Death

The Office Phone Rang

The office phone rang yesterday. Once. Twice. Glance at the caller ID.

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Photo by Davidson Luna

I picked up the black office phone, untangled the snaggled cord, and tucked the receiver (oh dear, that is what it’s called right) between my raised shoulder and my left ear.

“American Family Insurance, this is Katie how can I help you?”

How many times have I repeated that phrase? I started when I was sixteen, working in my Dad’s office. And now, after his death, have spent over 365 days living out his legacy, still with the company, working for a different agent.

“Hi, this is …… and I’m calling to let you know that my husband died this past weekend.”

I paused. Death sucks your breath out of your bones, even when you don’t know the person who has passed.

“Oh no, ” I am sure I said “I am so sorry.”

I didn’t know this customer and I didn’t know her husband. I do know just how jolting death can be for the living. The ones left behind.

We continued the conversation.

I began to notice, in this customer call, there lived signs of personal progress.

My stomach didn’t drop. Huh. That’s different.

For the last year anytime someone told me another person left this planet my stomach would crumple. My body would sweat, my heart would drop deep into my already aching gut. Empathetic wavelengths would extend like squid, squeezing remnants of emotional energy I didn’t have to spare out to other people.

This didn’t happen yesterday.

We proceeded to talk logistics and I was shocked by this woman’s resolve. Her ability to speak coherently, to share her concern. “He used to handle these things,” she said, “how am I supposed to now know what’s best?”

I hmm’d along empathetically, flashing back to many conversations with my own mom who instantly acquired the title ‘widow’. We spent a better part of a year rebuilding, coaching, working together on learning again to know what’s best. You certainly can’t know in the first few days. Sure you can take action, make decisions, pick a song for a funeral. But what’s best? Baby, that takes a really long time.

I clicked through our computer system and managed to rework this woman’s policies. New options saved her money on her monthly premium. Changing coverage, that’s easy.

I gracefully offered to remove her husband’s name from her policies. Erasing a person from a policy, that’s harder.

Robotically, I clicked an “x” into the Deceased box next to her husbands name, and changed her marital status to widowed.

How quickly our society allows you to mark a box, change a status, erase a name on a billing account. The process of grief is no where near this simple. I still hate this word – deceased. I hate knowing that my dad falls into that category. One simply does not erase a loved one from your own being.

I never once mentioned my own loss in that conversation. I learned quickly that saying, ‘Oh yes, I lost someone too’ doesn’t bring comfort. Instead it brings awkwardness and an urgency to change the subject. I listened and asked if she had someone nearby to help her with these decisions. Support remains vital.

As I hung up that black office phone I felt strong and empowered. For the first time, I noticed how Dad’s death had purpose in changing ME. I was empathetic, calm, and collected when absorbing other people’s stories. I could offer support, problem solve, listen and see, just for ten minutes, her situation and perspective. Her pain was separate from my pain.

This is new. This is healing.

We keep saying in our household just how true it is that people die. People die. This doesn’t remove emotion, downplay trauma, or remove loving connection. These words just make it easier for me to live with the truth of death.

This phone call brought beautiful awareness. A gift from my job that can bring comfort and pain at the same time. A deeper understanding of how Dad once worked with customers. The realization that my approach to the world has forever changed with this pulsing absence of Dad. An American Family insurance agent for almost twenty years.

 

ps. Do you know hard it is to find stock photos of office phones? Ha! No one takes pictures of these anymore. Maybe the use of an old office phone is also a beautiful thing.

 

 

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On Doubts

Oh yes, I have them too. Big, fat, ugly, warty doubts that sit on my heart and squash my finger’s desire to type. Little wispy doubts that wear tutus and dance among my strands of hair, swinging along and whispering as they pass by my ears. “You shouldn’t write” they say. “Your stories, your truths – they are going to keep you from getting a job, or make your friends run the other direction. Give it up, no one tends to give a damn.”

I wonder, almost daily, if it is worth being vulnerable on the internet. I doubt the sharing of my tears, my heart, my hopes and my grief on this space. I filter my failures and minimize my successes.

And then, beautiful people like Anne Lamott give a Ted Talk and post on Facebook and I remember, once again, that I’ve got to. I’ve got to write.

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So today, my beautiful thing is Anne Lamott’s reminder that she shared. Take that world, I’m going to continue telling my story.  I don’t want to feel like hell.

I personally like #6 on her list. Take heed world, take heed.

“Grace always bats last.”

*Vulnerability alert – choosing to share my sticky emotions because they too have a place for beauty. Continue reading if you so desire.*

 

I am getting ready to celebrate my birthday this week. We went to a play with my mom and my brother on Friday evening. It was a lovely performance full of live music and dancing and emotion. Pure passion put on stage with a mixture of honesty, struggle, heart. Just what art should do for us. My dad was not with us, just as he won’t be with us for the rest of my life. And friends, it makes my heart ache.

We are getting closer to the year anniversary of his death, and they say that as you move through all of the monumental dates in the first year without your loved one, a weight can be lifted. I hope what they say is true.

I am taking time to honor the beautiful tears that come when you acknowledge loss, the waves of deep sadness that come right along side the desire to celebrate, to move on, to be cheerful.

I am scared to turn another year older without him.

And then, just today, I came across this beautiful passage from Anne Lamott and remembered that ‘oh yes, I am so very far from being alone.’ I’m cheating a little and sharing the words of another. Beautiful, beautiful words.

Anne Lamott writes,

When people we can’t live without die, everyone likes to quote John Donne, “Death be not proud.” Yeah yeah yeah, thank you for sharing. My father died of brain cancer when he was seven years younger than I am now. He was my closest person. I did not love it. My best friend died years ago, leaving behind an 18 month old daughter. She was my closest person. I did not love it, or agree to it, and just barely survived it.

My darling friend Ann Brebner passed away early Friday. (You were so incredibly generous to donate to the fund for her home-care. Your generosity has given me such huge abiding hope in Goodness and miracles. We were down to almost no money. She accidentally spent her life creating and directing plays, loving us crazily, laughing and listening to music, giving to charity, instead of investing.)

Maybe this passing seems less death-y, as she was 93. But believe me, she had done the dying part, the closing-up-shop part, the leaving-us part, just like everyone has to do. It’s death 101 for everyone here on the incarnational side of things: we do it with no owner’s manual (Death for Dummies?) , and at the end, alone. If I were God’s West Coast representative, I would have a different system in place, i.e. less mysterioso Ouija board enigma. More grok-able My grandson stood nearby her at church as she sometimes painstakingly got out of our car. He always called her Ann Brevner, one word. “Hi, Annbrevner!” I told him Friday night that she had passed, and his mouth dropped open. “AnnBREVNER died?” he asked. Then, “I wonder what that’s like? Dying?”

So I thought I would tell you what I know, because this thing, this aspect of reality, this weird scary aspect of life, can just wreck everything if you don’t figure out at some point that it is what makes life so profound, meaningful, rich, complex, wild. If you try to outrun this existential truth, with manic achievement and people-pleasing and exotic distractions, it begins to argue a wasted life. Everyone we love–and I am just going to add, in a whisper, even our children and nieces and nephews–will die. They will no longer be here, on this side of eternity. We Christians see death as just being a fairly significant change of address, but still, our most cherished people will no longer be here, to have and to hold, or reach by phone.

This can kind of ruin everything. When my son was little, he asked if we would die at the exact same moment. When I said, No, probably not, he wept, and then said, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.”

Do you want to have instant meaning and incentive and almost heartbreaking appreciation in your life? Live, starting now–as if you have three months left. At some point, this will true. Tick tock.

But won’t death be scary? Annbrevner’s wasn’t. Just weird. Her death, like every passing I have witnessed, was beautiful, gentle, sometimes hard and confusing, and completely doable. At some point, for almost everyone, it is like being in labor. Especially if, like me, dilated 7 centimeters after 24 hours of labor, you realized you didn’t like children. But in both cases, birth and death, something beautiful is coming. Ram Dass said death would be like FINALLY getting to take off the too-small shoes we had been wearing our entire lives. Think of that. Getting to rub those sore arches and wiggle those baby toes, after all these year feeling cramped, like Chinese foot bound women, tiptoeing to minimize the pain.

But back to my grandson’s question, of what dying will be like, and why, I don’t think you need to be afraid:

So many people will surround you, your dearest family and friends, both the quick and the death–Ann’s father, who died fifty years ago was with her; her son who died last year was with her. And we were with her, encouraging and allowing her to be real, to share her deepest thoughts and and fears about what was happening to her, and how annoying liFe (and we) could be. The most important you can do if someone is dying? Show up; listen; nod.

And maybe even more important, we shared with each other our worries, memories, sorrow, impatience, and anxiety about the process, how much more, and much sooner, we could have done this or that. We showed up, we listened to each other, we told others how much we hated everything, and how much we loved each other, we listened some more, we nodded, and put the kettle on for tea.

We let each other complain and not know what we were doing. We tried to remember what we DID know: that the great cosmic Something had always been there before. That the Divine It had brought us and our beloved ones through ghastly loss, disappointment, and failure, against all odds. That crying and grieving heal us, cleanse us, baptize us, moisturize us, water the seeds hidden deep in the ground at our feet.

Our pastor came to anoint her the day before she died, not knowing if Ann’s home-going was an hour or a month away. Hospice was on hand to help with the pain. (If you know your person is dying, call Hospice. Once Hospice is on board, almost everything will sort itself out, I promise you–everything. Secret of life.

Every single person I have loved and lost had us around–their most beloved–and had Hospice, had the richest most astonishing love and sense of safety at the end. They had peace, like a river. Even if their death was sudden, Grace always bats last. They got to take off the tight shoes. They got their Get Out of Jail Free card.

Death? Be as proud as you want: bore me later, because Love is sovereign here. Life never ends. Joy comes in the morning. Glory hallelujah. And let it be so.

 

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Yes, even grief can be beautiful. And people who show up to wipe your tears and honor your loss are beautiful as well. Joy comes in the morning. The sun will still rise, God will still be present, we can still choose to get to living. After all, this thing called death is a part of it.

Psalms 34:18 is also beautiful too.

Ripple

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Photo taken by Kate Kosakowski

Who has heard of the author Shauna Neiquest? A phenomenal author with a focus on the real, in touch with the joy and the pain that we mingle with each day of the year, Shauna’s writing came into my life right after I graduated college. A friend of mine gave me her book “Cold Tangerines – Celebrating the Extraordinary nature of Everyday Life” and I could not set it down. I think I read the whole thing in two hours. I never read her second book, “Bittersweet”, but am drawn to her famous quote, “When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.” I found myself tip toeing in between sweet and bitter this week. The sweet and beautiful involved the celebration that one of my friends from high school had her baby. She is a beautiful little girl that I can’t wait to meet. It is amazing to stop and ponder the potential that we all have the capability of creating human beings. It is awe inspiring to know that little beings enter the world in every second of every day. We get to participate in the loving and nurturing that comes with the responsibility of taking care of one another. The rain has continued this last week, and the clouds and the gray continued to taunt my fellow Coloradoan’s as we crave our depleted Vitamin D. This week, while standing in line for our coffee, I had a co-worker show me a picture she took of the ripples in a puddle.  I quietly stared at the photo, and felt blessed to be able to witness the simple beauty in a ring of water moving out in connection to other elements touching the surface of rough pavement. This image reminded me that our energies, our enthusiasms, our excitements, our sadness – they all impact one another if only you stop and look around. Trite, perhaps, to use the metaphor of a ripple of water, but this felt like a reclaiming of sorts. A mental mastery of the weather which I cannot control.

The bitter came in the news that we lost my uncle this past weekend. He was fifty five. He has six kids, four grandkids, and a wife. While their family lives in Texas, and I did not have the luxury of spending more than a few days a year with them, he was a member of my tribe. My heart aches for my cousins, for the years stolen away, and for the grieving process that lies ahead. I head out to the funeral in the morning. I was struck, this week, by how quickly life shifts with moments of the unexpected. How life and death can happen on the same day, and how both of these incidents create so much potential. The cries of a newborn baby, or a final breath of a loved one, have immense ripple effects in our hearts. If we let these every day moments move us as they move others, they create something beautiful. What is creating ripples in your own life? Are you saying thank you and celebrating, or saying thank you and growing? Biscotti: Cherry Chocolate Chip Essie: Material Girl

Just How Lovely It Is

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I saw this picture today. Somebody posted it on Facebook. Is it a picture? It’s not quite a meme. I don’t know. It caught my attention. I’ve always been a lover of Fall. The pumpkin spice lattes, the crisp leaves, the perfect temperature with brisk mornings and sunny afternoons. October is my favorite month. I’ve got the pumpkin carving planned, and the chili in the crockpot even though it’s still over seventy five degrees. Stereotypical white girls get made fun of for their pursuit of coffee and scarves and boots and the delightful crisp air. No one really mentions death. Then I came across this picture. It speaks shocking truth. Sometimes, things have to die, and we have to let go, and that process is beautiful.

Ahh, here comes the extended nature metaphor. Really though, I’ve been thinking about change and how it sneaks up on us, and I’ve been reflecting on where we’ve been and where we are going. This week, I celebrated one year at my current job. One year of stability in location and yet, a year of amazing change in an organization. Good change, but at times emotional, and challenging, and questioning change. I can’t believe a year has passed since my tearful days of a nightmare job and extreme anxiety about what I was going to do with my life. I can’t believe I’ve been living back in my hometown almost eleven months. I can’t believe we planned a wedding, and I got married, and the single version of myself has died.

I’ve had to embrace the discomfort and I’ve found by letting go of what was, I can be more immersed in what is. What is continues to be good. It seems extreme to say that old ways of understanding my position in life have died – that word, death, has really strong connotations. It’s true though, isn’t it, how sometimes I have to let how things used to be die to become the next version of myself. That makes me sad, especially when how things used to be included some of my favorite people on earth, and a sense of self that I was very good at settling into. The end of a chapter, so to speak.

And rebirth, I believe, comes from the ability to say to myself, ‘Wow, I’m rather sad that chapter was over, that piece of my life complete, that death has occurred’, but isn’t that really where life lies? So complex and yet so simplistically true. What beauty lies in those flaming trees of color, in the promise of loveliness in such a tragic process.

From that mountain drive I mentioned last week

From that mountain drive I mentioned last week

This week, when I stopped to think about beautiful things, I was struggling to come up with one specific thing to write about. Except for the leaves of course, but honestly, I just came across that a few minutes ago. Here are some moments I enjoyed as well. I feel wrong leaving you to ponder beauty in death. Perhaps beauty in transition that sometimes requires us to admit that things end, chapters close, and life as you know it, may die. That doesn’t mean death has to be final. That seems more appropriate.

– My friend from college got married this weekend. What a joy it is to have a reunion with five girls so central to my life as supports in friendship and in prayer.

– I saw a bystander call an ambulance for a homeless man who was struggling. People do care about one another when you stop to take a look.

– Dylan bought me flowers for our one month anniversary. It was sweet. I like being a newlywed.

– I got my wedding pictures back. Holy schamoley, these things are gorgeous. If you need a wedding photographer, I strongly recommend Jamie Fischer, out of Boulder. Check her out here

What things are you having to let die to move on. Does this process feel excruciating, or maybe, just a little bit lovely?