Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Celebrating Day of the Dead

Today I celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  It’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. And it’s become one of my favorite holidays –in part because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups. Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d welcome a visit from some of them. 

That’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those that we love
who are dead.

Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones.

We can visit in our imagination or feel their presence. It can mean prayer or conversation, writing a letter or looking at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table and taking time to talk and remember. We also have chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from those we love. 

A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived. 

This isn’t a very American idea. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process. 

I remember my frustration when I was grieving the loss of my brothers and sisters and well-intentioned friends would suggest I move along in my process and quoted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simplified version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance.  But it’s false to create an expectation of five discrete steps. This listing implies order and that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. 

That makes grief seem like an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct and certain end.  This false notion of linearity is apparent when we hear people judge someone who is grieving, “Oh she missed the anger stage”, or “He hasn’t reached acceptance yet.” 

I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by people who were afraid to say the word dead.. But after losing my brother Larry I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling that follows a death. Something just out of reach, still here, but also gone. 

Though he died several years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him.  

I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like. 

So tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll look at pictures and tell stories. We’ll take John’s father’s picture into the living room and we’ll open up the family albums. And we’ll laugh. 

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death may end a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

King Lear--A Story of Adult Children Caregivers

Now, maybe you’re thinking that Shakespeare didn’t write a play about family caregivers, and that I, duh, missed the point of possibly his greatest play. But I’ll debate you on that.

This afternoon I went to my local theater to see this magnificent literary work as a live feed from London. The movie theater audience watched the play as it was being performed on stage—live—in London. The lead role—King Lear—played by the great actor Ian McKellan.

During the curtain speech to the audience--to the London audience and the audiences watching the live feed around the world-- it was suggested that the play is the play and that we were likely to see politicians we know, family members, friends, public figures represented.

That’s the thing with Shakespeare isn’t it—what we mean when we say his work is universal…the issues and perspectives and personalities are universal.

So, as I watched this powerful story played out on stage and screen I kept thinking, “That’s exactly what happens to adult children as family caregivers.” And I think that if you have ever been in that caregiving role, or if you are a parent or grandparent being cared for by adult children, you’ll recognize these dynamics as well. Sometimes the actor’s lines felt like they were written just yesterday by someone’s sister or someone’s daughter-in-law.

The story of King Lear, you may remember from ages ago, is about the aging (and possibly dementing) King, and his three daughters Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. As the play opens he is asking them to declare how much they love him. (Like a really bad Thanksgiving dinner table scene).

They each profess to love their father to the moon and back, but youngest daughter Cordelia, calls out her sisters on their insincerity—and sort of says, “Dad, I love you and you know that, isn’t that enough?” But Lear gets pissed and divides his Kingdom between the older sisters, who—within minutes—are scheming to NOT have to take care of the old man.

Later, when there is an agreement that Dad will stay 100 days with each daughter for his care, the daughters can’t wait to hand him over to the other: “You take him now.” “No, you can take him sooner.” “He’s a mess when he’s here and it disrupts our whole household.” “Well, I don’t want him here.” And on and on.

And they call him old, and tell him he’s crazy, and they resent his illness and the messes he makes. They are ungrateful for sure, and from that comes one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."

Now, in real life as a caregiver, no one gets his eyes poked out, and not many people get stabbed as they do in King Lear, but we know that sibling relationships do take a hard beating when care of a parent is involved.

So, thank you to Bill Shakespeare and to Ian McKellan for this powerful verbal and visual reminder that caregiving stress is as old as time.

Monday, October 1, 2018

How to Talk to a Cancer Patient

Oh, this one made me laugh today. The link below from McSweeney's is serious business but if you have spent time here in CancerLand you will be nodding as you read and you'll be laughing too.

The title of the article is: "How to Talk to a Cancer Patient Without Being a Complete Twit".

Yep, I've been on both side of this one. I've been the recipient and the twit.

This is a good link to share with friends, family and coworkers. Many future twits out there and we can save them that life.

Here's the link: