This is a blog written by Janie Swingle who is a student at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota and is interning with the Bruce Kramer Collaborative.
“I’m going to fight this.” “I don’t want to lose.” “She battled long and hard.”
Are we talking about gladiator combat or a disease diagnosis? When you think about it, we seem to employ similar language when discussing both a soldier on the front lines and a patient diagnosed with a terminal illness. Is that helpful or hurtful?
Therein lies a potential discordance. What if, by jumping to ‘battle language’ too often, we introduce an automatic and potentially unnecessary layer of aggression to our concept of disease? We directly create and influence our ideas of disease--or anything--by the words we choose to describe it. If talking to someone diagnosed with terminal cancer, I may not be surprised to hear something like, “I’m ready to fight. I know the battle will be hard, but I’m going to try.” But what if I heard, “I’ll certainly be living differently now. I’m preparing to make adjustments and feel content to become accustomed to new aspects of life.” The latter response is less common, is it not?
Our battle language may convey an underlying fear--of giving up, or of having others give up on us--that surely presents itself in cases of terminal illness. By speaking of perseverance, fighting, and not giving up, we find encouragement and hope, but we may also fall short of seeing illness, recovery, and death as parts of life rather than obstacles, victories, and failures. We don’t often consider disease as a new way of living. Instead, we jump to describing it as a fight against an enemy--death. Thus terminal illness becomes the opposite of living fully, as if the two cannot harmoniously coexist, and one must win. Who are we battling, anyway? Ourselves? Our own lives?
This is not to say that everyone will or should respond to disease similarly. Perhaps fighting words serve some people well, and these people may find strength and joy in their experience. But for others, living with disease may be more fulfilling if our culture didn’t excessively resist acceptance. We could collectively reframe our concept of disease by actively recognizing our language choices and exploring how they affect what we think of living with disease.
After all, as Bruce Kramer explained, aren’t we all living with disease of some kind? Illness is part of life for all of us in some form or another, and rallying the metaphorical troops to fight a metaphorical battle may sometimes be energizing. However, we should take caution not to let our language exclude experiences of disease as simply experiences that are not made any more or less victorious by their outcomes.
**This is a guest blog written by Janie Swingle, a student at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota and our summer intern.**
I was eighteen when I learned why my grandfather’s arm had been tingling for over two years. My mom told me the doctors had finally detected the cause. I was stunned when I heard the words “terminal” “fatal” and “nothing we can do.” It was ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It's a disease that attacks neurons in the spine and brain that communicate with the body's muscles, paralyzing those used to move, to swallow and ultimately to breath.
To me then, ALS was a horrible disease, a condemnation to death, but I had the luxury of stopping there---of defining it as a vague, faraway horror and not knowing exactly how it slowly, painfully, irreversibly kills someone. I knew ALS based on a handful of fundamental facts but had no personal connection to make it emotionally relevant to me...until now. My grandpa (Bumpa, as we call him) was in his late sixties when he received his diagnosis. He seemed young and alive, and I believed there was no way he could die. For the first time in my life, I understood what denial feels like.
My family had recently lost my uncle to a decades-long battle with AIDS, and I remember learning about Bumpa’s disease and thinking, “This is not fair.” This family is too young, vibrant, and loving to be saddled with this kind of burden...again. And it isn’t fair.
Even months after Bumpa’s diagnosis, I don’t think I fully acknowledged his approaching death. Logically, I understood what was happening and what would happen. Emotionally, though, I estimated he would decline slowly and even somewhat gracefully. After all, my uncle lived with AIDS for longer than I had lived at all, and his long fight modeled what I had come to define as “terminally ill.” With Bumpa, however, the decline was the opposite of slow, manageable, and deniable. It was rapid, ugly, and heartbreaking. That tingling that had worked its way up Bumpa’s arm soon manifested in the cruelest of ways, attacking his internal organs, his vital life systems. As the months passed and he and my grandmother moved to a house down the street from me, our family would gather much as we always had--frequently and casually. Not much had changed, and yet everything was tense. Or delicate. Or sad. Or frustrating. I began to get anxious about family dinners because sometimes Bumpa would choke, his esophageal muscles and respiratory system failing him in these most basic functions. ALS began to intrude even the simplest rituals, the parts of life that had felt easiest and most natural. There was nothing we could do to help him as his physical body deteriorated, and this is perhaps ALS’s most painful jab.
Bumpa died in November 2013, less than one year after his diagnosis. Because his disease accelerated exponentially in the final months, and I had moved away to college in September, I felt like I barely got to grapple with his end before it actually came. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I understand why his final year of life had to be marred by such grief, but I will always be grateful that my entire family was with him when he died. I witnessed what we usually prefer to deny: a conclusion of this life. Bumpa was not religious, so I don’t know what comfort, if any, he sought in facing death. I do know, however, that he was the most selfless person I knew, and he would be mostly concerned with how we are healing and living without him.
This year marks the third anniversary of Bumpa’s death, and I still often forget that he is gone. I catch myself consciously remembering that he won’t ever make me breakfast again, go on another family ski trip, or hike the Grand Canyon for the umpteenth time. Perhaps my age (I’m 21) affords me the tendency to view the end of life as something to deal with later. Perhaps this mentality is an instinctual default, but a few months before Bumpa died, I found the energy to acknowledge my denial and write him a letter (in the form of an email, because sitting at his computer was one of his only independent activities at that point.) I told him what I wanted him to hear from me before he died. It was uncomfortable, but I forced myself to say, “Hey, Bumpa. I know you’re going to die very soon. But I want you to know…”
Why was it so uncomfortable to acknowledge his death? Doing so made me feel like I was hurting him, inflicting more pain by forcing him to acknowledge his death, as if it didn’t already cloud his thoughts. It also pushed me to recognize my own “temporar-ity,” if you will. Why does it take losing someone close to us to remind us of our fragility? It certainly doesn’t have to. Our temporary nature makes an attitude of gratitude for this life even more important. Why does any of us die the way we do? Why brain cancer for some, a car accident for others, and peaceful slumber for those deemed “lucky?” I simply don’t know.
What I continue to learn from my experience with ALS is none of us is too young to think about death. Let us grapple with it early and often, approaching it with intention. In doing so, our collective fear may start to soften, at least a little. Maybe by the time I reach my end, be it when I’m thirty or ninety-five, I don’t feel terrified. Maybe I feel comfortable with an end I’ve actively expected. And hopefully, gratitude overwhelms and accompanies me. I trust it did for Bumpa.
This is Toni Randolph's desk in the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom. It is filled with notes, files and the other detritus accumulated by a news editor. It looks as if Toni will come back at any time, settling in behind the keyboard to edit newscasts and reporter's stories, especially the stories of the fledgling reporters she loved to work with. Toni was a valued mentor and a champion of including more ethnically diverse voices in our stories and in the newsroom.
Toni won't do any of that anymore. The calla lilies and pot of red flowers are a small, sad memorial to her.
Toni Randolph died July 3, 2016 after living, and living quietly and gracefully, with cancer. She died while undergoing a medical procedure that was part of her battle with the disease.
Her colleagues. myself included, are shocked.
Toni was an intensely private person in a very public business. In a society that uses social media to share and show off, she clearly chose to keep her mounting health issues hidden. Very few knew her struggle. Toni kept coming to work, dressed to the nines, with a smile on her face, in spite of growing physical pain caused by the cancer she had quietly fought for more than three years. Three years of grueling treatments. Even friends who say they were close to Toni didn't know she was undergoing chemotherapy.
“People will automatically go into grief mode and she did not want that,”
Some of my colleagues wonder how they could have worked side by side with Toni and not have known she was in a fight for her life. It turns out, her decision to keep her condition secret may be more common than we think.
David Bowie really didn't let on he was dying until he, well, died.
Author Jackie Collins kept her cancer under wraps while she wrote several books and kept up an exhausting book tour schedule.
The brother of British comedian, Victoria Wood, says she was "determined" not to let her fatal illness become public, even to close friends and family.
So why would someone want to keep their terminal diagnosis, any health struggle, a secret?
Grief therapists say it's a complicated question with a variety of potential answers.
Dr. Karen Weihs, the director of the psycho-social oncology program with Banner University Medical Center in Tucson, says some patients don't want to burden others with their plight.
"It frightens them, she told KGUN-TV, "and they feel like they have had a big change in themselves and they don't want other people to feel the same way they do. Sometimes its just because they are so emotionally distressed by it and imagine [family] will be equally as distressed and their trying to protect their family members from that distress."
Other people, she says, fear abandonment or don't feel they have the kind of people in their lives who are willing and able to be supportive. Some people, who are living with disease, also don't want the disease to become their identity. I understand that and I understand what other grief counselors say about the need for control. For many people navigating cancer, with whom and what they share is the one thing they CAN control as everything else spirals out of control. As a recovering control freak, that has a ring of familiarity for me.
My beloved and departed friend, Bruce Kramer, kept his ALS diagnosis quiet for a time in an attempt to control what he thought would be a difficult situation. He felt there were "sharks" at his former place of employment who, Bruce thought, would "smell blood" and leave him even more debilitated, on a professional level, than he was to become with the disease itself. Bruce also discovered the need to create what he coined "The Tell" when he decided what to say to people when they saw him limping and using a cane. While initially exhausting to shoulder the emotions of people after hearing about his ALS diagnosis, Bruce found beauty and healing in sharing his dis-ease and learning about the inevitable dis-ease of others.
This morning, as I stood in front of Toni Randolph's desk, I noticed a small turtle, carved from a piece of pipestone, just above her computer keyboard.
The pipestone is sacred to Native Americans and the turtle spirit symbolic of health and longevity. It's hard shell signifying protection and perseverance. Ultimately Toni wasn't blessed with longevity nor protected from the ravages of cancer, but she leaves behind a bright legacy, certainly in the body of work she created, but most importantly in the people she helped nurture and mentor.
I hope you'll read this poignant obituary, a last look at a gentle spirit: www.mprnews.org/story/2016/07/04/toni
**This is a special blog entry from our friend, Dr. David Abelson. Dr. Abelson is the retired CEO of the Park Nicollet Medical Center, based in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Dr. Abelson writes a wonderfully thoughtful blog at: www.davidabelson.net
As Dr. Abelson says "I hope the reflections in these blog posts, which have evolved from my experience as patient and my forty years in medicine as a physician and executive, offer a window into the wonder and love of our shared human condition.
Healthcare entails one human being - the formal caregiver - interacting with another human being - the patient - during times of vulnerability, fear and loss, as well as times of great joy (e.g. birth). Both caregiver and patient share a universal wound (uncertainty, change and loss are inevitable; love is a choice). Both are imperfect human beings, stumbling through life, navigating uncertainty and loss. Both want to protect their loved ones and themselves from pain.
Similarly, leadership entails a wounded human being-the leader- interacting with other wounded human beings-the followers- within an imperfect environment. Leaders ultimately bump into their wounds- their fears, habitual relationship patterns and doubts as constraints to effectiveness."
Dr. Abelson and Bruce Kramer were great admirers of each other. Dr. Abelson and Bruce had spirited and meaningful conversations on a wide range of subjects until Bruce's death in March 2015.
Dr. Abelson's blog is ripe with insight. We are all wounded and our task in this life is to heal those wounds and in the process, help others heal. Bruce Kramer was a wounded storyteller, educator and yes...healer.
Please read and respond to Dr. David Abelson's "The Wounded Healer" blog.
The Wounded Healer
By Dr. David Abelson
Between aging baby boomers, health care reform, genomics, value based purchasing, nanotechnology, “big data,” artificial intelligence, population health, work force retirement and countless technological advances, healthcare promises ever quickening change.
Given the changes, what has not changed? What should never change?
From the dawn of recorded history we know that human beings long for healing. The word “healing” implies a return to wholeness. Humans feel a fundamental need to be in harmony with themselves and with their worlds. In response to the deep need, formal healers occur in every culture across the vast expanse of time.
The deep human need for healing-for wholeness and harmony- has not changed. With the certainty of ongoing changes in health care, what should never change is our role within modern medicine as healers.
Carl Jung, a famous early psychoanalyst, described "archetypes"- constantly recurring themes and symbols in dreams, literature, paintings and mythology. These archetypes, etched in prehistoric cave paintings and embedded in Greek Mythology, appear in disparate and completely separate cultures and today in movies like Star Wars (hero archetype). Jung wrote about the healer as an archetype evident from prehistoric times across dispersed cultures. Interestingly, he called this archetype the "wounded healer“ implying that the archetypical healer needs to be in touch with his/her own woundness order to be effective. Thus, the typical initiation of a shaman healer involves the shaman embarking on an internal (and sometimes external) journey to experience and come to terms with their pain- their woundedness.
Jung described the centaur Chiron from Greek mythology as a "wounded healer.“ Chiron became a healer after sustaining an incurable wound from one of Hercule's arrows. Chiron mentored the orphan Asclepius who became a famous wounded healer. The picture above shows Asclepius with bare chest suggesting vulnerability and carrying a rod with a single serpent. This rod became the "rod of the physician” Thus the rod, as a symbol of medicine, is the wounded healer.
Karolyi Kerenyi, a colleague of Jung, elucidated the wounded healer archetype as the capacity "to be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery..."
Pema Chodron expressed a similar sentiment in “The Places That Scare You: A guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times,” She writes: "Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others."
The "wounded healer“ archetype implies that we need to be in touch with our woundedness in order to effectively support other humans in healing- moving to wholeness. What does it mean to be a wounded healer in modern medicine?
Although we each have our unique wounds, the universal wound is that life is impermanent and changing- we are born, we live and then die. And we have limited control of what happens in our lives. I know I carry a veil over the fragility of life- I can't constantly face the reality that my life may change in an instant and my loved ones may suddenly suffer and even die.
I did not wake up to my woundedness until my mid-thirties when I went through a divorce. Until that time I carried a quiet illusion that somehow I was different from other human beings in that I was fully in charge of my life and magically protected from suffering. Even though my mother died a few years before my divorce, her death felt like the natural course of life and failed to alter my magical thinking. My divorce, however, shattered the illusion of special protection from suffering. I lifted the veil covering life's reality and saw with relief I had the same fundamental challenges as all humans- how to make sense and find joy in a world I could not control.
After a while I accepted the only thing I could control was the kind of person I chose to be (and even that is not always easy).
I know I became a more effective healer after facing my illusions. I moved from being a doctor who was good at diagnosing and occasionally curing, to a physician who embraced the role of healer. And my practice became more satisfying as I opened myself to the privilege of being healed by my patients as I stood witness to their courage, grace and integrity.
I believe the challenge for modern healers in healthcare is greater than ever. We have the same challenges as healers throughout the ages- to help other humans find some sense of wholeness and harmony in the face of loss and eventual death. But additionally we have the challenge of helping people come to harmony and make decisions based on the scientific model of what is effective.
Provide your thoughts about wounded healers. Please use the share buttons to forward to friends and colleagues if you found this post valuable
The ripple effects of a national news story recently splashed all over my heart.
You've probably read or heard the startling and sad news: Americans are killing themselves at rates not seen in 30 years. In April, a federal report from the National Center for Health Statistics, showed the overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. The specific statistic that shook me? The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by 63 percent. It was even steeper for aging, white women. It was an 80 percent increase for that group!
News like that would normally flow over me--just another headline in a never ending buzz of news--but it turned personal, fast, when I got word that a former colleague of mine took her life.
I was told of her death, in whispered tones, as if there was some kind of scandal surrounding her desperate decision. Our society really doesn't know how to deal with suicide. My first thought, naturally, was why my brilliant and wickedly funny colleague ended her life. She had been rocked in recent years by personal struggle and I wondered whether she had tried to reach out to others and whether she had been heard. I wondered what I could have done to help.
I thought about her family and the roiling emotions they were going through. Did they blame themselves for not preventing her death? Were they asking themselves what they didn't see or understand about their loved one?
Grieving a suicide is complicated. I reached out to Minneapolis based grief counselor, Kelly Grosklags for some advice. Kelly is wonderful and wise. She holds monthly public events in the Twin Cities called "Conversations with Kelly" that are sold out and for good reason.
Here's an edited transcript of our e-mail interview.
Cathy Wurzer: Kelly, is the grief people feel after the suicide of a loved one different from other forms of grief you see among your clients?
Kelly Grosklags: Suicide grief certainly has its unique characteristics. Many survivors of suicide can feel intense guilt. They wonder if some how could have prevented the suicide. Additionally, there can be shame and stigma associated with this type of loss. My clients have felt judged or dismissed when they speak about their loss. This can lead to isolation.
Some suicides are quite violent and the survivors may never get the opportunity to view the deceased so they struggle with the reality of the death. Moving through life again can be difficult because people can get stuck in shock after this type of loss.
Cathy: How hard is it to heal from such grief?
Kelly: Each grief is unique, and most grief lasts a lifetime, it just changes in its intensity. We certainly hope to eventually see the intensity diminish with the passage of time. One of the reasons suicide grief is unique is that survivors were not allowed to say goodbye and it is a sudden death. The inability to have that time to say things left unsaid, ask for forgiveness, forgive or express love can certainly impact the bereaved's ability heal and move forward in their lives.
Cathy: What are the steps suicide survivors can take to work with their grief?
Kelly: It isn't so much about steps or stages as it is about awareness and acknowledgment of the loss. Whenever possible, survivors benefit from tuning in to all the feelings, just notice them, not judge. I work with people to feel justified in the expression of their sadness, anger, resentment, confusion etc . It is important that the bereaved from a suicide loss be open about the loss. Be honest about how your loved one died. Some healing options are to work with a trained grief therapist, attend a grief group specific to suicide loss, seek support at place of worship, schedule regular walks with friends. When I am working with suicide survivors we work through the shock to deal with all the emotions from regret, guilt and anger. It's important to facilitate some type of ritual where the bereaved have the opportunity to have their voice heard and "say goodbye."The pace is also important in grief. Not rushing is essential.
Taking the time needed helps to alleviate set backs, and foster authentic healing that is sustainable. The "healing goals" would be to surrender what cannot be changed and forgive eventually, all while reaching out for support when needed.
For more information about Kelly's events, please visit her website: http://www.cwkonline.net/
By the way, Kelly and I are planning a great event for August. Stay tuned for details!
I am not a theologian, philosopher or psychologist. I don't profess to understand much of what has transpired in my life over the past few years.
I thought I was fundamentally changed by being in Bruce Kramer's sphere, with Death sitting close by. That is true, but even the best students can forget important lessons.
That is why I obviously needed to hear those lessons again but this time, taught by the Dalai Lama.
In a wide ranging conversation in Rochester, Minnesota in early March of 2016, he talked about the corrosive effects of holding in destructive emotions like anger and how we can train our minds to be happy. He talked about compassion, the emotional response to suffering, with an authentic desire to help alleviate that suffering in others. Compassion, he said, gives us a sense of connection to all living things.
Connecting the Dots
Connection. The dictionary definition is a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else. Of course, there is also physical connection--touch--and it was interesting to see that, when His Holiness wanted to emphasize a point, he grabbed my hand and held it sometimes motioning with our entwined hands. I was frozen at first. Shocked that he would make such a gesture. I didn't know what to think. He did it again and again and would turn and look at me, as if to say "Do you understand?"
Then, it hit me.
What is compassion without connection? Each clasp of the hand was as if to say "Are you listening? This is important!" Bruce Kramer preached the Gospel of Connection including the importance of touch. It is a basic human need. We crave the connection. Bruce used to say that touch was one way I could connect with my Dad, despite his memory loss, because loving touch is still felt by the heart even when words and memories are no longer available.
Touch was important to Bruce too. Family, friends and caregivers would smooth his fingers, which would painfully contract into claws, or massage his swollen feet or simply hold his hand. He took great comfort in that touch. Out of the blue, in the middle of a conversation, he'd ask to have his hand held. It was a pure connection, a physical connection obviously but one of the heart too.
But I seemed to have forgotten that lesson.
Lessons to learn
In the two years since my Dad and now Bruce have died, one after the other, I've wanted to withdraw from, not connect with others, despite great kindness and compassion shown by friends and complete strangers.
It is so very easy to withdraw or run away or get busy, REALLY busy, so has to not have to feel pain, grief or fear.
So, what is the lesson?
There are several. I think the task is not only learning how push past the fear in opening your heart to others but opening to and acknowledging your own tender heart. We don't often think to feel compassion for ourselves but we should. We are much too hard on ourselves and that flinty internal bedrock of disapproval can build and wall us off from others.
At the end of the Rochester event, much like my beloved friend Bruce Kramer in March of 2014, (see this blog entry) I was blessed by the Dalai Lama. He gifted me with an impossibly long, white silk scarf which is stunning in its elegant simplicity. To say I was shocked is an understatement.
After our event, I followed him from the chapel's altar at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester and I knew I had to tell His Holiness about the mysterious synchronicity that brought us together again, about that March day two years ago, and how my friend Bruce lived with purpose and renewed vitality after receiving a similar blessing. So there I stood in a cold, drafty church doorway, surrounded by staff for the Dalai Lama and Mayo Clinic, trying to slowly, clearly and concisely tell him all of this and to thank him for the everlasting gifts of two years ago.
Instead, he took my hands and with tears in his eyes, thanked ME. Talk about connection.
In Buddhism, "samaya" means not holding back, not preparing our escape route, not thinking there is still time, ample time, to do things later. Samaya asks us to be "all in" and that is exactly what Bruce Kramer asked me those four years ago. "Are you all in? " and I decided that yes, that is what I needed to do.
Samaya asks us to hang in, no matter what, and throw open our hearts to what is.
As the Tibetan leader slowly walked into the blustery March afternoon, I remembered the message Bruce took away from his chance meeting with the holy man. Bruce realized he had work to do, important work, before his death.
It turned out Bruce was right. He lived his life in and with samaya.
I've taken the concept of samaya to heart as I move ahead in my life. It's hard to articulate at this point, but I'll trust in Bruce's final piece of advice to me. As he was dying he told me "Let the work carry you..." and indeed this work will carry me. It is now and the ultimate goal is that it carry others too.
Until next time friends!
This is an excellent article about compassion and the value of cultivating compassion in our lives.http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/may-june-13/the-compassionate-mind.html
A year ago today, at this same desk, I wrote about you and now I'm writing to you. There's a nice symmetry to this even though there's nothing nice about the circumstances.
A year ago today, we said goodbye and you peacefully concluded what was, by any measure, an extraordinary life. You were afraid of the sadness you'd leave behind and indeed my dear friend, there is great sadness in your powerful wake but the fond memories are starting to shine through grief's tarnish.
I've decided not to focus on the melancholy of this day because you'd likely think that a waste of time and energy. Knowing you, I'd bet you'd want me to tell you what I've learned since March 23, 2015. That is a fine question, one that would come naturally from a teacher like you.
Remember that bleak Friday, when it became clear your time here was short, very short and honored friends and loved ones were called to your side to say goodbye?
As you struggled to talk, you said "There's a lot to learn in what we did." and in fact Bruce, you were right. Are right. I can't tell you how many people have written to me or come up to chat after a speech about our radio/book/podcast project to say how much they admired your strength and courage and how much they've learned about how to live, really live, and live with whatever challenges they face just as you did.
We said things that people are afraid to say and we did it in a sensitive and gentle way. I've learned how rare that kind of honesty, that kind of authenticity is. Clearly, there is a hunger for candid discussion around our human frailties and certainly about our deaths.
That kind of honesty is born of the willingness to be vulnerable and that is something I've worked on this past year. It's very difficult. My vulnerability has emerged in surprising ways in public, which has led to some embarrassment. I've realized that exposing that tenderness, the painful wounds, allows others to do too. There's healing in that. As you said "While we can't be cured, we can be healed." and that is true.
I've learned that there are possibilities behind every question, hurdle and problem. The task is to fearlessly explore those possibilities. There have been possibilities that have bloomed since your death, opportunities I never would have thought feasible have presented themselves. I'm convinced, born of your experience, that if a person is breathing, they still have possibilities until the end.
I've done some thinking about where you might be now Bruce. How you are.
I like the quote from Arthur Schopenhauer: "After your death, you will be what you were before your birth."
I see you as being the perfection you were before you were born. Truly now, you are a free spirit yet connected to all that is.
I don't know much, but I know for certain your spirit resides in the hearts of all who knew and loved you.
Peace Bruce. We'll talk again soon.
I was never good at geometry. In fact, I hated my high school geometry course which puzzled and perplexed my very kind teacher.
My brain had, and still has, difficulty grasping the spatial relationships of geometric shapes: their principals, angles, lengths and volume. But I've always appreciated the perfect symmetry of a circle. A circle is such a beautiful illustration of unbroken connection in space.
We humans talk about something coming "full circle" when an event, person or circumstance ends up in the place where it began. I don't think a recent event could be described as coming full circle, rather there was a magnificent synchronicity that brought me face to face with one of the world's holiest men--and for the second time in my life--which isn't the amazing part. What takes my breath away is the timing of the meeting. It was mysterious and beautiful and could not have been more perfect.
"You want me to talk to WHO?"
I got a call from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota late in the afternoon as I was frantically prepping for another public event. Would I have time to moderate a public discussion with the Dalai Lama in a few days? His Holiness had been at the clinic for about a month seeking medical treatment. He wanted to talk about compassion in medicine to doctors and nurses and there was need for a moderator.
Because I wasn't thinking clearly, I started mentally juggling an already full schedule, and had started to get anxious about making the drive to Rochester when, in the next minute, I came to my senses. OF COURSE, I would be DELIGHTED to be moderator and again join the Dalai Lama on stage! Who, I thought, gets a second visit with one so wise?
With Death Waiting
My first encounter with the exiled leader of Tibet was March 1, 2014 in Minneapolis. I was the moderator of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, racing into the event with less than an hour to spare. I had been with my father, who was in his last hours on Earth, dying of a lymphoma that had exploded in his spleen. I almost cancelled because I wanted to be with Dad when he passed. My Mom thought otherwise, saying that if my comatose father could talk, he'd tell me in no uncertain terms to be with that holy man, because he'd probably teach me something. Indeed that would be something my Dad would've said.
March 1, 2014 was also Bruce Kramer's 58th birthday. Bruce and his entire family were in the darkened audience that afternoon. Bruce, like me, almost didn't show up. He was feeling quite tired but his beloved family urged him on. It turned out to be the strangest of all birthday gifts.
"Meanwhile, my blessing..."
I'll admit to not being completely present to His Holiness on stage that afternoon. My mind would flit from what the Dalai Lama was talking about (peace and happiness) to whether my Dad had died in my absence. There was a sharp grief that was barely hidden underneath my cool exterior. I was a mess.
I barely remember anything His Holiness said that day, but I will take to my grave the vivid images of what happened immediately afterward.
Someone had asked whether His Holiness would give the audience his blessing, which he graciously declined, citing his Buddhist background. But after he spoke, he jumped up and with no prompting or pre-planning, walked to the far left of the stage and peered into the darkness. Then gestured and pointed. I couldn't see what or to whom he was pointing. The lights were blinding.
A long, white silk scarf appeared from the back of the room and made its way, overhead, to the stage where the tiny Buddhist monk, wearing saffron and maroon robes, grabbed it and held it to his forehead, saying, "Meanwhile, my blessing. " and handed it back into the crowd to a stunned and sobbing Bruce Kramer.
Leap Day. February 29, 2016.
Jump now, or rather leap, to February 29, 2016.
Each of us, it is said, has a specific set of lessons to learn in this life. If we don't learn those lessons they come up again and again and again. Depending on your beliefs, either we keep relearning the lessons in the next life or not.
Maybe I needed to hear and absorb the message of compassion, understand better the lessons of compassion, as taught by a master. Maybe that is what brought me, full circle, to the altar at the chapel at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, seated alongside the Dalai Lama, two years to the day we sat together on stage in Minneapolis. You see, had it not been for Leap Year, that day with the Dalai Lama, would have been March 1. Coincidence? A cynic would say "yes" and as a trained cynic that's exactly what I would've said but I'm tired of playing the role of jaded cynic. I think the Universe enjoys presenting these wondrous, mysterious gifts of synchronicity to us. It's our job to pay attention, and so I did.
Fodder my friends, for another blog post!
The late, great David Bowie's first hit was "Changes" in 1972 and it turned out to be the last song he ever sang, live and in concert, in 2006. (Please enjoy the video at the end of this blog entry!)
(Turn and face the strain)
Don't want to be a richer man
(Turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time...."
Time, in this human existence, ran out for Bowie earlier this week when he died of cancer at age 69. He died shortly after celebrating his birthday and after boldly releasing his final album: a brilliantly haunting collection that was created fearlessly in the face of his impending death.
"Changes" was one of my favorite Bowie songs although every time I heard it, I'd think how difficult change itself is. Change is frightening. Change is uncomfortable. I used to fight it, hide from it or try to ignore it, but try as I might to outrun it or drown it out, change continues its relentless pursuit.
We are just a couple of weeks into 2016, a new year, and I can guarantee each and every one of us has a queue of yet-to-be unleashed changes, lurking, poised to strike when we least expect them or welcome them. To me, that is an exhausting thought.
According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale of 43 major life events (i.e: life changes) in the past two years, I've experienced the top twenty. Trust me, I'd really like a breather in the Change Department, but I know that won't happen.
I was thinking that re-framing how I view change might be helpful and less stress inducing. So this year,when face to face with a change that is unexpected, uncomfortable or unpredictable, instead of freaking out or trying to numbly plow forward (a favorite coping strategy of mine), I intend to view and experience the event as a "transition" or "passage." Is this just a shift in semantics? Sure, but it feels more empowering.
Let's face it, much of our lives is one transition after another until death: the ultimate transition. Why not find the lessons and possibilities in each?
The holidays are stressful but more so if you're dealing with loss.
This isn't brand new information but it is a good reminder to be gentle with yourself (and others) if the wounds of grief are fresh or even if that long scabbed -over hurt opens again. That happens, even when you think you're "over" the loss.
It is hard to feel joy when your emotions are a toxic stew of sadness, despair, guilt and regret. (Insert your emotion here:______________________________!)
2014 was the first Christmas without my father. Dad wasn't exactly a fan of the holiday. He generally bought into the religious significance of the season, but bristled at the consumerism, cost and chaos of it all. Still, the absence of his presence was felt that first Christmas. In order to connect with him on a tangible, touchable level, and honor his memory, I had his clothes made into rugs. One for each of my siblings and Mom. Every rug had a tag "With love from Dad."
This year, I find myself lost in darkness and an unsettling numbness. I can't seem to conjure up the spirit of my Dad as I did last year and that makes me sad. It is as if I've finally realized he's gone and he's not coming back.
A delightful and very wise friend of mine, grief counselor, Kelly Grosklags, (See her Facebook page "Conversations with Kelly" for more!) posted this wonderful idea to acknowledge the loss and honor a loved one who has passed away. She recommends buying a three wick candle and placing it in the center of your holiday table or another place of focus. Each wick represents the past, present and future.
Kelly says when lighting the candle, say this blessing as each wick is lit:
"Past - " to honor the memories we share & your legacy"
Present: "asking for comfort and ️healing as we miss you "
Future : " to honor the connection and love we will always share"
As the candle burns, each person can share a memory about your loved one. The flame, a universal sign of ️light. May lightness enter the darkness of your grief."
Bringing light into darkness. May the light, in whatever form, illuminate your way forward and the beautiful memories of those we're missing during this holiday season.
Peace to you and yours.
The Blog Authors
Bruce started writing about living with ALS shortly after being diagnosed in 2010. The blog is called the "Dis Ease Diary."
Cathy is a journalist so she's used to writing. Blogging is different because it feels so personal and that can be scary. Bear with her. She'll figure it out!
You may hear from Ev from time to time. Ev is Bruce's beloved wife. She's a music teacher at a French immersion school.