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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  1. When I first came across this latest post, I was happy to hear from you – I was wondering where you’ve been 🙂 But as I read on, I was deeply saddened to learn of your sister’s passing. Your summary of your sister’s beautiful life and what you’ve taken from it really resonated with me. I especially connected with your first point, saying I love you. I always make it a point to tell my children and husband I love them, even during the most random moments. Life is short and precious, and I want them to know they’re truly loved.

    I hope that as you continue your journey of healing, that all the wonderful memories of your sister (and it sounds like there are plenty!) will comfort you.

  2. Mike- I am pleased to see you publishing again. I wondered over the past few months if you were continuing to produce your blogs. Now I know the reason for the delay.

    I admire your transparency. You have the gift for humility and admiration, but it is your transparency I admire the most. You speak from your heart, and without all of the filters. I love that!

    I am sorry for your loss(es). I read the blog with great interest, and having gone through this myself with a premature loss 20 years ago of a parent, I could relate. I miss him greatly still. But, the old adage “time heals all wounds” is true. I still think of him often, laugh about dumb stuff we did together, miss his leadership, and friendship. He was a special man.

    I also reflected for a bit on death. I have had a few close calls in the past few years (surfing incident, and then later a very serious sinus artery issue that caused uncontrolled bleeding until emergency surgery addressed it) and realized I am just not ready to go yet. I realized I need to be more connected to my family. While “things” aren’t my problem (at least I think they aren’t), distractions are. Work, building a network, house projects, my travel schedule, all seem to get in the way of better relationships with my immediate family, and “what matters most”. That is the legacy and imprint I put on those around me.

    I value you Mike. Your speaking engagement 2 years ago for my company was wonderful. It is your ongoing writing that really helps me recognize where I can improve as a person. I am hopeful of 2 things. One, that you will find that writing regularly again helps you cope with your own grief and stress, and helps you through this process. Second, I am hopeful that there will be a public speaking opportunity that will be available in the Southern California area (LA or Orange County) that I can take my kids to. They are 15 and 11, and are at the stage where they should and could be learning about life’s lessons from someone else. As boys, they don’t have the appreciation gene yet, and could use some of your words. I will keep my eye on upcoming public events and hope that they can hear you.

    You are a special guy and your writing matters. Please continue on. Curt

    • Curt – thank you for your incredibly kind words about me and my work, I appreciate that very much. I also appreciate your insight and self-reflection. I hear you about distractions – it is so easy for us to get so busy in our world today, even with good intentions, we sometimes miss out on the most important stuff. I know this is a challenge for me…and it is a practice to stay present and come back to what and who matter most all the time. I’m sure I’ll be in LA for a public event at some point in the coming months (or years), would love to connect with you again and meet your children. Be well…

  3. Mike-Thanks for sharing your heart and being transparent. I met you 2 years ago in Chicago speaking to our company. You spoke on ” Focus on the Good Stuff” and it really hit me and improved my perspective spiritually and just appreciating “Life on Life”.

    Like you, I never imagined that it would prepare me for a similar tragedy in my life. We lost our oldest daughter at 25 yrs. through a sudden suicide death 8 months ago. It has devastated our family and other children as well. I have been withdrawn and we all are still actively greiving in this journey. Life is really precious and based on my faith in God, we are leaning hard on this truth to get us through. While I still have to perform at work and support my family, you sharing your story, inspires me. I do agree with you that these unexpected tragedies really do shape us, humble us, but also prioritize our lives on what really is important in life. I admire your courage and know that your faith will sustain your future. Thanks for sharing your story. God Bless.

    • Philippe – thank you for your post and for sharing your story. My heart is with you and your family as you continue to navigate your grief journey with the painful passing of your daughter. The death of a child, someone so young, and at her own hands I’m sure brings added intensity and complexity to the experience…so many complicated emotions and interpretations. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. As I’m sure you know and have been experiencing…it is a moment by moment, day by day process…one foot in front of the other. These things don’t always make sense. I am sending you a virtual hug…

  4. Dear Mike,
    I am so sorry for your loss. I sincerely appreciate your willingness to share with us your journey and experience. I am at a loss in terms of being able to share how I embrace the gift of my life right now but know that in hearing you speak last year and reading your posts, along with many teachings I have gained over the past seven years from various experiences, I have been making every effort to be kind and loving every single day, to every single human being.
    I wish you well and healing from your loss. Hug (and kiss) your spouse and your children as often as you can and cherish everything, every piece of beauty you can find. It is a beautiful life and every moment presents us with the opportunity to learn and let go.
    Take care,

  5. Mike,
    I’m so sorry to read about the loss of your sister. I’ve been reading your blog and receiving your inspirational messages for over five years since I first heard you speak at a conference I attended. Your words of wisdom and genuineness connected with me. I lost my dad to cancer (he was 65) around that time and it affected me so much because I was so close to him. The key things you learned and shared about losing a loved one are the same things I learned when my dad passed away. I learned to be a better person by saying “I love you” to each and every one of my family members and friends so they would know how I felt about them. I learned to tell them how much they mean to me and thanked them for supporting me. I wanted them to hear these things while they were here on this earth.

    I hope you find peace during this difficult time. Thank you for sharing your life with us and please know that your words help others in so many ways. You’ve helped me and I’m very grateful. Take care. Yvette

    • Yvette – thank you for your post, kind words, and sharing some of your experience and wisdom. As hard and painful as it can be for us to lose someone close, there is so much we learn from the experience. It is truly brutiful…

    • Mike – I have thought of you often these few months – I find you are always on my mind in exactly the right time. Your words often magically appear when I need them. Just yesterday I was reminded that your ‘Focus on the Good Stuff’ message literally changed/saved my life and my marriage.

      You are a gift to the world – your humor, transparency, accessibility and courage – and what I know about you is that, even without those qualities, you are a gift. Your very being is a miracle

      I’m praying for you and your family. Hope to see you soon


  6. I just read the blog post and shared with you on the radio last week when you were sharing about your sister’s death.
    I lost my sister to cancer in 2007; my husband and I provided hospice care for her in our home, and my siblings and her daughter spent hours taking care of her. It was brutiful as well.
    I spent the next eleven months after her death in anger and depression. I quit my job on the eleven month anniversary of her death and had a breakdown. I sought counseling and took nine months out of my life to heal. I think my sister was bonking me on the head for feeling angry and depressed. She was certainly not angry or depressed.
    I’m happy that you can talk about how her death has affected you in so many ways, and how you can realize what a special person she is and be comforted by that.
    Reading your post took me back to that time with my sister, shedding tears in the remembrance.
    Thank you so much.

    • You are welcome Melissa – I appreciate you sharing a bit of your story here, as well as on the radio a few weeks ago. Life is a trip. Death is a trip. We’re all doing the best we can.

  7. Thank you Mike for sharing your experience of lost with us. This reminds me of a similar experience which is the lost of one of my sister’s in 2005 at the age of 36. She was my best sister-friend.

    Although it was difficult to accept, I took comfort in her only son (5 years old at that time) and projected all my love for her on him. When she passed away, I was grateful to God for having given us the chance to spend time together, expressing our love openly for each other. I knew that I could count on her as much as she could count on me in any situations.Until today even if physically she’s gone, in my heart she is still alive.

    Believe that your sister has fully accomplished her mission. Keep focus on the good that she did during her journey on earth.

    • Thank you Alcida – I appreciate you sharing your insight and wisdom from what you learned with the loss of your sister 11 years ago. Blessings to you and your family…

  8. Mike, I love and appreciate you so much. Thanks for opening hearts and minds. You do that so beautifully. My condolences in the loss of your sister. In January, I lost my older sister Ava; she had been ill with diabetes and asthma. And over two decades ago I lost my only brother Cornel suddenly due to an aneurysm. His death taught me to always say and do what’s in my heart. I have no regrets because I practice this daily. I move through the ackwardness I sometimes feel when saying or writing “I love you” to family, friends, and others. As you’ve shared, loss provides rich insight for going forward. Now, of my nuclear family, just my younger sister Kay and I remain. I’m mindful that each day is a gift.
    Love, peace, and blessings,
    Harriet (Fellow Oaklander )

    • Harriet – thank you for sharing your story and wisdom…and your love. I appreciate that, as I’m sure the people who know you and interact with you on a regular basis do as well. Blessings…

  9. I’m moved to tears reading your e-mail. You have touched me more than I can convey.
    You are such a beautiful person; so honest and pure. A true blessing to all of us out here. Thank-you from the bottom of my heart for being back! We need you and look forward to all that is to come…..

  10. I truly empathize with your and what you are going through since your dear sister dies. My brother died on Dec. 26 and I have the same feelings that you do experiencing this HUGE loss.He was only brother and, therefore, my favorite. I have three twin sisters and we all looked up to Butch. I also find it shocking to realize he is actually gone. Just recently I was able to delete him from my email lists but not from my contacts on my smart phone! Little by little.

    Hang in there. Life is, indeed, so precious. No time to criticize ourselves–or others! Every day is an opportunity to love ourselves and others and to express it verbally and physically. I try hard everyday to thank someone or express appreciation for what people do. Today I complimented a fast food worker at nice it was to have a clean table to sit at and thanked her for her efforts. She was surprised and I was pleased.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings.


    • Thanks Kay – I appreciate your post and wise insights. I’m sorry to hear about your brother’s passing…sending love, prayers, and blessings to you, your sisters, and your entire family.

  11. Dear Mike, I thank you for sharing this today as well as sharing these profound insights in your work shop at Esalen. Today , I was just walking the bluffs of Pacific Palisades with a friend and discussing just this: how we can embrace the gift of our unique and sacred life , the importance of connecting to the preciousness of each moment, and how it is so , so important to say I love you out loud to people. A few weeks ago I went through a training through INELDA : to become an End of Life Doula. It is so important to live our lives with sacred meaning all the way up and through our last breath here on earth.

    I had asked you in our class to share Lori’s story . Thank you for sharing now with us. I especially thank you for sharing her true self and how she struggled with self love and appreciating her true and authentic self.
    In Caring Kindness,
    Laurie Phelps Statton

  12. I was happy to receive a new NL from your side of the world, and quickly understood why we haven´t heard from you in a while.
    I am so sorry for the loss and also, I am so happy & proud that you are one of those seldomly found men who speak/write about their feelings and impressions during times when life throws challenges out on us. Keep that attitude of sharing!

  13. Dear Mike,

    After reading your post I was moved by so much of what you wrote about.

    The reason I decided to write to you was because I was moved to respond to embracing the mystical and spiritual part of life.

    This rang so true to me when I lost my grandmother, the only person who when I was growing up showed me unconditional love. The morning I got the call that she had passed was after waking from a dream. In my dream I was having a conversation with my grandmother as she showed me the most soothing and comfortable rooms I was ever in. She was talking to me telling me about this room.

    Only after some time of mourning did I remember how my grandmother described heaven. She would have her own castle in the sky and in it she would have a room for all her loved ones. Ahhhh….. she was showing me my room in her heaven.

    Thank you for sharing what is a very difficult time in your life by your post you are helping others remember loved ones that have passed away.

  14. Mike and Michele,
    I am saddened for you both; for siblings are close in a way that no other individual in our lives can be. The bond created in childhood is so strong and gives us strength each day. I just spent a week with my four biological brothers…we are all in our fifties now and sharing the reality of entering a later phase in life. I found myself thinking one afternoon about what life might be like with out each of them. I took that time to thank God for the gift of each one of them. Your post reminds me of the depths that our bonds can reach. I hope that you will savor the best memories and recognize her love and light in your own daughters and Michele. Hope I see you both again soon, Dee

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