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“I admire that you are not willing to sacrifice life, for survival.” – Harald Kasper, physical therapistperson-sitting-on-cliff

When I was two years old, I was standing in the front bench seat of our 1955 automobile when we ran into another car. My mother broke her pelvis, walked around to be sure all the children were safe, sat down and could not stand up. There were no seatbelts those days and there wasn’t yet an awareness of the lethality of motor vehicle accidents. As we integrated automobiles into our culture, the need for safety came to the forefront. During my generation, car seats for children became a necessary commodity. Some people wore their seatbelts and others did not. It was a choice, until it was not. When people were sustaining injuries and dying, wearing a seatbelt became law. Some laws evolve with the technology and some laws become obsolete as the culture evolves.

Recently, I have been criticize for choosing a lifestyle that is unconventional for someone as disabled as I am. After all, I cannot move a muscle from the neck down. I am completely dependent on my care team for every bodily function, except breathing. And I live in a remote mountain town that is considered the frontier, not even rural, which would have more medical services.

I have always lived on the edge of this paradigm we call life, but it has never been as obvious as now when I am breaking all the rules of what one should do when one is critically ill. From pushing my limits as an adolescent to riding my motorcycle to Key West during college (yes, I wore a helmet with a visor!) I have always pushed people who love me to their edge of reasoning, past their comfort zone. I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this at all. A lot of me wants to stay safe in the old, familiar ways of living life. I have to trudge through a lot of difficult feelings to summon the courage of forging new ground.

First, I have to feel the uneasiness of moving forward from a place I could call familiar, but as I’ve become more sensitive, I notice and incongruence. When I think of taking an an alternate route that feels more authentic, I have to wade through the density of darkness. When I dissect this darkness, it not only includes my own remnants of self-hatred, but also ways I’ve absorbed other people’s fear of the unknown. For me, fear is always a catalyst for entering this level of blackness. Being able to bear the pain at this level of malignant, self-hatred and, instead of retracting, going one step further and creating expansiveness around it allows the blackness to begin to lighten. Peering into the light, I can see the anatomy of this old, familiar feelings of unworthiness. Memories of all the times I’ve betrayed myself from deferring to other people’s truth. In deeper exploration, I was able to see the many times I was  willing to sacrifice my life for mere survival, which translated into sacrificing my significant need for autonomy for either of two reasons: to avoid feeling my greatest fear – being alone and helpless or to alleviate other people’s pain. Although the former is more conscious, the latter might seem noble, but, believe me, it is more insidious.

So, yes, I am on the leading edge of the natural death movement, something I hope will lead to “a good death,” not unlike the natural childbirths so inspiring in our area. And yes, it does push the old boundaries of the medical model, making people fearful of the issues like liability . I followed the medical model with my childbirths and I had two cesareans and general anesthesia. As many of you know about me, I don’t want to be fearful in this new birth.

I have always taken myself to the edge and rallied the resources to push a little further, so it would make sense that I would do that with others, especially being in the capacity of psychotherapist. My astrological natal chart reflects one of a powerful revolutionary with heart. It is ironic that when I cannot move a finger, I am still projecting that energetic essence. My daughter once told me that I go to places that scare her and show her that it is safe. During this time when people are creating a new paradigm for living and dying, it’s important to illuminate and dismantle that which keeps us from our birthright, living life and death fully and authentically.

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Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. – Derived from talk by Stephen Jenkinson 

GriefThe hint of a life-threatening illness when I was thirty-five years old was almost too much for this young, vibrant woman to bear. In retrospect, I have deep compassion for my younger self’s initiation into this accelerated curriculum and I now know how essential it is for my soul’s evolution. Coming to terms with my mortality at that age was a tall order, living a mortal life while being in touch with its transitory nature was almost more than I could bear and has taken me more than a decade to integrate.

When I really think about it, how can we live fully if we cannot contemplate our impermanence? How can we fully live if we can? The human condition is quite a paradox. This is why mystics acknowledge that being human is not for the faint of heart. There is crescendo and there is de-crescendo, inhaling and exhaling. How do we  be with this human condition that feels so out of control to our egos without becoming completely overcome with fear? How do we not connect these fears with the cultural epidemic of our time – fear of death? How do we hold death with equanimity, as truly a part of life?

What I have come to understand is the only way to hold both is to feel  it all. Feeling the difficult feelings in our culture is not encouraged. Numbing or distracting behaviors are pervasive. Allowing oneself to sink into the grief of this illusory existence, to essentially face one’s fears of death is not an easy undertaking. The pun is intended. In my experience, only by following grief and despair to completion can the heart lighten and the healing power of humor emerge.

Grief is better tolerated than despair, in my experience. Despair implies hopelessness. I guess the question is: “What are we hoping for?” Are we hoping for immortality? It is painful for me to be with someone who is dying, but wants to live at any cost. The ego wants to convince us that if we succumb to these feelings, we will never get out. There are so many archetypal dramas in literature that demonstrate this primal fear. When one finds the courage to bear the grief, liberation is assured. Allowing oneself to fall completely into grief is the only way through this dense, vibrational field. Despair can be treacherous, becoming an impenetrable wall if you are at all ambivalent about your leap. I liken it to bouldering. You cannot have ambivalence when jumping from one boulder to another; you cannot look down, you just leap focusing on the boulder ahead.

Stephen Jenkinson, once the leader of palliative care counseling at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, has written extensively about the prevalence of “death phobia and grief illiteracy – how they distance us from one another, our planet and our world crisis.”

Grief can become a wall or it can be a portal to a deeper way of Being. Once we have come to terms with the illusory nature of the personality as our totality, the fulcrum tips. Only by leaping fully can our toe touch the boulder of the numinous.