write letters for major life events in our children’s lives we won’t be there for.  Those things are her realities and she doesn’t pretend them away.  She talks about it all.  Not only does she talk about death openly and with a resilient faith, she laughs about her life as well.


Laughter… (Photo credit: leodelrosa…)

I could try to explain a situation where death sounds funny, but you wouldn’t get it.  I’m not that good of a comedian.  This is truly, utterly, absolutely one of those situations that you have to be there to get it.  But I guess I can try.


Before her stem cell replacement she had a grueling five-day stint in the hospital where she became intimate with the desire to die.  The caustic chemical cocktail pumped into her to prepare her body for the onslaught of the stem cell treatment shook her to the core.  Her hair started to fall out in clumps.  Did she cry?  A little, maybe.  But what she did after that was call her neighbor’s son, who is a barber, and arranged a head shaving party.  Break out the video camera, she said.  They braided a bunch of little braids and then lopped those off for whoever wanted one, her sister, her daughters.   Then she had him shave words into the sides, her and her husband’s initials with a heart on one side and her graduating class year on the other.  Then they sculpted a bit of a Mohawk, spiked with some gel to complete the look.  Photos all around.  Then the final buzz and she was a bald woman.  A couple of days later we located an electric razor to take off the last prickly slivers that were still falling out and creating a nuisance.  She was smiling.  How does she do that?  It’s who she is.


Here is another example of her humor. There were two ringtones I had picked out to use for when she called my cell phone.  Couldn’t decide which one to use so I told her about each one.  The first one is the Beatles  “Help!”  She knows she can call me anytime, night, day, for a soda run, a midnight ER ride, lunch, cleaning, errands, whatever.  And she has, and I’m so glad I’ve been able help.  By the same token she has been there for me in a hundred different ways.  She has listened through job losses, kid challenges, money worries.  She has loaned me her car countless times, paid for lunches beyond reckoning, filled me with diet Pepsi’s and been like a therapist to me.  So “Help” by her favorite band seemed a very appropriate ringtone.

But then, I also picked The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.”  She heard that and giggled her signature little girl laugh. Staying alive has been her battle the past four years.  She has fought and endured hell to stay alive for her kids, to stick around, to be here as long as possible for them.  The fight has not been about herself, but about them. That she can laugh about a ringtone in the face of all that crap really rocks. That’s the ringtone she picked.  So when my phone starts singing, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive,” a smile breaks across my face and I answer with joy, “Woman!!  What up?”  We crack ourselves up.


Nothing is quite so contagious as her smile.  She has dimples that rival any Gerber baby.  And her eyes are lit with mischievousness and hope.  No one being around her would ever guess at her battles or believe that she is walking the shortcut toward death.

I think sometimes that Death himself will walk past and not recognize her.  Maybe He has.  Maybe the energy of her laughter has kept Him at a distance these past few years. I hope she can keep on laughing.

Categories: Relationships | Tags: , , , , | 18 Comments

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: