February 25, 2014
bereaved, General, Grief, Self-Caredeath, depression, grief, healing, healing journey, hope, how does one live wholeheartedly, inspirational, live wholeheartedly, love wholeheartedly, spiritual growth, what is living wholeheartedly
How does one live wholeheartedly? What does living wholeheartedly even mean? It’s something that many of us have to re-learn or become acquainted with after experiencing a loss that breaks our heart. It is a daily practice, and not always easy. But if we allow ourselves to remember that we are already whole when we come into this world, we realize we are simply re-awakening and re-connecting with what is already there.
What Living Wholehearted Means
One of my personal definitions for living wholeheartedly means letting love flow freely in and out of your heart, even amidst the pain and grief that we may experience. I view living wholeheartedly from a holistic perspective. It is about taking care of the “whole” you – mind, body, and soul. It’s about experiencing the fullness that life has to offer without choosing to shut down – opening yourself up to the wonderful, beautiful, amazing things while also allowing sadness, pain, and loss to reveal their teachings as well.
After experiencing the loss of my husband and son within a 20-month period, I could have easily shut down in every way. I could have hidden my spirit, refused to take care of my body, disconnected from my feelings, and put up a wall to the rest of the world. But I believe there is an innate resiliency in our humanness that continuously calls us to keep picking up the pieces, no matter how broken we feel. If we’re willing to listen to that voice, whether it’s coming from within or from those who love us, we can gradually come into our wholeness again, which never actually left in the first place.
Feeling & Giving Love After Tragedy
As I took those first painful steps into the harsh light of my reality after my husband and son died, even amidst my deep longing and sadness, I felt a strong desire to feel love and give love. I felt the need to get help for my aches and pains, and the need for connection. Even in the very beginning of my grief experience it amazed me how I could feel all of these things at once. This reminded me of the fullness of my spirit, and I felt guided to keep reaching for more…more of what life had to offer. In that process of re-entering the land of the living, I also needed to practice self-compassion and self-love. This is an important key to living wholeheartedly. It begins within.
If you have been through a heart-breaking loss, know that living a wholehearted life is still always available to you. It is possible to live again, laugh again, feel love again, and truly experience the fullness of life. The opportunity begins with you. Are you nurturing yourself, being true to yourself, practicing self-compassion? Remember, grieving is not about doing it perfectly – there is no such thing. It’s an opportunity for self-discovery and being authentic to who you are and what you need. By opening your heart to self-compassion, you are opening your heart to embracing what is in front of you.
There are so many ways to approach living wholeheartedly. I invite you to ask yourself these questions: Am I practicing self-care? Am I being gentle with myself? Am I honoring my truth? Am I judging myself too harshly? What am I afraid of? How can I begin moving beyond that fear? What have I learned about myself through the grieving process? What do I feel gratitude for?
You may wish to journal your responses to these questions. Really allow yourself the time and space to think about them. Then ask yourself the question, “what would living wholeheartedly mean to me?” This is something that can look differently for everyone. Consider what it would look like for you personally.
My hope for us all is that we each take the steps to live wholeheartedly. We all deserve this, no matter what our losses. If you’re feeling stuck or struggling with how to do this, take advantage of the resources around you. For instance, our services at www.TheRespite.org are all about helping people live wholeheartedly after loss, with respect to everyone’s unique path. Gift yourself with the opportunity to start living the life that you want today. I invite you to open your heart to what is possible. And remember, you don’t have to do it on your own!
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February 7, 2014
General, Griefconsciousness, grief, healing, healing journey, healing process, hope, human journey, inspirational, joy, loss, respite, sadness, spiritual growth
Words from Mandy Eppley our Director of Services and Programs and Grief Therapist at The Respite.
Trusting our feelings of grief is a very difficult and courageous position to hold. We live in a culture that says to get rid of our grief, ignore it, minimize it, run from it, fear it, and be done with it in 3.5 days. The great tragedy of this cultural perspective is that it does not allow us to be fully human. It robs us of the exploration of our own spirits. It also steals from us the opportunity to explore our deepest treasure. Our grief intimately teaches us about who we are….it brings to us our greatest treasure in that it introduces us to our true self, our spirit. Sadly, many of us think that grief is about death only, and though great grief and feelings of loss come to us through the death of a loved one, grief is woven throughout our lives.
We cannot know our greatest joy, if we do not allow ourselves to experience our feelings of loss – they are intricately woven together. Giving ourselves permission to be fully human and feel our feelings is of utmost importance. Great changes throughout time and history have come through those who have allowed themselves to feel their sorrow, anger and anxiety – the three primary feelings of grief. The belief that we are to mistrust our feelings and run from grief keeps us isolated and alone and takes us into despair. When we embark upon the brave journey of choosing to grieve when we are disappointed in life, we find what matters to us most, for grief teaches us about our own true nature.
Our mission at The Respite is to help individuals to be fully human. Our services and programs are designed to support the human journey, which includes both grief and joy. The mind and logic alone cannot take us to our greatness and our deepest heart-longings. We also must be willing to feel. The goals and dreams that live within in each of us come alive not only through our deductive reasoning but also through the mind of the heart. We are committed at The Respite to help those we serve find their greatest joy in life through the gateway of feeling the grief. Grief, and the feelings it holds, lead to our greatest treasure. Trusting the mystery of this is not for the faint of heart when we live in a culture that says “don’t feel too deeply or for too long.” We have to say no to those beliefs that keep us trapped in isolation and pretending. Strength is found when we choose to get to know our grief and what it is saying to us about who we are. When we have the courage to do this, it will take us to our greatest joy. May we all find the courage to be fully human with no apology. May we trust our grief no matter how painful, for it has been brought to us for a sacred mission.
Blessings to Each of You,
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If you have never attended a support group before, you may feel very intimidated by the thought of walking into a room of strangers and offering up your personal pain and experience. Support groups are not for everyone, but I think it is important to at least try a group a few times to see what you might be able to get out of it. It may take a few times of attending to feel comfortable in a group, or it might take trying out a few different groups before you find one that feels like “home.” Either way, it is always worth a try to see what resources are available in your area and to take advantage of them. It is also another great reason to get out of the house if you are homebound like I was!
Sometimes it takes time to warm up to the group experience. Support groups are created with the idea in mind that all who come are sharing a very personal part of themselves, and therefore respect, openness, and understanding are well established within the group’s structure. There is also usually an understanding that not everyone will feel ready to open up during the first visit. This is okay, too, and you should never feel pressured to share if you don’t feel ready. If and when you decide to speak, you may experience an amount of relief that you never expected. You may also receive validation from others in the group who are experiencing similar feelings.
As humans, we are social beings. Having a soul connection with others and the ability to share experiences is part of what helps us operate and function at a healthy level. It is also amazing how, in support groups, you lose the feeling of being in a room of strangers very quickly because you are cutting through all the surface details and going straight to the heart of the common issue that’s brought you all together.
Support groups are not all doom and gloom either—at least they shouldn’t be or they aren’t doing their job! Surprisingly, you may find yourself leaving with your stomach and cheeks hurting because you’ve been able to laugh at something humorous that was said. And that is a good thing. Humor is a great stress release! There will always be plenty of sad tears, of course, but there has to be that element of hope (and balance) or there would be no point in going.
It also never hurts to build a new friendship with a woman who just might show up on your doorstep on one of your most depressed days offering you a chocolate milkshake!
P.S. Unlike private counseling, which usually has a cost attached to it, participation in most support groups is free or by donation. If your budget doesn’t allow you to seek a therapist I strongly urge you to find a support group of people in a situation like yours where you can share your story. For support groups, visit www.TheRespite.org, www.SoulWidows.org, or www.SupportWorks.org.
Love and Light,
Hip Chick Wisdom
“Be open to finding support. Surround yourself with people who let you be “you,” let you say and do crazy things, and do not judge. Nothing you say is wrong and the right people will know and understand this.” —Katie E.
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December 19, 2013
bereaved, death, depression, General, Grief, Grief during Holidaysdeath, depression, grief, grief during holidays, heal, healing, healing journey, healing process, holidays, hope, inspirational, loss, sadness, support group
Mandy Eppley, M.A., LPC, NCC and Grief Expert, was asked a few questions by a reporter about issues related to grief specifically during the holidays. We hope her answers will help you or a someone you know during this time of the year.
Why is grief amplified during the holidays?
Grief is amplified during the holiday season because this time of year represents family, family traditions and rituals, a deep sense of belonging, community ties, memories laced with religious traditions, and childhood memories. This time of year is a time where all the images and messages we see are about family, relationships, partnership, togetherness, children laughing, warmth, closeness…and for so many of us, that is not the case. When we are grieving deeply, when a sudden or even expected loss has come into our lives, we not only have all the cultural norms and images to contend with around what this time of year is “supposed” to be, but we also have the pain and isolation of the grieving during this time of year. There is a cultural pressure to keep a lid on it and not bring any one down and all of those ridiculously isolating messages. Grief is as normal a human experience at the holidays as in other time of our lives. Additionally, it triggers our deep sadness around what was, or what could have been or what will never be. This is real and naturally appropriate to experience. It is a normal part of the grief journey to be triggered around our grief and deeply feel our sorrow during the holidays.
What are some ways to cope with grief individually at this time?
It’s essential to make room for your feelings. Make time every day to feel. Minimizing, ignoring, blocking, or numbing your feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety - the core feelings of grief – will make it more intense and isolating. Basically, you will be isolating you from YOU. Take time each day to ask yourself “How am I feeling?” And say to yourself, “Iit’s okay, it’s natural, it’s human, it makes sense I am feeling grief.” What’s so important during this time, is that you are your own ally. Even though, the world around you may appear as though everyone is skipping down candy cane lane, which is an illusion by the way, you have to be on your own side! You have to say to yourself, “While this hurts deeply and is incredibly painful, I know, I am doing nothing wrong by feelings intense feelings of grief during this time of year…in fact, it makes me beautifully human.”
On The Respite’s website, we have Hope for the Holiday videos which were created to support people during this time of year. They are available for viewers 24 hours a day. They are full of tips and advice of how to care for yourself during the holidays. Here are a few of them:
- Get support from clergy, therapists, support groups, friends and family who are not afraid of your grief. Seek this support out – don’t try and go at it alone. Isolation is for the birds when we’re hurting…you don’t deserve to be alone.
- Of course, watch your alcohol intake because that just makes everything worse if you’re depressing your system.
- Let yourself cry, cry, cry if you need to – it’s a natural biological function that is meant to happen when we are sad, it’s just that simple. Any shaming voices that tell you you’re a wimp for crying, well, tell then to hit the road!
- Do kind things for yourself – nurture you, be loving to yourself.
How can families handle grief together during the holidays?
First, PLEASE do not act like nothing is going on or nothing has happened! That is so toxic and unhealthy for all who are hurting. Don’t be afraid to speak about what’s happening or bring it up. When families deny the reality of what is going on and make it an unspoken family rule that it’s a bad thing to discuss or in any way acknowledge the grief in the room…well that is CRAZY making. No wonder, junior is found sneaking a beer upstairs or Mom is sipping wine out of her coffee cup. The point is, if we don’t allow for the truth to be acknowledged, we have to cope with it some way. Now of course, I’m not saying have a sobbing fest and make everyone miserable but I am saying let the grief live with you during the HOLDAYS. You can do that in simple ways – you can light a candle for your loved one who has died, or create a special scrapbook for the family to enjoy, or tell sweet memories at a family gathering. The worst thing you can do is pretend like no one is hurting because you want to have a “good” holiday. All I have to say is good luck. My phone rings off the hook in January because of the pain and isolation people feel from no one letting the grief be spoken or the loss acknowledged.
Families also need to get support from friends who can handle grief - clergy, trained therapists, support groups. Creating your own family ritual around the grief can be so supportive and deeply meaningful. Let the feelings live in the family and make sure your family doesn’t have an unspoken family rule of no grief allowed during the holidays. The best thing you can do is set an atmosphere of openness.
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This is one of Mandy’s favorite Fall soups. Hope you enjoy!
- 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin (not pie filling)
- 1 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup lowfat milk
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and ground black pepper
- Fresh sage leaves
- Popcorn and pumpkin seeds, for garnish
In a medium saucepan, whisk together pumpkin, broth, milk, and cumin. Add bay leaves and set pan over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat, remove bay leaves and season, to taste, with salt and black pepper. Garnish with sage, popcorn and pumpkin seeds before serving.
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By Lyndall Hare, PhD Gerontologist and Eldercare Coach
When caring for someone with memory issues such as Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we experience the person’s mind disappearing incrementally. When a parent is aging physically and not mentally, we may have to change the types of activities we engage in with them because of limited mobility and a slowing down. But the personality, knowledge, and life experience of our parent is still there in her declining body. We can still maintain a daughter/mother relationship by recalling shared memories (good and bad), and by sharing in the familiarity of habits and behaviors. But when caring for someone with dementia we may we may be juggling taking care of the person’s physical and mental decline. We may not be recognized and acknowledged as being familiar to our parent, spouse, or friend. Yet there are still ways of communicating.
Touch. Listening. Entering into the reality they are in at any given moment.
Many years ago, when I was the director of an adult day health care center, I heard caregiver daughters, sons and spouses express soul-wrenching grief at their loved one “disappearing in front of my eyes” but still being there physically. The journey into dementia is harrowing for so many reasons, not least of which is the lessening capacity for relating on any level other than caregiving. It strips away all remnants of the familiar, any intimacy and friendship, and one is left with a shell of the person who perhaps gave one life, and who has been there always.
Every moment is one of loss and grief. The caring spouses, friends, daughters and sons I have witnessed who have managed their grief in the healthiest ways are those who have a deep and shared sense of humor with their parent, friend, or spouse with dementia before they begin forgetting. They can remember times when they could laugh by sharing moments and memories that became the funny stories in the family history. And it helps them to remember those moments and translate them into the present by saying things like “Oh, if my mom was aware of herself forgetting to dress the way she always did, she would find what she’s wearing so amusing, since she was always concerned about her appearance.”
For all of us who have lost parents, spouses or friends to dementia there is grief in differing degrees. Grief is insidious. It comes and goes. It lessens at times, and then it creeps back in or whacks us in the chest when least expected. I think the intensity of care-giving for someone with dementia creates a unique sense of loss because of the disappearance of connection to the person we knew and who was so familiar. The physical burden of caregiving may traverse all caregiving for a parent, but the combination of mental and physical decline does put a heavier burden on caring for someone with dementia. This translates into a different sense of loss because the person has left before physically leaving. There are often feelings of deep abandonment.
It makes perfect sense to wish a loved one out of pain and discomfort and anguish. This does create an enormous sense of ambivalence and guilt. Being able to express one’s guilt in a safe and non-judgmental environment is enormously helpful because it allows for a “normalizing” of unfamiliar and disturbing feelings. The Alzheimer’s Association’s Support Groups are amazing places for airing the most seemingly silly concerns as well as the deepest feelings. Many spouses and adult children continue attending these groups long after their loved one has passed on. The participants are the “experts” and are a fabulous resource. Going to workshops and seeking support that focuses specifically on understanding the process of grief and loss is also very helpful. Grief is a universal human experience, and it is vital to have a place to give this particular grief an opportunity to be witnessed.
Join me on Saturday September 28 from 10am to 2pm at The Respite for a When Memories Fade workshop to nurture yourself! http://www.therespite.org/Register.asp?id=586
Willem de Kooning, Abstract Expressionist, continued creating art
after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
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August 21, 2013
fundraising, General, Griefandrew harvey, cindy ballaro, fundraising event, grief, healing, hope, inspirational, sacred activism
The Respite, A Centre for Grief & Hope, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, will hold the second annual Hope & Heart Benefit on Sunday, September 29, 2013, 5:30-7:30pm. This inspirational evening will feature international author and speaker Andrew Harvey. It will be held at “Honeywood” – home of Respite Board member Martha Harbison – 5501 Hardison Road in Charlotte. All proceeds will support The Respite, whose mission is to provide integrative services for those dealing with any kind of loss. Tickets, at $50 per person, include hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer, and inspirational speaking from Andrew Harvey, Chris Saade and Mandy Eppley. Tickets can be purchased online at http://therespite.org/HopeHeart.asp or by mail. The Benefit is being sponsored by Gary and Debbie Eaker.
Andrew Harvey is an internationally renowned mystical scholar, spiritual teacher, poet, novelist, and Founding Director of The Institute for Sacred Activism, “I have personally worked with the founders [Elizabeth Berrien, Mandy Eppley, Cindy Ballaro] and know them to be brilliant women full of passion for helping others and serving the world. I am honored to be the featured speaker at the upcoming Benefit.” Andrew has written and edited over 30 books including best-seller The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism. “We are living in a time full of struggle and deconstruction…AND it is NOW that the world needs broken-hearted people to wake up to their calling in order to bring about true change in the world. The Respite is doing this through the programs and services they offer.”
Now in its second year of operation, The Respite’s mission is to help people who have suffered a significant loss in any form to reclaim healthy and productive lives. “We know for a fact that untreated grief leads to depression and despair which can lead to addiction, suicide and abuse, which costs our country billions of dollars each year. Our integrative services and approach treat the root of the problem and provide practical tools which help individuals to become whole and healthy, and once again able to give back to the world” stated Mandy Eppley, co-founder, lead therapist and Director of Programs & Services at The Respite.
Since the programs and services were started in 2011, The Respite has touched the lives of over 10,000 people both physically and virtually (via social media outlets and resources available on the website). They have recently launched the video series for The Model of Heart-Centered GriefSM, co-created by Chris Saade and Mandy Eppley, which provides individuals with a tool for embracing grief as a catalyst for transformation. The Respite and its facilitators are respected partners with AHEC (Area Health Education Center), Sage-Ing International, Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region, The Buddy Kemp Center, and Charlotte Bridge Home. They have received funding from several foundations including The Reemprise Fund and the Massage Therapy Foundation.
About The Respite, A Centre for Grief & Hope
In 2011, three women in Charlotte, N.C., Mandy Eppley, Elizabeth Berrien, and Cindy Ballaro, came together using their separate journeys through grief to start The Respite, A Centre for Grief and Hope, a nurturing space providing an integrative approach to confronting grief and loss. The Respite, located at 4919 Monroe Road in Charlotte, offers workshops, support groups, therapy, yoga, massage, and healing arts for a variety of losses and life transitions. The mission is to help people, regardless of socio-economic status, who have suffered a significant loss in any form to reclaim healthy and productive lives. The philosophy at The Respite encourages individuals to view their grief as a powerful creative force and a rich resource to cultivate.
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by Lyndall Hare, PhD Gerontologist and one of The Respite’s Service Providers
I’m sitting on our living room sofa that’s angled across a corner offering me a view of our entire living room. I look up to the exposed wooden rafters of this 100 year old farmhouse with the back-drop of wood-paneled, loft-like ceilings. The rafters give me a place to display Southern Africa. Woven wool rugs from Lesotho are thrown over one of these old beams, pieces of pottery and carved sculptures of African women from Kwazulu sit on top of another. There are delicately created baskets from Zimbabwe and a couple of Herero tribal dolls from Namibia. I can smell the dust of Africa in this room as I look over to my right and notice the cheerfully rotund clay hippopotamus with intricate designs carved into its polished surface on the small side table.
One of the walls is covered with African masks all the way up to the ceiling’s peak. A giraffe that’s about five feet tall peeps out from behind a chair, as they do when amongst tall acacia trees in the South African bushveld.
I sit in my home and miss home. Always. And even more so when South Africa is in the U.S. news as it has been recently because of Nelson Mandela’s illness and the subsequent outpouring of love and concern for this international leader and revered elder. http://theelders.org/
My eyes are led to the delicate mid-morning light that pours through the small dormer hexagonal window close to the apex of the roof line. A glimmer of sun touches a wire basket that’s about 18 inches high and in the shape of the continent of Africa.
My birthplace, Cape Town, is its balancing point on the wooden girder while supported by the wall behind it. Five generations of my family experienced that most southern of cities before I did.
And as I focus on the basket, I am flooded with the memory of how it came to be here. I remember the young man who made the wire basket but I no longer remember his name. I know I have it written down in a journal somewhere. I do, however, remember the circumstances in which we met and why he was moved to give me this continent made by his grieving hands. We were both attending a five- day workshop in one of the outlying townships of Cape Town. It was 1997, the year the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Hearings began. The workshops were created by an activist priest called Father Michael Lapsley, who I met when the anti-apartheid movement brought him to the United States a number of years before the release of Nelson Mandela in 1991.
Father Lapsley is tough to forget. He has no arms. They were blown off by a mail bomb sent to him by the South African Security Police when he was living in political exile in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. All he now has are claw-like apertures attached to his elbows. The bomb also took the sight in his right eye, but what he continues to see are possibilities for healing. In that spirit he created and led workshops called “A Spiritual Healing Response to the TRC” and offered them to anyone who had been affected by apartheid. In his mind, that was anyone who had lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime.
I signed up to do the workshop during a 3 month doctoral research trip to the University of Cape Town. One of the young men participating was preparing himself, both spiritually and mentally, to attend the TRC hearings the following Monday so he could witness the testimony of those Security Force members who had brutally murdered his father, and to hear his mother request reparations for her husband’s death. It was anticipated that this particular testimony would receive an enormous amount of publicity because his father had been one of the so-called “Guguletu 7” – seven young men brutally massacred by agents of the South African government. The twenty-six year old young man in the workshop, a wire artist and university student, was a small child when his father was murdered. And now, the same age his father was when killed.
On the last day of the workshop, after being a witness to the young man’s mourning for his dead father, he was humble enough to acknowledge that I mourn too – for the loss of country, having left South Africa into political exile 11 years earlier. I left with one suitcase, the equivalent of $500, contact information for a friend in Brooklyn, and the uncertainty that I would ever be able to return. He reminded me of the suitcase as a metaphor for carrying South Africa with me to the United States.
And then, from under his chair he lifted up a wire basket that he had so tenderly created for me with his long and delicate fingers, twisting and turning and bending that roll of wire to capture the continent of Africa, beginning with two small swirls on the base of the basket each the size of large coins. Then winding the wire and creating the bulge of Africa’s west coast, the horn of Africa to the east, and the delicate southern tip where we both now sat – a black and a white South African twisted together in mutual, but such different, sorrow.
“Now you can carry Africa wherever you go,” he said, as he offered the basket to me balanced on outstretched hands; a traditional sign of respect to offer gifts with both hands. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes as we held each other in our different pain. We both spoke of hope for our country that we have such love for, and acknowledged that the workshop was an important contribution to making a small step toward healing unspeakable wounds created by a draconian system.
In that moment, as I clutched the handle that straddled Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, he taught me what I never want to forget. He taught me that even in the midst of one’s own devastating grief and anguish one can offer others unique gifts of solace and comfort.
During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings that followed, a mother (Cynthia Nomveyu Ngewu) of one of the Guguletu 7 expressed her forgiveness and reconciliatory beliefs regarding her son’s killing: “We do not want to return the evil that perpetrators committed to the nation. We want to demonstrate humanness towards them, so that they in turn may restore their own humanity”.
Guguletu 7 Memorial, Guguletu, Cape Town, South Africa
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Many of us consider ourselves either a morning person or a night owl—times when we feel more productive, awake, and think better. Not all types of thinking tasks, though, fit in with what we consider the optimal time of day for us. The Creativity Post points out that creativity happens when you least expect it.
Our internal clocks dictate when our brainpower is at its peak. Those are the times when we can really concentrate and complete tasks that require working memory, which The Creativity Post calls “our flexible mental scratch pad.” For morning types, this means working on demanding cognitive tasks (e.g., solving analytical problems) is best done early in the day. For night owls, later in the day is better.
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by Lyndall Hare, PhD Gerontologist
I sometimes think that having been anointed as an elder is cheating – sort of like I don’t quite have the “creds” to be accepted into this esteemed tribe.
I’ve certainly never been anointed before. I’ve been capped and gowned with a doctorate, but was never baptized, christened, or confirmed. I’ve never married in a church, synagogue or mosque. I’ve not yet attended a grave-side funeral or been in the presence of someone taking their last breath. Having missed out on many of the obvious and “traditional” rites of passage, I feel woefully inadequate to have had this honor bestowed upon me at the age of fifty-eight.
As a gerontologist I’ve studied the phenomenon of aging and worked on a diverse range of issues related to elder populations, as well as created and run service organizations for older adults. But am I adequately qualified to be an anointed elder? It seems like such a responsibility. With the sense of responsibility I’m also experiencing a fair amount of pride about being welcomed into an esteemed group of fellow elders. Even though I still color my hair (I’m not quite sure when and how one stops!), I actually like the sound of considering myself an elder. I’ve been ruminating over what that means for me and how it has changed me since my anointment in January – six months ago.
Since childhood I’ve been drawn to being in the presence of elders. My father bought two gorgeous Victorian two-storey homes next door to each other in a suburb of Cape Town rather like a part of San Francisco. He and my aunt, a highly qualified nurse, started Harewood Nursing Home. It was mostly the stories I went back for, and it was the stories of forgiveness and harvesting losses into gifts that again touched me while sitting in circle with 18 other elder retreat participants at Mepkin Abbey’s first Contemplative Aging Retreat during a particularly warm week in January.
Father Guerric Heckel had the vision to create a Contemplative Aging Institute at Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Here’s a description of the retreats: “During the Contemplative Aging Retreat various contemplative practices are explored as a way to welcome the inner life of self development and spiritual growth as we move into elder-hood. Through contemplative dialogue and sharing common experiences and fears of aging, participants have an opportunity to view aging as a gift. In companionship with fellow elders, the retreat is an opportunity to harvest the wisdom aging brings and to find spiritual ways to navigate its stages.”
Because the four-day retreat was contemplative in nature, we had limited time to become too familiar with each other’s life narratives, but the collective depth, energy, and proximity to the Divine gave me a sense of how much power was in the room. Our years of lived experience totaled somewhere in the region of 1,250 – an astounding amount of collective experience, wisdom, and power in one room. Not power of a nation’s political system or an army or corporation. Not the power our economy is amassing in the hands of a few. But the power of humility, surrender, faith, questioning, being one with nature; and the power of prayer, meditation, silence, stillness, and rejuvenation.
There are few better places to experience this power than at a monastery in the beauty of nature surrounded by live oaks dripping with Spanish moss on the banks of the Cooper River where the bird life is prolific and the frogs are orchestral! The cumulative effect of a contemplative community’s living space is that as one enters the gates and drives down a long, tree-lined avenue, an inner transformation takes place that mirrors the tranquility created by every moment of silence held through the years by each and every monk. I call it “contemplative compost” – rich and fecund – a gift to the inner life.
I can feel the sign of the cross being created by a priest’s thumb dipped in oil in the palms of my upturned hands. I can feel each elder’s hands on my shoulders, back, and head. I hold the words spoken by Father Guerric welcoming me into elderhood in my heart with a sense of responsibility. My name hasn’t changed, I don’t look any different. But this rite of passage, so important in a world that often dismisses elders as all used up with nothing to offer, has altered me at a cellular level. I am humbled. I feel closer to the Divine. I have these tiny experiences of a veil being lifted…nanoseconds of it every few days. And in looking back at the past six months those nanoseconds have collectively altered my physical and spiritual being. I notice I am not as reactive. I take time. I listen differently. I bring a deeper discernment and more compassion.
A sacred rite of passage from midlife into elderhood. Whew!
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