When Grief comes to call

Last week Grief took me down, yet left a gift.

If you’re dealing with personal pain or the low-grade, chronic grief a lot of us are feeling about the world, it may be time to learn to walk with him.

I can’t tell you how to “get over” grief, but I’m learning about how to deal with his dominating, demanding presence.

Grief is one tough master. (I’ve gendered him, but you can change that if a force that takes you to your knees and threatens to flatten you to the ground feels more female to you.) He’s unyielding, sometimes cruel, and yet not without occasional kindness.

Losing Riley

Grief took my husband and me for a wild ride last week after we decided that it was time to put down our little animal companion, Riley.

Riley was our foster-rescue dog, a sweet, gentle Springer Spaniel, who came into our lives for four months, until his dementia and neurological difficulties made life too painful for him.

Our passion for Riley defied logic. We were smitten the moment we saw him walking in circles at the park, on a leash with the woman who brought him to us from the Seattle Animal Shelter. No matter that Riley was deaf, near blind, had trouble lifting himself to walk, and at times couldn’t contain himself for more than three hours.

He became a vessel for the biggest love we could give.

When Riley looked at us with his clouded eyes, our hearts melted and all we could think of doing was showering him with the safety, care, and love that he had missed during his days of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.

Grief was watching our moves.

Grief took aim as we kept opening our hearts to our little fella. Grief knew how to pulverize us the moment that we decided that Riley’s pain and confusion had outstripped his joy in living and it was time to say goodbye.

NEVER say to anyone, “He was just a dog.” Grief doesn’t care. Grief shakes us with loss and strips from us whatever we hold precious, whether it’s a beetle or a treasured photo, lost, of a deceased grandmother.

In the soul, sorrows mingle. My mother’s long-awaited death evoked few tears (they may still come), but putting down Riley took me to a place where I couldn’t stop sobbing.

Last week I read the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, who experienced a tsunami of grief when her wife Rayna died. As she shared in a recent TED interview:

“Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.”

Quote cited in a post at Brainpickings

Gilbert’s words resonate as memories of Riley continue to haunt our house.

A piece of chicken fat turns into a memory of how Riley would have swallowed it whole and then licked my hand. The baby gate we put in place to keep Riley in his section of the house is down, yet I still try to step over it. After-images of Riley keep appearing: Riley stumbling to stand, Riley being carried down steps by my husband, Riley panting and turning in circles in the hall, confused by his growing dementia.

Part of me wants to numb this pain, but neither drinking nor drugs are appealing. Grief is adept at waiting out numbness. Reasoning feels equally useless. Who cares that Riley was only with us for four months or that we gave him the best life we could? That may matter, but not to Grief.

Grief comes with a gift

Bearing the pain, I walk through our vegetable garden. I notice that the colors of the leaves on the smoke bush have become more vivid. The beans I left dangling from their vines stand out like a piece of art. The rustle of the quaking aspens turns into a melody.

Words, inspired by Riley, start flooding into me and I create a small poem. Grief waits with me as I shape a blessing from Riley for my husband, another for a friend who loved our furry companion.

The power to shape and craft my words is the lifeline I need, a way to stand with my grief, neither running from it nor drowning in its waters. Creativity lifts me out of the darkness, with compassion. I do not have to produce something lasting or great, I just need to follow its suggestion and open my senses and imagination.

I follow the thread, creating other small poems, trusting that each step I take is leading me towards healing, knowing that light will follow the dark, sensing that the gashes in my heart are expanding my perspective, and giving Grief its due.

Whether you are happy with the elections or not, concerned about the Caravan of refugees coming towards the Mexican border, or not, or tracking on other sufferings, know that in today’s world, Grief is likely to be a frequent guest.

Give Grief his place at the table

It’s a small price to pay for the right to love and care deeply about the world.

Let Grief stand at your side as you dip into that place in your soul where joy and sorrow mingle and deep hope lives.

From there, you may find solace. From there, you can create.

From there may you find a place of wholeness, a rainbow within that can bear the storms.

A blessing from Riley

To the friends I met
and those I never did,
I send you blessings.

I will be watching over you.
So grateful to have received love
in your difficult world,
a chance to leave in peace
even though I couldn’t wag my tail
or say thank you.

I will be romping again
with those you have loved
in a place called Dogland.

If you listen quietly
you may hear us bark.







What you can and can’t afford to forget

Do you forget things? I do…and it bugs me, although the consequences are often minor. Selective amnesia is not such a bad thing. Think of it as a kind of spring cleaning of the mind, so you can free up some room for stuff that matters.

That said, here’s what I’d be happy to forget…and what I hope not to.

Stuff to forget during brain-cleanings:

My childhood phone number: (WO6-0642).
The star of Dr. Kildare: (Richard Chamberlain).
The name of the girl down the street who bullied me: (Maureen).
The teal dress I wore to the Junior Prom.
The Kardashians.

I forget other things, and often it’s not a big deal.

What I can forget (no big deal):

Occasional words.
The reason I just came into the kitchen.
How old I am.
The botanical names of the plants in my garden.
The name of the last book I read. (It was good…)

Forgetting can also have consequences–embarrassing, but largely remediable.

What I wish I hadn’t forgotten (but nobody died):

My anniversary. (Isn’t our love to be celebrated every day?)
Birthdays. (“Belated” is a term I use frequently.)
The name of the former client I ran into out of context. (Embarrassing!)
A Monday morning meeting. (Why didn’t I check my calendar Sunday night?)
The list I made to take to the supermarket.

Yet there are memories burned into me that I hope never to forget.

What never to forget:

The twelve people who were murdered in a Jewish Synagogue last weekend.
The children who have died in school shootings.
The stories of my grandparents and other ancestors, fast disappearing.
The lives of the faceless refugees leaving terrorized lands.
The children separated from their mothers at the border.
That guns kill.
That the marginalized: elderly, prisoners, disabled, or poor, are human like me.
That our world needs elders and my job is to become one.
That democracy cannot be taken for granted.
That hope heals even in the worst times.
To vote.

Let the small stuff fade away, but hold on to what counts, like remembering what’s in the United States Constitution.

And please, don’t ever forget to vote.

With prayers for the families of recent victims,

Ask a better question…create a better world

Whenever I lose my glasses, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, happens increasingly frequently, my world devolves into a glasses-finding operation. Walking through my house, I stop seeing the art, the dog, or the freshly-picked apples on the counter. Instead, I ask, “Where the heck are my glasses?” and view each piece of furniture as a potential hiding ground. My question sets the stage for what I see as I comb through the house.

Once the misplaced item is found (hopefully), I could create a different future (if I were wiser) by asking new questions instead of hopelessly playing and replaying my game of lost and found. By asking, “Why do I keep losing my glasses?” and “What system could I use to keep me from losing them so often?” I could create possibilities for change, rather than staying stuck in reaction.

Questions shape what we see

The slogan Make America Great Again, continues to polarize us in the United States. Framed as a question, it sounds like, “Why isn’t America great?” with the embedded assumption that America is not great. Asking that question (and the phrase itself) invites us to look at America and find ways we are “not great.”

If we were seriously interested in manifesting the greatness inherent in phrases like “liberty and justice for all,”  we might begin with a set of questions that offer a different lens through which to view the country:

  • In what ways is America great today?
  • What values lie underneath our true greatness?
  • Where are we living those values?
  • What stories do we have that capture the essence of this greatness?
  • Why is being great important?
  • When we embody our greatness, how do we act?
  • What could we do to bring out more of our true greatness–and make sure it benefits all?

When we examine our world for signs of true greatness rather than its lack, we start finding lots of examples.

We also see the gap between our values and our reality. We’re provoked to act out of our desire to do more of what is good, rather than fixing what is broken.

How to change the narrative, one question at a time

Sometimes the cultural narratives we live in, our “big stories,” are outdated.

For example, the narrative that shapes how we look at growing older is usually some version of  “aging-as-something-to-be-avoided-as-long-as possible,” “aging-as-a-problem-to-be-fixed,” or simply “gloom, doom, and decline.”

No wonder as a society we’re not turned on about getting old!

If we started asking questions that offered a different frame, we’d kindle a more hopeful perspective.

Next week, after my talk at Sageing International’s Global Conference in Minneapolis, I’m going to invite audience members to try out a few questions. Sageing participants support positive, conscious aging, so imagine the energy if people started asking each other:

  • How are you thriving now that you are past midlife?
  • What are you exploring or discovering that inspires you??
  • How is your life vibrant today?
  • What is calling to you now?

The mere act of asking those questions subverts the old narrative!

“Questions are fateful. They determine destinations. They are the chamber through which destiny calls.” – Godwin Hiatshwayo

Let questions shape the world we want

Looking for what we want doesn’t require that we deny the shortcomings or problems in our society. We acknowledge the gap between our aspirations and values and our current reality, and then ask:

“What’s a change we could make today to bring us more in line with our values?”

The world orients to our questions.

Want to give it a go? You’re welcome to try out these:

  • What about life has pleased you today?
  • Where in your life are you feeling most yourself?
  • Where did you catch yourself thriving?

Or, you could always borrow mine:

“Where did I leave my glasses tonight?”



A question to guide your birthday

I’m writing this on my birthday, pausing to reflect on what it is to grow older.

I’m not yet ready to share my age, which is odd because I believe in claiming your age. At Ignite Seattle this past May, I closed my talk by inviting audience members, in one super-charged burst of enthusiasm, to shout out their ages.

Yet today, I’m not above feeling the stigma of aging in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with its elders.

That stigma is like the haze floating in our Northwest skies. It’s everywhere, intensifying the red fire of the setting sun, but you can’t see the source: the fires raging in California and Oregon. The stigma of aging penetrates our social atmosphere, showing itself on birthday cards of big-bellied older people on the ski slope joking, “It’s all downhill now.”

“It’s all downhill now…” Is that the story of elderhood? Where are the enlivening images of aging? The role models of elderhood?

I’ll share one example later.

Our story about aging is so out of sync with the world, neither heroic, redemptive, or interesting. Can you imagine going to a movie where the message was: “You grow older, you start to lose who you’ve been, people ignore you or too overtly care for you, and then you die?.”  Even popcorn sales wouldn’t save it at our local theatre.

Young people are concerned about aging, too.

For the sake of those who are younger, we need a better story about growing old.

At Ignite Seattle after delivering my talk about the promise of aging, I was approached by a thirty-year-old woman who said:

“I really loved your talk. I wish my friends could have heard it, especially that part about claiming your age. You wouldn’t believe what’s happening. My friends are giving themselves memorial-parties for their thirtieth birthdays. Everyone dresses in black to mourn that the best is over. I know one girl who is totally freaked out about turning twenty-one.”

She needs inspiration about the power of aging–not some cool photo of a dude climbing Kilimanjaro at eighty-five. I huff and puff climbing up the road in front of my house! We need stories that recognize the physical, even mental, limitations that can come with age, yet leave us with a sense of dignity, new respect for aging, and the hope that we’ll have access to a different, wiser, kind of power.

Do we even have elders? 

In Stephen Jenkinson’s provocative new book, “Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in Troubled TImes,” he argues that we have no place for elderhood in our culture. Jenkinson, featured in the movie Griefwalker, rattled the world of end-of-life care with his thoughts about death, learned in his years working in what he calls the “death trade.”

Now he’s taking on aging and elderhood.

“Something in the fabric of life in North America inveighs severely against limit and ambivalence and not firing on all cylinders all the time, and this something is being driven to panic by the daily news and in the panic, you’ll find the refusal to age. This something robs age of elderhood. No one would seem to benefit from the theft and it isn’t likely that anyone would vote for it, but there is a general willingness to forgo aging, and to live without the elderhood that could have come with it. … Agedness is at best a prolonged, unextinguishable middle age…”

An elder, for him, is someone who knows the reality of death, failure, and limit. But the issues aren’t just about aging. Our failure to accept the idea of limits affects more than our relationship with the elderly. It’s at the source of an environmental crisis that stems, in part, from our failure to accept that there are limits to growth, limits to what our planet can tolerate, and limits to sustainability,

If the youth were to speak

This spring, the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida gave us straight talk about gun control. Their courage was the only silver lining after another godforsaken tragedy.

I imagined what they might say about the lack of elderhood in our culture. I doubt they would mince their words:

“You adults need to give us a better image of elder wisdom than we have today. You can’t just leave huge messes for us and then lock yourself away into comfortable communities with people just like you or retire to leisure villages and distance yourself from the problems of the world.

We understand that you may not have your old energy and may need to adjust what you can do. But here’s the deal: you have to stop running from the pain of knowing that the environmental, economic and social problems created on your watch aren’t like to be fixed while you’re still here. That’s going to hurt and you’ll just have to deal with it.

So don’t turn your backs on us. We need your wisdom. Grow up and become elders.”

An example of eldering

Where do we look for elders? I don’t know.

Not necessarily in elder circles, or crone gatherings, although a few might be there. I can’t tell you who an elder is, but I can recognize someone who seems worthy of the name: my friend-colleague-mentor of many years, Anne Stadler.

At 87, Anne is still going strong, although she has to be selective with how she spends her time and mindful to take care of herself. (You can listen to Eric Liu’s interview of her here.)

For over fifty years, as a mother, TV producer, community developer, educator, and peacemaker, Anne’s been a fierce advocate for the possibility of what Martin Luther King called The Beloved Community. She has stood up for social justice, for giving voice to those whose voices have not been heard, for encouraging participation, and fostering collaboration.

She teaches and models how to trust the wisdom that can emerge when we listen for the spirit within ourselves, within our groups, and within our communities.

Whether she’s supporting the peoples and waters of the Salish Sea or helping to bring Story Bridge to the world, Anne brings deep intuition, soul, and commitment to everything she does. Her commitment to always doing her own inner work strengthens her actions.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of people she has mentored and still does.

When I was a fledgling faculty member in a university, struggling to realize my dream of creating a new graduate program in leadership and management, Anne gave me the hand I needed to summit a steep and rocky slope. She blessed me with her network of connections and helped me assemble a remarkable crew of advisors to guide what we were creating. She supported me to trust myself and to trust the emergent wisdom within my group of advisors as we sat together and contemplated what this new program really needed to be. She helped mid-wife its birth.

I call Anne a true elder not just in recognition of her community contributions, her mentoring, or her wisdom. It’s because, throughout her life, she’s had the courage to ask one question and then follow the call:

“What am I being called to do?”

That’s the question we all need to ask.

I bet Anne will be asking that question for the rest of her life, even if the answer is: “Be still and do nothing.”

Being willing to ask that question, and then listen deeply, lies at the root of elderhood.

By asking, listening, and waiting, we find our individual answers. The Anne Stadlers of the world are to be treasured, not copied. They show us what vibrancy and commitment can look like at any age, and serve as the role models we need for elderhood as we age.

In honor of Anne, and on my birthday, I ask myself the big question once again:

“What am I being called to do?”

Oh, and by the way, I just turned 67.

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