Have you ever noticed that people like to pigeonhole you? I guess it makes sense; we are most comfortable with what is familiar. No, maybe that’s not strong enough: We are terrified of the unfamiliar.
Pretty innocuous examples, right? But they point to a pattern. I spent three nights in Hong Kong. I am not proud to admit that the scents of the city – of street food cooking – literally had me gagging. The first night we ate in the hotel restaurant, the second day we had pizza for lunch, and the last night we went to Ruby Tuesdays. And that from a woman who embraces new experiences more than most. I couldn’t get past my fear of “what if?”
Side bar: Did you know that the fear of throwing up in public is a real thing? Emetophobia. It is actually at the root of many people’s anxiety.
Wow, I really never know where these blogs will end up! I just ramble. Admittedly, throwing up in public would be a new experience, but I’m fairly certain that wasn’t what I intended when I spoke of being scared of the unfamiliar.
Maybe there is a way to tie these together…
Vomiting publicly is only one way that we can embarrass or humiliate ourselves, right? I have fallen up the stairs in front of the coordinators’ morning coffee meeting at one of the seniors’ residences I was working out of. Twice. I once shouted, “Crap, she’s back!” while friends and I were trying to stealthily escape a spoken word event. I literally fell on my face at a high school dance and took three stitches to the chin. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences – you’ve pushed on a door that says “Pull,” you’ve tripped over a crack in the sidewalk, or you’ve tried to make chocolate swirl ice cream at the Ponderosa only to realise that you were loosening the bolts, which caused ice cream to pour out from behind the front plate… Hey, these things happen. It’s the meaning that we give to these events that matters.
Events which should be viewed with humour – at least after the fact – can go to a whole new level when we internalise. Compare:
We all do clumsy, rude, dumb, and embarrassing things. I would suggest that if you claim not to, you are in a huge battle with perfectionism and its dear friend, anxiety. That combination probably keeps you really set in your ways. You only know one route to get to any destination and lose your mind when there’s a detour. You don’t try new foods because, “Hey, I like vanilla,” then complain, “I’m sure that was French vanilla. I wanted regular.” You can travel but will usually stay in American chain hotels, preferably ones that include an American breakfast.
And that’s fine, and it’s safe, and we are hardwired to do just that.
Again, those examples are pretty benign, but imagine the consequences for those people. Bear in mind that emotional pain – of which shame is the strongest – hurts as much or more than physical pain. A woman hits a detour. Her level of anxiety starts to climb. She has internalised a belief that she has a terrible sense of direction. She thinks she’s running parallel to her planned route, but somehow the streets diverged, and she finds herself lost and beside herself by this point. Thoughts of, “You’re so stupid!” and “Why is everything always so difficult?” run through her head, informing and perpetuating her views of herself and the world. You know she’s probably had that running patter in her mind since she was a child. It makes her less likely to ask for the help she needs, which just escalates her spiral.
Vanilla ice cream. I’m imagining a little boy faced with too many choices in his young life, maybe just standing in the ice cream parlour, eyes wide. Thirty-one flavours!! I envision his parents getting annoyed. “Just pick one!” So, he points to some random container and walks back home, letting a lot of his ice cream drip down his little hand and spitting coconut shards on the ground as his parents shame-lecture him about waste.
Speaking of waste, what if a Canadian traveller is faced with an unfamiliar toilet? That can lead to high-magnitude stress. Many Southeast Asian countries use water rather than toilet paper for cleansing. You often need a coin to open the door of a public toilet in the UK. The French toilet is often a hole in the floor. Not knowing how to use the bathroom can lead to more thoughts of shame, maybe even dredge up the person’s own experience of potty training.
Vomit. Potty training. This could be my best blog ever!
I believe my point was best penned by Thich Nhat Hanh. “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” How heart-wrenching is that? People would rather suffer than change; that’s how terrifying the unfamiliar is. Because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. Because of those shaming voices in our heads.
The great news is that going outside of your comfort zone is a muscle that can be developed simply by doing it. By fighting our primitive urge to stay safe, we open ourselves up to not just new behaviours and interests. We also rewire our thought patterns.
Don’t let your kids watch you suffer and do nothing about it. Resilience is the path away from shame.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Here’s me, feeling all cocky, like I’ve mastered this whole shame thing, right? I got complacent. I started believing that I had risen above it all, and then yesterday hit. Being on my way home from work first, I offered to pick up the cat food that we needed. I got to Petland, made a beeline for the back of the store, picked out the bag, took a second mortgage out on the house to be able to afford it, and headed home. Tra la la.
It was the wrong food. They hadn’t been eating that one for a few bags now. If the language I used was foul, you should have seen my temper! I grew irate in a way I haven’t in months, at least. While my wife was off replacing the bag, I dove in deep trying to understand my reaction. What I realised was that I am OK when I do something stupid as long as I’m the only one impacted, but when it affects someone else, it would seem, I lose my... waste. The shaming voices come back with a vengeance. “You’re such an idiot. Couldn’t even manage the simplest task. What is the matter with you?”
Yesterday was a humbling reminder that the work is never finished.
The changes I have been making in the direction of my business have been confusing to quite a few people. “But it’s still about the dying, right?”
To that I say a resounding, “Yes, but not necessarily at the end of life.”
Oddly, that doesn’t seem to allay their confusion.
“Could you explain this legacy coaching thing to me again? Like, who do you work with?”
“I work with people whose legacy is at the forefront of their minds – couples who’re trying to get pregnant, new grandparents, and the dying, mostly. We focus on what sort of non-material legacy they want to leave their loved ones. And healing the things they don’t want to pass down.”
Here’s what it comes down to in a nutshell: I help people make peace with their lives, their relationships, and themselves, so they can enjoy the rest of their existence in peace, however many years that happens to be.
When a person is dying, it is simply their last best time to accomplish this.
Leave the world better.
In an ironic twist, I am pushing back my article about how breaking expectations to ourselves can be crippling. No, that’s not what’s happening here. Something more time-sensitive has come to my attention, so I expect that you’ll cut me some slack when I push it back a week. But if you don’t…? That’s on me. :D
This story was written in honour or Death Awareness Week, May 13-19, 2019.
Last summer we celebrated Gran’s one hundredth birthday by having a family reunion at her house in St. Bruno, Quebec. Four generations turned up, the teens even brought dates.
It was chaos.
See, my cousin Charlotte put herself in charge of the whole thing. She sent out invitations and… that was it. “Family Potluck in Bruno July 7 @ noon.” Sweet!
On the day I got the family packed up, threw towels, a lasagne, and the spinach artichoke dip in the back of the hatch, and headed out. After a quick stop for wine, we were headed for the Victoria bridge. The day was stunning, hardly a cloud in the sky. With temperatures forecast to reach the high 20s, I was looking forward to cooling off in the lake.
We got to our family property just after twelve, and there were already forty or more people running around. There were nine spinach and artichoke dips on the picnic table on the back deck. And seven lasagnes. I was beginning to detect a problem.
“Where’s Gran?” I asked Charlotte.
“I dunno. I figured someone would bring her out,” she replied, looking around.
I sent a blast text out to the family to see if my cousin was right. Nope, no one had thought to stop by the retirement home to collect the guest of honour. Fortunately, my brother Jim hadn’t left the city yet. It was going to be cramped in his car, but they’d manage. “Sure," I thought, “that’s exactly how she would have envisioned her last road trip, surrounded by misbehaving kids, the smell of decades-old tobacco smoke leeching from the upholstery into her polyester-wrapped butt.
Meanwhile, back at the homestead, more family members had begun arriving. And more lasagnes. A dozen Caesar salads and seven Crock Pots of meatballs had been added to the, what, mix? Is mix even appropriate in the context of four identical foodstuffs? Did I mention the spinach and artichoke dip? We had enough to spackle-texture every ceiling in the 3500 square foot house. Including the basement!
Crying. Now I hear crying. And not just the fake, Bobby pushed me into a puddle crying of a four year-old. This was wailing. I ran toward the source of the sound and found my third? fourth? maybe second even? cousin Amy, age eight, with blood gushing out of a gash in her forehead. It turned out that the kids, having found nothing better with which to amuse themselves, made a game of Who Can Throw the Rock the Highest? The good news is, Amy’s got a great little arm…
Inside we go to get her cleaned up. Gran was a nurse as is my sister Olivia. I enlisted the younger’s help and she corralled a still-screaming Amy deeper into the house in search of the first aid kit. I turned on my heel to see what other fires needed putting out and immediately stepped into a huge pile of dog s#!t. Perfect! “Who’s watching these animals?!” I screamed internally.
As I was disinfecting my sandal (and foot) in the garage sink, Jim was helping Gran out of his low-slung car. Twenty minutes and a lot of swearing later – I totally get my potty mouth from her! – my sweat-soaked Gran had landed. I went over to her for a hug, stronger than you would ever believe, and asked if her walker was in the back of the car. Jim’s eyes went wide. He left it on the curb outside Gran’s building.
“Chicklet,” my grandmother whispered, addressing me by the pet name she gave me the day I was born, “I’d really like to change out of these smoky clothes. I have a dress in the house.” A day and a half later, I’d gotten her up the seven steps and across the threshold into the living room. “I’ll just have a rest here. Can you look for the dress?” I left her in the chintz-covered chair I’d always known to be hers. I don’t remember anyone else ever sitting in it.
Dress in hand, I returned to the living room. The look on my grandmother’s face was one of disgust. “What the hell is that smell, and what is it doing in my house?” she asked. I sniffed, recognising it instantly. Patchouli. My face likely mirrored Gran’s. In that moment the twentysomething wife of one of my cousins breezed into the room, reeking of the stuff yet rummaging for her bag for another spritz. She pulled out the little brown bottle and, before Gran or I could stop her, had reapplied. She didn’t even pay her respects to the birthday girl before escaping back into the garden.
Dabbing her eyes, Gran said, “I want so badly to leave this room, but I need to sit a bit longer. Be a dear, Chiclet; open the door.” After a second, she added, “And get me a drink.” The only daytime cocktail I’d ever seen Gran drink was a Pimm’s and ginger beer. I went over to the liquor cabinet but couldn’t find any, so I ventured outside. I discovered the cache of wine that had accumulated, but no one thought to bring Pimm’s. Head hung low, I returned to Gran’s side, hoping that a white wine spritzer would do. “My birthday and no Pimm’s?” Her disgust was palpable. She put down the glass. “Maybe I’ll just close my eyes,” she said dismissively and with more than a hint of the passive aggressive.
Outside, things had scarcely gotten more relaxed. There were over twenty kids on the floating dock, diving off of both boards, and nary an adult in sight. Yep. I said nary. This was serious. I looked around for someone who could watch the kids… Julie patchouli! She was in her bathing suit and seemed to be quite sober. And if the essential oils were to wash off in the lake, so much the better. She reluctantly agreed. Me? I had bigger fish to fry…
When I had emerged from the house, I noticed that no one had started eating. I looked around the table on the deck and could find neither plate nor fork, neither knife nor napkin. I jumped into my car and sped off, narrowly missing a yapping spaniel. I made a quick stop at Provigo for disposable dinnerware and another at the SAQ for a bottle of Pimm’s No. 1.
I raced back to the house eager to speak to Charlotte, find out what other gaps there were in the party-planning. It was another three trips into town for me, the last to pick up the birthday cake we ordered two hours before. I sent it in with one of the cousins via the front door so Gran wouldn’t see it and handed the candles to another. “Gather everyone!” I yelled to the group as a whole, before making my way to the living room.
What’s that, Gran?”
“I’ve been sat here three hours, staring out this window, watching them all have a great day at the lake, and not one person came in to sit with me, to talk to me, to bring me food, or to wish me a happy birthday.” That rant was more words than Gran had said in a row since she’d been ninety, and it set off a spate of coughing. “Fv@king ingrates.”
“I thought you were going to close your eyes?” I reminded her.
She rolled her eyes so hard, I’m sure she saw brain. “I tried, but as soon as I closed my eyes, there was the most God-awful racket!” It seemed the only person who had any music with them was my fifteen year-old nephew with the nose ring.
“Happy birthday to you!” rang out from the masses. At least they’d gotten everyone together. The cake was pushed through to the living room on a rolling kitchen cart. Gran blew out the candles reading ‘100’ and the family cheered.
Getting a whiff of the chocolatey cake, she turned to me and asked, “You know I’m allergic to hazelnuts, right?”
OK, that story never happened but it is the story that many of us live through when our loved ones don’t plan ahead. There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of running around, a lot of people on the sidelines not helping at all because they don’t know what to do. Kids and animals will run amok unless entertained in some way. And, invariably, most of the work gets dumped into the lap of a single person. Sadly, the last person anyone is thinking about is the Guest of Honour. It was Gran’s last farewell, and she deserved better.
Please plan ahead, people.
Planning for a peaceful rest of your life starts now.
Christie Morden is a legacy coach serving Calgary and surrounding areas. She helps people of all ages and all levels of health heal their relationships with things that have happened in their lives, with loved ones - living, dead, or estranged - and with their own eventual and inevitable deaths.
That's a little stark, isn't it? Where's the soft language we're supposed to couch that information in? Euphemisms and whatnot? The new western world is far too scared of death to actually call it by name!
But here's what's wrong with that: If we can't say it, we give it all the power, leaving us without. Now, I don't know about you, but when my time comes, when I am facing death, I'll want to hold onto as much control as I can. And I won't want to feel isolated in my dying because the people around me haven't developed the language to talk to me about it.
Now, some of you might think me a hypocrite for calling myself an end-of-life rather than death coach, but please allow me to explain. End-of-life is a time of preparation. It can involve funeral decisions, living wills, last will and testaments, advanced directives, among other things. All of these can -- and should -- be taken care of well before any dramatic health changes, but, sadly, that is not always the case. Rather than burdening the family with them when it's too late, an end-of-life coach will step in. The family's presence is needed at the bedside.
Another component of end-of-life is the dying process itself. At that point the coach will help bring peace to the individual and family by facilitating communication and engaging in ceremony or ritual tailored to the family's own background. I can also offer support in the form of gentle massage, a soothing touch for the dying person, strokes which I can also teach the family. I will also be on hand to give caregivers a well-deserved break.
Right, so that's end-of-life. Death, on the other hand, is -- to my mind -- the transition of an individual's spirit out of their body. Part of the end-of-life process to be sure, but not all of it. And not necessarily the last either. With a natural death there is no law requiring the body to be whisked immediately away. Some families will choose to sit vigil until everyone has found their peace. You may choose a home funeral. Your end-of-life coach will be right there.
Don't waste those last precious moments with your loved one.
Emotional Legacy Coach