Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.

Becoming Comfortable with Change

My wife laughed when she saw the title of this post. She knows that my number one pet peeve is when a store rearranges its shelves. I’ve reflected on this, and determined that there are two reasons it irritates me. The first is that it takes me longer to find what I came to buy. I don’t want to wander around your store endlessly searching for things that, just one day earlier, I could find in my sleep. That’s the second reason I despise store resets – I know they are manipulating me, hoping that in wandering around searching for the things I want I will find other things that I will buy. What they don’t know is that on principle I never buy any extra items after they shuffle things around. Take that, you retail bastards!

We all resist change to one degree or another. It upsets our routines, or our understanding of our world, or our sense of safety, and so we push back. Consider the Buddhist teaching that says everything changes all the time. Some of those changes are so insignificant we don’t even notice them. Consider that dust settles constantly in whatever room you are sitting in reading this post, and you aren’t even aware of it. Other change we welcome. If you are sick right now, you would welcome the change of recovery. None of us get too upset that new mail comes to our mailbox regularly, unless it contains a jury duty notification. Then there are the bigger changes that we despise. Someone close to us loses a job, or is getting divorced, or receives a bad diagnosis at the doctor. Our world is turned upside down, and we cry out against change. How could this be? How could this happen to him/her/us/me?

It helps to work with change before a big change comes along and knocks us onto our heels. We can take a few moments at the end of our day to reflect on what changed today. Did we fill up our gas tank? Stop at the store? Get a day older? If every night we make a list of five to ten things that changed today, we will gradually come to see that change is constant. Of course, when we receive devastating news we will still be upset – but we won’t be asking ourselves “how could this happen?” We will understand that everything changes all the time, and that knowledge will free us energetically to respond to the demands of our new situation.

Controling the Uncontrolable

Most people’s idea of the goal of religion and spirituality is an attempt to control what cannot be controled. They wear their beliefs and practices like some sort of talisman that [they believe] will divert all danger and unsatisfactoriness that lies in their path. In fact, an overly simplistic reading of Buddhism promises just that – an end to suffering. Kindergarden Christianity posits a “little buddy” Jesus who follows us around (unless we are Kindergarden Roman Catholic Christians, in which case we have a Guardian Angel who does this*) like a cosmic Wonder Woman, deflecting adversity with gold wrist bracelets. We have no idea what we are asking for when we ask to avoid problems, challenges, and suffering. In asking for these things, we are in effect checking out of the game, refusing to grow, and wishing for a life that holds still right where we are, which is no life at all. Forget about growth, forget about friendship, and surely forget about love when we are in this space.

Here’s the truth: we don’t grow in any way without adversity. From the physical growing pains we experience as children to the emotional growing pains of loss and failure as adults, growth isn’t smooth sailing. Honest religion and spirituality tells us that, and prepares us for the great adventure that is a fully engaged life. We all would do well to let go of our control issues and live life fully, experiencing all it has to offer – including the not so fun parts!

*to be fair, far better to assign such a nonsensical duty to an angel than to Jesus

But he’s not up there anymore!

crucifix

I can’t tell you how many people, confronted with a crucifix or other image of the crucified Jesus, say to me, “…but he’s not up there anymore!” Of course, part of the reason they are saying that is they can’t deal with the idea that Jesus ever was “up there.” It was a great problem for the people of his time, too.

Here’s the bigger issue: He isn’t up there, you are correct. Now you are up there. Are you ready to talk about that?

God: No Test, No Plan!

I know I have written about this before, but since the whole world apparently doesn’t follow my blog so it needs to be covered again. Please share this freely, it is so very important…

If you know someone who is suffering for any reason and they tell you about it, there are some things you should never say. Certain segments of religion, primarily Christianity, have developed some pat answers for such situations. While these little tidbits of advice are often offered by well-meaning people, they are horrifying. These ideas are terribly bad theology, and they are nothing anyone should ever say to someone they care about. They are popular things to say because we are uncomfortable with hearing people express their emotions, especially if those emotions are painful. Here they are:

karlinbed1. “God is testing you.” Equally bad is its corollary, “God has a plan.” Here is what the person hears when you say either of those: God is really just messing with you right now for God’s entertainment. Your pain and your suffering are just entertainment for God, who may or may not relent at some point, depending on how God’s mood swings. You need to just shut up and put up with it, or it is proof you don’t have faith. I am frankly amazed that more people spouting this tripe don’t lose friends over it. A God who would mess with people for his own amusement would be a terrorist and no God at all. Someone who is suffering is in distress, and your cheerful willingness to identify God as the source of their distress is not only profoundly insensitive but it also has the potential of taking away from them any solace their faith may provide in difficult moments! When you cast God as a kind of cosmic Pol Pot rather than a loving God of comfort, you may well take away the only resource they have left.

2. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I hate to break it to you, but the person already has more than they can handle or they wouldn’t be suffering! What’s more, the next verse finishes the thought and says that God will provide the suffering person the resources they need to make it through. Here’s a newsflash – that resource is partly you, but if you are shutting down the suffering person with one of these terrible little truisms then you are in no position to be a helpful resource! In fact, you are actually inflicting harm by indirectly telling the person you don’t care to listen to them.

A Better Approach

1. Close mouth, open ears. What a suffering person needs most of all is for people to listen and understand. What’s more, the truth is that we really don’t have the resources to fix the person’s problem anyway – but we can listen.  We can also empathize, we can say we understand what they are saying, we can say things like “that must be hard.” What we shouldn’t do is pretend that we know their experience, unless we have had that same o-comforting-a-friend-facebookexperience ourselves. If our friend says something we don’t understand, we can ask for clarification. In short, we can be supportive while not being dismissive; listen without feeling compelled to offer explanations or to fix anything.

2. Get used to talking about feelings with someone you trust. It’s the best practice for those moments when a friend or loved one comes to us in their suffering. Also, know that if you are listening to someone who is suffering and it gets to be too much, it’s perfectly alright to say you need to take a break for a few minutes.

3. Practice sitting in a room with someone you trust without either of you speaking. This is great practice for being with someone who just needs company but doesn’t feel like talking. When we are suffering, we all have times when we just don’t want to be alone but also don’t want to talk about it. Americans are used to sitting in silence with someone, but it’s a great skill to develop. It might help to imagine you are in a library.

4. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. None of us handle these situations perfectly. We all make mistakes. When you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to say so. Your friend will appreciate your honesty. What’s important is making the effort! Your friend will be glad you did, and so will you!