How I Found Life After Death

The Before

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Two summers ago. We are tired, but relieved and happy. We think the worst is behind us.

We’re at a funeral. Celebrating the long life and gentle passing of a loved one. We don’t know it yet…but in two months we will say goodbye again, and it will be harder and crueler and much less timely.

This picture sits on my desk, a reminder of how quickly things change. Because if death teaches you one thing, it’s that you aren’t entitled to anything. And each day is its own gift.

3 deaths in quick succession. First came the shock, then the acute pain. Long silences and numb birthdays. Children’s books about death. Sleepless nights repeating their simple lines….”Where are you, now that you are gone?’

This picture is my ‘before’. Before I stopped the long stressful commute surrounded by cars worth more than my salary. Before I finally heard the way I was talking to my husband after a year of long hours and toxic stress. The short, clipped tone, bordering on annoyance and anger in response to any innocuous question or request. Before I recognized that normal parenting stress isn’t the same as fighting hopeless tears when my daughter exerted her extraordinary (and completely normal) toddler will.

Before I broke wide open. All illusions of ‘I’ll do better tomorrow’ washed away. Death made clear there are no guarantees on tomorrow.

The After

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Death woke me into life. How?

I set a broken clock to 11:59 and carried around a note that said ‘this is all you have’. I roll my eyes reading this, it seems so cliché. And at the time, with the earth falling away below my feet, even if it was adolescent, it was also steadying.

I began to build the life I wanted.

1.      I took an honest inventory of all my hard emotions and the behaviors I wasn’t proud of.

I didn’t like how hard I was making parenting and how poorly I was partnering. I didn’t like how I had shoved my friendships and extended family into the rearview. I looked at all my safe choices, the ones I chose that protected me from being vulnerable or scared or looking silly or stupid. And I saw that none of those choices protected me from the very worst fear…the brutal reality that we are not in control, we all die. There is no way out.

And in turn, these small, petty choices seemed to cheapen my life. Because if my moments were so few, was I really spending them hiding? Was my biggest goal to have a tombstone that said “Here lies Kerry. She tried really hard not to ever look stupid or silly.” Ugh.

2.      I dug into my values.

I started making lists of when I was happiest or proudest. I started paying attention to the moments in my day when I felt truly relaxed, open, and real. Guess what? Some of my favorite moments were the silly, stupid ones. When I broke out into a Taylor Swift ballad at work to connect with someone; when I unabashedly invited everyone I knew to each presidential debate (my own dorky love)...and the only one who came was a stranger who became my husband. 

I looked for themes between all these moments and boiled it down to 4 words describing what I wanted my whole life to be about: love, connection, compassion, growth.

3.      I led my life, starting with my feet.

In deep grief came deep freedom. I fantasized about what I wanted my life to look like, all the behaviors and actions that exemplified those 4 value words. But then I didn’t stop at fantasizing. I started saying ‘no’ to all the things that weren’t my fantasy. And saying yes…big crazy reckless leap-and-maybe-the-net-will-appear yes’s. Because finally….finally I realized…those wouldn’t kill me. And these moments, the moments rich in your values? They’re all we have.

Not happily ever after

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So that must be the end right? I got it all figured out and lived happily ever after? Aww you probably know better than that.

Nope, I’m not living happily ever after. (Ok truth be told, there are teeny little moments where I look out at those Rocky Mountains and think ‘….ok this is pretty close’ – but that’s not the point.)

Death taught me that life is a moving stream of moments, and each one can be created new. On one hand, that’s intensely comforting to me. It means we have a million chances to start again. (And I see this in therapy all the time. It is amazing how small steps off the well-worn path can create huge change.) On the other hand, I can drift into careless habits pretty quickly. I can disconnect from what I believe in, snap at my husband, bail on a friend, or float into mindlessness and miss my daughter pointing at the moon.

So what do I do (and what can you do)? How to keep the clarity of those life lessons fresh in a world that would love to convince us we’re all immortal?

1.      I practice paying attention.

It began with two minutes a day. Just listening to my breath. And after 6 years of training and teachings and a now-daily meditation practice, the core truth and the greatest benefit comes from learning to pause in a moment, take one deep breath, and watch/observe/notice what is happening, without judgement, with kindness…that’s all it can take to begin again. (Remind me to tell you how well this works when you’re rushing to get out the door in the morning….I’m serious, it really works.)

2.      I listen to myself, even when I don’t know what it means.

With paying attention comes a bunch of thoughts or feelings that you don’t really ‘get’ or understand. And what I have learned is that there is inevitably something valuable to learn behind my knotted stomach when I talk to X or the pull to tell a white lie to get out of Y. And instead of ignoring those things…or obsessing over them, eventually something fruitful comes if I am able to watch and listen (it’s a little like getting a secret message from space, you’re not sure what it means yet, but assume it will become clear in time).

3.      When in doubt, I go back to the four value words.

To the very best of my ability, in a thousand microdecisions each day, I try to choose the action that is in line with those four touchstones, the four values that I want to mold my life around: growth, love, compassion, connection.

Simple example, the caucus. I didn’t want to go…it sounded long and boring and silly and just a pain to miss bath time with my baby and the final lullaby with my husband. And for what? To go out in the cold and stand in line, why? Oh the knot in the stomach. Oh the conflicted feelings. Because bottom line, I believe in speaking your voice. I believe in our responsibility to create the government we want. So moaning and groaning, I went. And loved it. Loved the excitement, loved being surrounded by my neighbors. That turned out to be a simple one; there are lots of hard choices and sometimes the choice that leads me to growth leads me away from connection.

But always, there is utility in pausing, and asking myself ‘what points me towards my values, what points me to home?’

Wishing you peace, equanimity, and joy,

Kerry

Further reading:

An honest inventory of your life via https://yearcompass.com/ 

Disclaimer: You as a reasonable person know that reading this blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. And just to be super clear for all the lawyers in the house, I do not assume liability for any content on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your interaction with my writing and the content therein (oh my goodness, I hope you don’t injure yourself reading this). If you are seeking professional support, I recommend seeking services via the websites on my resources page or by contacting me directly.

Blood and Teeth Everywhere: Four Things You Need When Your World Falls Apart
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A great king presented his wise men with a puzzle, “Find me something that will make me happy when I am sad and sad when I am happy.” His wise men replied, “This too shall pass.” Friday night, 5 PM. The crowd grew via a flurry of text messages and toddler shouts across the playground, “Stanley? 6ish?” A pile of kids like puppies, tripping down hallways and squealing with laughter. All us parents, just around a corner, stretching out then snapping back like taffy as we grabbed dinners and beers and ending at a long banquet table, piled with takeout containers and sippy cups, and filled with lazy conversations, whispers about work and love and shared jokes as the kids ran around and around and around. One of the Dads used his opera-trained voice to announce ‘Guys…every Friday right?!’ I heard the whisper in my head “I’m so rich, I’m so rich and I don’t mean money.”

This too shall pass.

Friday night, 10 PM. Crash. The shock protects you. It only allows you to know so much. I run to my husband, roll him over, blood and teeth everywhere. I sink into autopilot, reassuring and distant. Get the ice pack, touch his head, comfort and dial phone. Tell the 911 operator where I am, where I am again, find another phone, text friend and friend and friend, who can watch my child. Who can watch my child while I drive behind the ambulance, while I count my breaths and will traffic to stop and start each phone conversation with “we’re all alive.” All from a distance, from a place of control and the only moments the world spins out, the only moments I swear I can feel the Earth rotating off balance are when I hear him say “I don’t….I don’t remember…..I don’t know what I do….I don’t remember this day.”

This too shall pass

Pema Chodron says that one of the most important teachings from her mentor was simply, “It’s no big deal.” To hold with lightness, with equanimity** all things. Tara Brach repeats “And when I learned I was the ocean, I no longer feared the waves.”

This too shall pass

So the days lengthen. I begin a cycle of single parenting, driving to doctors’ appointments, and waiting till they’re both in bed to cry. I dig deep into the self-care lessons I teach each day.

 

Step 1: Ground yourself so you don’t fly away

Literally, ground yourself in the Earth. Become supremely centered in this finite moment. When I began to feel my breath shorten, my heart run away, my mind spin to the horrible imagined futures, I stopped. I held my own hands, put my face in cold water, and said in my head and out loud “My name is Kerry. Today is Sunday. I am in my house in Denver. I am safe. My loved ones are safe. My name is Kerry. Today is Sunday”….and on and on till the surf of my breath slowed and my shoulder knots unraveled.

 

Step 2: Don’t be ambitious, buy the tater tots.

I caught myself midway through a frantic grocery trip, concocting elaborate homemade meals in my head, all organic, veggie heavy, kid friendly and soft enough for someone with a broken face to eat. My eyes were aching from exhaustion and I heard an old friend’s sage advice on the art of single parenting, “Don’t be ambitious.” Don’t be ambitious, Kerry. Just get through today. I bought a big bag of tater tots, a pile of fruit, and grinning wildly, called it a day. Lower your standards, ease your expectations, and get through the day. Wildly overachieve at being adequate, that is the gold standard in times of turmoil.

 

Step 3: Everything’s not fine, ask for help.

A few days in, I said to my mentor, “He has another appointment…maybe oral surgery…and I’m booked all day….he can’t drive and I just…he can take an Uber…it’ll be fine…it’s fine.” She looked at me sideways, “It’s fine? Is it fine to you?” No, it wasn’t. I couldn’t do it all and I didn’t want to look at that, I didn’t want to admit it or how much it hurt. I wanted my normal routine back, wanted to try to be useful in my regular-day-job ways….and yet I didn’t want my husband to be alone either. My mentor said “Stop, Kerry. Ask for help.” Yes, I could come up with lots of reasons not to, it was a weekday, everyone was working, didn’t want to be a bother and on and on. And then I thought about how alone I felt at night. And how desperately I wanted to be given an assignment when my friends were in pain, to help in some small concrete way. So I sent the mass email to each kind soul who asked how they could help. And yes, he got a personal ride home with a friend, and yes, it was so much better than ‘fine.’

 

Step 4: Be a good friend to yourself

When things are hardest, when you feel lost and bereft, ask yourself ‘What would I say to a dear friend who was in the same predicament?’ You probably wouldn’t say ‘buckle down, chin up, stop complaining, and keep on.’ Ah ha. But what do we say to ourselves? I tell myself ‘I’m fine’ instead of saying ‘this is hard’, I tell myself to be quiet instead of ‘tell me more, what is hard right now? What feels worst?’ and then I never even open up the possibility of offering myself the same comfort that would inevitably come if a dear friend told me where and how it hurt.

So I am trying. With the same miserable two steps forward one step back veering progress of us all. But there are small moments of grace, moments where I can pause, recognize that this is hard, look at it with love and curiosity, then offer comfort. Sometimes it’s a scoop of Sweet Cow, sometimes it’s repeating the phrase from my best friend ‘I’m your biggest fan’, and sometimes it’s just watching it all swim around my head and remind myself ‘this is right now, this isn’t forever.’

** Tatramajjhattata, the Pali word for equanimity, is translated loosely and literally “to stand in the middle of all of this.” To watch the winds of praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute, the hold steady in peace of both the instant and the infinite.

 

Disclaimer: You as a reasonable person know that reading this blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. And just to be super clear for all the lawyers in the house, I do not assume liability for any content on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your interaction with my writing and the content therein (oh my goodness, I hope you don’t injure yourself reading this). If you are seeking professional support, I recommend seeking services via the websites on my resources page or by contacting me directly.

A letter to my clients
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When you say thank you, I say ‘it is my privilege’ and you smile softly because you’ve heard me say it before, because maybe it sounds familiar or boring or brief. And it is so brief, it is the four simplest words for a huge expanse of gratitude and joy and comradery I feel each time you courageously walk toward your new future, looking sadly and wisely at your past.

The thing I don't say is that I work to be my very best because your struggle, your pain, your glories, and your trust is sacred, and I will never forget that. I will always be grateful for the privilege to walk with you in it. The thing I don't say is that in my head is a book of miracles with a long and winding list of all the ways love conquers all, all the courageous actions of a hundred people who I have walked with.

What I don’t say is you have changed and touched my life as deeply as you say I have touched yours. That your pains play out in my head at midnight too, your progress and grit nudges me on.

I don't say that you are tattooed on my heart but there you are. Years from now, know that when I look up at a vast sky of stars, I silently wish you peace and love and all life has to offer.

Disclaimer: You as a reasonable person know that reading this blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. And just to be super clear for all the lawyers in the house, I do not assume liability for any content on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your interaction with my writing and the content therein (I really hope you don’t injure yourself reading this). If you are seeking professional support, I recommend seeking services via the websites on my resources page or by contacting me directly.