Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Confronting Her Own Death

Death is the final challenge that we will all confront. How we approach our own death reflects how we have confronted other challenges in our lives. If we have denied and avoided the challenges that we have confronted, we may well attempt to do this as we approach life's final test. For most of us, unless we are exceedingly lucky, living a long and productive life requires that we face and deal with directly the challenges that we confront in our lives. The resilience skills and the attitudes that we have learned and practiced throughout our lives are the ones that we will apply to our death.

My mother died during the Christmas holidays. She was 95. Mom and I had an opportunity to talk a lot during the last few weeks before her death. We were lucky. Her decline in health had not affected her ability to think clearly or to be as quick and witty as she had been throughout her life. To understand how my mother died, you must understand how she lived. In many ways, she was like so many others. She grew up in a small town, she graduated from high school, she worked, she married, she had a child. What my mother did possess, however, what made her stand out, was her tremendous resilience.

Mom she understood what many people do not - the meaning of unconditional love, which she practiced on a regular basis throughout her life. She was a mother to many of my friends and to her niece, her younger sister's child, when her younger sister died at 59. In the last years of her life, she befriended her fellow residents at the elderly housing unit that she lived in, many of whom were younger than her. For many of them, she was their memory, reminding them of meal times and activities. She had a huge heart. She understood the importance of connectedness to others - a vital resilience factor.

The great love of her life was my father. They were married for 57 years. She indeed stood by him in sickness and in health. This was especially true in the last 25 years that they were together, struggling with my father's rheumatoid arthritis, which finally took his life. My dad loved her dearly. One of his favorite stories was the story of his wedding band. When they had gotten married during the Depression, my mother had no money to buy a wedding band. World War II came along and my father ended up in San Francisco waiting to be deployed to the war in the Pacific. My mother had traveled to San Francisco, worked there and was able to put aside enough money to buy a wedding band for him. One evening when my father was on leave, they walked out to the center of the Golden Gate Bridge, which they had done a number of times before. But that night was different. My mother slipped the wedding band on his hand and, as my father told it, he never took it off. The two of them taught me, and many other people, what being partners meant. My mother's love and devotion exemplifies two more resilience characteristics: the ability to hang tough during difficult times, and having a "Where there's a will, there's a way" attitude.

My mother was also a woman who spoke her mind, and increasingly so in the last years of her life. She would say, "At this age, what do I have to lose?" But whether she had something to lose or not, she always spoke up against injustice when she saw it, and she always acted on her beliefs and her values which she attributed to her parents who instilled them in her through their Christian faith. Having a deep-rooted faith, whether in a religious or philosophical system, is another characteristic of resilient people.

She was a woman who had a great sense of humor throughout her life. When she was being transported by ambulance from her last hospital stay to the rehabilitation center for the fourth time in five months, the ambulance driver remarked to her that he thought he might have met her earlier. My mother smiled and said that if he had driven an ambulance in the City of Portland, Maine, in the last six months, he had probably met her.

The last trip my mother took before her death was to Bermuda. She had always wanted to take a cruise and never had. Her excitement, her energy and her enthusiasm for the journey impressed everyone, including the cruise ship's staff. When her niece and my wife and I were ready to turn in for the night, she was still ready to party. "You can sleep when you get home," she would say.

When she developed an infection a few months after her return that required infusion treatments, she accepted that she would have to be in a nursing facility for a few weeks. But she had a goal to be back home and be independent as soon as she could. The next few months were a struggle. She was back and forth between the rehabilitation facility and her apartment a number of times. She didn't like being in the nursing facility, and she made that clear. The staff understood that she didn't want to give her independence up and they admired her spirit. Through it all, she treated with respect the staff who helped her face each day. She kept her sense of humor and her willingness to help others if she could, a few days before her death giving her personal care assistant a little bit more advice on how to manage her finances - an example of Mom's resilient ability to turn problems into opportunities.

When my mother faced her death, she didn't deny it. She talked about it. She wanted us to be with her if we could. She said that when she took her last breath, she would visualize a small white dress, perhaps a christening gown. She didn't know why; the image just came to her, she said.

And thankfully we were with her on that last day. My daughter and I were there and had the privilege of holding her hand as she took that last breath.

Dr. Ron Breazeale, Ph.D
Author of Duct Tape Isn't Enough

Original blog can be found at www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-face-adversity

Teaching Resilience Through Storytelling

Storytelling has been around since the first human beings sat down around a fire and talked about their lives. These first training sessions on resilience occurred thousands of years ago. From campfires to fireplaces, potbelly stoves to water coolers, we continue to tell stories about resilience.

In more recent times we've written these down in the form of novels and biographies, and more recently, recorded them on tape and film, and, most recently, posted on the Internet. Hearing the stories of others often enables one to identify with one or more of the characters in the story. Based on my experience with the Duct Tape Isn't Enough program, I believe that storytelling is an ideal vehicle for teaching resilience skills and attitudes, far better than lectures, textbooks, or brochures.

Research by psychologist James Pennybaker and others has found that writing about difficult things may actually improve our health. In a series of studies, one group of individuals was asked to write down their deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event they had experienced. Another group wrote about ordinary matters, such as their plans for the day. Both groups wrote for 15-20 minutes a day for three consecutive days. The results were surprising. When compared with the people who wrote about ordinary events, the ones who wrote about their traumatic experiences reported fewer symptoms, fewer visits to the doctor, fewer days off from work, improved mood, and a more positive outlook. Their immune function was enhanced for at least six weeks after writing.

These studies suggest that words can help us understand and absorb the traumatic event and eventually put it behind us. It can give us a sense of relief and control. Confiding our feelings in others can have a similar benefit.

One of the most difficult life events for most of us to talk about is death. It is a natural event, an experience all of us will share. And before our own death, we will encounter the death of others, especially those closest to us, such as a parent, spouse or, God forbid, a child.

Both living and dying require resilience. For the dying it may be staying alive long enough to say goodbye to the last child who's driving through a snowstorm to be at your bedside. For those caring for the person who is dying, being resilient requires, among other things, being able to wait and watch the person you love transition, and requiring you to change your routine every day as the situation demands. Staying flexible is the daily requirement.

Having just lost my mother during the Christmas holidays I am acutely aware of the resilience my mother demonstrated, not only throughout her life, but particularly in the weeks before her death. And I am acutely aware of the impact that her death will have on all of those who have been touched by her life.

In the next few weeks using storytelling, I will examine resilience from both sides, from the person who is dying and from those who are impacted by the person's death.

Original blog can be found at www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-face-adversity