Spiritual Practice: Facing Death During a Pandemic

man in black jacket holding mirror

 

In the last month, we have all been confronted with our mortality. If you have not, you’re not paying attention. This virus is a killer, of any age, race, or socioeconomic status. 

How do we face the reality that we might die sooner than later? I’m not trying to be morbid or doomsaying, but simply invite us to look at how we handle this as spiritually focused people. Besides pulling up your, “I’m not afraid to die because I know where I’m going,” boots, how do we live in this current reality? Here are some ideas:

This reality, and our new social isolation, give us a unique opportunity to reflect on our lives. It’s a good time to look back and review. How do I feel about life so far? How do I feel about the choices I’ve made, the job I have, or the people I’ve committed to? What are my regrets? What might be some things I’d like to change if I live through this pandemic?

As we look back, are there people we need to forgive? People we need to affirm? Perhaps it’s a good time to make a phone call or send a letter to someone you have unfinished business with — or a card of encouragement to someone who has loved you well.

When I worked for hospice with people staring death in the face, the number one thing they wanted was to reconnect with people they’d been estranged from. When we could make that happen, both parties always cried tears of joy and relief. 

Many of my therapy clients were anxious and stressed the first week of social distancing. By the second week, all but the teenagers were starting to enjoy a slower pace and relax into it. What lessons have we learned about ourselves and a slower pace that we might want to take into the next season when life gets back to “normal?” Perhaps we would like to keep some of the slowness we are experiencing now. 

woman putting on a face mask

On a practical side, is it time to update your will? Perhaps you need to share your passwords with someone you trust or let the people you love know how you feel about being kept alive by extreme measures. If your family were to have a funeral down the road or a memorial service, is there something specific you’d like to happen there? Is there anything important you need to share with anyone?

It might be good to make a video or write a letter to your family or friends, saying what’s important. People that are dying of the virus are dying quickly, and they are isolated from their families, many without a chance to even call and say goodbye. You can proactively do this for your family by making a video or writing a letter just in case. 

And finally, how are you doing with God? God loves every inch of you, just the way you are, and longs for a relationship with you. God is good, kind, loving, and accepting. God is not the sole property of any one religion, but available to all. If you’ve become estranged from God, this might be a good time to reconnect. I’ve found that faith communities can be a good support to you and your loved ones during a time of crisis or death. 

It’s a scary time, but not facing these things will not help you. American’s are notoriously afraid of talking about death. It’s time to change that narrative and take away the fear and panic. We can be proactive and use this crisis as a time to grow spiritually and prepare ourselves. 

 

Let me know if you have some ideas to help you as you think about your own mortality.

 

Photo of man with mirror by Marlon Schmeiski on Pexels.com
Photo of woman in mirror by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Spiritual Practice: Moving Through Thresholds

threshold

(I decided to share the book I’m writing over on Wattpad. You can read it here). Now, back to the blog on Spiritual Practices!

Recently I was with a patient as he was dying. His body fought hard to stay alive and I sat with him, holding his hand, praying for him and singing, as he crossed over. He’d been homeless at the end of his life, and he was estranged from his family because of his choices. But nobody should die alone, so I stayed as long as I could.

As I watched him struggle, I was reminded of the labor it takes to give birth. I’ve had the privilege of sitting with three women who have given birth, plus I’ve done it twice myself, and I can tell you – it is hard work! There is one point during labor and delivery called “transition.” It’s the period when partners get slapped, swear words fly, and statements like: “Don’t ever touch me again,” become part of the birth story.

Once I was in a training with a wizened hospice counselor who was talking about the process of “crossing over” when we die. She called that passage a “threshold.” She said that thresholds are hard and dangerous. For example, an airplane is in the most danger when it is taking off or landing. She said perhaps the thresholds between life and death are also hard to navigate and that was why so many of our patients see long-dead relatives who come to escort them over the threshold.

There are many kinds of thresholds besides birthing a new life and dying to new life. I believe that moving through them can be a spiritual practice.

There is a threshold when you’ve lost a job, and before you get a new one. Or when one relationship ends, and before a new one begins. Or when you let go of an old idea of God but haven’t yet formed a new one.

During these kinds of transitions, it’s good to have someone with you to guide you across the threshold. There are birth and death doulas for those transitions and there are others:

IMG_6642 (1)

Four kinds of helpers when moving through thresholds:

If you have lost a job it can be a very scary time. But, it can also be freeing and a time to re-envision what you want to do next. This is a good time to consult a guidance counselor who can give you some assessments and help you think about options for your future. You may decide to go back to school or re-tool for a different career. Get someone to help you with your resume as well. The rules about resumes may have changed and the requirements for each job need to be considered with each resume. There are also places online to get that kind of help.

If you have lost a relationship, a marriage and family counselor can be a great help. It’s important to grieve the loss before moving on. It’s also vital to own your part in the failure of the relationship, as well as determine what features of the relationship you would like to avoid with the next. The Psychology Today website is a good place to find counselors in your area.

If the transition you are going through is physical, you’ll need medical help. A doctor, a nutritionist, a personal trainer or physical therapist might be parts of a great team to help you through your transition. Asking for referrals from friends or on Facebook can be an excellent way to get a good recommendation.

But also, I see all transition as spiritual, and there are people trained as spiritual directors who can help you navigate that area. They usually meet with you for one hour, once per month, and don’t charge too much either. Spiritual Directors International is a good place to find one in your area. Some will work long distance through Skype or on the phone.

Whatever kind of transition you’re in, don’t feel you have to go through it alone. I remember a 12-step friend changing the old saying about, “When God closes a door, he opens a window,” to add, “but the hallway is hell!” I agree. It can be tough in the hallway, the waiting room, the threshold. But these transitions usually lead to new life, new possibilities, growth, and joy. All you need is someone to come along and guide you through.

Are you facing a threshold? What help are you finding as you go through? Any hints to share?

 

Bathing the Dying: how to care for those experiencing grief and loss

bathing the dying

I work in for a hospice company as the Bereavement Coordinator. This job encompasses my training in both pastoral care marriage and family therapy. Wanna see a family go haywire? Just have a member die. I get to be there when things are falling apart. I get to be a peaceful presence in a less than peaceful environment. I love that.

Most people, when told what I do, reply with something like: “Wow, I could never do that. It would be too depressing.” So far, I’ve found it to be anything but depressing. To me, if feels like holy work. It’s an opportunity to bring the Spirit of Peace to a family negotiating one of the worst experiences of their lives. Now, I’ll admit, I’m still new at this, and thankfully, my agency doesn’t work with dying kids. That might push me past my ability to be a calming presence. But so far, it’s been good.

The other day we were working with a family who lived on the margins. They were poor people, in a downtown weekly motel. This kind of living is one step up from homelessness. Living like this does not endear you to other people and this family had rarely been treated with respect. I happened to open the door of their one-room home and come face to face with a holy moment. Our CNA was washing the hair of the dying woman. Her toothless wasted body was two days from death and yet our CNA was lovingly bathing her, gently washing her hair.

IMG_9607

The beauty of the action stopped me in my tracks, and I finally backed out of the room with the image seared onto my corneas like a Michelangelo painting. Similar images from the life of Christ flooded my vision: The prostitute who anointed Jesus with the tools of her trade: her tears, her perfume, her hair. There was Jesus’ friend, Mary of Bethany, who unknowingly anointed his body for burial with her gift of costly perfume. There were Joseph and Nicodemus, who prepared his body for burial. And finally, the women who went to prepare his body with spices, after the Sabbath, and found him missing.

The Jews knew about preparing a body for burial; they were not afraid of it, but saw it as a loving and holy act, a precious responsibility. The washing of the dead is a ritual of love that most of us unless we work in a funeral home, are totally unfamiliar with. But in many Jewish circles, it is still done. The family prepares the body after death in a ritual called Tahara. The body is washed and wrapped in a plain white cloth, so there will be no attachment to earthly things and no stigma for the poor. For the same reason, the casket is plain, and also must biodegrade so the body can go back into the earth. Then the family and their friends sit “Shiva” for a week of mourning and the bereaved are not expected to attend social events for a year. What wonderful rituals these are to honor the loss of a loved one.

We non-Jews have lost something significant in these rituals. For us, death has become sterilized. We die and our body is removed by men in black suits that come from a mortuary – looking somber. Or worse, if someone dies unexpectedly, like my mother did, and an ambulance is called, a death room can look more like a crime scene with fire trucks, police, flashing lights, and a coroner. We have funerals or memorial services that are over in an hour. If we are lucky, friends bring us food. But after a week or two, we are left alone with our sorrow.

Recently I sat with a man whose wife, his love of sixty years, was dying. Sixty years! How is he supposed to recover from that? He can’t. He won’t. We shouldn’t expect him to. But we can be there to listen to his rage at her loss, to honor his tears, to hear the stories of their wonderful life together. We can be there to bathe the dead, to open a holy space for the Spirit of Peace to come in.

In what ways have you been able to bathe the dying? How has someone bathed you in your times of grief?

What do you want to be remembered for?

david

I once had a student friend who said, “You know what your problem is Jacci? You’re too nice!”
I know what he meant. We were having a discussion about sharing our faith and I was not “hell-fire and brimstone” enough for him. On my part, I was just trying to get him to stop making people cry in class. But his words got me thinking.

Actually, being too nice would be a great legacy. I wouldn’t mind being known for that. And since I’m getting older, I decided to write my obituary so that I can spend the rest of my life trying to live up to it.

The Obituary of Jacci Turner (sometime in distant future…hopefully)
“Jacci Turner died today, she was too nice. She had the audacity to believe that “it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance and not his wrath.

“Jacci was not a lot of things. She was not a great cook, a deep theologian, or a stellar campus worker. She was not administratively gifted or a fantastic fundraiser.

“But there was one thing Jacci did really well, she loved people. Jacci loved people other folks had a hard time loving, those on the margins, the broken, those unwelcome in most churches, even those who made their classmates cry.

“This love cost Jacci a lot: her reputation, friends, financial security and sometimes sleep. When she was discouraged she recalled the two great commands: Love God, Love Others and was content. You see this love flowed out from the knowledge that she was one of those people, rescued from the edge by the kindness of God, and wanting to follow in his footsteps.”

I hope I can spend the rest of my life living up to this obituary. What would you like yours to say?

Grieving As Transformation

cup

Last week, to honor the one-year anniversary of my mother’s sudden death, and the six-month anniversary of my job loss, I attended a grief workshop.

About twenty of us sat in a circle around a beautiful, multi-tiered display of broken mugs. There were many kinds, colors, and shapes of mugs. Some were merely chipped, some were smashed, and some had no handle. The analogy centered on Psalm 3:12 which says, “I have become like a broken vessel.”

We were told to pick a mug that resembled how we felt, and then we had twenty minutes to spend thinking through some questions we were given about the mug and our grieving process.

The people in the group were all over the map in their grief work: one woman looked like she was still in shock, head bowed, eyes wide, unable to speak. Her husband had died six months ago and he was only in his forties.

One man had lost his wife two years ago, but described his heart as “shattered.” He looked like he was on the verge of a physical heart shattering with the level of pain he was still holding in.

Some had lost grown children, others lost parents who left them orphaned, as only children, with no children of their own for comfort. Each had their own process of grief.

Some were not grieving the death of a loved one, but a divorce or retirement from a beloved profession.

I chose a cup with no handle because losing my mother and my job felt like losing the things I held on to, the things that took a large chunk of my time and made up a large part of my identity.

But as I examined my cup I saw that it was still beautiful, useful and mostly intact. I saw that it could function very well without its handle…life was going on for me and for the most part, my life is very beautiful. I have a wonderful husband and fantastic children and grandchildren. I work, I write, I have a ministry. I am happy.

When we returned from our time of reflection, we talked about our cups. Everyone had found hope in this exercise in some small way. It gave us words for our experience of grief.

At lunch, we put our cups at the foot of the cross in the chapel. Later, when we returned, there was a new display at the center of the room: it contained beautiful, colorful, whole cups. We were each allowed to choose one and take it home. A cup of blessing.

I realized that I have come far in my grieving process. I am letting go. I’m sure there will be times when I continue to be blindsided by grief, but I have come a long way in healing. And the point of this exercise drove home for me that grief can lead us to transformation, to new places of depth, compassion, and growth. (Tweet This)

In one handout adapted from Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy by J. William Worden, Ph.D., it listed four stages of grief which I will briefly sketch here:

    1. To accept the reality of the loss: When someone dies, even if death is expected, there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened. The first task of grieving is to come full face with the reality that the person is dead.
    2. To experience the pain of grief: Many people (and society) try to avoid painful feelings. You must allow yourself to experience and express your feelings, difficult though they may be.
    3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing: There may be many practical daily affairs you need help and advice with, but there will be a great sense of pride in being able to master these challenges.
    4. To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship: The final task is to effect an emotional withdrawal so that this emotional energy can be used in continuing a productive life.

I learned that each person’s grief is completely unique. It doesn’t really help to compare our grief or expect another to grieve like we do. But, it does help to share the human experience of grief with others who are going through it.

Where are you at in your grief experience? What kind of cracked cup are you and what does God say about it? I’d love to hear about your grief experience so we can hold our cups up together and toast a life of transformation.

 

 

A Tribute To My Mother, a year after her death

mama

My beautiful mother died suddenly, a year ago, March 14th, 2014. This is the tribute I wrote for her memorial. At the end is a link to the video my son made of her life in pictures.

LaDonna Fae Terry was born August 29th, 1935 in Wendell Idaho. Her parents, Jack and LeRue Smith had four daughters, of which mom was the youngest: Betty, LeRay, Beverly, and LaDonna. Mom was the boy my grandpa always wanted and she loved her daddy. The locals often called her “Little Jack,” and her family called her “Donnie.” They lived on a farm in Wendell and Mom loved to play clarinet in the high school marching band.
Mom married Tom Terry in April of 1954. He had one son from a previous marriage, our beloved half-brother Jim Terry, and although we didn’t meet him until about 17 years ago, he has been a wonderful addition to our family.
Dad was a produce buyer and he and mom traveled to follow the crops. In 1956, they were in Oregon when Thomas Terry III was born, then in 1959 they were in Burley, Idaho when I was born, and they were in Colorado when Skye was born in 1964.
The family finally settled in California when Dad began working for Safeway in their Produce Division. Upon Dad’s retirement, they moved to Reno in 1984. Mom and dad briefly moved to Idaho where they were living when Dad passed away in 2003, and then mom moved back to Reno.
At that point, Mom thought her life was over. But in 2006 she met Carl Sanford and she and Carl traveled the world together, visiting places like Greece, Spain, England, The Bahamas, Hawaii, and Mexico.
I had lunch with Mom every week and she never failed to say, “How did I get so lucky to have two men who loved me so much. Carl is such a good man and I’m so happy.” Our family is very thankful for Carl, who made Mom’s last eight years such a joy and delight.
That’s the overview; mom died peacefully in her sleep Friday, March 14 and it was a devastating shock to us all. To help you understand why we miss her so, I’ve chosen four words to describe my mom.
First: Mom had Style! You’ll see in the slideshow that Mom loved to dress up. In the 60′s she never left the house without matching hat, shoes, and purses. In the 70′s she was one mod mama! In the eighties and nineties, she found sequins and loved to sparkle. I always called her “my little magpie” because she loved shiny things. When she met Carl, her style relaxed but she still never went anywhere without a wrist full of colorful bracelets and her fingers covered in huge rings.

Mama's hats

The second word is Fearlessness! While dad had his career, mom also worked. It was not normal for women in her day, but she worked as a telephone operator. Then with no schooling, she worked as a nurse and even got to help deliver twins. Again, with no formal education, she worked as a dental assistant in both Colorado and California. Then she went to beauty school and eventually owned shops in both California and Reno. Somewhere in there, she was a real-estate agent. She wasn’t afraid to try anything.

The third word I’ve chosen is Fun! Mom told countless stories of the various shenanigans they got into as kids, including how she and her sister Bev, scheduled several dates a half-hour apart and watched from across the street as one sad suitor after another drove away from their house rejected. And, she was always up for a spontaneous road trip to Idaho and loved to play with her children and grandchildren. Mom loved pranks and it was not unusual for her to turn around and be wearing something like this, or this or this (at this point I put on some of her more outrageous hats). I remember the last road trip we took in November. Every now and then she’d turn to me and be wearing these, or these, or these (Here I put on some of her hysterical sunglasses). She was full of whimsy.

The last word I’ve chosen, though I could go on for hours – and I’m hoping some of you will share your stories – is Energetic! Mom had more energy than any person I have ever met. When we were growing up, she played the Banjo and took us to pizza parlors and parades to watch her play. She never really stopped moving, even when she was sitting. As you can tell, she loved to paint (The room was lined with her paintings). When she wasn’t painting, she was embroidering dish towels, or making colorful bracelets. I have hundreds of these, as do all of my siblings and her sister and her friends. I’ve brought a stack of bracelets and put them out for each of you to take some as a reminder to have style, fun, to be fearless and keep moving.

It was mom’s energy level that made her passing so strange to all of us. I had lunch with her Monday morning; Her friend Evelyn went out with her to the Gold and Silver restaurant on Tuesday and mom won $75! Skye was with her Wednesday, and we all saw her Thursday. Carl said that even Thursday night, they watched Pretty Women before bed. Her friend Pat said mom was a “Whirlwind of energy.” I guess that is why none of us thought she would hold still long enough to die, it just wasn’t like her. Mom’s video

Grieving Your Way Through The Holidays

close-up of Santa in despair

The first holiday season after the loss of a loved one can be REALLY hard. I know this because I’m living through it right now. My mom died in March and the tears started up again at Thanksgiving — and they haven’t stopped since. The thing is, my mom was crazy about Christmas. I’m talking “Buddy the Elf” crazy about Christmas. It was irritating, really. So now I’m left with two feelings.

  1. Everything about Christmas reminds me of her. I miss her and her childlike joy of the season.
  2. I wish I could go back in time and enjoy her enthusiasm about the holiday instead of being irritated by it — ugh, regret is a hard thing.

Example: Mom would buy every kind of battery powered Christmas toy that moved or made noise (Santa, Rudolf, Snowman). One of her favorite things was to line up all these toys and have the kids try to race them. She was always way more interested in this race than the kids were, as the toys didn’t really walk in a straight line but limped around in circles or tipped over while banging their cymbals. (See me standing off to the side with the eye roll?)

 

She also had the annoying habit of buying motion activated Christmas toys that would burst into song whenever you walked by. These were very startling and I hated them. Although one year I did get some prurient joy from hiding one particularly obnoxious toy all over the house so she would set it off in the pantry, the kitchen cabinet, or the bathroom. (See me with a Grinch-like grin?)

 

Now I long to go back. To cheer on old Rudolf or praise the purchase of yet another obnoxious toy. I will never get another chance to jump up and down with her like Buddy the elf, “It’s Santa! It’s Santa!”  I can’t. It’s too late. (See the tears falling? Important note: Never try to write a blog about the loss of your mama during downtime at work. It’s really hard to explain why the new school counselor is crying).

 

I’ve asked my friends who have negotiated loss to share their wisdom about how to survive the holidays. Their outpouring of love and encouragement has been wonderful, and their ideas are really helpful. I thought I’d share them with you, in case you are going through this with me. And if you have any ideas to share, I would love to hear them!

Crowd Sourced Wisdom about How to Survive the Holidays after a Loss:

Robert: I found this book incredibly helpful after my Mum died. I did some of the exercises it recommended (wrote her a letter, made up a memory book). I commend it to you. 

Brooke: You do whatever feels right to you. If it feels right to make her favorite cookies say… Do it. If it doesn’t feel right to do it without her… yet, don’t. Cry whenever it hits you, and hard… sob if you want to, it’s healthy. There are no rules for grieving through a holiday – just be there for yourself like you would a friend.

Leanna:  Wish I had some magic advice to give. I lost my mom shortly before Christmas four years ago—very rough. Luckily I have a tight-knit family which I believe helped give us all some added strength during the holidays. Together, we got through it.

Peggy: Your mom was one of my favorite friends and she and I had a blast together both at work and just fun. My entire family has passed on except for my children and their families. I lost my hubby when I was 39. I don’t think I’ll ever get over any of it, but I find lighting a candle for them before Mass has certainly helped me remember their goodness and ask them to pray for me. You can bet your mom is always on that prayer.

Sharon: The first Christmas without my mom was rough. She made Christmas magical for the grandkids.

Karen:  It’s really a tough time.
And time is what you get… take time to enjoy the memories

Julie: Tell funny stories so that family will remember her with a smile and not tears.

Debi:  It’s not easy

Nancy:  I visited the town I grew up in and met with some high school friends from years past. It helped me feel closer to her.

Angela: It’s tough to do. I find if I keep busy I don’t think of my dad as often and I just remember the good memories we shared on Christmas. It’s been almost five years and I still find it tough. Draw close to those you love and good friends and family help too!

Bill:  Feel the feelings and go ahead and have a good cry when you need to, later you can cry then laugh and cry again.

Rebecca: My first Christmas also without my mom and dad. Feelings are all over the place. Looking at it but must admit escaping to Kansas to be with kids and grands. Entering their chaos this Christmas will help. Praying for you.

Naomi: I agree with Bill. I just kept sacrificing the pain to God and trusting that he had us all in his hands. Feel what you need to feel and do what you feel you need to do to grieve – whatever it is!

Julie:  Write her a love letter full of memories and promises that you will see her again and how wonderful that will be!

Christy:  All these are wonderful ways to help. I found spending time with the little ones in the family really makes it easier. New fresh spirits brighten the day.

Cindy: Jacci listen to “a different kind of Christmas” by Mark Schultz

Tammy: With our recent loss of our young son-in-law, and my mentor’s help, I’m learning the important connection of deeply and specifically counting our losses, mourning those, one by one, and then learning to receive the Lord’s comfort on each. In other words, the loss of Ben is central towards seemingly endless losses. The loss of a father for my grandson, the loss of marriage for my daughter, her loss of her best friend, the loss of my relationship with him, etc. ALL these need their own mourning and comfort in order for deep healing and meeting Jesus there. So, to recap, Losses need mourning, which needs comfort (felt and real) from Jesus. My grief book encouraged those who have a loss to actually put themselves in situations and places that cause grief and mourning or trigger it. We are so good at avoiding pain, but the heart is still wounded if we avoid.

Dear Friends, your love and wisdom is overwhelming. Thank you! Anyone else want to weigh in?