Perspectives, news, and announcements from the Center that will ignite your passion for wellbeing.
My stepson will graduate from high school in a few weeks - a big deal for him, his mom, for all of us. My oldest son will have his own big deal at the end of May when he graduates with an M.B.A. These big life events affect many around them: extended family, professionals, friends. Our family isn’t unique; hundreds of thousands of students will walk across a stage somewhere this spring, carrying the full gamut of emotion. Individually and together, we’ve worked for years to prepare for school graduation.
What about preparing for our final graduation, the threshold we’ll all cross when we exit this human life, carrying the full gamut of emo-tion?
My mother had a massive stroke on her 86th birthday last fall. After 5 days of great palliative care at Vancouver General Hospital, she graduated, hoping my dad was waiting for her on the other side of the stage. Though she’d looked forward with curiosity to whatever was next, it was a time of grief and loss for her children, grandchildren and a few surviving friends. It was also a time for love, gratitude and fare-wells.
She’d tried to prepare herself and us when we slowed down enough to listen to her: “Your father’s gone, the dog’s gone, the house is gone, my energy is gone and my body is wearing out - I’m ready to go.” She was more than ready to be in the past tense, yet she and we missed opportunities to plan, prepare, communicate.
In the past 50 years, we’ve moved beyond the settings and tradi-tions our ancestors used to prepare for the end of life. They were cared for by those who knew them best in places they called home. We haven’t yet quite figured out how to successfully navigate institu-tional end of life care by professionals. We might learn a few things about preparing for the final graduation from life by looking at how we prepare young adults for graduation:
1) Celebration: My wife and stepson are planning a festive barbecue party because he loves to grill. My son is hosting a big dinner party because he loves that. There should be a celebration, given the amount of work they and we put in to get here; a time to express grati-tude and joy for the journey we’ve shared with each other.
We had a graduation party for my mom, too, but waited until she was gone. This was a shame because she always rose to social oc-casions and would’ve been grateful to hear and feel the love in the room. People sent cards and flowers, which she would’ve loved read-ing and smelling. Social conventions notwithstanding, why don’t we find ways to celebrate the final graduation while the person can still at-tend? Imagine what the end of life would be if we shared flowers, cards, food and music, surrounded the person with family and friends to acknowledge their life’s work, to share love and gratitude for the journey?
2) Planning: My son and stepson have led the planning for their graduation because it’s about their goals, choices and values, not an-yone else’s. We’re here to support and help, but this is their life to di-rect. To achieve the graduation they wanted, they’ve envisioned their future with clarity, communication and collaboration as they planned for graduation starting 2-3 years ago. We’ve spent countless hours talking together about their hopes and fears, wondered together about both their present and future.
Few of us ask or listen to someone’s hopes or fears for their last few years: how they’d like to graduate, their plans and goals for the time left. We miss opportunities to wonder together about both their present and future, to plan for the final life threshold that’s as inevita-ble as graduation in spring. We are poorer for it. Unlike school gradua-tion, we can’t mark the date for the end of life on a future calendar. All the more reason to plan now, since tomorrow is only a possibility for each of us. As Ellen Goodman wrote, “It’s too soon until it’s too late.”
We were a fortunate minority because my mom had been clear about the care she wanted and didn't want if she couldn’t speak for herself. She wanted to her graduation to be comfortable, period. No more treatments or procedures. Her clarity was a blessing when her stroke happened because we had less moral distress about what to do. This didn’t mean it was easy. Though her passing was just as she wanted, her absence has left an empty spot in the garden of my heart.
3) Recognition: Recognition is essential to graduation because it celebrates all that has gone before, and the people who made it all possible. It’s also bittersweet, because it also acknowledges that we will not pass this threshold again. Time moves on. We won’t be the same after graduation.
Recognition is also essential to the final graduation. For both indi-viduals and the people who around them, recognizing their life’s lega-cies ranks right up there with remembering love received and given. Paradoxically, recognition of the person while they're still alive is one of the most precious gifts we can offer each other as the end nears. Children, grandchildren, friends all remember those conversations for decades. It’s one of the few solaces within grief. I wish my mom could’ve heard the recognition of all she had meant to everyone: her legacies, values, gifts and inspiration.
4) Acceptance: Leading up to graduation, parents and young adults pride themselves onlooking ahead. Discerning values and goals, ex-ploring alternatives and choosing a path, reflecting on where and with whom we’ve been, harboring hope for what lies ahead and seeking out safe places to acknowledge or express fears and worries are all steps towards accepting that change is coming. We work at ac-ceptance, alone and together, towing along our joys, sadness, fears, hopes. If we can gain some measure of peace in acceptance, we are better prepared to cope with graduation.
This is also true for our graduation from life. The more we can accept that mortality is a reality and work toward planning, celebrating and recognizing a life that’s approaching its human end, the better prepared we’ll be to cope and perhaps even cherish it, making the most of the last graduation, alone and together.
**Frank Bennett, MDiv, BS, is a Senior Fellow and Faculty at the Center for Spirituality & Healing. He teaches CSPH 5513: Living Well, Dying Well. For more information about enrolling in this course, please contact Tiffany Ralston.
Mandala is a biannual magazine produced by Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. It captures the core aspects of the Center: reflection, transformation, spirituality, creation, and the ongoing journey that continues to shape what we are to become.