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Life and Death - A Balancing Act

I made up this story one morning while taking my not so little Gabriela of seven years to school. It goes something like this: “There once was a creature that lived in the waters next to a village. No one ever spotted it in its entirety, but some saw glimpses. While this creature never harmed anyone, those who saw some sort of “thing” convinced the rest of the villagers that the creature was bad and dangerous. Well, as time went on the creature took on worst titles, enough to cause the men to sharpen their arrows and pull out their guns. Then one evening they launched out into the woods to kill this evil creature. Once they arrived at the waters, the men waited and waited. Hours into the night one man spotted movement in the water. Some heard a sound like a growl. “There it is,” cried out one fellow and the shooting began.

The creature sank back into the waters to be seen no more for the evening. The men slowly made their way back, and felt proud to share the news: “We got the evil creature.” The village was delighted and relieved that the creature had been wounded. “Perhaps it will die,” some replied.

Then on one evening some time later the village was attacked by a group of animals that lived in the woods. The town went into an uproar. Suddenly, everyone heard the familiar growl. However, the vicious animals continued their plunder until the creature arrived and battled each intruder to defeat. Finally, the animals raced back into the woods. The creature likewise turned around and went back into the waters. Everyone was shocked! “Wasn’t this the evil and dangerous creature we tried to kill,” some asked? Then a little girl asked the adults huddling together, “When did the creature become evil and dangerous?”

The gist of the story is that the villagers gave this creature all of these names that not only produced a set of unfair perceptions but also kept the residents on edge. You see, the creature never did anything to be called evil.

In the same way death has gotten a bad rap in our culture, enough so that we consider death as evil and dangerous. We put on our emotional armory, take up our mental swords, and go all out in the name of eradicating it from our minds. Yet like the creature of the waters, death has no wicked intention. In fact, it has much in the way of wisdom. One in particular has to do with how we take in the experiences of life.

Life and death help balance the human mind, if we let it. Life tells us to produce and achieve. Death states to do so reasonably, fairly, and within a realistic time frame. Life says to take in all that it has to offer, while death says to do so one moment at a time because each experience could be our very last. These are just some of the ways that life and death keep the human mind from tilting either far to the left or to the right.

These upcoming holidays bring many things to us that make for warm relationships, wonderful surprises, and a lot of good cooking. It’s a time when even Mr. Scrooge somehow grows a big heart for people. Whatever holiday you are celebrating—Hanukah, Christmas, Ramadan—there is a change in the atmosphere that moves humanity into a kinder and more generous place. These are the things that life offers to us as the year winds down.

Yet for many of us as professionals in the field of caregiving, we now see another side of life that has the capacity to rob us of the pleasure life supplies this time of the year. You might have grown close to a patient who wanted to see 2013 come to an end, but didn’t. You might have worked with a family that you knew deep down inside that if any family deserved a break, this one did. Yet in your mind they received none. And some of you have your own personal story to tell. You might be more mindful of a parent or sibling or friend’s death that has enough weight to bring you down.

I have my story. You see in my early twenties I had my first child, a daughter named Elizabeth. She wasn’t supposed to enter the world so early, but at 29 weeks after she was conceived she was born. It was the most frightening October I ever had, with the exception of my deployment back in October of 2003. A long story short, Elizabeth lived five-and-a-half weeks before she came home and died two hours later in early December of that same year. My life has changed as you know. Yet even though I walk the rest of my life with a hole no one will ever fill, I choose to create a friendly conversation with death to hear the wisdom we put a deaf ear to all too often.

I don’t always like telling people “I know,” but to some level I can identify with some of you this holiday. So what I tell you is the same thing that runs through my head time and again, even though Lizzie, as I call her, has been gone a long time. I take a little longer to still my soul and to listen for death to speak. They go something like this: “Kevin, as you know I am an instrument to everyone’s fate, not an instigator. From losing Lizzie a long time ago, and beholding what seems to be thousands follow a similar path to transitioning, you know that life is ever so short, at least here. I want you to go a little slower these next weeks and enjoy your family.

Those relatives that sometimes get under your skin, well they too will not be here forever. Nothing stays the same. And because everyone has a numbered day, slow down a little and just be present, savoring a moment that might be a last for someone.”

You and I know that these words aren't original. We've heard them a thousand times in some form or fashion. But they still ring true, don’t they? It makes perfect sense to slow down just a little and enjoy just being. This ancient tradition never gets old. When we eat, eat let’s eat mindfully. When we talk with a loved one or friend, let’s enjoy their tone and expressions. And when we gather with family, breathe in their very presence. As we both know, we don’t have forever.

Guest Blog by Pedagogy author Kevin Quiles. Kevin Quiles, M.Div., M.A. is a psychotherapist in private practice working with adult individuals, couples, and families. 

Kevin's class, The Role of the Hospice Caregiver, gives a unique insight on the necessary tools to help caregivers maintain a healthy balance in the field while providing quality service to patients and their family members. 

Kevin Quiles, M.Div., M.A. has 15 years of hospice experience and over a decade of training in community service. He attained a Masters of Divinity Degree in 1995 and his Master of Arts Degree in Community Counseling in 2011. Having provided spiritual care to a religiously and culturally diverse audience, Kevin specializes on spirituality, spiritual growth and development, and spiritual counseling. The now 50 year old has composed two exercises: (1) Spiritual Reconstruction, which involves helping an individual maintain, modify, or change belief systems; and (2) the Conversing with Death Imagery Exercise (CDI), which is a simulated dying exercise to help participants befriend their existential anxiety.
Posted: 12/2/2013 3:04:18 PM
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