Almost 6 Months Later – Post Revisited

The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.

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Seven years ago I wrote the post Almost 6 Months Later which contained some thoughts about the things that had happened in the six months following my fathers death. I believed that at that point I had moved most of the way through the grief process. 90 months later, I am certain that the process doesn’t ever have an end point. Instead, we get better at dealing with it as life moves on and our brain adjusts to create a new normal.

I am not sad and I do not believe that this is a pessimistic view. The fact is that we never stop developing and adapting to the stimulation we bring into our brains, so there is no reason to believe that adjusting to the death of a loved one ever stops. Our brains grow from the beginning of life and probably continue to grow for a few minutes after we take our last breath. They are complex organic computers that spawn and prune connections between billions of neurons to form long term memories and create processes that allow it to handle the world more effectively the next time the world brings it the same type of stimulation. They are never still and the only time they ever go dark is when we die.

In the original post, I spoke about someone who I met whose father had been given the diagnosis of a very slowly developing cancer. She was upset and having a tough time processing the news while her dad was very matter of fact about it. He was well into his eighties and didn’t really care all that much. He was old, had lived a complete life, and since he wasn’t actually running out of runway, he didn’t think it was worth the energy to worry about or to consider the diagnosis. He felt that there was as good a chance that old age would take care of things before the cancer did and since he wasn’t worrying about old age, it didn’t make any sense to deal with the fact that the doctor had told him that he had cancer.

A year later, Heather’s father was diagnosed with a few different types of cancer – no one was sure where the original tumor had been, but it had metastasized to the point that it was in his bones, throat, and possibly his brain. They said possibly because while he did have a brain tumor, it didn’t seem to grow at all between the scans; unlike the other tumors that ate his spine and began to close over his throat. Unlike my dad, who stood to gain very little from treatment, her dad was able to under go radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation worked wonders on his throat, opening it up again and allowing him to eat and drink anything he wanted, which he did. The chemo was less well tolerated, and he stopped it a few weeks in because of the side effects. After the tumors, the skin is the next place to begin to show the side effects of the chemicals – most of the chemotherapy medication that has traditionally been used in treating cancer works by killing tissue. It is reasonably specific in so far as it will primarily target the type of cell that makes-up the tumor, but it is not perfect and is not isolated to JUST the tumor cells. With chemotherapy there will be collateral damage and with him it began to take a toll on the skin of his lips and neck. Given that he was never going to be cured, he made the decision to stop the treatment and put an end to these awful side effects. He was close to seventy and had more or less made his peace with the life he had lived. He died the following July.

While at the time of my dads death, I was unable to find anything good about it; the possible exception being that since his GBM wasn’t painful, he got to enjoy the final 6 weeks of life as much as anyone can enjoy any six week period. The post I wrote six month later, I made mention to feeling useful to my friend because of what I had just experienced. With the sad news about Heather’s dad, I was able to be even more useful. This was a good thing, and it did, in a way, give my dads death a little more meaning or value. It wasn’t that I knew what Heather, her sister, and the rest of the family were going through, I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly know what their experience was like. But I did have experience with the process. So while I lacked the specific knowledge of what they were going through, she had someone to talk to about the feelings she was having and the thoughts that were popping into her mind with someone who was a little further along in the grieving process. I was able to talk to the very odd sensations and feelings that accompany your loved one seeming to improve with whatever treatment they receive and how there are feelings of disbelief that there is actually something wrong.

This is like an emotional time bomb that makes normal living close to impossible. No matter how good you feel, there’s a monkey on your back that at some point in the future something very crappy is going to happen. When you feel bad about what is going on, there is the thought that you need to cheer-up and enjoy your remaining time together. No matter what you are feeling, a thought pops into mind to tell you that you should feel something else. It’s a destabilizing experience, as though you are gas lighting yourself, and over time you begin to not trust how you feel or to simply allow yourself to experience whatever is occurring from moment to moment from any place other than the certain future when your loved one has died.

Her dad, just like mine, did his best to address this thing by encouraging his children and the rest of the family to go about their life’s as well as they could. There wasn’t any point in cycling on the future because it was going to happen when it was time. Until then it was just something to deal with later. On his advice, Heather and I took a trip to Mexico, our first big trip together. I don’t recall any specific moments of overwhelming sadness and the trip was a lot of fun.

Years later, Heather and I both have moments when we think about our dads. Speaking to my moments, I don’t get sad anymore, although there can be times when I wake-up feeling stunned that my dad is gone. These I know are just the emotional chemicals that my brain has released in response to some mental process that my brain has drawn a connection between and thoughts about my dad not being there. There have been a number of times in my past when I had these feelings, and they seemed to link-up to conscious thoughts relating to something that always was but was now no longer. Adjusting to dramatic change is tough and the brain isn’t very good at doing it all at once. It needs a lot of time and stimulation to eventually land in a place that doesn’t feel painful or register as loss, but is just a feeling of “offness.”

Of course, I have done a lot of stuff in the meantime that has had a big impact on how I approach the experience of being alive. There is no doubt in my mind that how I handled my father’s death served as another example of how some of my ways of operating were not helpful or were contributing to the level of difficulty I was having living from day to day. I accept this, and realize that dealing with death is not something that we are taught or that most people have much experience with. Improvements in healthcare, food availability, sanitation, safety regulations, and vaccinations have boosted life expectancy, meaning that the initial experience with the death of a loved one do not occur until much later in life. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is great that people are living longer. Being alive is at least something, so the fact that more than twenty years have been added to the average life span in North America means twenty more years of that something. But on the other hand, it means that, statistically speaking, the first exposure to the death of a loved one is going to occur twenty years later than it would have before.

The significance of this delay is best understood when considering the compounding effect of experience over time. Someone who has been writing for twenty years is going to be much better at it than someone who has been writing for five years. In the case of physically writing, the fifteen extra years will give them much better physical control over their hand and finger movements, allowing them to become an expert in terms of handwriting. In the case of writing words that capture ideas, those extra years of practice will mean that the brain will have adapted more completely to whatever the mental stimulation that brings those ideas to consciousness and then to paper represented. This is much more to the point. The grief process is long, possible permanent, and it does represent one of the more significant things that a human being will have to deal with.

Death is real, it’s a thing that happens, but it is less significant than the experience of grief would have you believe. My view of it has changed over time, as I mature and my brain works its way through the grief processes that have been triggered in my life. When you are in it, it feels awful. You are almost incapable of thinking about it in real terms, and will instead deal with the abstract aspects of it. This is not good or bad, it’s just what happens with most people. But it is not a pure reflection of reality.

Consider it from a materialistic point of view. People are bags of molecules but a “person” is a rich narrative understanding that is a collection of things. My dad married my mom and they had two children. This is a biological thing and it can be measured. But the relationship that I had with him cannot be so easily understood. He did do a lot of stuff to change the physical environment that I lived in – he worked to make money so that we had food, shelter and clothing – he took physical actions in the world to make sure that the family was safe, secure and mostly free of worry, and he talked to me to teach me things and to alter some of my decisions or actions – the ideas that he had were captured by the air flow that left his lungs and passed over his vocal chords allowing these ideas to be generated in my head when that air vibrated my eardrums, creating the electrical activity that my brain converted into the understanding of the words from which the ideas were created. That is no small feat. Make no mistake about it, my dad did a lot for me and he did almost all of it through the same methods that human beings have been using throughout their entire history.

My present understanding has nothing to do with trying to diminish anything about the important role he played and that all parents and caregivers play. But when you detach from the whole thing and break it down into the material or objective reality, it all becomes so much less than the story we are living when we are gripped tightly by the hand of grief.

When my dad died, I lost my father, yes, but he had already completed 98 percent of the “father” things that he had the potential and willingness to do. From this point of view, his death makes almost no difference to my playing the role of “son.” The role I get to play is not the same as it would have been had he not died in 2012, but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Only one thing happens, so there is only an alternative experience or outcome when we take the time to think about it. Any notion about what it would have been like if he had continued to live for another twenty years is immaterial. It can only exist as a thought and even then, it can only exist in the brain of the person who is thinking it. This is vastly different from the 98 percent of the things that he did that contributed to his playing the role of father. Some physical matter was impacted by those actions and that makes these actions real and of material consequence.

Sure, we can make an argument that, by him dying, he was no longer able to take action and that therefore is a material difference. This is true, but we’d be hard pressed to say with complete certainty what those actions were. Okay, I have every reason to believe the family would have continued to enjoy Sunday dinners, so his passing very likely marked the end of them; or at least him eating dinner with us. But the truth is that this is only the most probable outcome. Something else could have happened that put an end to the Sunday dinners. We’ll never know, and that is the point of it. While someone is alive, we can say with certainty the material impact that their actions have on the world – what molecules they put in motion, which ones they stopped moving or prevented from moving, and which ones they impacted to change their direction and velocity. When they are dead, or did not exist, we can only engage in a game of speculation about how they would have impacted the physical universe.

The initial phases of grief are awful, not because the person is dead and they are no longer impacting the physical world in a way that make their loved ones feel good which is perceived as bad. The intensity of the early part of the grief process is magnitudes larger than that. The reason, I believe, why it starts off at such a high level is because their death is interpreted as the loss of EVERY SINGLE possible impact they could have had on the physical world. It has very little or nothing to do with the present moment. The genesis of the feelings is an unconscious and automatic loop that has the brain cycling on all of the future possibilities that are now off the table. This happens fairly quickly, and unless the person has the ability to clear negative emotion faster than the brain creates it, they can find themselves getting overwhelmed.

The feelings the person is having are real. The chemicals that cause the body to experience the emotion can be measured and the increased brain activity in the areas that are responsible for processing negative emotion can be observed with an fMRI machine. BUT since these changes will not occur in the bodies of people who did not know the deceased person, their cause is purely perceptual and the result of specific mental activity in the brain of the bereaved. So while death is real, and the emotional response to a death of a loved one is real, this response does not have a direct physical cause. It is an abstract interpretative reaction that is triggered in the brains of almost all human beings and many animals. It is a part of the genetic code that evolved over millions of years and is a deeply seeded part of our operating system.

Now given that it is a natural and genetically coded process, we are innately equipped to handle it. It is a mechanism that evolved because it improved our fitness in terms of survival and reproductive success. This is the problem we are running into now, because as life expectancy grows, the necessary experiences that trigger and shape gene expression are delayed. This delay is at least twenty years – given that life expectancy has grown by this amount over the last century – but it is almost certainly longer. Regardless of the time frame, every previous generation of human beings lived much shorter lives and had to deal with infant mortality rates that were in the double digits. This means that exposure to the early death of a loved one was a way of life not so long ago, and it was a fact of life for every ancestor (prehuman) in our evolutionary past; even if they were not capable of relating to someone as a “loved one” many of their species died young ensuring that those who survived long enough to reproduce had figured out how to get back on their feet again.

Maybe a more concise way to phrase this would be to suggest that only recently and only within our species, that death has become increasingly more abstract as our direct exposure to it has been delayed for decades. The positive is that we are living longer, the negative is that for many of us, our first exposure to it comes well after our brains have fully developed. While this may seem like a bonus it isn’t because children and adults do not process stimulation and information in the same way. The prefrontal cortex of a child is much less well developed than that of an adult meaning the younger a person is, the lower their capacity for thinking about the future and for generating timelines. As a consequence, children do not have the same grief experience as adults.

So returning to the compounding effect of experience over time comment, it’s very easy to imagine a child 2000 years ago having their first experience with death and grief at age 10. It means something to them, but it cannot mean the same thing as it does to their 30 year old father because they do not have the same hardware. However, the child has the experience and the process runs its course. Meaning that, over time, their brain processes and reprocesses it, and as their brain fully matures, they have been working through the experience for 10 or more years. And they have probably had other death experiences that influence and play their part on the grief process. By the time they are 30, they will have a level of resilience that is the result of wisdom and NOT the result of willpower or wishful thinking. They know it sucks but they know that in time they will feel better because they will have gone through it a few times and have become aware and desensitized to it.

Even when their brain is fully formed and capable of peak levels of abstract thought, their life experience will have populated their long term memory with sensory information that reflects the truth about death. When compared to their contemporary counterparts, their reactions will not be the same in terms of magnitude and may actually differ completely in terms of content.

My first exposure with the death of a loved one was when I was 21. There is no comparing this to the second experience I had almost 20 years later. Yes, there was sadness and a sense of despair, but there was also a wisdom of knowing that I didn’t need to think about it all of the time and that I was actually free to NOT think about it if I didn’t want to. The first month was tough the second time round, but things were only as bad as they could be for a couple of weeks, and even then this was only when I thought about it; or when I was not able to NOT think about it.

And that is really the value of what I went through. I knew what it was all about in terms of the human experience of grief and its innate emotional experience. It’s intense and rough at the beginning as the brain works its way through the list of EVERYTHING that is lost, but then it calms down and starts to get a grip. Over the weeks and months it narrows its assessment to what might have been lost and focuses on what was actually lost. What begins as thousands becomes 4 or 5 things that you can honestly say are gone because you know you would have done them. For example, I miss talking to my dad about things. He was curious and kind, and he had a lot of life experience that helped to provide perspective about what those things actually meant or what they meant 20 years ago when they happened, and 40 years ago when they happened. I miss his laugh, not because it was a particularly good one, although it was, but because when you hear someone laughing like that, you know with absolute certainty that they are in the moment and it is a great moment to be in. And I kind of would have like for him to meet Heather because she’s awesome and he was awesome and I think they would have become good friends. But none of that stuff is worth crying about and even if it does make me sad from time to time, it does not make me death date +2 days sad.

Which is the point of all of it. Had I known what I would miss and be sad about and focused only on that stuff, I would have had a much easier time with it and would have been a lot more use to my mother, brother and sister in-law, and whoever else was negatively impacted by his passing. But technological progress has liberated us from having to have the experiences that make human beings effective grievers. We have the genes to make us good at it, we just don’t have the experiences to bring about their expression.

At this point in my life I do not think much about the future deaths of the people that I love. It is something that I am capable of doing but choose not to because it makes me feel lousy. I know I will be subjected to grief again unless I’m the first one to go, so I’ll deal with it when it comes along. What I do know is that most of what the older people say about death and how to navigate through the first couple of months after the loss of a loved one is solid advice. Look after your health as well as you can. Do your best to stay nourished. Take the time to do the things that you know work for you. Put in the effort to reestablish your sleep schedule as soon as you can. And go easy on yourself, no matter how you feel. It is fine to not think about it, just as it is fine to take some time to bawl your eyes out. Over time, you will feel better and adjust. The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.

Visit to the Juravinski Cancer Centre – For Glioblastoma Multiforme (Brain Cancer) – Post Revisited

In December 2011 my family took a trip to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. The trip was taken just to cross-off a possibility from the short list of possible actions that is given to you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. The list was my dad’s, which means the cancer was his. GBM, the most common type of brain cancer. It was a primary tumor, it grew very quickly, and it was located in a part of the brain that made it difficult to operate on and there would be very serious damage to the surrounding tissue. Surgery could be performed but since there was no chance that they would be able to remove all of the tumor it would grow back, likely at the same speed it grew in the first place.

My dad was 67, which placed him on the do nothing side of the surgery decision matrix. He was remarkably healthy for a man of that age, still very lean, strong, and in possession of all of the markers of good health. Apart from the cancer he was in great shape. During the conversation with the oncologist he said that they would be willing to perform the surgery because it was low risk in so far as my dad would live through it. The decision was my dad’s to make, but only after sitting down with the treatment team of doctors who would look his case over and give their honest assessment of what should happen next.

What struck me at the time and what I still remember very clearly is the flatness of each one of the doctors. They were nice, seemed kind and were honest. At no point did I or my family get a sense that they were being anything other than truthful. There was stuff they could do. The surgeon said that there was no way to get rid of the entire tumor without leaving the brain as a complete mess, but he could de-bulk it and doing this would give my dad a little more time. The radiation doctors knew they could destroy a lot of the remaining tumor, and this would buy some more time. The oncologist wasn’t confident that there was anything more that could be done because the blood brain barrier prevents most chemo therapy drugs from entering the brain. While there were some experimental medications that showed promise, getting into a drug trial was unlikely given my dad’s age. We were free to source and buy the drugs elsewhere but he wouldn’t be able to offer any support or advice. The feeling we all got was that they would go to bat as hard as they could, in the event my dad decided that he was going to treat it.

My brother asked what it would look like if my dad decided to take whatever treatment options were available and each doctor spoke dispassionately as they gave their best guess. The radiation doctors said 5 treatments a week for 6 to 10 weeks. Possibly a few courses of them over the remaining time. The first week wouldn’t be too bad, but from there it would get tougher as the tumor cells died, along with any other tissues that were impacted. It would start like a cold, then move into the realm of a flu and effectively become the worst sickness he had ever had. A week or so after the final treatment the body would begin to show signs of recovery, and my dad would start to feel better. After a few weeks he would be back to feeling cold and flu free. They avoided saying back to normal because that was never going to happen because radiation was only going to be used if surgery was performed. Whatever version of my dads brain existed before he went under the knife would be gone forever, so the radiation was going to be destroying the tumor along with a portion of whatever brain tissue remained.

The surgeon went next. His version was more intense because his intervention involved gaining direct access to the tumor. The radiation was a beam generated by a machine that penetrated the flesh and bone; which is kind of like shining a flash light on something. Surgery involved cutting the skin, peeling back the scalp, sawing through the skull, cutting a path through the top layers of the brain to get access to the tumor and then cutting and burning away as much of the tumor as he could while trying to avoid cutting away viable tissue and damaging the thousands / millions of tiny pathways connecting different parts of the brain to one another. Once the debulking was complete, they’d close-up, join the piece of the skull that was removed to the rest of the skull using metal plates and screws, flip the scalp back and stitch it back together. There would be antibiotics to prevent infection, pain killers to help deal with the pain associated with cutting through the skull and scalp – there wouldn’t be any pain from the brain because it doesn’t have pain receptors – and a few days of recover in the hospital.

There was an enthusiasm in how he described what he would do, and I was confident that he would do it really well. But whatever sense of optimism his enthusiasm created crashed when he talked about the recovery.

“We have no idea what we will have to do once we get inside. We’ll do more imaging before we go in, but there is no way to know exactly what the tumor looks like, what other tissues it involves and how it will have grown between the scan and the day we do surgery.” He paused to let this sink in before continuing. “Given all of that, the tumor is still be there and it will grow again. And it is brain surgery. We’re cutting into your brain and we will be removing pieces of it. No matter how careful we are, and I am very good at this and our team is excellent, your brain is never going to be as it is right now.” Another pause and then, “even as the tumor continues to grow now, you are still you. You won’t be after surgery. Removing pieces of the brain changes who you are and we have no idea what that will actually mean until after surgery and about a month and a half of recovery. There is a chance that surgery and radiation will buy you another 9 months, maybe 11.” Looking at the oncologist, who nods, then back to my dad, “great, you’re healthy, maybe 15. But it isn’t you who will have them, it will be the post surgery version of you and there is no way to predict who that will be, what they will be like and what they will still be able to do.”

The next few moments were longer than any before or since. The silence hung in the air, most uncomfortably.

He was very good at his job though, and took a brave next step. “If I had a relative who was just like you, and this was their brain scan,” holding up the printed image of my dads tumor, “I’d help them get their affairs in order and then go and spend a month or so somewhere hot and sunny with them.”

The oncologist spoke next, not giving much time to let what the surgeon had just said sink in. “There were a couple of things they could do in terms of medication, but the powerful chemo therapy drugs that have a strong track record of destroying cancer sell couldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so there wasn’t anything that he knew would work. We’re looking at surgery, radiation and whatever medication makes your remaining time easier.” And that was more or less that.

My dad decided against surgery and that was the end of it. There wasn’t going to be a cure so why bother with all the hassle of having to recover from brain surgery, maybe having to relearn how to walk or talk or think only to die in a few months anyway? Didn’t seem to him to be worth the inconvenience. He was still himself and would be until he died, so he got after enjoying whatever remained.

I haven’t been back to the Juravinski Cancer Centre and haven’t spent any time thinking about that day until about an hour ago when I reread the original post. What hit me was the paragraph about how we filled the half hour or so between the initial conversation with the oncologist and the group chat with the treatment team:

Some food at the cafeteria / lounge that had a piano but no singer. The family chats back and forth about stuff. I’m looking around and starting to feel strange because as I look at each group of people I’m trying to guess which one of them has cancer. If you haven’t played this game, you don’t really win when you guess correctly. There’s a table of 3 people, one is dying, the two that aren’t are going to be grieving their asses off soon. You can’t guess who is who without looking at their faces and when you do, you see a 21 year old son with his mom and grandmother, mom’s in a wheelchair because she has cancer. I felt rage deep inside that made me want to wreck something for what’s about to happen to this poor kid. I suddenly wonder what type of cancer killed the cafeteria singer and as I do, my eyes meet Des’ and he’s just seen the kids future too. I glace away towards my dad unwittingly winning another round of the stupid game my brain is playing.

I do not remember writing that nor do I remember thinking it. In fact, I have no recollection about that moment whatsoever. I can relate to it, it sounds very much like something that my brain would do and the words are almost identical to the ones I would use to describe such an experience.

I remember a conversation with my dad about art. I was sounding off about a painting being really expensive for just being a picture of something and he said “son, you have no idea what that picture actually represents, or what it represented at the time. Sure, it’s a picture of a scene, and to you and me it is a really good picture. It looks like what it is a picture of. But imagine that this was the first time someone did that, would that make it more important?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about and he knew it so he continued, “before that picture was painted, people didn’t paint pictures like that, they painted pictures like how they painted pictures. That artist saw that paintings didn’t look like real life and that real life didn’t look like the paintings and he changed that. He saw something that was always there but no one else had ever seen, and if they had, they had never painted it.” He could see that I was still kind of lost so he added, “art is a strange thing son, the artist who created that was the first to paint that way and he was probably laughed at for how bizarre it looked compared to everything else. But it was art because it captured something about reality that no one had ever captured before and after he did it, it could not be unseen.”

That is how I consider the paragraph I quoted above. I wasn’t the first person to have that experience, and I am probably not the first person to put it into words. But I feel good knowing that I captured a moment of humanity that is uncommon but likely experienced by everyone who sits in a cancer center, life on pause, waiting to hear from a team of doctors who are there to offer up their advice about what they can do in response to the cancer that has taken hold. It’s peaceful, still, and extremely short lived. Life starts up again as soon as we gather in the room, and this moment fades into the stew of memories that shape who we become, even if time causes us to forget that it happened.

Reasons To Not Be Afraid – Post Revisited

About seven years ago I wrote what I still regard as the most honest, vulnerable and personal thing I have ever posted. The title of the post was Reasons To Not Be Afraid and it represents as close to bottom as I hope I ever go.

At the time, it had been about six weeks since my father had died and after taking the month of February to rot, drink, overeat, smoke, and basically spiral down, I had a moment of clarity. It was around 4:55 AM on the morning of Wednesday February 29. For some reason, probably because my brain had stopped enjoying the experience of being inside my body, I was snapped awake with the realization that my dad was dead. While this was obvious and something that I was clear on, given that he died on January 29, a part of me had been pushing it away. But through the fog my brain was able to do its thing, reconcile all of the sensory information, interrogate my long term memories and force into my consciousness the painful reality that he wasn’t on vacation and that he was never coming home.

I lost my shit! Waking-up angry is one thing, this was an entirely different animal. My body was already filled with a chemically induced rage courtesy of my medulla dumping the previous months share of adrenaline into my blood stream a few moments before my eyes opened. The worst part was that my eyes opening was not the first action I took that morning. My body had been up and moving around for a while before I joined the party and it was my joining in that slowed everything down; not right away though. I was along for the ride watching my body wrecking things as I tried to get a handle on a tsunami of grief, a growing pain in my right foot and the feeling that something should be ringing in my ears that people get when they are smashed awake by a threateningly loud noise.

There were a few things wrecked in my room, nothing of much value and nothing that was ever missed, but destroyed nonetheless. A fan, a pair of old headphones, a plastic water bottle, stuff that had been near my bed when my hands decided that those items needed to be as far away from me as possible and the rest of my body agreed. The predawn peace had been shattered by things exploding against the wall that had done nothing but try and hold up the house. Its answer? Make sure everything stayed on the inside of the room by providing the perfect surface to convince a few million molecular bonds that their partners were not worth holding on to. It was the noise of their scream as they let go that was responsible for waking me up.

Oh, and I had kicked something.

What does bottom look like? Well, it depends on the person I suppose. For me though it was kind of unremarkable. Bottom was sober. Bottom was clear headed. Bottom was a profound sadness. There wasn’t regret, my dad and I had been very close. His death wasn’t the shock that him getting cancer had been. When someone is given 6-12 weeks to live you know full well what is in the mail.

I was just tremendously sad.

Hitting bottom didn’t look anything like the view on the way there either. And in fairness, even the journey there wasn’t something that would make anyone shake their head in disgust. In the month between his death and me finally accepting it there had been a lot of drinking, over eating and too many cigarettes. Too much sleeping and too much time spent by myself working on a Morrissey flavored depression that was equal parts self indulgence and self pity. But there had been a lot of writing, a lot of insights and a lot of unconsciously coming to terms with the reality that my life was unworkable and had been for a very long time.

With my dad gone, I needed to grow-up – I needed to grow-up anyway, his passing must forced the issue. And as I lay on the floor of my room bawling that morning I accepted that my journey had begun.

Writing the “why’s” and “what ifs” lists in the Reasons To Not Be Afraid was good therapy advice that I had been putting off because the thought of the pain looking that deeply at my life might cause seemed too much to bare. This was an inflection point, a moment when the polarity reverses and the pain of continuing along a path becomes greater than any conceivable pain that would come from seeing what I had made of my life. While I didn’t particularly like what I saw and I detested the fact that I had become someone so afraid of the world that I was compulsively avoiding it, I knew that these were just feelings. If things were different, I would probably feel different.

That was the switch flipping. I had no idea if the future was going to be better, if I would attack the world with confidence and become a man of powerful and pragmatic action. That post, and the lists contained within it, were a reflection and the manifestation of untested beliefs. By doing different things, I would be able to find out if the beliefs were accurate and I would be able to feel something different. That was enough for me. It was clear that I was the one who had been making the decisions and choosing my actions, so I was free to make different decisions and choose different actions. And that is what I did.

Life got better, much better. It turned out that I had been living a lie. While the world is every bit as bad as I thought it was, living in it and being a part of it is a lot easier than avoiding it. While the “why’s” list did contain some accurate reasons, it also included some ad-hoc justifications for indulging in compulsive escapist behaviour. We’re all very good at coming up with reasons to support doing whatever it is we think we should do. The gold though was in my lack of imagination in the “what ifs” list. I was right about most of the things. As I changed my behavior, life got easier and it changed for the better. But I had been negligent in my consideration of the outcome of sustained small actions. Any action taken eliminates an almost infinite number of potential futures while simultaneously creating the possibility of an almost infinite number of alternative ones. It wasn’t just that I would no longer be hiding away from the world, it would be that I was actually engaging it, and that meant doing things, things that I hadn’t even considered being things before let alone things that I would be doing.

Seven years on the only thing that I would change about the post is the last line “I’m not necessarily afraid, but I am anxious,” which was more wishful thinking about the future than anything else. It was too early to make a definitive call on what the experience of change was like. The truth is that I am both afraid and anxious of doing new things and of the unknown in general. And I think I always will be. Life doesn’t start being less scary. There isn’t a desensitization effect as a result of doing stuff.

The main difference now is that I accept that I am afraid and I do it anyway.

Three Deaths – Considering Legacy

There’s a saying, a version of which is attributed to David Eagleman, that details three death points for humans. The first is when the body dies. The second is when the last person who knew you dies. The third is when your name is spoken for the last time.

When I consider this as it applies to my dad, I wonder what he would have thought about it or if he had considered it, what exactly his thoughts were.

My dad was humble, modest and kind. I loved the heck out of him, respected him enough to disagree with his point of view and admired his tendency / passion / compulsion for learning. I tended to view myself as very different from him because there were things about him that I didn’t like. For example, he was always able to see the point of view of the less fortunate. Maybe I viewed that trait as a weakness, maybe I realized that those who roll over and crush people tend to acquire more things, maybe I really didn’t like this part of me. There were a number of things like this and over the last few years I’ve come to terms with the possibility that I just didn’t like that I had them too. I wanted, as my dad did for me, more than he had and to become many of the things that he didn’t, either through his circumstances or by his choice. It struck me that by becoming all the things he wasn’t it would be a good way to ensure that I didn’t live the same life.

Silly isn’t it? I wasn’t going to live the same life as him because he and my mom saw to it that I was given opportunities that he didn’t have. Moving to Canada, being raised as a socially tolerant liberal and getting the chance to attend university ensured that he and I would not live the same life. Plus, it was 30 years later and the world had changed enormously in the three decades between his birth and mine.

That is a big part of his legacy, his children may be like him, but they were not going to be the same as him. Whatever good we do, it is in large part due to his efforts to raise us and to lift our experiences into the realm of the things he never got to do.

Something that I hadn’t consider as being a possibility was the impact that my father had on people. During his wake, an event that I maintain he would have really enjoyed because all his friends were there, with lots of great food, drink and merriment, was a comment that an old neighbor made to me and my brother.

George lived across the street from my parents and was an unstoppable old Scot. A few heart attacks, a number of surgeries and various health issues associated for living fully couldn’t take him down. His doctors didn’t like that he just kept doing whatever it was he wanted but they were powerless to stop him. He didn’t play it safe, ever. 100%, all out, always was what he did. My dad liked him both because he was a decent and interesting man and also because he didn’t take short cuts and thrived on work hard.

George approached us at the wake and said “your father was a great man, he never said a bad thing about anyone.” I thanked him for saying that and muttered some other stuff that I cannot remember. The comment floored me because, while I had countless times heard my see the other side of everything and not just giving people the benefit of the doubt, but actually creating that doubt out of what I imagined was thin air, I had never considered that he was doing it because that was who he was. I always figured it was him being a good parent trying to instill in his children a rule of life that makes living with other people easier and more collaborative.

About a year ago I met another person who I did not know my dad had met. When she found out who I was, she told me that she had met my dad once and had really enjoyed it because he was kind and interesting, and that he had a great sense of humor, with a shameless roaring laugh. Hearing that made me happy, and I considered it a gift, one that I shared with my mom.

Now, as the time rolls on, it has been more than three years since he died, I’m starting to get a handle on what his legacy means to me. I am a lot like my dad, in many of the good ways and some of the ways I once believed were bad. I’m a little more passionate and a lot more dogmatic and single-minded at times. I enjoy learning and always have. I love laughing and can be enthusiastically joyful, a lot of the time.

But when I perceive a lack of fairness, it hurts me and I want to lash out and crush those who are slighting others. And I know this part isn’t working for me and has never. It isn’t helpful because it manufactures a sense that someone is wrong. My dad was able to identify that things were not right, but he was also able to understand that there was a good reason why someone would treat others unfairly. It wasn’t acceptable to do nothing about it, but crushing out of existence the perceived wrong doer wasn’t his way. And I have no problem admitting that I was wrong to view his approach as a weakness. It’s a strength to be able to allow people to be who they are and to try and work with them to change a situation from win:lose to win:win. He understood the important of other people and made the effort to get along with them.

This is a part of his legacy that I am going to try to genuinely emulate. Not just to keep my dads alive, but to keep alive the legacy piece of everyone who came before me who made this their way.

Some End Of Life Considerations You May Not Have Considered

Everyone dies. Until that changes, there is a very good chance that you will need to deal with the end of life of someone you care about; maybe even yourself.

The challenge in dealing with these issues is that death is an emotionally charged subject. As such, your logical thinking capabilities are going to be turned-down or off and your actions will be automatic. The goal of this post is to outline some of the things that can happen and offer-up an alternative possibility that will serve your interest more effectively. Keep in mind that almost everyone is selling something and there are people who will take advantage of your decreased resistance and get you to buy things you don’t want, need or have options about.

1) Parking – for some reason the parking garages of many hospitals are now regarded as profit centers to help bridge the gap between costs and funding. This may be true, but it is a poor justification for charging the loved ones of a terminally ill person $16 a day to park. This cost can grow very quickly and may eventually become a reason for NOT visiting. $112 a week is money that can be better spent.

What To Do: If you cannot get a ride to and from the hospital consider finding a parking lot that is close-by and does not cost anything. If you do need to pay for parking, look for a weekly / monthly pass. These passes may be transferable so you can share it among your relatives and other loved ones.

2) Bringing your own casket / urn – in Ontario you are allowed to supply your own casket / urn and the funeral home legally must use them. This can save you thousands of dollars because you remove another tier of profit takers.

What To Do: Google “casket outlet” and check out some of the sites. You’ll quickly notice that the caskets look great; the same as the ones you will be offered at the funeral home. The outlet will deliver the casket to the funeral home so after you buy it, you can focus your energy on the more important things that need to be addressed.

3) Embalming is not necessary if there is only going to be a single viewing. The tips of the fingers and the finger nails won’t look the same, they’ll likely appear slightly discolored and a little shriveled, but the face will look effectively the same. Having seen both the embalmed and un-embalmed it is a fair statement that neither looks like a living person.

What To Do: If there is only going to be a single viewing, talk to the funeral director about not embalming. They’ll likely try to sell you the service, but they’ll be able to explain the visual differences.

4) You can barter with almost everyone involved in the end of life industry. There is a huge mark-up in everything associated with funerals so you are free to ask for discounts, ask for different vendors and to supply your own. There are a few items / processes that must be taken care of by government regulated companies – there is no DIY cremation for example – so anticipate “no” on a few items, but there is no good reason to pay a 400% mark-up on flowers or catering.

What To Do: Know your budget and be firm with it. Tell the funeral director your budget and always be aware that the amount of money spend on a service has no connection to the life the person lived or the amount of love you feel towards them. The directors are going to suggest more expensive services, upgrades and add-ons that will balloon the cost in no time. They want to create a beautiful experience so their suggestions are probably fair. But only YOU know the experience that is appropriate so stay firm with that. Paying more money for the same experience may not make sense so take the time to consider all of the options and to ask for a lower price.

Every life will come to an end. It can be sad but this sadness should not mean that you get ripped off. Knowing what you want for yourself or for your loved one will arm you to make good decisions that mean you pay only what you need to pay and that you get only what you want. The intensity of the grief will fade and, when it does, it doesn’t need to be replaced with regret or hours of work to pay for stuff you were sold unnecessarily.

Death Of A Loved One – Revisited

A couple of years ago my father died from a brain tumor. It was a very quick process, just over 6 weeks from the first inkling that something wasn’t right to the morning he died. It sucked; it’s going to suck when someone you care about dies, that is the grief process.

My aunt died last week. We weren’t close and hadn’t spoke for a very long time. I’m not sure of the nature of her illness, but she spend the last 16 weeks of her life in hospital and the last few weeks of them basically in a coma. I’m sad for her life ending and for her family.

Heather’s dad has cancer. He was diagnosed in late October of last year with stage 4 esophageal cancer. There is nothing they can do to cure it, only treat the symptoms. He has just finished off his second round of radiation to reduce some of the swelling and improve swallowing. We’re hopeful that he’ll stay around for a long time but the death march has started and a growing number of cognitive cycles are being devoted to processing the inevitable.

Death is not the same for those who are left behind. A friend Ben, who lost his mom to cancer a few years ago, mentioned once that he can’t honestly say to people who are suffering from grief “I know how you feel” because he doesn’t. He explained that everyone has lived a different life so how they experience something isn’t likely going to be the same – and even if it is the same, we’re never going to know that it is the same.

With that, when Heather asked me what it is like when a father dies all I could say is that it is going to be hard in ways that you think it will be easy, easy in ways that you think it will be hard and a whole lot of unknowns. That is rather trite, but is the truth. There are times when I feel terribly sad that my dad is gone. There are times when I’m filled with gratitude for having grown through the experience. There are other times when I feel lost having no idea what the correct way to move forward is, because I can’t ask my dad how to do it. Before he was gone I understood that he played a huge role, after he died I realized exactly what this role was.

I can only imagine what my uncle and his family are going through right now, as I can only imagine what is upcoming for Heather and her family. But I can’t ever know, the journey for them is their own. The only thing I can know with certainty is that their experience will be different from how they can imagine it to be.

Boundaries – Create Them and Keep Them

A challenge some romantics have is to create and maintain boundaries within the context of a relationship. The fantasy / fairy tale view of romantic love is that each partner becomes the other, everything is shared and you are both in simpatico.

The issue with this is that it can create expectations that are not communicated between the partners which can put a lot of pressure on the other person to reciprocate things that may not occur spontaneously. This pressure can cause the partners in the relationship to behave less organically and change to a small or large degree. Overtime, this can lead to friction, resentment and diminished attraction as some of the things that were viewed as attractive in the first place disappear.

Existing in a relationship that does not have boundaries is usually unworkable because each person does have a unique identity and ways of being that serve them well and will be, in some instances, different from that of their partner. Each person has arrived at this moment in time though their experiences and is correct in viewing their path as being a good one since they made it this far. When partners forfeit their identities in favor of a singular shared identity, they sacrifice the lessons from their experiences and move into the world ill-equipped to handle challenging life situations.

By creating and respectfully maintaining boundaries, each individual is able to function to the best of their abilities and decision making is tabled to the most qualified person;this affords each partner the dignity of feeling listened to and heard. A relationship between boundaried people who also serves as an example to other people (children) of what is more effective at lasting success and happiness than some “happily ever after” thin slice of life that is passed off as a child’s book.

Over time there will be a blurring of boundaries, the things that impact one partner will impact the other, but they won’t impact both people in exactly the same way. One will remain strong giving the other someone to lean on for support and as a beacon of normality as change is processed. They’ll be there to make decisions, offer advice, shift focus and keep life going. The challenge of one will not mean the destruction of the relationship because the other will be there to keep life on course.

Cancer – It Takes Over Your Mind Too

I have never had cancer so I have no notion of the first had experience of the disease. This post isn’t about the first hand living and dying of cancer, it’s about the second hand experience of cancer – being alive with someone you love who has it.

The thing with cancer is that it never goes away, even when it is gone, it isn’t ever not there – it just isn’t there right now. A piece of your peace dies with the knowledge of this diagnosis. It is a flash-bulb moment marking the end of that life and the beginning of this new one.

It is the start of a new mental process that runs unstopped until your loved one dies. It’s a process that is mostly in the background, out of the consciousness, yet very taxing on the finite mental resources that exist within each of us. It’s a process that has it’s biggest impact exactly when you forget that it’s there – it reminds you that someone you love is sick and that the blissful moments you knew before are gone forever.

It’s like having a monkey on your back – sometimes the monkey is sleeping allowing your to live a cancer-free existence, like everything is fine and life is good. The rest of the time that monkey is drunk, playing a trumpet and spilling drinks all over your happiness.

And all the while, life goes on. There are bills to pay, dreams to have and life to live. It was coming all along, maybe not the cancer, but the death. The clock of life has been ticking down. Just because some doctor tells you with more clarity that it’ll be arriving sometime soon doesn’t change the fact that it has always been rolling towards us.

This is the piece that I have the least enjoyment with. You put on your game face and try to pay complete attention to the one you love, marked for death, yet not at all different from how they were a few weeks ago. And it is always close by, the though that says “they have cancer and they are going to be dead soon,” spoken with your own voice. Words you couldn’t have imaginable last year when you were all eating at Christmas and they said “hey, who invited this turkey to dinner?”

8 Lessons From 2012 – Part Two

2012 was a remarkable year for me. Below is a follow-up to Part One – 8 Lessons From 2012.

Life is suffering” – M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) – March 9, 2012. This is regarded as the first of the four noble truths of the Buddha. For a very long time I did everything I possibly could to avoid or escape the suffering. But given that it is a truth, the suffering will always come.

“Because you are an adult” – Adam McDonald – March 15, 2012. Adam has always treated me with the utmost respect, he asked questions and listened to the answers, he trusted my judgment with clients, training programs and nutritional advice. So when he gave me a stern warning that I should probably get my crap together because I was about to blow it in terms of a promising career in fitness, I thanked him and said “you have always treated me as an adult”. His reply didn’t gel with my identity at the time, so I took some time to figure-out what my next move was and straightened things out.

“You are always in a hurry, slow down” – Ben Schoene – June 2012. On way way out of the gym after a workout and Ben said that to me. I stopped in my tracks, turned to him and walked up to the counter and started chatting. The conversation made me late for the meeting I was going to, but it was the first of many great chats with him. Had he not invited me to slow down, I’m not sure when I would have found-out that he’s a stand-up guy and a great mentor.

You don’t sign-up for your worst day, you just find yourself in it alone, regardless of who is with you” Sara Burton – March 2012. Sara could see that I was suffering and she gave me a copy of her book and told me that. It felt less isolated knowing that she (and everyone else who has been in a position of loss) had gone through more or less the same experience. It didn’t make it easier per-say, but she’s very accomplished and living a full life so I knew things would get better for me soon.

I can depend on myself during crisis situations – March 2012. I happened across a mini crisis at the gym one evening and in-spite of my best efforts to find someone else to take care of it, I ended-up taking the lead role in helping the person. I didn’t enjoy the experience much, but it wasn’t like anything at all – I just reacted appropriately and saw things through to the end.

I can convince myself of almost anything, almost instantly and with complete conviction. Me & Heather Arthur – May 2012. After our first date I was certain she was an incredible person. A few more dates and I was convinced that I will be with her forever. My level of certainty was a little distressing for her, but, at the same time, my conviction did take care of a lot of questions about my intentions. It was a little over the top, but Heather quickly realized that no matter what the future brings, I see myself in her life as her loving partner.

I am persistent, analytical, and have a strong tendency to be very nice to everyone. When these traits don’t help me out, I use humor to lighten-up the situation – LandMark Forum – March 2012. Things happened in my life that caused me to develop these traits or tendencies. As a consequence, they’ll flow out of me without my thoughts or consideration. Even if the situation does not call for them.

Things are just things, regardless of the emotional attachment you may have with something, it’s just stuff” – Heather Arthur – July 2012. Following a conversation she had with one of her friends who was separating from her husband, Heather shared this with me. “You know that big TV upstairs that has the Xbox connected to it? I need to get rid of it because no one uses it anymore. But a few years ago I fought hard to get it, I regarded me leaving the marriage with it as a win.” I had never noticed the TV before because it’s in a cabinet and the doors are always closed, so it was peculiar that it was once a trophy. The lesson Heather was passing along to her friend, and to me, was that you get rid of almost everything you buy one way or the other, so it’s easier to let someone else take it because it will save you the effort of throwing it out later.

8 Lessons From 2012 – Part One

In no particular order and with credit given whenever it can be.

You don’t have a lot of time” – Sean Sullivan. This lesson was given in 2011, almost as soon as I told him that my dad had a brain tumor. Sean lost his father to cancer and he witnessed the rapid decline associated with this disease. I didn’t know exactly what he meant when he said it, but I took his advice and did everything I could to make the best of the time that was remaining. The family ate, talked, and enjoyed each others company and spend little time spend dwelling on what was about to happen. I understand what “you don’t have a lot of time” means now and I understand that it doesn’t just apply to dying relatives, it applies to everything in life.

Life is meaningless and empty so you’re free to create whatever purpose you like” – LandMark Education – March 25, 2012. I find this very empowering because I spontaneously do right by most people. Given this, setting out to make life be about what I want is a lot easier and gratifying than searching for some universal meaning.

So, how is life going to be better than before?” – Heather Arthur – May 4, 2012. It was our first date and Heather was doing what Heather does, rattling things to see if they stand-up to the challenge. My answer, after a lot of squirming, was to say that I didn’t have a plan to make them better, but that I wouldn’t be repeating any of the same mistakes so life was going to be different, and that meant the possibility for better. I had never felt so vulnerable and alive.

Teaching is not like other jobs, teachers have a much bigger impact on the world than almost every other profession” – Des McKinney – December 18, 2012. We had been talking about the rotating teachers strikes in Ontario and I was struggling to understand the teachers position. Once Des laid this one on me I gave-up any notion that they have an unreasonable sense of entitlement. Let’s face it, teachers have shaped every single person I talk to each day and my ability to earn a living is the result of a lot of their intervention. Teachers are kind of important.

Language alters the context which impacts how we view the world – Heather Arthur – May 4, 2012. During our first date, we were talking about the fact that we were both single. I commented that all of my past relationships had failed. Heather gave me the sour face and said “change the context, try saying that you have had great experiences with some amazing people and now you are all growing forward with life.” So I said it and immediately felt my past unfold into something more palatable. I’ve done this with a bunch of other things and have used this technique with some of my clients with similar success.

Thoughts created feelings which create actions, change the thoughts and notice how the feelings and actions change” – Leigh Moore – February 20, 2012. After my dad died I was having some struggles piecing certain things together. Leigh gave me some therapy and focused on one thing that was going to change my state very quickly. She noticed that some of the things I was saying weren’t based on an objective reality and were based on an internal narrative that wasn’t working for me. Her coaching created the possibility that things were not how I thought they were and as soon as I introduced a different possibility I started to feel differently.

How you think you’ll feel about things in the future is different from how you will feel about them – Life – anytime in 2012. I knew my dad was going to die for 6 weeks before he actually passed. But when it happened, how I felt about it wasn’t anything like how I thought I would feel about it. I was sad, but there were moments of gratitude, joy, and nothing at all. The lesson I’m taking out of it is to just accept that things are going to happen and that I am going to feel something when they do, but not to spend much time thinking about what the feelings will be because I’m going to get it wrong.

How you feel right after something happens is not the same as how you will feel in 3 months, but how you feel about it in 3 months is usually how you will feel about it in a year” – Des McKinney January 30, 2012. The day after my dad died I asked Des how he felt. Instead of answering the question I asked he decided to change my life and reveal the answer to a more existential question. Right after something happens or as it happens we’ll feel very strongly about it. That probably won’t last.

This is part one. Last year presented me with some amazing growth opportunities that I dived into.