With the loss of my husband Lorne’s father in 2016, and my own father recovering from a series of small strokes (he is doing great and back in full swing with his speaking and writing), the year was marked by a sense of mortality. Mortality is an interesting thing. It has made me feel the fragility of life, and also helped me to experience life as more precious.
Lorne and I found the time to fly out to Seattle three times within a year to spend time with my mom and dad. With the acknowledgement of time passing, our conversations with my parents have gotten softer and more intentional. It is these conversations about the things that matter that make me feel most at home.
My parents are better than some at looking truth in the eye, and have seized on their aging with their usual grace. They downsized by half, moving from a large house into an apartment overlooking Puget Sound. And during our visit last May, my mom asked us all to discuss a set of questions about our end-of-life directions. We each took turns sharing our answers. What will be important to you when you are dying? Do you want life sustaining measures in the face of terminal illness?
As someone who helps organizations lead with purpose, I found the exercise spoke to the core of what drives each of us. My dad was very clear. His hope is to go quickly without suffering or being a burden to those who remain. And if there is a choice, he wants to live only if he can continue to make a contribution toward his life’s mission: helping move our planet toward an ecological civilization.
For me, having just been through years of supporting the dying process, with first Lorne’s mom and then with Lorne’s dad, I am aware of the suffering and the love that characterize that final leg of life. Despite Lorne’s father being surrounded by family, good care, a new-found girlfriend and assisted living staff with boundless patience, that final year represented tremendous suffering for him. In my quiet moments with him, he always expressed his wish to go.
Yet, I felt that, in the twilight of his life, he was making his most important contribution. By being the person for whom the family needed to collectively care, he helped heal family relationships.
The gift of a great trial is it forces everyone to get real. The masks we wear no longer serve us in a crisis. In letting go of those masks, we find our deeper humanity. And in that humanity, we find our love.
“You only get to die once, so I would like mine to count.” I open my own medical directive with those words. “I want my dying process to shift the relationships of those close to me toward greater love. And then I would like to go.”
The year 2016 ended with a deep dive into my professional identity. As I looked at the common threads of my work with organizations, I realized that I am driven by my desire to help people have conversations about the things that matter to them.
When I look out on the world today and see our divided nation, I see the suffering that results because we have not learned how to relate deeply with one another. National fault lines are mirrored in workplace cultures. Without strong tools for genuine dialogue, the passion for work that we start our lives with, can wear away, worn down by the slow drip of unresolved conflict and unrealized dreams.
I’ll end this blog post with a question for you. At the end of your life, what is the purpose that would make you want to live another year? And what does the answer to that question mean for your work, your organization, and, with the new year still fresh, how you spend your time in 2017?