Archive for grief

Embrace the Gift of Life

July 7, 2016Lori[1]

On January 7th, 2016, my big sister, Lori Dempsey Robbins, passed away after an almost four year journey with ovarian cancer.  Lori was 45 and the single mom of our 11 year old niece.  She was my first friend and one of my greatest teachers
Being with her through her illness and her death was one of the most challenging experiences of my life.  There was so much sadness, pain, suffering, and fear involved.  The whole thing was very hard to face – for her, for me, and for all of us around her.  Trying to understand it all, make peace with what was happening, prepare for what was coming, and support her in a meaningful way was difficult, and, at times, seemed almost impossible.  It was an intense reminder of the ultimate vulnerability of physical life and the inherent powerlessness of being human.
 
At the same time, there were many moments of beauty, joy, gratitude, healing, and love – throughout her illness (even when it got really bad towards the end), as she died, and after she passed.  Lori and I experienced a transformation in our relationship over the past few years – we healed some old wounds and reconnected in a beautiful way, which was really meaningful to both of us.  She taught me and others a great deal as she faced cancer and death.  And, the love, support, community connection, and appreciation that showed up around her through her illness, as she was dying, and after her passing were truly remarkable.  She was loved and that love was expressed to her in many ways, and to all of us close to her, as she went through this painful process.
 
As my friend Glennon Doyle Melton says, life can be “brutiful,” (both brutal and beautiful at the same time).  Lori’s cancer, her death, and my own journey of grief these past six months have been the epitome of “brutiful.”  It is still surreal to me that she is gone.  I sometimes feel tempted to ask my wife Michelle, as I did often in those first few days and weeks after she passed, “Did that really happen?”  And, although I do feel Lori’s presence, have had a number of vivid dreams about her, and know it is possible for us to still connect and communicate in various ways, there have been so many times over the past six months when I’ve wanted to pick up the phone to call or to send her a text or email, only to remember I can no longer do that
 
Lori’s death, along with the deaths of our dad back in 2001 and our mom in 2011, leaves me as the sole living member of my nuclear family – yet another aspect of this experience that is truly disorienting.  I find myself feeling sad, scared, and lonely at times, as well as liberated, curious, and hopeful at other times.  All in all, it feels weird – like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
 
Through all of the twists and turns and the ups and downs of the past six months since Lori died and the past four plus years since she was diagnosed, I’ve learned a great deal (and am continuing to learn as I go).  As my big sister, Lori was one of the most significant teachers in my life.  Her teaching has continued, even through her death
 
Here are some of the key things I’ve learned through this experience so far, which even with all of the pain and sadness, I’m grateful to have learned and to share:
 
1) Say I love you – One of my sister’s friends said to me, “Lori was the first friend I ever said ‘I love you’ to – because she said it to me.  It used to drive me crazy and make me feel uncomfortable – we were in high school and friends just didn’t say that to each other.  But, I finally caught on and it is one of the things I loved most about her.”  Lori always said “I love you,” which is something we learned from both of our parents, especially our dad.  And, in the days and weeks after her passing, I was struck by the number of people who not only showed up with love and support for me and our family, but who actually said “I love you” to me – friends, family members, and even some business associates, colleagues, and clients.  In some cases these were people who had never said this to me before, but in the face of my grief, loss, and sorrow, they did.  It feels good to know we are loved and it is important that we let people know as often as we can, even if it feels scary, awkward, or uncomfortable to express it.
 
2)  Be Proud of Who You Are and Where You’re From – My sister took pride in so many of the important roles and associations in her life.  She was proud to be a woman, daughter, sister, and mother.  She was proud to be from Oakland, CA and a graduate of Skyline High, Wesleyan University, and UC Berkeley.  She was proud to have been born in 1970 and raised in the 70s and 80s.  She was proud of her Irish Catholic and Ukrainian Jewish heritage.  She was a proud sports fan of all of our teams here in the Bay Area, especially the Oakland A’s.  She loved being connected to and associated with lots of different people and groups.  I used to make fun of her when we were younger for this – I didn’t totally understand or appreciate it.  However, as I reflect back upon it, I realize that her commitment to people, relationships, and community manifested itself through her genuine pride and in her desire to enthusiastically claim connection to so many diverse groups, which was beautiful.
 
3) Don’t Waste Time Judging and Criticizing Yourself – As much pride as Lori took in where she was from and various groups she was directly or indirectly connected to, she didn’t always take pride in herself personally.  Like most of us, she struggled to feel good about herself and to believe in her inherent value.  As I was looking through lots of old photos from different phases of her life, I saw pictures of this beautiful, passionate, engaged girl, teen, young woman, and woman.  In addition to the joy and sadness I felt looking at these photos, it also struck me that Lori, like me and so many of us, wasted a lot of her precious time and energy over her almost 46 years on the planet criticizing and judging herself.  Whether it was her body and appearance, her relationship status, or her results in school, activities, or her career, she often felt like she wasn’tquite measuring up or wasn’t where she wanted to be
 
Why do we do this to ourselves? Although I do realize it’s normal for us to criticize ourselves at times or to think we’re not good enough, the truth is that at some point whether we’re 10, 25, 45, 70, 105, or somewhere in between, we’re each going to die (although we tend to live somewhat in denial of this important fact).  When we’re gone, someone will be looking back at photos and memories of us – do we want them thinking or saying, “Wow, I wonder why they thought they weren’t good enough?”  Or, would we rather them think or say, “Wow, they really lived their lives to the fullest…how cool that they were able to appreciate themselves and their lives the way they did.”  We have a choice about this – we don’t have to criticize and judge ourselves so harshly.  It really doesn’t serve us in any way to do this.
 
4) People Are More Important Than Things – As I stood up to speak at Lori’s memorial service, I was struck by so many different thoughts, feelings, memories,and insights.  There were people there from throughout her entire life – elementary school, junior high, high school, college, grad school, various jobs, companies, and communities, and more.  Even with all of the twists and turns of my sister’s life, she always placed a priority on relationships.  She taught me so many things about being a good friend, about how to communicate, about connecting people with each other, and about caring about people.  Lori was a connector and she was loyal – she always remembered people and cared deeply about them.  As we all gathered in that church in Oakland in late January to celebrate her life, and people who could not join us in person sat in front of their computers to watch the livestream of the service, the things we talked about, remembered, and shared about my sister had mostly to do with the kind of person she was and the relationship we had with her.  It wasn’t about accomplishments, awards, or things…it was about her, who she was (not what she did).  All too often we get caught up in the “things” of life.  And while there are some things in life that are truly important, in the end we are always reminded in a profound way that people are much more important than things.
 
5)  Embrace the Mystical and Spiritual Nature of Life – One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of physical death is the mystery of it all.  Why do some people die young while others live a long time?  What really happens when we die?  Where do we go?  Do we come back?  These and other questions like this have been pondered for generations and are at the heart of many of the world’s religious and spiritual teachings.  While there are many thoughts, ideas, descriptions, and, of course, disagreements to the answers to these important questions, there aren’t definitive explanations or empirical proof.  Making peace with these questions, to whatever degree we’re able to make peace with them, takes faith and a willingness to embrace the unknown.  And while our spiritual or religious beliefs play a major role in our perspective about this, one of the things I’ve experienced first-hand with the deaths of my dad, my mom, and now my sister (as well as a few other significant people in my life in recent years), is the inherent mystical and spiritual nature of death (and of life).  When we are close to someone as they die and/or we lose someone close to us, these questions about life and death are no longer theoretical, they are real and personal.  And, when we go through this experience, we come face to face with the mystery of it all.  Confronted with a lack of concrete proof or understanding, we have to tap into the mystical and spiritual realms, even if we don’t often do that or don’t know exactly what we believe in that regard.  
 
Similar to the phenomenon of people saying “I love you” to me in the days and weeks after Lori passed, I was also struck by the number of people talking to me in mystical or spiritual terms – letting me know they were praying for me, saying that Lori was safe in the hands of God, excited that Lori was reunited with my parents and others in heaven, talking to me about dreams of her and conversations on the other side, seeing rainbows, birds, butterflies, and other signs and knowing that was Lori sending a message, and more.  It seems that in the face of death, we feel a little safer and more comfortable thinking about, looking for, talking about, and sharing our insights, beliefs, questions, and ideas about the mystical and spiritual nature of life.  I love and appreciate this…and, I wonder why it often takes death for us to look for, talk about, or think aboutthings in this way.  Life is mystical and spiritual all the time, not just when someone dies…but it’s easy for us to forget this and/or feel uncomfortable thinking or talking about it in this way, for fear of being judged or separated from others based on our beliefs or questions.
 
I’m still deeply engaged in my journey of growth, discovery, and healing.  Lori’s death has had a profound impact on me.  I don’t totally understand it and probably never will.  I feel sad, confused, and disoriented as I continue to make my way through this process.  And, I feel grateful, joyful, and honored to have known my sister, learned from her, and for all of the gifts, blessings, and growth embedded in this experience, even as painful as it has been.  I also feel wonderfully and beautifully supported by some extraordinary people in my life as I navigate this process.
 
Life is a mystery in so many ways.  None of us knows how long we’ll be here or what’s going to happen next.  We each have a choice about how we choose to live in this moment.  Instead of waiting for it all to work out, make sense, feel good, look right, or be the “perfect” way we think it should be – what if we made a commitment to ourselves right here, right now to fully embrace the gift of life, exactly as it is?  It’s a simple concept…but a radical act!

How can you embrace the gift of your life right now? What support do you need to let go of what holds you back from doing this fully? Feel free to share your thoughts, insights, or any questions you have below.

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Love is the Answer

December 18, 2012

I have been reeling for the past few days, ever since the tragic events in Newtown, CT on Friday – such a sad and scary act of violence, hard to even comprehend.  It hits especially close to home for us, even though we’re 3,000 miles away, because our oldest daughter, Samantha, is in first grade, just like those twenty beautiful children who were killed on Friday.  Dropping Samantha and her little sister Rosie off at school yesterday morning was pretty emotional for me.  I looked at the shining faces of her first grade classmates and at the faces of the other parents, teachers, and staff members at our school, and couldn’t help but think of those people at Sandy Hook Elementary School – we are them, and they are us.

As I’ve been struggling to make sense of all of this (which I can’t), I find myself feeling somewhat similar to how I felt after 9/11.  In digging through some old emails, I found an email I sent out four days after 9/11 to my family and friends.  I didn’t have a blog back then or an email newsletter, I’m not sure if I’d even written an article of any kind.  However, in reading this email from more than eleven years ago, I was struck by how similar my thoughts and feelings are four days after the tragedy that took place in Newtown, CT.  I thought I would share it here on my blog because it encompasses much of what I feel right now as well.

(Email sent to my friends and family on September 15, 2001):

Hello,

I have had so many thoughts and feelings this past week, as I am sure we all have.  Everything from sadness, to rage, to fear, to denial, to helplessness and then back again.  I have found it very difficult to know what to do or how to feel.  I have watched hours of television coverage and listened to hundreds of people speak about what has happened and what needs to happen – it has been overwhelming and confusing to me.  I have also spent a great deal of time and energy talking to loved ones and friends as well as communicating with anyone and everyone I can by email.  I just feel like I want to reach out and touch everyone I know and love… and even those I have never met.  This whole thing has been a major wake up call for me as to what is really important.  So much of what I think about, worry about, and talk about much of the time seems quite meaningless in the face of this tragedy.

What keeps showing up in my head, in my heart, in conversations with other people, in amazing emails from friends as well as those from powerful spiritual leaders is the power of LOVE and the importance of GOD.  When it all comes down to it, that is what is truly most important to me and in life!

In the face of this horrible tragedy, we have an amazing opportunity to bring forth the power of Love and God – to tell the people that we love how important they are to us and to connect with that deep and sacred place of our own personal spiritual journey.

I think it is so important that we honor our intense emotions and truly feel them – and let others to do the same.  Even though this may be uncomfortable, especially with certain emotions – I know it is that way for me.  On the other side of all of our emotions is Love.  Love is the key to the kingdom.  Love gives us access to healing, to forgiveness, and to peace.  Love is the basis of all of our connections to one another.  And Love is the foundation of our relationship to God.

I believe that the essence of each of us is Love.  It is who we are and what we all want.  We each have an infinite amount of Love.  I have been so inspired and amazed by the incredible outpouring of love I have seen throughout our country and our world in response to this crisis.  Standing hand in hand with strangers at Glide Memorial Church and at Grace Cathedral  in San Francisco this week, I wept at the Love I felt (from and for people I didn’t even know) and at the extraordinary power of the human spirit.

This email is an expression of my love for you, your family and friends, and for the world.  Here is my prayer:

Dear God:

We pray for courage and strength as we all deal with this crisis. 

Allow us to be real and open in the face of such intense sadness and fear. 

Please bring peace and healing to all those who have been hurt, directly or indirectly, by this tragedy.

May we unite together in Love to heal ourselves, each other, and our world.

Let Peace, Forgiveness, Healing, and Love prevail.

Amen

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Embrace Death, Live Life

July 21, 2011

For this week’s audio podcast, click here.

My mom, Lois Dempsey Robbins, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in early March.  The disease spread very quickly and on June 13th, she passed away.  I was honored and grateful to be with her through her dying process.  It was both horrible and beautiful at the same time.

My mom’s physical pain and deterioration, realizing that she was going to die and that at thirty-seven years old I would be without either of my parents (my dad died almost ten years ago), and knowing that my girls would grow up without their grandma (who absolutely adored them), were some of the most difficult parts of the experience.

However, the closeness, family connection, deep conversations, healing, insights, love, forgiveness, and support have been some of the most wonderful aspects of all of this – while she was sick, as she was dying, and in the past month or so since her death.

Four of the most intimate and sacred experiences of my life have been the births of our two girls and the deaths of each of my parents. I’m grateful and honored to have been able to experience all four of these magical moments live and in person. Although the emotions of the births and the deaths were quite different, the level of intimacy, sacredness, and profundity were of similar impact and depth for me.

I’m deeply engaged in my grief process right now – doing my best to stay present in the midst of the intense and contradictory thoughts and feelings I’ve been experiencing.  While I’ve been feeling sadness and pain, I also feel a lot of love and appreciation – both for my mother’s life and all she taught me, and for the experience of being with her through her death.

Death teaches us so much about life and about ourselves, even though it can be very difficult to comprehend and experience – especially when the person dying is someone very close to us. As a culture we don’t really talk about it, deal with it, or face it in an authentic way. It often seems too scary, mysterious, personal, loaded, heavy, emotional, tragic, andmore.

What if we embraced death – our own and that of those around us – in a real, vulnerable, and genuine way?  What if we lived life more aware of the fact that everyone around us, including ourselves, has a limited amount of time here on earth?

Embracing death consciously alters our experience of ourselves, others, and life in a fundamental and transformational way. It allows us to remember what truly matters and to put things in a healthy and empowering perspective. Doing this is much better for us than spending and wasting our time worrying, complaining, and surviving the circumstances, situations, and dramas of our lives, isn’t it?

One of the most profound things my mom said a few weeks before she died was, “I want people to know that they don’t have to suffer through this.”  As the end was getting closer, my mom’s awareness, insight, and desire to share her wisdom increased and it was beautiful.

Below are some of the key lessons I learned from her as she began to embrace death in the final days and weeks of her life.  These are simple (although not easy) reminders for each of us about how to live life more fully:

  • Express Yourself – Say what you have to say, don’t hold things back.  As my mom got closer to death, she began to express herself with a deeper level of authenticity and transparency.  We had conversations about things we’d never talked about and she opened up in ways that were both liberating and inspiring.  Too often in life we hold back, keep secrets, and don’t share what’s real – based on our fear of rejection, judgment, and alienation.  Expressing ourselves is about letting go of our limiting filters and living life “out loud.”
  • Forgive – My mom and I come from a long line of grudge holders. Like me, she could hold a grudge with the best of ’em.  I watched as she began to both consciously and unconsciously let go of her grudges and resentments, both big and small.  It was if she was saying, “Who cares?”  When you only have a few months (or weeks) to live, the idea that “Life’s too short,” becomes more than a bumper sticker or a catch phrase, it’s a reality.  And, with this reality, the natural thing for us to do is to forgive those around us, and ourselves.
  • Live With Passion – Going for it, being bold, and living our lives with a genuine sense of passion is so important. However, it’s easy to get caught up in our concerns or to worry what other people will think about us. My mom, who was a pretty passionate woman throughout her life, began to live with a deeper level of passion, even as her body was deteriorating. In her final days and weeks, she engaged everyone in conversation, talked about what she was passionate about, shared grandiose ideas, and let go of many of her concerns about the opinions of others. It was amazing and such a great model and reminder of the importance of passion.
  •  Acknowledge Others – At one point about a month or so before my mom died she said to me, “It’s so important to appreciate people…I don’t know why I haven’t done more of that in my life.” Even in the midst of all she was going through and dealing with (pain, discomfort, medication, treatment, and the reality that her life was coming to an end), she went out of her way to let people know what she appreciated about them – and people shared their appreciation with her as well. My friend Janae set up a “joy line” for people to call and leave voice messages for my mom in her final days. We got close to fifty of the most beautiful messages, all expressing love and appreciation for my mom – most of which we were able to play for her before she passed away. Appreciation is the greatest gift we can give to others – and, we don’t have to wait until we’re dying to do it or until someone else is dying to let them know!
  • Surrender – While my mom clearly wasn’t happy about dying, didn’t want to leave us or her granddaughters, and felt like she had more to do on this earth, something happened about a month and a half before she died that was truly remarkable – she surrendered.  For my mom, who had a very strong will and was a “fighter” by nature, this probably wasn’t easy.  However, watching her surrender to what was happening and embrace the process of dying was truly inspirational and life-altering for those of us around her and for her as well.  So much of the beauty, healing, and transformation that occurred for her and for us during her dying process was a function of surrendering.  Surrendering isn’t about giving up, giving in, or selling out, it’s about making peace what is and choosing to embrace life (and in this case death) as it shows up.  Our ability (or inability) to surrender in life is directly related to the amount of peace and fulfillment we experience.

My mom taught me and all of us that even in the face of death, it is possible to experience joy – what a gift and a great lesson and legacy to leave behind. And, as each of us consciously choose to embrace the reality of death in our lives, we can liberate ourselves from needless suffering, worry, and fear – and in the process experience a deeper level of peace and fulfillment.

How do you feel about death? In what ways would embracing death impact your life and relationships in a positive way? Share your thoughts, ideas, insights, actions, and more on my blog below.

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The Magic & Mystery of Death

June 30, 2011

To listen to the audio podcast, click here.

In the past few weeks, two important people in my life suddenly passed away. These deaths have been shocking, sad, and painful for me. And, in the midst of sadness I’ve once again been reminded of the mystery and magic that I often experience when someone close to me dies.

I find death so mysterious because it doesn’t make much rational sense and often seems so random and unfair.  I also find it frustrating that we don’t do a very good job in our culture of talking about, dealing with, or embracing death.  It’s seen by most of us as a universally “bad” thing – awful, tragic, painful, hard, and negative in most cases.  While all of these things can be and often are true for us about death, especially when the person who dies is someone we love and care about and/or happens to be someone we consider “too young to die,” there is so much more to it than just this.

As I’ve also experienced these past few weeks and at many other times in my life, there can be a great deal of magic, beauty, and joy that comes from death.  Due to the fact that we often avoid it, don’t want to talk about it, or would rather not deal with it (unless we are forced to do so) – we miss out on the magical and positive aspects of death and in doing so we aren’t able to live our lives as deeply and with as much freedom as we could if we embraced death more fully.

Why we avoid dealing with death

There are many reasons we avoid dealing with or even talking about death.  From what I’ve seen and experienced, here are some of the main reasons:

  • It can be very painful, sad, and scary
  • We often aren’t taught or encouraged to really deal with it – just to simply follow the “rules” and rituals of our family, religion, or community in order to get through it
  • We don’t know what to say, how to react, and don’t want to upset people
  • It can be overwhelming for many of us to consider our own death, or the deaths of those close to us
  • We aren’t comfortable experiencing or expressing some of the intense emotions that show up for us around death
  • Our culture is so obsessed with youth, beauty, and production (in a superficial sense), death is often seen as the ultimate “failure” – the complete absence of beauty, health, and productivity
  • It challenges us to question life, reality, and our core beliefs at the deepest level

For these and many other reasons, death is one of the biggest “taboo” subjects in our culture and remains in the “darkness” of our own lives on a personal level.  Sadly, not dealing with, talking about, or facing death in a real way creates a deep level of disconnection, fear, and a lack of authenticity in our lives and relationships.

The magic of death

What if we embraced death, talked about it, or shared our thoughts, feelings, questions, concerns, and more about it with the people around us?  While for some of us this may seem uncomfortable, undesirable, or even a little weird – think how liberating it would be and is when we’re willing to face death directly.

One of the highlights of my life was being in the room with my father and holding his hand when he took his last breath about 10 years ago.  It was incredibly sad, but at the same time deeply intimate, personal, and beautiful.  He was there when I came into the world and I got to be there when he left.  And, by facing death in a direct way – we can learn so much about life and ourselves, as I did when my dad died.  As one of my mentors said to me years ago, “Mike, if you live your life each day more aware of your own death, you will live very differently.”  This is true for all of us.

There are so many beautiful lessons that death teaches us, even in the midst of the pain, loss, confusion, anger, fear and more.  When we’re willing to embrace death and remember that everyone and everything in physical form will eventually die, we’re reminded to:

  • Appreciate ourselves, each other, and life – RIGHT NOW
  • Let go of our attachment to other people’s opinions, our obsession with appearances, and our self consciousness about many superficial aspects of our lives
  • Connect to others in a deep, intimate, and vulnerable way
  • Speak up, go for what we truly want, and live in the present moment
  • Be grateful for what we have and for life as it is, not “someday” when things work out perfectly (which never happens anyway)

Death can be one of the greatest teachers for us in life – but not if we spend most of our time avoiding it because it can be painful, scary, or uncomfortable.  Take a moment right now to think about some of the important people who have died in your life.  What did you learn from them both through their life and their death?  What gifts have you been given in the form of tragedy in your life?  How could embracing death more fully impact your life in a positive and important way?

As we consider these and other questions about death, it’s obvious that the answers aren’t simple and easy…neither is life.  However, when we’re willing to engage, embrace, and deal with death (and life) with a true sense of empathy, passion, and authenticity – we’re able to not only “make it,” but to actually learn, grow, and thrive – regardless of the circumstances and even in the face of death.

How do you feel about death? How willing are you to think about, talk about, and face death (your own and others) directly?  Would it make a positive difference in your life if you had more freedom and peace around death? Share your thoughts, ideas, insights, actions, and more on my blog below.

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