Most of the time I write about ideas that arise in my mind from books, podcasts or conversations. While I cover some of my personal perceptions, I also do my best to share other views to add depth to the conversation. This time is different. This time the largest thing on my mind is the fact that my older sister Ann is dying. And while I realize that talking about death can be difficult, and in some cases even repellent, my goal is to write about it in a way that reminds us all that the experience of death is something we share. Run from it or not, eventually death will touch us all. Sometimes the SMARTest thing any of us can do is stop, look it in the eye, uncover the story we believe about it—then explore ways that may benefit us as we live out the remainder of our life.
This isn’t my first rodeo. Both of my parents passed away several years ago and I was with them at the end. It’s hard. There is no way around it. While I lived nearby and managed to see them constantly during those last days, that didn’t seem to make the heartache easier. But I’d be wrong to ignore the fact that much of how I processed those experiences, just like this one, is directly related to the story I hold. In fact, I believe the story each of us tells about dying largely guides our experience. And while I have no proof, I can only assume that the story I claim will determine how I will feel when my time arrives.
Ann has cancer. It was discovered three or four years ago. Yes, cancer is a horrible thing but don’t most of us think the same thing about all dying? On the one hand, there is the grimness about death that most of us avoid thinking about if at all possible. There is pain, lots of discomfort, frailty, and dependence. It’s so easy in our ruggedly independent culture to see that experience as a tragedy, a loss—even an embarrassment. But again, much of that is the story our society tells about what it is like to die. And if we aren’t careful, we too can feel that unavoidable event will be nothing but a tragic story as well.
But there is good news. My sister is in her own home under the care of hospice who are doing their very best to manage her pain and needs. She is surrounded by her loved ones. All of her sisters, her children, her grandchildren and even great-grandchildren have been to visit and tell her they love her. She is nursed by devoted family members who are there with her 24/7. Now, in the final days of her life, she has our attention and company. What we are each acutely aware of is her enormous heart, and that our family will never be the same without her in it.
Yet again, that is my story about what is going on. This idea, that our stories about what is happening guides our experience, has been running over and over in my mind in the last few weeks. Adding to that is the powerful awareness that there is nothing I can personally do to change the situation. Peaceful acceptance is necessary. Sure, I can help with care and visit to support the rest of the family. I can urge hospice to increase her medication when she tells me she is in pain, but that’s it. Other than that, the only thing I can do is examine my story and write about it to process my own thoughts and emotion—and possibly helps others with theirs.
Of course, I didn’t arrive at my “story” suddenly. It is a combination of the experiences, reading, classes, study, conversations, and thoughts I’ve been holding and developing for years. A narrative of a benevolent Universe and reincarnation are reoccurring themes. In addition, two strong influences in recent times have been Byron Katie and Abraham-Hicks.
Katie continually asks people to examine their thoughts and see where they are fighting with reality. She would challenge anyone to question whether death or dying is a bad thing and then gently probe until a person realizes their struggle lies in how they think about the situation, not the actual situation itself. In other words, it’s the story we tell about the circumstance that influences our suffering or our liberation. While we can’t change a difficult situation, we have control over the story we tell ourselves about it. So why not tell another story?
Abraham-Hicks teaches something similar. She teaches that if we are experiencing emotional pain or unhappiness at any moment, it is because we remain focused on ideas and circumstances that are bringing us that heartache. She doesn’t deny that we will all eventually die or that pain in the body exists. But she maintains that pain in the mind is something we can alter by our perceptions. In other words, change our focus, and then change the story that we are telling ourselves.
If we keep telling ourselves that death is horrible and that we must do everything in our power to pretend it will never happen to us, then we are setting ourselves up with a story about the end of our earthly experience in a way that isn’t helpful. Because guess what? None of us will get out alive.
Of course, Abraham Hicks also insists that life is a continuum and that death is merely a transition to a new awareness. Obviously, that is her story and it makes sense to me. When you think about it, nearly every religion or spiritual path on the planet has a story about what happens when we die. The question is, which do we believe? Why? Do we really believe the story we claim to believe? Does that story bring us comfort? Does it scare us or liberate us?
Thom and I recently had a conversation with a young man named Brian. The discussion touched on business and Brian shared some ideas he had about different businesses he wanted to start. Unfortunately, several setbacks had occurred, and he wasn’t sure how to proceed—or whether they were even possible. “The trouble is,” he said unhappily, “I have a story in my mind about how my life is supposed to be—and it isn’t happening.” While the solution seemed very clear to Thom and me at the time, Brian couldn’t see that the easiest thing to do was to simply change his story. Sadly, most of us are very attached to our stories. We want to believe there is only one, and we hold the right one—even when they end up making us brutally unhappy.
For all of you who are thinking that it can’t be as easy as telling a new story, that too is a story you are telling yourselves. Why can’t it be that simple? Sure, telling Brian to change his story doesn’t have anything to do with critical issues like death, but his current version is clearly causing him pain. And remember, changing a story doesn’t change or deny the circumstance. Brian still doesn’t have his new business—but changing how he tells his story can shift his focus from feeling victimized to something that he can change, accept and possibly improve. And if he can get there in his consciousness, he is on his way to creating something better or at least more soothing to his mind and soul.
If we allow ourselves to explore the topic, I believe we can all change the story about how death will come in our lives and those we love. That doesn’t mean that we won’t experience deep emotion. I will miss my sister and all the memories that we share. But I can also realize that her passing can make me appreciate the days I have ahead in deeper and more profound ways. It can also remind me to never take those around me, and the things I love, for granted. And finally, to realize like author Cody Delistraty says, “…the truth about death is it does allow one — force one, really — to prioritize, to understand exactly what is important and what must be held on to at all costs.”
As a writer, the concept of our lives being the unfolding of our stories comes naturally to me. Author Richard Wagamese says it beautifully with, “All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can be while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”
Something I learned when my father passed is that many of us have a certain degree of choice in how we spend our last days on Earth. I’m also convinced that the quality of that experience will be determined by the story we hold in our heart. I don’t want to wait until I just have a few days left to decide what I believe and what happens next. I am certain that the stories we all create will be some of the most powerful intentions we can set for living a fulfilling and meaningful life for however much time we have left. Surely it is SMART to know we can all do the same.
Okay your turn: How do you feel about the idea that “all you are is story?” Why? And does your story of what happens before and after we die bring you comfort, depress, or scare you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.