Recently I was at a concert where a friend was performing. She is part of a band of musicians; folky singer songwriter types called No Fuss and Feathers. I listened with the ears of the heart as they offered up a song called How Much Time? It renders the tale of a chance encounter on a train between people of two generations and one asks the other the questions, “How much time do you have? How much time can you spare?”
The double entendre meaning wasn’t lost on me. I think about time as more than a commodity to spend or waste, but also a measure of my investment in my life and the people who make it so richly rewarding. From the moment we are born, the clock ticks inexorably and we are never certain of the moment when it will cease.
Death arrives at our doorstep bidden or unbidden and eventually sweeps us up into its arms or whisks loved ones from our arms. It’s something that most people are not comfortable speaking about. Even for professionals, it may seem like a taboo subject, one that sets off our own deeply held and sometimes unaddressed fears. If therapists are willing to explore our own edges around the topic, though, it won’t only benefit us but also the clients who come into our offices seeking answers to one of life’s greatest enigmas.
As knowledgeable and skillful as any of us might be in the field of thanatology, therapists deal with our own preconceptions about end-of-life issues. A professional shared his own experience with facing his mother’s death while sitting in the therapist’s chair. He found that while awash in grief at times he needed to remind himself to remain composed for his clients. It was when he was counseling a young man whose father had died that he was simultaneously able to internally process his own feelings. He struggled initially with how much to divulge about his own situation, wanting to be certain that it was serving his client’s needs and not his own. With finesse, he was able to do both.
I have also lost loved ones, including my husband, both parents and close friends over the past 20 years. Each experience has helped me hone my skills and forced me to come face-to-face with the inevitability of death. My spiritual beliefs inform my view and make me more sensitive to the needs of clients who have grieved their losses. I am acutely aware that although I perceive the presence in my heart and mind of those who have passed, I miss physical proximity. I am not unique in that perspective. I am allowing myself to be fully human as I ride the waves of emotion that honors the preciousness of my relationships with those who have passed as well as those who are still with me. Singer-songwriter Charley Thweatt composed a song called “You Will Die Someday” with poignant lines that include, “Take your time when you’re being with people. What’s another minute to you?” and “What matters is how we live.”
I have asked myself and others these two important questions as they relate to life and death:
- If you knew you would die tomorrow, what would you do today?
- If you knew you had 20 years more to live, what would you do today?
Would you waste it awash in worry about what will come, or sunk in a morass of regret, wishing you had lived differently? Would you recognize that each day is precious and in each 24 hours lies the possibility of joy, or at least contentment and connection with loved ones? Would you consider that moment by moment, there is a choice? When the time comes to “exit the building,” what is the legacy you want to leave? Do you want it to be said that you made a positive difference in the lives of others? It need not be anything grand or glorious. It could be a simple as the idea that people felt at home in your presence and truly heard and accepted. The best description about anxiety is that it is worry about the future and depression as regret about the past. Neither can we do anything about. What I do know is that the more we focus on what we don’t want, the more likely it is to occur.
Even people who face mental health diagnoses or physical ailment can remain open to the possibilities and not just the perils in their situations. I have witnessed people I call resilient thrivers bounce back from their challenges, making a conscious effort to fully engage, rather than seeing themselves as perpetual victims.
I was speaking with a friend a short while ago about my somewhat anesthetized emotions. Death doesn’t frighten me. I speak about it nearly every day in my therapy practice. Many of my clients have said goodbye to family and friends; some fairly recently. I listen and offer what guidance I can to help them navigate unpredictable and choppy waters that threaten to capsize their boat and toss them adrift. Some believe they will drown in a sea of despair and it’s my job to hold out a life-preserver. Sometimes I tear up a bit with them. How much of it is empathy and how much my own unexpressed grief over deaths of those I love. I may never sort that out. Each transition brought with it, valuable lessons that serve me personally and professionally and helped me to appreciate life all the more since it was reinforced that everyone is on loan to us and us to them.
I choose to use the time I have been given to live fully and freely, letting love lead the way.