A Brave Face

Conversation and cooking become a balm in the face of death

This is an Anonymous’ story, as told by Sandra Fish. Our “Opening Our Hearts” stories are based on people’s real-life experiences with loss. By sharing these experiences publicly, we hope to help our readers feel less alone in their experience of grief and, ultimately, to aid them in their healing processes. In this post, we tell the story of a woman whose friend died of cancer.

Breast cancer, MRI scan

Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

Just 8 years ago, in 2006, a friend of mine died from cancer. It feels like a million years ago. We were so young and so much has happened since her death. I’d met Lisa through mutual friends just a few years before she found out she had breast cancer. I believe she was still in her twenties when she was first diagnosed. At that point, I guess we were all shocked. None of us had ever known anyone with cancer, so it was strange. Yet I think we all had a big awareness about the disease, so we were dreading for her. When she found out, it was quite advanced. She worked for a company that more or less was in the health insurance industry—it was related to her work there that led her to having an exam; and that’s when it showed up. I think I knew very little at that time. The word “cancer” made me think someone was going to die. We were so shocked because she was so young. She was soooo, well…I don’t know if she did it to save face or what, but she was brave about it.  She made it not a big awful heavy thing for everyone—she wanted to minimize the drama. She kept everyone current as to where she was, and sometimes would disappear for a little bit and come back and organize get togethers. She always wanted to be super independent; she didn’t want to burden people— she was a friend, but she didn’t want people to feel sorry for her.

I told her I didn’t really know how to talk to her about it or if she wanted to talk about it—it was then she started confiding in me. She was telling me when she had a rough round with chemo or whatever the case was.

I told her I didn’t really know how to talk to her about it or if she wanted to talk about it—it was then she started confiding in me. She was telling me when she had a rough round with chemo or whatever the case was. As soon as she found out she had cancer, she had aggressive chemo, and it took everything out of her. She hated it; she was very unhappy. It did make her better. They were able to deal with the cancer, but she was doing SO much chemo. Now seeing other people going through this, it was nothing like it was for her. Even though she was strong, the effects were so dramatic. Eventually it did go into remission so after she was stable, she quit her job and decided to go into nursing, which was a little bit of a scary move because while she was employed she was getting health benefits.

She moved to New York City to go to Columbia and finished there—although a couple times she was so exhausted, she would get sick. I remember when she was in nursing school, right before returning to San Francisco, she spent a summer program in Switzerland doing some exchange thing. Her family didn’t want her to go as they were afraid that her health would turn, but she wasn’t ready to accept excuses to not do what she wanted. She became very sick in Switzerland and ended up returning.

After having had cancer, she got tested regularly. That’s how they discovered she had liver cancer.

columbia_univ_20090928

Credit: Outlookindia.com

She did her residency at UCSF.  After having had cancer, she got tested regularly. That’s how they discovered she had liver cancer.  I can’t remember the timeline, but she knew she wasn’t going to recover this time. She swore she wouldn’t do chemo ever ever again. From that point on it was very much a roller coaster—she would be wanting to do stuff and be organizing things then disappear. She didn’t do any chemo for a year and then she did. I remember her saying that her doctor was giving her a year, but she kept outliving the time. There was a point that once it got bad it just didn’t get any better. In the end, she was suffering and the doctor was telling her to do chemo, so she went on really heavy bouts of chemo even though she was so miserable—-but she did it because I think she realized she wasn’t ready to die.

I would call her and talk. She was a foodie. She loved life. A large part of our friendship was going out to eat. When she was in Switzerland, she met another nurse, a Filipino—she was making Filipino food  and bringing it to work. Lisa had a favorite dish. I’m Filipino and was like, I’ve never made that stuff, but I made it for her. I knew someone who wrote a Filipino cookbook so I got her a copy.

When she would go to chemo, one of the things she hated the most was losing her appetite and not being able to taste. The only thing she could really taste was anything sour—so she told me how she put lots of lemon juice on salad and laughed.

When she would go to chemo, one of the things she hated the most was losing her appetite and not being able to taste. The only thing she could really taste was anything sour—so she told me how she put lots of lemon juice on salad and laughed. There is a Filipino dish made with tamarind. She would ask me to make the dish and I would make it extra sour. We’d laugh about it.

It’s so strange I think, I was going through a lot of stuff in my life when it got bad for her. I had been in a relationship for ten years, got pregnant and lost the baby. I wasn’t planning to have a child, so it was very mixed emotionally. I think talking to Lisa sort of galvanized the idea that I wanted  to have children. She would say, “You have to have one.” She sort of brought it out—encouraged me to admit that I really wanted them. She even told me “you are going to get pregnant in the next year”—she was right. I now have a son.

She would tell me all the things happening to her body, always in a humorous way…

arroz-caldo-1024x768

Credit: foodforpinoy.blogspot.com

Her family lived on Long Island, across the country. She would go back for holidays, but her life was here and her friends were here and she would die here. She moved into a hospice at Laguna Honda. We were all in the hospital when we were waiting for the end. I was there the day before she died. She was very weak, but conscious. She would tell me all the things happening to her body, always in a humorous way: how much water she was taking on, her huge gut, always joking; she continued to do that.

She requested her ashes be scattered. She loved Marin Headlands and Mt. Tam so we took half her ashes to Mt. Tam—we went to the highest point and went to Muir Beach. The other half a friend brought to Italy, where her family is from.

The biggest thing was to be able to have the conversations with her about what it felt like.

The biggest thing was to be able to have the conversations with her about what it felt like. A couple of close girlfriends have been diagnosed with cancer and I’ve felt better equipped to talk to them about it. It is always kind of awkward- you don’t know how they’re processing and how much to share or not share. It’s so tricky, but having been through that with Lisa has helped me be a little more comfortable with it.

Lisa was so active, ambitious — her illness was such a contrast to who she was, but she made it not so uncomfortable to talk about. She made it seem natural.

Were you touched by this story? Read more Opening Our Hearts stories.

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates the most beautiful hearts in an ongoing celebration of love

Thanksgiving copyHappy Thanksgiving!

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death.

The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep.  The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.” – Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased on individual cards and in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook  page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org).

See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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The Rebirth of the Luz Cemetery

Pedro Pacheco and Marie Clément modernize the Portuguese cemetery — but don't lose sight of its history
modern cemetery, luz cemetery

Credit: archdaily.com

How do you go about updating and displacing an entire cemetery? Architects Pedro Pacheco and Marie Clément completed the task in four years (1998-2002) with their revitalizing design for the Luz Cemetery in Portugal. Their efforts have brought a bright, minimalist approach to the traditional cemetery: white marble is the dominant material, punctuated only by the green of cypress trees against the sky.

modern cemetery, luz cemetery

Credit: archdaily.com

The project required not only the careful transportation of the tombs, but a respect for the “memor[ies] and rituals” associated with them. “The old cemetery’s regular and geometric figure, which follow the ground pendent is reproduced [in the design],” explains architecture website Arch Daily, “[and] the vicinities between tombs are maintained as place recognition elements, as well as their orientation, in order to return light and shadow conditions, associated to visit rituals. The 24 tomb types identified [were also] maintained.”

Pacheco and Clément wanted to make the cemetery visitors feel welcome and comfortable in the space, but they also wanted to create the impression that they were entering a special landscape – experiencing a completely new, “submerged topography.” The marble tile on the lowered ground was meant to feel like an encompassing “carpet” of sorts, sheltered by the “long white walls” leading to the “contemplation place” in the western area of the cemetery.

modern cemetery, luz cemetery

Credit: archdaily.com

“This place is a result of various orientation and access site priorities,” says the site, “[there] is an antechamber which [is one of the two] cemetery entrance[s]: it is marked by the old recycled portal, and the [other on the interior] is marked by a white marble step.”

There’s something very soothing and sophisticated about the designers’ choice to use white marble so prominently. We’re used to the kind of inherent somberness of a traditional cemetery (the gray-on-gray color scheme, the moss-ridden headstones, etc.).

modern cemetery, luz cemetery

Credit: archdaily.com

And why not marry cemeteries with contemporary design? Why not bring in elements that feel fresh and vibrant? A cemetery is, after all, a place where we go to remember our loved ones and celebrate their life. Pacheco and Clément’s vision finds a delicate balance between a respect for tradition and a desire to change the way we look at death and dying.

Check out more of SevenPonds’ Soulful Expressions here.

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Our Weekly Tip: Memory Box for Those Grieving

Creating a memory box can help you work through your grief

Grief, DIY grief, memory box, memoryOur Tip of the Week:  One good thing you can do as you grieve is filter it through a creative outlet. When someone we love dies, the stability of our emotional state takes quite a beating — in one moment we may feel overwhelmed by depression, only to be flung into anger and frustration. Creating a memory box gives you a way to work through the stages of grief by gathering mementos — memories, really — that can support you through your grieving period.

How-to Suggestion: One of the best things about the memory box is its simple, dynamic nature. You can choose to make the box with loved ones or alone (it would make a sweet centerpiece as a celebration of life ceremony, too). If you have boxes at home that are meaningful to use, we suggest throwing them into the DIY project. If not, you can head to your local thrift store to pick up boxes, frames, paper and endless knick knacks for embellishing. Naturally, you’ll want to fill your box with souvenirs and mementos that recall all the good times — but it’s okay to express your hurt, too. Try writing down your feelings of grief and putting them in the box alongside your “memory” items. Sometimes, just letting yourself soak in your present feelings, however difficult that may seem, can nudge you one step closer to carrying your grief with grace.

Explore other end-of-life tips through our Practical Tips column.

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What is Jin Shin Jyutsu? An Interview with Judy Andry: Part One

In this two-part interview, Judy Andry explains the basics of Jin Shin Jyutsu and how the practice can improve quality of life

Today SevenPonds speaks with Judy Andry. Judy Andry has been studying Jin Shin Jyutsu since 1984. She was one of the first three members of the Jin Shin Jyutsu Advisory Council in 1998 and she has a small private counseling practice in New Orleans. She is the author of the book A Touching Goodbye: The Gentle Use of Jin Shin Jyutsu At Times of Critical Illness and Death, which focuses on the impact that Jin Shin Jyutsu can have on those who are nearing the end of life. 

Credit: Kathy Anderson

Credit: Kathy Anderson

Kimberly: How did you get started with Jin Shin Jyutsu?

Judy: I was working at Sacred Hearts and I had private classes and seminars and talks on adolescents, which was all a lot to be doing, and then our only daughter got engaged to be married, so we started working on this wedding. It was all positive things, but I started having headaches and aches and pains. It finally got to the point where I ached somewhere all the time and instead of complaining about aching, once in a while I would say to my husband, “I don’t hurt.”

When we sent out the wedding invitations, I got in touch with my friend Charles and I told him, “Listen Charles, you keep telling me about this acupressure work you’re doing. I need to know where you go to study that. I have to go the day after the wedding because I’m dying” Then there was this silence and he said, “I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” Thirty minutes later, I was lying on the bed fully clothed talking with my husband as he was touching me. Jin Shin Jyutsu is a process where you touch a person in two different places at a time and wait until you get pulses, and then you move one of the hands and you wait again. You are harmonizing the underlying energy flow in the body. So he was doing this to me, I was lying there, and I promise that within 15 minutes I was about to burst into tears because I absolutely knew the right thing was happening to me.

Kimberly: Is Jin Shin Jyutsu very easy to perform?

Judy: Yes! That’s why I wrote my book on Jin Shin Jyutsu. Anybody can do it. If you want to become a practitioner, you can help someone and learn things that are a little bit more complicated, but as far as practicing it goes, anyone can do it.

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

Kimberly: Do you have any stories about how you’ve helped your clients with Jin Shin Jyutsu?

Judy: Yes. I had one woman who had all of these skin rashes and a whole list of ailments. She came to me for about a year, once or twice a week, and she ended up recovering so beautifully that she became a practitioner herself.

I also started organizing classes to have a Jin Shin Jyutsu teacher come in to teach five day classes and this lady who I had worked with, who became a practitioner, that she eventually took over to become the sponsor of the five day classes. We have a nice group of people down here now who mainly started doing it because it helped them so much.

The first time I went to a Jin Shin Jyutsu class, I didn’t know anyone and I couldn’t understand a word that Mary Burmeister was saying. During intermission and lunch breaks and things, I would wander up to people and say: “What brought you to Jin Shin?” and everyone who I talked to would tell me some astounding story about how Jin Shin Jyutsu had helped them.

Kimberly: So it is a meditative process even when you are practicing on someone else.

Judy: It is. And it is an amazing process to be a part of when you are helping someone that is critically ill. They don’t always die, and in fact a lot of people get much better. Everyone eventually dies but sometimes when you are practicing Jin Shin Jyutsu, they will get better. Other times, when you are practicing on someone who is critically ill, they will get progressively worse until they pass away.

Related SevenPonds Articles:

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Book Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

A practicing surgeon contemplates mortality by examining the experiences of his elders and their caregivers
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Credit: Wikipedia

The concept of death is a compelling subject to dwell on. As we grow and mature, it becomes ingrained in us that, while a life may be the longest thing we will ever experience, the experience itself is shorter than we think. Death will eventually sneak up on us. In Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, however, the endocrine surgeon examines this idea through the lens of his own medical background.

In this book, Gawande is able to build a narrative through the collection of experiences that leads to the conclusion that as we perceive ourselves as closer to death, our thoughts on mortality transform our goals and values to that of simpler things. He begins his narrative by writing of his grandfather, who lived in veneration in India because of his status as an experienced elder. While “In America,” he writes, “he would almost certainly have been placed in a nursing home,” because his grandfather thrived in a culture that placed reverence on the wisdom of old age, he was able to “maintain a way of life that few elderly people in modern societies can count on.” Or, in other words, he was able to maintain a life in which he could contribute to his community up until the very end, regardless of the hazards that everyday living can have on an elderly body.

As we perceive ourselves as closer to death, our thoughts on mortality transform our goals and values to that of simpler things.

In America, Gawande notes, our elderly are not venerated for their experience in the community as much as they are sheltered from it. We practically roll our elders up in bubble wrap with the level of attention that we place on maintaining their diets and monitoring their activities as if they were prisoners. And Gawande shows us that doctors are not immune to the stigma that our culture places on facing mortality. One situation in which he must see a client that he knows has little to no chance at surviving a fatal cancer diagnosis, he reveals his own train of thought as he writes, “I remembered…all those studies about how much doctors beat around the bush…But I found myself almost immediately minimizing what I’d said. ‘We’ll bring in an oncologist,’ I hastened to add, ‘Chemotherapy can be very effective in these situations.’” In this, he shows us that even medical professionals find it easier to continue to offer up desperate solutions to extend lives even by mere months rather than help their patients learn to accept mortality gracefully.

 We practically roll our elders up in bubble wrap with the level of attention that we place on maintaining their diets, and monitoring their activities as if they were prisoners.

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

In his own way, Gawande also touches on how simple it is to examine the values of our elders and find ways to improve their current living situations to work towards accepting their own mortality. He mentions one study that was performed in both America and China over multiple generations throughout a wide number of cultural shifts over many years, in which it was discovered that “when, as the researchers put it, ‘life’s fragility is primed,’ people’s goals and motives in their everyday lives shift completely. It’s perspective, not age, that matters most.” The study’s main focus was on discovering how the amount of time we have left may depend on how we choose to spend our time. And as one would imagine, regardless of age or cultural background, the study’s subjects unanimously chose to spend their time enjoying family, friends and life’s simpler pleasures as life expectancies perceived to shrink.

In one way, it’s not hard to see why this is the case: as we age and our bodies become more frail, little victories like making it down the driveway, without risking a fall, become much greater triumphs. Spending time with loved ones is also much more important when you run the risk of never having to see them again, or vice versa. But while it is so easy for us to accept this change in attitude towards smaller pleasures, one question still remains: Why is it so hard for us to accept and nurture a change in goals for how the medical community works with patients in this last phase of life?

Related SevenPonds Articles:

In A Palliative Care Nursing Home
The Senior Care Blog is a New Resource for Seniors and Senior Caregivers
How Can We Support the Aging and Elderly? An Interview with Andrew Gaines

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