on nature relation,
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telling my life stories
The Liminality of Grief: Befriending The Unknown through Radical Rest, Self-care & Forgiveness
This past year has been filled with unknowns and the deepest grief I've ever experienced. It's been an extremely challenging time of much inner and outer growth, bringing surprises, life-affirming gifts and transformation. This year has been a culmination; the end of a story; the story of my parent's lives in Oregon for the past 20 years. This time has also marked for me an end and a new beginning for myself. This ending and new beginning is something I still am melding and moving through. So, I'll use one of my most potent self-care tools and do what I do; I'll write it and I'll edit it for hours and days until I've sculpted the story and etched it energetically in my heart, mind and soul.
For decades, writing has been a love of mine and my passion for teaching and for self-care has launched me on a path as a Healer and Wellness Educator. I love writing about my life and work. Over the years through my own healing path, I have fully embraced nature and energy practices as potent tools for wellness. When my work came to a sudden halt during The Pandemic, so did much of my writing spark. In early 2020 the day the state of Oregon locked down, my elderly parents moved into a nearby retirement community. With Covid regulations, it was months before I could enter their apartment. My focus was managing their connection to the outside world and their medical needs such as trips to the emergency room, falls or a sudden collapse which became common for them when medical access was suddenly limited. One day early in The Pandemic my dad's doctor actually walked over to the parking lot of their retirement community and in the back seat of my car palpated my father's lower abdomen. For my dad, it seemed it had come down to getting his medical care in the backseat of a 2007 Honda Fit.
With my parents many needs and my work suddenly on pause, I pieced together a new life. Besides stepping into a role as caregiver for my parents, I prioritized tending to my own needs for stress regulation as I grieved the loss of my work, the state of humanity and the planet. At that time when the planes were grounded and the roads were empty, I actually rejoiced in the quiet streets, the silent, clear blue skies and the gentle life of the forest, suddenly reclaimed by residents of The More Than Human World. There were few humans to be found in the woods then. I still smile with memories of squirrels and ducks pattering along the many trails, long used by humans. They seemed to know we humans were taking a pause.
In the past years, in Southern Oregon, the severe drought has intensified and summer and fall wild fires have become the new normal. On September 8, 2020, The Almeda Fire which started a mile from my home, raced through our valley destroying close to 3000 structures, leaving thousands homeless. Our community stress levels skyrocketed with high anxiety, overwhelm and PTSD from evacuation and loss of homes and livelihood. It was terribly frightening. Many have since relocated. I have relocated twice since 2019 in reaction to the climate disaster here and each time have ended up like a boomerang, back to my "village" of Ashland. My community ties of 40 years are so strong it's been almost impossible to leave my people and the land I love as well as my then, aging parents. During The Almeda Fire they too were evacuated and quite traumatized. One year later after another summer of extreme heat and smoke, I relocated to Portland in September 2021 and traveled to Ashland every month to tend to my parent's needs. I finally gave it up and came home after 4 months. I acknowledged that Southern Oregon for now is truly home, even with the environmental disasters.
My parents were managing well, even with my mom's dementia and had moved to an assisted living apartment in 2021. I made the move back from Portland in time for my mom's 90th birthday last January. Ten days later my dad reported not feeling well. After blood work and an echo cardiogram, it was clear that his heart failure had progressed to a new level. I somehow had received an intuitive call to return from Portland even before this news. The cardiologist told me and my sister's he'd never seen a heart so bad in a patient who was still alive. My dad who was convinced at age 94 that he would live to be at least 110, reluctantly signed the intake forms to go on Hospice in early March. We thought he might have a month left. My parents stayed in their apartment with the facility staff, private care givers and help from me as well as Hospice. My dad was very concerned for my mother since he was her anchor and first line caregiver. My mom fully depended on him. During my dad's Hospice journey, though he mostly slept, his presence alone anchored my mom. I was with them often. As my dad's condition progressed, they both needed more care. My dad was so stubborn and so convinced he'd never die that he almost convinced me and his friends as well.
"Once my dad woke up when his Hospice nurse arrived and spoke with her about the light he was seeing as he looked out their sliding door. Dad said, "It feels like this light is here now to stay." At the same visit my dad described to Molly how he had felt like he was dying the previous night. I asked him how it felt and in his Iowa inflection, he said, "Pretty good." This was all happening to a man who had been terrified of death and had described it for years as, "Nothing but blackness." Now on his Hospice journey my dad was discovering a new reality with open curiosity and trust."
My father had no spiritual beliefs though he was culturally Jewish. He had mainly attended synagogue services at my mom's behest or for the socializing and food. He had been terrified of death for as long as I can remember. Knowing this, I was quite surprised when he was gifted with a very unusual 3.5 month Hospice journey.
Increasingly, my dad spent much time in deep sleeps-sometimes in bed with my mom or both of them awake, chatting and cuddling and most often in his recliner during the day. Many times I arrived as they were both waking up around noon and my dad was sharing with my mom where he had been and who he had seen during his "sleep." He would wake during the day after a long sleep, saying, "I'm not sure if I'm dead or alive." My dad shared these experiences with me, describing what I think of as journeying, in rich and vivid detail. It was different than his waking reality and by no means a typical dream. It was so real that he remembered and described the details for weeks. Many times when his Hospice nurse, Molly, visited, he shared these experiences with her. After this happened the first few times, Molly said, "Maynard, it sounds like you may be traveling between worlds." My dad said, "I think I am." He shared about our ancestors who were communicating with him. Often he described his mother and his brothers and sister being present or having spoken to them. Sometimes he would talk to me and my mother thinking my mom was his mother. My mom was not happy about that. My dad was often disoriented during this time, not knowing where he was. Once he told me it seemed like the furniture in their apartment didn't belong to them and that it felt like we were in a store of some kind. More than once he recounted how he almost fell but the most beautiful, shining and loving woman he'd ever seen stopped his fall. My dad was very impressed by her, stating he had never felt so much love. Many times he talked to me and my mom about "the train" he was seeing out the back window, saying, "It feels like we're in a train station." or "It feels like we should be leaving soon." or "Do you see the building across the courtyard? It looks like a moving train." In the midst of these episodes my dad seemed perfectly lucid. He was open to sharing these experiences which he seemed in awe of. It was beautiful to be a witness to this. Once my dad woke up when his Hospice nurse arrived and spoke with her about the light he was seeing as he looked out their sliding door. Dad said, "It feels like this light is here now to stay." At the same visit my dad described to Molly how he had felt like he was dying the previous night. I asked him how it felt and in his Iowa inflection, he said, "Pretty good." This was all happening to a man who had been terrified of death and had described it for years as, "Nothing but blackness." Now on his Hospice journey my dad was discovering a new reality with open curiosity and trust..
My parents many friends came to visit when there was a chance my mom and dad might be awake, but mostly, from mid-April into late June, they both spent hours each day sleeping opposite one another on their chairs in the living room. For my mom, sleeping was a symptom of her dementia. Just before Father's Day my dad started into his active dying phase-sleeping most of the night and day, eating little and very disoriented. On Father's Day he took his last walk with me through their building. He later listened to "Morning Has Broken" by Cat Stevens on his Alexa while looking at a card from my younger sister which contained the song lyrics. My dad listened and looked up at my mother, smiling and extremely out of breath and in a slurred voice said, "Those are great songs." I knew in that moment that my dad would soon be gone. Tears streamed down my cheeks with Cat Stevens voice and my dad's smile tucked away in my heart.
The next day, resting in his recliner, my dad slipped into a coma; his "death sleep", accompanied by severe atrial fibrillation. My mother stood beside her husband of 71 years all night, holding his hand, saying, "I don't think dad will make it this time." She was able to track that he was dying, even with her Alzheimer's. Throughout my dad's Hospice journey my mother said, "What a horrible time to have memory problems when my husband is dying!" She would wake up each day once again discovering as if for the first time that her husband was dying. She knew just by looking at him. My heart was breaking.
The hospital bed arrived the next morning. It was Tuesday and my dad didn't get up again. My sister's arrived the following afternoon. Since Tuesday dad's heart had been racing at 200 beats a minute. The comfort medications Hospice provided barely calmed his heart rate. Though dad couldn't speak we knew it was extremely intense for him. It looked like his heart was jumping out of his chest. Amazingly, a few hours before he died on Thursday evening, my dad, who was known for his side-splitting jokes, pulled himself from his death sleep, and forced his eyes open to mere slits and almost inaudibly whispered his last joke to his beloved Hospice nurse, Molly, her ear next to his mouth. By evening, my dad's heart finally slowed and finally at peace, with my older sister by his side, he took his last breath. My sister's had gone to bed and I quietly sat with my dad's body, waiting for the funeral home to come for him. I thought my mom was asleep as she'd gone to bed just before he died. Once they had taken my father, my mom, still awake, called me into her room and I lay in bed with her. She said, "Dad's dead isn't he?" I told her yes and we lay quietly together holding one another.
My dad's death and loss caused my mom's dementia to spiral out of control. Without her anchor, she could no longer stay in assisted living, even with private caregivers. Within three weeks of my dad's death my mom was in a memory care facility near my older sister in Montana, and has since rapidly declined and is now on Hospice.
My father who had been mentally vibrant up until the end was now gone and my mother too was suddenly gone. Her rushed move was totally out of my control and at the same time necessary. None of us were prepared for how the move played out. At this point my mom has few if any memories of my dad, how many children or grandchildren she has and little understanding of where she is.
My grief dropped me into anxiety, despair, disorientation and exhaustion. It was partially triggered by my dad's death and partially from very painful family dynamics with my sisters, related to the circumstances of my mom's sudden move. My cortisol was rushing and my body felt out of my control. I was taking 1-2 naps a day and waking each night about 3 am, struggling to return to sleep. I have always been a good sleeper but my body clock and metabolism were suddenly out of control. I cried for weeks and let the tears bring me back to balance. Though physically weak I would slowly walk the 2.5 miles to my sit-spot at Ashland Creek as many days a week as possible. I'd sit on my rock and drop into my senses, sinking my feet and calves in the ice cold creek for long periods. After an hour or so, I walked down the trail once again, very slowly. Each time I left my sit-spot I felt a little more alive, more whole and a lot more human. As I walked the trail home I noticed the people I passed gently turning away from my red swollen eyes, offering me privacy and maybe protecting themselves from my grief.
I gathered every self-care tool I had to regain my balance and energy. Self-Care has become an integral part of my daily life following a health crisis which flattened me in 2013. These practices have been a lifeline for my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. Over the past 9 years I have integrated numerous practices into my day for grounding and balance. Self-Reiki, The Wim Hof Method-breath work & cold water immersion, skin brushing, Medical Qigong, Forest Bathing/Nature Immersion, EcoNIDRA and Gratitude are all core to my self-care.
To manage my energy and grief and regulate my nervous system, I streamlined my daily self-care practices to wherever I felt most drawn. In the morning before rising I typically did Self Reiki and Wim Hof Method Breathing followed by a hot shower ending with 2 minutes of cold. Before breakfast, Jinjing Qigong helped get my body moving and energy flowing. In the cool of the morning, I often followed breakfast with an aerobic walk to the park. After about 20 minutes I gently slowed down to a slow meander as I transitioned to Forest Bathing. I dropped into my senses, letting my attention go where it was pulled and ditching any mental concepts of where I should be or what I should be doing. I eventually arrived at my sit-spot, a place in nature where I'd simply sit and experience nature through my senses. I sat and noticed and sat and felt and sat and noticed. Here I felt safe and present enough to cry and release whatever wanted out. Another practice which helped me through this time, was EcoNIDRA™, a nature-based form of the ancient practice of Yoga Nidra. I'd choose one of my many EcoNIDRA™ recordings and rest on my bed in late afternoon, facilitated through a 3 stage journey- through my senses, my body and The Earth for about 50 minutes. This practice offered radical rest for my body and nervous system while doing absolutely nothing; drifting between a state of waking and sleep. Mid-afternoon and evening allowed me time to ground and focus on my remote work. Lastly, before turning my light out, I'd write in my gratitude journal-the best thing from my day; the worst thing and a list of all I was grateful for.
Between the Reiki; breath work; cold water; qigong; walking; forest bathing; EcoNIDRA™ and Gratitude, my nervous system began to calm and I began returning to myself. I returned to a whole self with a broad perspective of all that had happened after my dad's death and a much clearer understanding of who I was. Life felt new in many ways. My father had died; my mother was physically gone with her mind rapidly going. Through profound grief I had summoned the strength and determination to complete the passage, having pulled myself out of a deep hole. Everything felt new. The grief process helped me let go of how I previously perceived my life. It was a time for release, deep integration and rest. I was Alice on her journey through The Looking Glass, stepping into liminal space. I realized my only way through was to make peace with the unknown; with all that showed up and cross the threshold that had been waiting for me all along - a path to freedom and new life.
I learned that grief takes its own unique course for each person. Before my father's death, I imagined grief as deep sadness and sense of loss. I had lost close friends and older family members but this was my first time losing parents. I discovered grief as much more than profound sadness and loss. The disorientation; exhaustion; fear; anxiety; disrupted sleep; inability to focus or work, along with a sudden loss of my natural social ease was extreme. I would see someone I knew in public and quickly turn a corner to avoid conversation. I screened my calls and sometimes couldn't respond to messages or emails or initiate contact for weeks. The exhaustion scared me and painfully brought back the experience when I collapsed with Meniere's Disease 9 years earlier; when my adrenal glands crashed and it took years to regain my energy. I feared this state would last and I'd be stuck in this new reality. But, contrary to my health crisis 9 years ago, I now had a potent self-care tool kit I'd pieced together over the last decade and I understood how resilient our energy body is. I was confident this would be temporary; that I had the patience, strength and stamina; the tools and emotional and mental capacity to move through this. I knew that nothing would change until I allowed myself to be present with the experience and feel the pain. Through experience I knew one of my most potent allies and self-care tools was my ability to cry and feel my feelings.
Two months after my dad's death I was still really struggling at which time I read a book by a forgiveness educator named, Ana Holub, called, "Forgive and Be Free." I realized in this period that I had much work to do related to long time painful family issues and dysfunctional patterns with my sisters and parents. I have heard it is common that loss within a family can bring up trauma and painful family dynamics. The instant my dad took his last breath, all the dysfunction in our sister dynamic exploded from the shadows. For a time there was no contact between us. At the same time I was blocked from contact with my mother. Ana's book saved my life as I used her method of working each incident from my present and past where I'd felt wronged or felt I had wronged others. Ten days after beginning this work and after shedding a river of tears, I miraculously heard from my older sister. That call launched us both onto a profound path of deep repair and healing of our broken relationship of decades. It began with one phone call, from my sister, "I'm calling to apologize and ask your forgiveness." We were both blessed to dive into forgiveness work together and through facilitation as well. This work has been life changing. I have done so much over the years to try and fix the brokenness in our sister relationship and nothing touched it until now. I am more than grateful for everything that has happened since my dad's death. It was extremely painful and set off a chain of events comparable to a slow fuse sparking for years and finally detonating through our whole family constellation. I had lost my father and mother and through the grief process and forgiveness work, I found myself and I found a true sister for the first time since we were children. I also learned about the vital importance of letting go of relationships that serve no one and only prolong pain and suffering. The forgiveness work opened new doors and sparked a renewed life energy that infused each day. At this same time, a long-time friend and I happened to reconnect over the summer. He too had been going through his own process of loss and grief and like magic our path's merged as we began holding space for each other around our separate experiences. Our connection has slowly grown into a beautiful friendship which we are both cherishing like a newly discovered rare and delicate seed.
My friend Sarah Marshank, founder of Selfistry, recently wrote a piece titled, "Death is Weird." The gist of it is that we each experience the death of a loved one in our own unique way. and how can we know what anyone's experience really is.
Sarah writes, "When we find ourselves about to say we know how it is for others, let’s pause, bite our tongue, turn off our autopilot, and offer an inquiry instead – a wondering. Like this: "How is it for you, your mother’s dying?"
I grew up thinking that death was painfully sad and frightening. It can be for some but perhaps not for everyone. Each death, just like each birth is a unique passage; its own journey. My father's death and what immediately followed, catalyzed healing and transformation, creating a profound opening for new life, filled with goodness, peace and love. It cracked me wide open, leaving light, love, peace, wholeness, new life and hope. The waves of grief still wash through me, unannounced, accompanied many times by tears. I never know when one may hit. What I do know is, as long as I embrace the unknown, I'll continue to move through life in peace and remain whole.