Last Thursday I found myself on a ferry from San Francisco to Vallejo, CA. I was on that ferry to meet Britni’s mom Nancy. We both were enrolled in Final Passage’s death doula certification in Sebastopol, CA. Earlier in the year I heard about this program from Nancy. She had found it and shared it with me. She didn’t know about home funerals and wished she had so she could have taken back control of Britni’s death, body and funeral. Coincidentally (or not! Depending on your worldview) my grandfather died on July 19th of this year…the same day that Britni died in 2012. I’ve only known two people who have died and they both died on the same day. I’m still trying to figure out what this means, but I do know I do not believe in coincidence.
The program was held in the middle of some of California’s most beautiful northern woods. During the day, we picked blackberries and sat in the sun as we learned the philosophical and practical issues around home deaths and funerals. At night, we sat in hot tubs looking at the stars; decompressing with foxes scampering not too distantly in the woods. Jerrigrace Lyons and her husband Mark teach this program. Jerrigrace came into this profession by way of her friend Carolyn who died in the 90’s and left her last wishes for her friends to care for her body and memorialize her utilizing the home funeral model. Jerrigrace is now one of the foremost authorities on the subject.
The training was filled with beautiful people coming from all over the United States. Some were chaplains, some were nurses. Some were past clients of Jerrigrace’s now wanting to help others. All of us were there to work out past issues and learn to be better human beings. I personally loved the fact that this was a space I could walk into and have both spiritual and clinical personnel involved. Often at work I feel like I must choose between these two worlds. That to believe in a spiritual world is somehow in opposition to medical science. Here, I got to have my cake and eat it too and felt completely supported in these notions.
Pema Chodron says (and I am paraphrasing here) that where we find discomfort, we must lean into it. That discomfort is the most clear of teachers because it shows us immediately and with extraordinary clarity where our issues lie. I can’t say that I did much work around death personally there. That work I’ve been doing since my cancer diagnosis. But I did work out many issues that pertain to how I live. I cried many times at this training, but not because of death. I cried at the couple who had been together for 34 years sharing their story of how they met. I cried when it hit me that I hate living in my modern, urban, solitary lifestyle. I realized that even though I am loved by a few, I feel a lack of love in my life – especially from myself lately. This week I leaned into that discomfort.
Following the training was leaving for Sacramento to attend my grandfather’s funeral. There was more discomfort around this not because I am mourning his death, but because I feel anger and pain at our last interaction. The last time I saw my grandfather was in June when I came up specifically to say good bye to him. He was in the hospital and nobody knew if he would make it out considering his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer with several brain and throat metastases. When I got to his hospital bed he ordered me out. He said some really cruel things, including telling me he was going to call security on me if I didn’t leave. At first, I didn’t leave. I sat there calmly as he wiped tears discreetly from his eyes. He also never came to visit me, call me or expressed any concern when I was diagnosed with my own cancer. For the majority of his suffering these past months I have only heard about it through my mother. It’s been difficult hearing how close he got to everyone while on me he called threatened security. Everyone likes to tell me it’s the brain tumors affecting his judgment. But honestly, he was incredibly anti-social and he had been for a long time. My family especially likes to remind me of this when I express feeling unloved. Perhaps he did love me when I was a child, but I cannot say that he did at the end of his life and I feel anger at this.
At the funeral, my family wanted me to get up and share some meaningful memories of when I was a child. I could have shared him whitewashing one of his paintings to teach me to paint, or how he built me a swing or got me a puppy. But the anger and hurt prevented me from doing so. Instead, I leaned on the common experience of cancer and sharing that I was there in supportive service to others from my death doula training. That was my comfort zone.
In order to attain full certification next May one of the things I have to do is write two letters of forgiveness: one letter I write to forgive someone else, one letter I write to ask for forgiveness. I can ask for forgiveness. But I have a VERY hard time forgiving when the other person is not asking for forgiveness. I’ve been trying to lean into this feeling. To understand why I cannot forgive. I think part of the answer is I haven’t really had to in my life. In my experience, people rarely ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness or apologizing is detrimental to the ego and personally very few people in my life that have caused me harm or pain have ever asked for forgiveness from me. How I deal with it is shutting people out of my life and moving on. I don’t think about them. I just don’t want them in my life. I’ve ostracized several people in my life for this. A part of me is wondering how I will ever move past this to write this letter. How can I forgive when I truly don’t feel it? I am so sick of hearing from others that we don’t forgive for the offenders sake, that we forgive for our own. I know this logically, but I can’t force myself to feel something when I truly don’t.
In conclusion, I came away from this week with a deeper understanding of who I am, what my needs are and what work I still have to do. Now, I need to challenge myself. I need to live my ideals and make the necessary changes to grow myself spiritually.
Here’s to making the change.