One of the many things I am grateful to cancer for is its ability to push me into the unknown, scary places…the ones I would never willingly visit. Yet, having gone there, I come away grateful, every time, and see its necessity for the evolution of my being. One such place has been my interactions with the Grim Reaper (Death). This is a two part story of my evolving relationship with Grim and the gifts that have come from this relationship.
We all have a relationship with Grim. He isn’t something we are taught to contemplate. Mostly, we avoid thinking about him altogether. He is like the irritating relative who remains ignored and we hope doesn’t visit our home any time soon. Think Randy Quaid’s character in Christmas Vacation, Cousin Eddie. Cancer made me open the door and invite him in for a visit, Grim, not Cousin Eddie. Getting to know him and becoming comfortable with his presence didn’t mean I wanted to die. It meant I cared enough about myself to look at him, wonder what made him so scary, and see his role in my life. What might he have to offer? I found he has a lot to say.
Grim’s first visit was in 2015. I invited him into my home although I’m not sure he understood why he was there. I was in pain, despair, and so frustrated that cancer was still a growing part of my life that I wanted out. I was mad at him because he wouldn’t take me with him when he was ready to leave. It was like I was the toddler, Grim, the parent who was making me stay in school when I just wanted to go home. “Take me with you, I don’t like school!” I might have demanded, stomping my feet in my temper tantrum.
“Going home is forever, you know, is that what you really want? To never play again, learn again, experience again? Instead, how about we look at why you want to leave?”
He showed me how controlling I was…so utterly frustrated at not being able to heal from cancer that I was willing to die instead. When some people don’t get their way they take their ball and go home…I apparently was willing to take my life and go home. He smiled and quietly shut the door behind him, and I turned towards life wondering what it might look like if I weren’t trying to control everything.
In a quiet moment sometime later I invited Grim for a visit again. I was curious, “Why don’t I want to die? What is so scary about it?” He waited patiently as I looked for the answer. I was surprised at my first response.
“It will devastate Wes and my boys, and it is incredibly painful thinking I would be the cause of their pain, particularly my boys.”
At first pass that seems so caring and loving, but Grim just laughed at me in a pathetic sort of way.
“A little bit codependent aren’t you? You didn’t say, ‘I have so much I want to experience.’ or, ‘Life is so fun.’ or, ‘I would miss my family.’ or, ‘I love being alive.’ No, you said, ‘I didn’t want to be the cause of their pain?’ In other words, your reason for staying alive is to avoid being the cause of someone else’s pain, not because you particularly like being alive?”
What Grim taught me in that moment was just how codependent I was in my desire to control my family’s emotions. I sat with the enormity of that and finally came to see that my family had a right to feel whatever they feel, and I needed to understand where this gripping need to be without fault came from. I wish I could say there was one event that caused it, but as I meditated on it, I realized it was a way I had maneuvered in the world all my life in order to feel safe. Having family feel any negative emotion because of me felt like…death…and I would avoid it at all costs. I think that’s what the family peace keepers do, don’t we? Control the environment so everyone is happy? All the while telling ourselves it's for them, when really, it is so we don't feel bad. The gripping need lessened, and peace settled in, which allowed me to turn my attention to ‘living’. How much do I want to live for me? Was my life worth living even with the prognosis I had, not knowing how long I had? Yes. But it took revealing the codependence in order to come to that decision. Otherwise, my focus was on “not dying” rather than “living” and there is a big difference between the two.
In July 2016, when my oncologist said, “Renee, this isn’t curable!” I invited Grim again. It looked as though he and I might be getting more intimate sooner than I wanted so I might as well get to know him better now. As usual, he was willing to make the trip. It felt like I was a teenager trying to accept Grim, my new, irritating step brother. The inevitable move into my space had me asking, "What can I accept and what is still difficult to accept about him?" There wasn’t fear about dying anymore, or being gone, as I had settled into a knowingness of the eternal nature of my being. It wasn’t that I would miss my family, really, because I felt that I will always be with them even in death. What was making me sad was being absent from their lives and seeing them moving on without me.
Time has passed and Wes has met someone else. I allowed myself to cry…until it became ok.
Wes happy as he introduces her to our boys. I allowed myself to cry…until it became ok.
The four of them laughing, happy, having a good time like we do now. I allowed myself to cry…until it became ok..
Enough time has passed, they can easily share their fond memories of me with a smile on their face rather than pain. Again, I allowed myself to cry…until it became ok.
Grim held the space for me as I went through my process. He taught me that emotions aren’t always rational, (I’m not even going to be around if those scenarios took place) but they are still powerful in their impact. This alone makes them worthy of feeling, because all emotions eventually pass into something else, if you’re willing to feel them instead of avoid them. Otherwise, they stay in you, layering one on top of the other, until Grim doesn’t seem like such a bad fellow to follow after all. Once I sat there long enough, my tears dried up, and a peace settled over me. In the end, we want those we love to be happy no matter what form that takes.
Through every encounter with Grim I discovered deepening levels of peace and greater appreciation for every moment I had on this Earth. Why does our culture seem to have such a fear of him when confronting him can make living so much richer?
Grim visited again last week, but I'll save that encounter until next time...