Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘dying’

Running Into the Past

Life Happens On The Stairs by Amy J. Markstahler.
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.

61yvbeR9oJL._SY346_Seventeen-year-old Elsie’s dad is dying, she’s falling for an amazing guy (Tyler), and the divide between rich and poor in Hardin County Tennessee has never been wider. Elsie’s mother (Claire) cleans the house of stuck up and wealthy Mrs. Vaughn, and Tyler is her smart-as-a-whip grandson. Life Happens On The Stairs has hints of the classic The Prince and the Pauper, with an intense love story in the contemporary south. Ms. Markstahler takes us into the mind, heart, and body, of this young teen whose father brought her and her family back from Illinois to his families land.

Here’s a little of what happens when Elsie fills in for her mother at Mrs. Vaughns and meets her in the hallway. “For the next few hours, I vacuumed, dusted, scoured the bathroom and polished the glass on the upper level. Mom always cleaned when she was mad or frustrated. Now I understood why. As the day moved on, I started feeling better. At one-thirty, I walked down the hallway towards Mrs. Vaughn’s bedroom. The passage seemed to narrow as apprehension overwhelmed me. I slowed my steps. Why did I feel like sprinting out of the house? A doorknob clicked. The hair stood up on my arms. That’s why.”

The tension and conflict between Elsie and her mother, and Elsie and her brother (Mark), are spot on and completely relatable. The growing bond between Tyler and Elsie is well developed, with each of them pushing the other to experiences, and memories, they may never have explored, or remembered, left to their own devices, family backgrounds and expectations. Ms. Markstahler also knows how to describe what it’s like when carrying for someone you love who is dying. Life Happens On The Stairs is an excellent story about love and family, for both young and older adults.

Beautifully Told Stories

51eFb-W7I2L._SY346_The Oxymoron of Still Life by Lynn Lamb.
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.

It’s not necessarily what the story is about, but how well it is told. Ms. Lamb does a masterful job telling tales in The Oxymoron of Still Life. The first one in the collection (Beauty Bath) is difficult to take in, with scenes of abuse, degradation and murder. In spite of the content, the beginning line is so good, you can’t help but read it to the end. “The inherent danger from the blackness of the new moon was her veil.” This style of moving prose continues with every word and sentence.

Here is a small piece of this delicious literary pie, to give you a taste of the writer’s style. It is speaking about Oliver in Double Entendre“Johanna still had the habit of blowing the bangs away from her forehead with her lower lip jutted forward whenever she was lost in thought. It was no less endearing to him now. He wished he could stand in front of her face to face, so that he could feel her honeyed, warm breath on his skin. With his death, he was now deprived of that pleasure. So angry at the uselessness of his corpse was he that he stamped out from behind the drapery and plopped down on the bed. She looked right through him, and he felt as though he might die a second time.”

In addition to Beauty Bath, and Double Entendre (about Oliver who is dead, but hangs out with his living wife, or so it seems); is Mothballed, which involves a scuttled battleship in the 1920s and a boy named Brice, who hears her call. Each of the stories in this collection is completely different from one another in tone, subject, and dialogue, providing additional evidence of the author’s insight, imagination and writing abilities. If it isn’t clear by now, I’ll say it more bluntly, The Oxymoron of Still Life is excellent.

A Long Time To Die

Dying Takes It Out of You – Book One of the Madonna Diaries
by S.S. Bazinet. Reviewed by Gabriel Constans.

513xwn-wYJLMental gymnastics, emotional turmoil, and brotherly love, all add weight to this dystopian thriller. Dying Takes It Out of You is set in the near future, when a virus has been deployed by terrorists, and the entire world is threatened. Dory is one of those infected, who believes he’d rather die than live in this shit hole that has become his life. His brother Milton, a scientist and doctor, has other ideas for Dory, and tries to save him by finding a cure at all costs. It may cost them everything.

Ms. Bazinet has taken a terrifying world in the near future, and turned it into a philosophical and ideological tale about understanding, family, and what is worth living for, without giving up an iota of fear or suspense. The beginning is intentionally misleading, making readers believe that the pursuer is evil, and the narrator (Dory) is running for his life. The sudden switch in who is in danger, and the shift from which person is good, and who is bad, is well executed.

In the process of Milton’s heroics to save his brother, who craves blood, is afraid he’ll go crazy, and will most likely die a horrible death within weeks, Dory describes his experience. “Sometimes a person doesn’t know how strong they are until they keep dying and coming back. A few days in, Milton said that I was having a convulsion and then clunk, I was dead again. The old vessel in my chest decided it had had enough and just stopped working in mid fit. Even Milton was surprised. Most people take longer to kill.”

This fantasy, by S. S. Bazinet, explores the depths a loved one (in this case his twin brother) will take to keep them alive. The world she creates is not that distant, or foreign, and has a strong connection with its surroundings. Memories that Dory has of an abusive father, and kind mother, are also interspersed with lucid dreams and conversations with Thomas, an individual known as one of the Watchers. These dialogues provide Dory with insight and hope, and make Dying Takes It Out of You all the better.

It Has Its Own Shape

Good Grief: A Companion to Change and Loss by Dipti Tait.
Review by Gabriel Constans.

411Up78mHJLGood Grief: A Companion to Change and Loss is rich with personal insight, and emotional intelligence. The following quote alone is worth the book’s weight in gold. “It’s a natural process, like the tides that come in and out on the shore of the ocean of your consciousness. Some are high; some are low. It’s about learning how to surf the waves of grief and not drown in the intense sorrow of loss.” Ms. Tait shares the story of her experiences and reactions to her mother and father’s deaths, and how she has learned to not only ride the waves, but to help others stand up on their own board.

The realizations of grief’s depth and width within our lives is written with clarity, honesty, and compassion. The author’s realization that loss is variable and unique to each individual, based on a myriad of factors and conditioning, is vital for acceptance and healing. “A grieving period is individual to the person who grieves. It has its own shape, form and identity based on belief systems, personal experiences and our own unique programming.” This is so true, and yet we often want a cookie-cutter method of how to proceed and navigate loss, without taking our uniqueness into consideration.

This book shares many aspects of grief that we may feel, or think about, but often do not acknowledge, let alone process. There are chapters on loneliness, guilt, shock, stress, and the reality of loss in our daily lives, as well as the possibility for growth. Ms. Tait provides a number of ways to work with our emotions and thoughts that surround grief. These include journaling, the Three P’s (Positive thought, Positive Actions, Positive Activity), moving into emotional intelligence, and the “No/Yes Principle”. “The self-healing process begins when a person can recognize that they want to change.”

There is little doubt that Good Grief: A Companion to Change and Loss is well worth your time and attention. You may also find that it helps you live with the pain of loss with a little more understanding, and acceptance, and provides that bit of support that perhaps you had not have realized was needed, or available. In addition to getting a copy of Good Grief, by Ms. Dipti Tait, you may also wish to take a look at my book Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter. It is similar to Ms. Tait’s, but told through the eyes of a number of people experiencing the death of a loved one, as well as my interactions with them.

Dying and Living Zen

41CcmYmNunLJewel in the Mud: Zen Musings by Harmony Kent
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans

Jewel in the Mud is a laywoman’s guide to living life like a nun, as a householder living in the world. It is laid out beautifully, in fifty-two week increments, for anyone who chooses to practice being more aware of what is taking place with their inner and outer world. The author speaks from experience, having lived in both worlds. Ms. Kent resided in a Zen Temple for 13 years, and in mid-life decided to leave that environment, and began a new vocation, meeting a loving partner, and getting her own home.

Many of the weeks thoughts and words were previously conveyed on Ms. Kent’s blog. Luckily, for all who read Jewel in the Mud, she expanded her “Monday Musings” into book form. The weeks include titles such as, Nobility of Silence”, “No Strings”, “First, Breathe”, “Dying to Live”, and “It’s Okay. Have a Meltdown”. The illustration of the lotus flower for each week is lovely, and the caption summing up that section always fits perfectly. For example, in a talk about appreciation, she concludes with, “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

Here is a brief excerpt from Week Eighteen, called “Life Before Death”.

“Mindfulness is simply about seeing what we have right here, right now, in this moment. It’s about noticing the myriad of small things that make our lives whole. And about catching the stories we tell ourselves. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way right in the present moment. The easiest way to notice as much as possible is to live each moment of your life as though it were the last moment of your life. Or, the first.”

In many ways, Jewel in the Mud, reminds me of the classes Stephen Gaskin held each week in San Francisco, California, in 1969 and 1970, which were later turned into a book called Monday Night Class. He spoke about life, death, community, love, and awareness, in a way that was easily relatable and personable. Ms. Kent’s work has the same vibe. Like Stephen, she does not come off as preachy, egotistical, or superior. Jewel in the Mud has gifts of compassionate and experienced insight for one and all.

Death Like the Old Movies

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

I wish death happened like it used to in the old movies. You know, those deathbed scenes were everyone gathers around, makes amends, say their good-byes, and drift off with visions of God and the angels dancing in their eyes. But it rarely does. Deathbed conversions are few and far between.

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When death approaches, or has taken place, most people live their faith, their beliefs (or their disbelief) in a God, or the hereafter, the same as they have the rest of their lives. If they believe in some creative force that is more than what we can see, they continue to do so through sickness and loss. If they believe God has a plan for everything that happens, and that Jesus is their savior, they continue to do so until their dying breath. If someone feels that there is no God, supreme being or spiritual meaning for anything on earth, they hold on to that belief after their loved one’s body is buried deep in the ground.

A friend once told me, as their mother was dying, that no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t make herself believe the same as her mother had all her life. She desperately wished she could. She wanted to understand and connect with her mother before she passed on in a way she had never been able to. She said that for awhile she pretended to believe as her mother had, but she knew she was pretending. She even went to her mother’s church and read the same readings and scriptures, without any change of heart.

A client I met with for several months repeatedly expressed her frustration that her husband had never believed in God. She couldn’t understand how he had gone to his death without accepting God into his life. For over forty years she had tried to convert him and get him to go to church, always believing that someday he would see the spiritual light.

A member of my family had an understandably difficult time when my uncle killed himself, and sincerely worried about his soul, wondering if he was suffering as much after death as he had during life. They prayed that God would forgive my uncle and provide the serenity that had always seemed to be just beyond his reach. The only way they could make sense out of the tragedy was to believe that he was “in a better place”. They had always believed that God provides happiness and peace, and used that faith to provide personal comfort, safety and meaning.

Belief in God, a Great Spirit, Nature, Jesus, or some other religion or spiritual path, doesn’t mean that people don’t question, argue, bargain or get angry with that in which they believe.

A colleague of mine was enraged when her daughter was killed in a car accident. She felt like her religious tradition had lied to her. “How could a loving God let such a bad thing happen to such an innocent child?! How could He take her at such a young age?!” She still believed in God, but couldn’t make sense out of what had happened. “Somebody was responsible for this!” she said. “There has to be a reason!” She prayed to God for an answer. “But all I could hear was myself talking to the empty air,” she explained. “It took me years of asking ‘why’, begging for an answer, before God gave me the strength and understanding to live with not knowing.”

Another client blamed God for allowing her abusive ex-husband to survive and live with his alcoholism, while her hard-working, kind friend died from liver cancer. She overflowed with unanswerable questions. “Why didn’t that son-of-a-you-know-what get this awful disease instead? Why does my friend have to deal with this? What did she ever do? Why? Why? Why?” Her friend continued to work as long as possible, and remained true to her sweet loving self until her death a year and a half later.

As in most sweeping statements of finality there are exceptions. Occasionally someone reacts to death and loss differently than they have lived the rest of their lives.

A woman I interviewed a few years ago said she made a bargain with God and it changed her life. As the car she was driving hit a side rail on the freeway, and begin rolling over and over she said, “God, if you let me live to raise my young son I’ll dedicate my life to you.” She had never believed in God and didn’t know where that had come from, but she said she heard a voice answer her that said, “Yes”. She survived the accident, continued raising her son as a single parent, and never forgot her promise. Though she had always seen herself as a selfish person, she started thinking of others and became involved in a number of charities. When her son was killed ten years later she never wavered from her promise and used her son’s death to inspire her to do even more of “God’s work”.

Death and grief can crack open our hearts. They can change our perceptions of how we see the world. They can wake us up to the reality of pain and suffering in ways that we never thought possible. Within the midst of such grief and pain we can reach out for comfort, look within for guidance, and find compassion and forgiveness from our religion, community or sense of personal responsibility.

Mourning can be a catalyst for clarifying our values and deepening our understanding, but it doesn’t mean we will throw our beliefs out the window or change our spiritual faith. We need not despair over our usual conditioned human response to loss. There’s always an old movie with a good deathbed scene we can find at the video store, take home and imagine ourselves saying our good-byes, making last minute amends and being carried off to the heavens!

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

A Woman’s Own Way

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

“Emotional, tearful, talkative, weak, dependent, scattered, illogical, over-reacting, out of control and hysterical.” These are some of the judgments and labels that women are painted with when they react to the loss of a loved one.

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Some times women (and men) do react to a sudden or expected death with a great deal of emotion and cry, talk, scream, wail and/or moan. Thank goodness that they do, for by doing so they are teachers for both sexes of how to honor and acknowledge a natural, human response to loss. If people are not allowed to “let go”, “collapse” or “lose it” after the death of a loved one, when on earth can they? When is there ever a better time to release the anguish and pain of having someone or a number of people ripped out of your life?

There is nothing inherently “weak” in allowing the true depths of our suffering to surface. It takes strength to allow oneself to be vulnerable and honest. It takes incredible energy, support and awareness to do something that most Americans have pathologized, minimized or tried at all costs to “get over”. Yet, more often than not, women are the pioneers in taking this journey of mourning, of walking through the valley, stepping on the sharp rocks and finding their way back to life; often with a new found respect and appreciation for the preciousness of life.

In some cultures, both here and abroad, there are women who are the “designated mourners” at funerals, and are the ones that show up at families’ homes when there has been a death. They hold a place of honor in their communities, because of their ability to connect with, hold and release the individual, and the communal pain of loss and separation that has occurred. Like midwives at births, these women are held in high esteem, as strong, aware healers who have their feet planted solidly on the earth, while their hearts compassionately open to both the suffering and the pain.

We, as a society, have slowly begun to recognize the power of grief and mourning and are starting to realize that such reactions are normal, for both women and men, and that to not have such outward or visible reactions to loss is also an acceptable way to mourn.

Because of past conditioning by families, institutions and media, women have often bought into the stereotypes of how they should or shouldn’t grieve and mourn. If they aren’t crying, sad, depressed or screaming after the death of a loved one, they often think something is wrong, that they’re “weird” or “abnormal”.

Just as there is wide variance in men, with regards to how we react, process and think about loss, so to for women. There are no universal women, or universal men with exact, programmed responses to life and death. There are countless ways in which we mourn. How we react to loss is the outcome of hundreds of factors, including, but not limited to, our relationship with the deceased; how long we’ve known them; how we have dealt with past crisis; how old we are; how they died; whether we were with them or not at the time of death; how we were told of their death; what kind of support system we have or don’t have; other responsibilities; financial or health concerns; what our belief systems are; and the messages we have received from others on what is or is not acceptable.

I have met women who were in great turmoil because they were not proceeding as “planned” by their and/or others’ expectations of when, how and where they should be at a given time, in regards to their grieving or reactions to the loss of a loved one.

One woman had not cried since the death of her father six months previous. She thought something was “wrong” with her. Yet, after describing everything she had had to do in the last six months, and the kind of relationship she had with her father, she realized that she had been doing just what she needed to do in order to survive and function. Once she was acknowledged and validated for doing what she needed to do, in the way she needed to do it, she was then able to acknowledge and express her conflicted emotions without fear of judgment or “being crazy”.

Another women said she never mourned or cried for her sister, whom she had loved dearly. Upon further reflection she realized that she thought about her sister every day when she jogged and was inspired by her sister’s life to continue teaching and helping others learn.

And some women (and men) tend to avoid their grief and pain by avoiding such emotions as much as possible. They stay busy, work twelve-hour days, drink excessively and/or use drugs. They jump from one relationship into another, and/or become so focused on a particular goal or activity that they are, for a time, able to compartmentalize, push aside, numb out or ignore the feelings, thoughts and impacts of having someone die.

These are all natural reactions to pain, to not wanting to hurt. Usually, however, such reactions end up causing more complications and don’t take away or change the pain of loss that remains.

I would ask that you take a moment to think about women. Think about their personalities, differences, relationships and families; how they interact with others; how they mourn and see themselves. Ask them which roles, lifestyles and behaviors they feel have been imposed or expected of them, and which ones they have chosen or made their own. They may be emotional, stoic, afraid, silent, loud, tearful, strong, confused, clueless, aware, insightful, isolated or social. They may be your partner, your sister, your mother, your grandchild, grandmother, aunt, colleague or friend. I invite you to see and treat each one as unique, creative human beings, who have the right, the power and the prerogative to deal with and react to life and death on their own terms.

More support and stories at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

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