Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Grief as revolution: Are you ready to be subversive?

“Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life is death.”

—  Stephen Jenkinson


Can you read that phrase without wincing or wondering what it means? It challenges many beliefs and philosophies upheld in popular western culture.


In the hospice volunteer training that I’m currently taking, we received a handout with a list of statements about grief. The two comments that most tugged at me were “Grief is a way of knowing. It is not an affliction” and “The willingness to suffer out loud is a gift.”


That last one especially confronts most tenets of western society: Don’t cry.  Get over it and move on. Don’t be sad, and so on. How many of us truly have the courage to let grief envelop us and receive any gifts that it might share?


That is what we’re slowly learning to do as hospice volunteers. Stephen Jenkinson, the star of the National Film Board’s Griefwalker, is head of palliative care counselling at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. He offers the notion of grief as revolution:


“What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway?


“Though addicted to security, comfort and managing uncertainty, our culture could learn to honour, teach and live grief as a skill, as vital to our personal, community and spiritual life as the skill of loving. In a time like ours, grieving is a subversive act.”


I love that approach. Rather than face grief with shame, apology, and embarrassment, we could embrace it like a much-loved friend, as cherished as life itself.


An excellent book of inspiration in this area, which we’re using in our training, is Alan Wolfelt’s The Handbook for Companioning the Mourner (Companion Press, Colorado, 2009). Wolfelt, a doctor who serves as director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, says: “Surrendering to the unknowable wilderness of grief is a courageous choice, an act of faith, a trust in God and in oneself.”


Decades ago, amidst tremendous trauma, I faced my own grief in its deepest and most despairing form. That experience, which lasted for months, enabled me to open and heal a part of myself that might otherwise have stayed frustrated and suppressed for years. As a result, I can now offer greater empathy and compassion to others who are grieving.


As a new hospice volunteer, I hope that I will be able to provide a loving and understanding presence for someone else to feel safe and trusting enough to open to raw, death-related sorrow. This is true soul work that heals us all.

My training is through the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society in Davis Bay, BC. If you’d like to volunteer at this centre, call 604-740-0475 or email coasthospice@gmail.com.

, , , , , , ,
June 1, 2012 at 11:07 am Comments (2)

How much do you fear death?

I recently added a folder on death and dying to my filing cabinet. It’s not that I’m morbid, but I’ve faced the subject a lot in recent months through a variety of workshops, presentations, and the death of people I know. And I’ve learned about the Sage-ing® Guild, a group for whom I facilitated several workshops at a conference. They positively affirm the elder years and encourage creating piece of mind by making “legal, medical, fiscal and spiritual preparation as a way of facing one’s mortality.”


By not fearing death, I believe that we make a conscious choice to live life to the utmost, not shrinking from the reality of a demise that we will all share.


Someone recently sent me a list of the top five regrets of the dying, based on a book written by Bronnie Ware, who worked in palliative care. These are the most frequent comments she heard from people who were in the last three to twelve weeks of their life:


  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. Ware says: “It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way.” I agree completely.


  • I wish I didn’t work so hard. In Ware’s words: “By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.” Again, I wholeheartedly agree.


  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. How many people suppress their feelings to keep peace with others? This can result in bitterness, resentment, and even illness.


  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Ware says: “It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks.”


  • I wish that I had let myself be happier. “Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice,” says Ware. “When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.


“Life is a choice. It is your life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.”


A woman on Orcas Island, Wa. named Alana chose to die on her own terms. She died in the woods on a bed created by her friends, who sang to her as she was dying. She wrote a prose death poem, which includes the following: “How can we know how to live if we don’t know how to die? . . .[M]aybe we could find a little appreciation for the miracle that eventually the spirit and the body separate. Is that so awful? How is it that we get so attached to all of this gross matter? . . . .


“If we are not feeling love and gratitude for who we are and what we have, then we are not living, we’re merely existing. If we do not live with love and joy, I am certain death will not contain them either. So now is your chance, here is the secret: Live every moment as if there was nothing more important than joy, than gratitude, than love. Put these wonders into everything you do . . .your finances, your chores, your work, your friends and family. And I promise you will never fear death or anything else and your love will be returned a thousandfold.” Amen.


, , , , ,
April 1, 2012 at 4:32 pm Comments (2)