”No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!”
– Stan Rogers
Death. ALCOR claims notwithstanding, it comes to us all. And that means it comes in time to everyone we love. We don’t know what – if anything – happens “beyond the veil”, but we do know the pain of watching a friend, relative, or favorite pet weaken, suffer, and finally leave us behind.
That can be a very helpless feeling. We may feel guilty and think that maybe we could have done more to prevent the situation. Maybe we should have spent more time with our friends and family while they were still active and healthy. At the same time, we know that they are responsible for their own lives. We can’t force someone to exercise more or eat better if that isn’t what they want to do. All we can change is what we do with our own lives.
If life is a game, it’s the Kobayashi Maru scenario; there is no way to win. But how you play it makes all the difference.
All We Can Do…
It is our character that determines how we handle a friend’s illness or death. We have a lot of choices. We can hide from death, afraid of our own mortality or just avoiding the work and pain of trying to help them when they don’t even know we’re there. We can try to take control of their lives, treating a sick – and perhaps mentally “not all there” – adult as a helpless child. We can become analytical and mechanical, shutting down our feelings while we make sure we handle each problem that arises step by step. We can be so loving and caring that we put aside other things in our life to make sure that we are always available. That might entail sacrifices – time away from work, from our children, from our friends and favorite activities.
All of these approaches are “coping strategies” in stressful and difficult situations. None of them is “right”, and none is “wrong”. It is easy to feel guilty that we are not saints and paragons of virtue, but there is no single right way to deal with trauma. Is it truly saintly to ignore our commitments and responsibilities to others for the sake of spending time with – or mourning for – one person? Are we really paragons when we give everything to, and do everything for, someone who might make a better and faster recovery if he had to do things for himself?
Guilt is a funny emotion. It can be a useful thing in small amounts, a reminder that there are things we need to do and priorities we should assign. But, taken too far, guilt is one of the most destructive emotions. It can cloud our judgment and dull our minds so that we fail to accomplish things we need to do. And that can lead to even more guilt. It’s terribly inefficient, as well as harmful to our own health and well-being.
At the same time, feeling guilty about feeling guilty isn’t the answer either. It’s better to accept the guilt, recognize that it has a purpose, and move on. Let your guilt remind you that you care and have feelings, but don’t let it control you. You are in charge of your own life, and if you give that up, how will you be useful to your friend, yourself, or anyone else? Accept how you feel and what you are, then go on living your life.
What Do You Do Next?
But how do you do that? If life is a game, maybe we can take some lessons from gaming. Dungeons & Dragons game masters would often set up a scenario like this: “Two Orcs come around the corner, see you, and start yelling. What do you do next?” The idea was to wake up the players and get them to act quickly.
So we had to laugh when we found a t-shirt that simply said, “You’re dead. What do you do next?” That later became the theme of a game in which the players had to help one of their team escape from the Underworld.
But it’s also a pretty relevant question for life. What do you do when someone close to you has died? How do you continue when your own life seems to be in rags? Maybe you lost your job and are having no luck finding another. Maybe you’ve lost a love that you thought would be with you forever. How do you pick up the pieces and find a way to go on?
It might take a conscious act of re-invention. It’s definitely worth some self-examination. I don’t think there is a single “right way” to turn your life around, but there are many resources for strategies that might work for you. Skim a few “coping” and self-help books and articles. If you see something you like, study the rest of the book and decide which parts you can apply to your own life. A classic book on job hunting, ”What Color Is Your Parachute”, by Richard N. Bolles, has a lot of good advice on Knowing Thyself.
The Game of Life
Is life really a game? Maybe a better way to think of it is, “Life is a role-playing campaign.” You are living a long series of “games” and interlocking stories. There are a lot of ways you can approach a game. You can play it for fun and laughs. Or you can see each game as a challenge, and rise to overcome the challenge and excel at the game.
Has your life become dull and predictable? That can be ok. Lots of people enjoy simple, repetitive games like solitaire and Farmville. But when you play, ask yourself, “Is this what I want? Or is it time to find some new challenges?” Even if you’re pretty satisfied with your life, I encourage you to try some variations. Set a few goals for yourself; try some new things. Just remember that they’re all just games. If you try something new and fail, that’s fine. ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. – Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Have you been thrust into games you didn’t sign up for? Did that make you resentful? I suggest you mentally “step back” and see yourself “in the game”. Instead of being angry, accept that you are a player, and play to win! So what if you’re doing something you didn’t choose to do? Treat it as a game, and play the game well. If it still isn’t fun, think about ways you can choose your own game the next time.
For now, live the life you have. Don’t waste energy resenting that it isn’t some other way. Winning poker players learn to play the cards they’re dealt; they don’t get angry because they don’t win every pot. They find ways to survive the bad beats and maximize their gain on the good ones.
Live and Let Die
That strategy applies all the more when you are playing a game you can’t win. And, in the long run, that’s life. We can’t prevent death; all we can do is hold it off for a while. But life isn’t just one game; it’s a series of games. That one called “life and death” is fixed, but the other ones aren’t. Play each game to win – and to have fun – and when you finally stare Death in the face, you’ll be able to look into his eyes and know that you have won far more than you lost.
How do you “win” when your best friend is dying or her life is falling apart? Remind yourself that it’s just one more game, one more session in the campaign. As with any game, you can try to maximize your win or minimize your loss. Try to spend a little more time with them. Before and after they’re gone, remember the good times you’ve shared and remind them. Be with them. If this game has to be lost, don’t forget the many victories that came before.
Then you have to move on. Take inspiration from the one you’ve lost and find a way to turn that inspiration into new goals, new ideas, new ways to play the games in your own life. Death is a transition, and might signal time for a transition in how you live your life. Take up a new hobby or start a new project. Finish something you’ve been putting off for a long time. Reincarnate your passion!
Death. It comes to us all. But it doesn’t have to be an ending. Treat death as just one more roll of the dice, one more turn of the wheel, and it loses its sting. Even after death or disaster, “Your heart must go on.” There is life after death for the survivors, and it is worth living well.
In memoriam – Byron M. Cole, 1923-2009, father, friend, inventor, mentor.
Our Flying Aardvark Ranch Studio Gallery has art from the recent “Dia de los Muertos” we attended. It is a celebration of life and a memorial for those loved ones who have died.