My origin story is founded in ‘Love’ and her name is Elizabeth. She was 25 and I was 30. She had an ease about her. She radiated a strong, comfortable, and confident presence. I was drawn to her immediately. We started dating. After a week or so, I met her father. He was ill. Very ill. At the time, she described his illness as a brain tumor. He was lean, bald, and home bound. Elizabeth was her father’s sole caregiver. He was in the later stages of his illness and he was dying. For me, things got real. I was humbled to be included in this intimate circle of two, who were living their lives in the shadows of death. I turned from being drawn to Elizabeth to being in awe of her and her father and everything else around me. Her father died four months after my initial meeting – March 1992.
The poem, Adrift by Mark Nepo, encapsulates this time in my life with Elizabeth and her father. The opening line from the poem that speaks to me today is- Everything is beautiful, and I am so sad.
Fast forward 24 years later (2016). I am sitting across from my supervisor, the Executive Director of the institute where I am a practicing outpatient associate therapist. His 91-year-old mother had recently died, and his 90-year-old father was in the advance stages of his illness. The topic of death weaved its way into our weekly hour-long conversations. I was reminded with vivid clarity of the time when I met Elizabeth. I had forgotten about how extraordinary life can feel in the presence of death. I started reading all the death bed literature I could get my hands on, Stephen Levine, Joan Halifax, and Stephen Jenkinson were amongst the many authors whose books on death I read and started influencing my thinking on life, love and death.
It was early on a clear Sunday morning in late October (2016). I was on my way to the gym, when I decided to tune my radio to the local NPR station and that is when I heard, “Welcome! I’m Dr. Dawn Gross and this is Dying to Talk. A special series. Tackling the taboos around death and dying. How we die is a reflection, of how we live.” Love strikes a second time, but this time it was emanating from the voice of Dr. Gross on the radio. I parked, sat in my car for the next hour and I listened to an inspiring conversation with author and professor, Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Over the following days, I binge listened to the rest of Dying to Talk radio programs and interviews (https://dyingtotalk.com/new-page). Although all the episodes resonated deeply, it was Dying to Talk episode #4, called What do you wish. During this episode, Dr. Gross facilitated an end-of-life conversation between her two eldest children and their father. I was in awe of the intimacy and love shared between these family members. My heart grew 5 x bigger and had me crying while cooking dinner. Listening to these family members discuss what they thought mattered most to their father if he were to have a life limiting diagnosis was enough to convince me to start my quest to make it possible for other families to have these conversations with those they loved, ideally before a healthcare crisis.
I contacted Dr. Dawn Gross within the week and asked if she would be interested in bringing the conversation to my parish and school community. She said, “yes!” By mid-December of that year, we had successfully facilitated our first Dying to Talk event. This was the start of our collaboration together, which continues to this day.
Again, welcome. I am happy ‘you are here” and that you took the time to read my story.