RIP Michelle. On And On The Village Goes.

“On and on
I just keep on trying
And I smile when I feel like dying
On and on
On and on”

Life is in constant forward motion that has no room, nor patience, for stragglers. We keep moving. And sometimes I just want to stop and turn back. Singer John Mayer reflected this sentiment when he wrote, “Stop this train. I want to get off and go home again. I can’t take the speed it’s moving in.”

I wish.

I just spent nearly my entire Sunday at a memorial service in honor of my daughter Rosie’s best friend growing up, Michelle, or, as she refers to her, Michu.

She passed away of breast cancer on March 29 at the age of 27.

Wow. Life is just not supposed to happen that way. I guess.

Yet “on and on” we go.

So when I looked across our table at another friend of Rosie’s growing up, Kelsey, I was reminded of life’s seemingly careless twists and ferocious unpredictability.

Kelsey was a beautiful and gregarious child. When she was in the seventh grade, she caught a virus that was diagnosed to be healed in just a few short weeks. In the meantime, this nasty virus caused the bottom half of her body to go paralyzed and she became wheelchair bound.

The virus never healed and now, 15 years later, this beautiful young woman experiences life from a chair.

“On and on. Toss up my heart to see where it lands.”

I watched Michelle’s dad, Dan, shriek guttural screams and primal cries as the slow drip of the reality of death became ever more present with each passing story, photograph and memory. I connected with his fatherly energy, feeling and empathizing with this deepest of internal agony. I. Cannot. Possibly. Imagine.

I think a brutal ripping out of our guts would not be nearly as painful as burying a child.

“And I smile when I feel like dying.”

My daughter posted on Facebook, “[The Rabbi said], ’Don’t try and search for meaning in any of this, there isn’t any.’ I think those were some of the most comforting words I’ve heard the last few days. This is all so unfair and unjust, and I know it’s only going to get harder, but I will continue to celebrate you every day.”

Rosie, who has now lost a grandma and best friend within a six month period, is forced to reckon and deal with seemingly endless pain. Forced to learn at age 28 how do deal with the sting of loss, whether she wants to or not. Life can be that way. Learn or go home.

“On and on
She just keeps on trying
And she smiles when she feels like crying”

I watched all the moms and dads, our faces having aged and wrinkled since when we were youthful, hopeful and eager parents of elementary schoolers; hopeful for the exciting promise of what the future may hold for our precious little ones, now our faces bearing the toll of the years and the knowledge of what that future really held.

Our collective countenance suggested a sharing in the pain of Dan and his wife Ellen. In a sense we all lost a child that day. Our village was in mourning. Our faces etched with another wrinkle of experience, wrinkles lined with unwanted loss and grief.

“So he takes a ladder, steals the stars from the sky, puts on Sinatra and starts to cry”

I heard the outspoken basketball analyst Charles Barkley once say that when it comes to doing battle with Father Time, we humans will always be on the losing end as that is a battle that can never be won.

Yet “on and on” it is, in an inevitable forced march with no turning back. No stopping allowed. Not for a second. Do not pass go. This train stops for no one or no thing.

So what do we have? I do know we have each other. We have this moment and we have a life full of memories.

I do know that I will continue to live the hell out of life.

Yes. That I do know. I may not beat Father Time though he is gonna be so sick of me by the time it is all said and done he may wish he had lost.

So my precious village, I love you…this I know. Goodbye Michelle.

“And I smile when I feel like dying.”

Communication And Death: What To Say, What Not To Say And How To Say It

Death. Such an uncomfortable subject. I have previously made the observation that if the issue of pornography is the leader in the, “There is nothing else we engage in more that we talk about less,” category; in that same vein I would observe that the issue of death is the absolute leader in the, “There is nothing else that every single one of us without exception is  going to do that we prefer to deny and not talk about,” category.

Most of my life I have been most definitely part of this denial crowd.

I have always had a very remote relationship with death as I’ve never lost anyone terribly close to me. When my mother passed away last October, I experienced first-hand just how deeply uncomfortable and awkward most people are with the subject. When friends, colleagues and acquaintances would come in contact with me -or deliberately not come in contact with me- after her passing, I noticed an array of reactions in how to approach this morbid subject.

As a speech geek in both life and death, it was interesting to examine words and communication patterns in the context of bereavement. And less you think my observations are the invent of some rogue Comms guy and his personal opinions, not really. There is a lot of existing literature on the subject.

I noticed the reactions basically fit into three categories.

  1. The “Just Say Nothing About It Ever” group.
  2. The “Say Way Too Much” group.
  3. The appropriate, “Just Say Enough” group.

I realize everyone is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating condolences to a grieving person.  That said, I do believe in some overarching principles that will certainly assist me in dealing with the subject for the grieving others who cross my path in the future. I thank you for allowing me to share these with you as I hope you may find them useful at some point as well.

The first group is just weird, but I totally get it. When you know someone has lost a loved one and choose NEVER to broach the subject demonstrates deep communication incompetence. The several friends and colleagues I have who, to this day, have never uttered a word about it is, well, highly inappropriate…but, again, I get it. I believe it speaks far more about the person’s level of discomfort and awkwardness than it does any lack of sympathy, empathy or concern. Perhaps it is not surprising that all of these people, in my experience, were male. Yet let’s not bag on the men and champion the women just yet, as, in fact, women were almost exclusively at fault in the second category, the “Say Way Too Much” crowd.

This second group felt the need to go beyond the necessary, “Sorry for your loss,” and offer some form of philosophy, certainly with good and loving intentions, to counsel you as you grieve. Some of these philosophies included:

  • Everything happens for a reason.” I wrote an entire blog about this one!
  • She is in a better place.” Unless all parties share identical eschatological positions, like above, this can be highly offensive.
  • It is now time to really embrace life and love ones.” I could not have figured that one out on my own?
  • I know how you are feeling.” Such hubris. None of us can ever get inside someone’s else’s head to know feelings. Presumptuous.
  • At least the death was quick.” Let the bereaved person discover any potential silver-linings for them self.

The point? One’s grieving is not about you or your philosophies -keep those little gems to yourself. It is all about them…don’t let yourself get in the way of a good condolencing (my word….you’re welcome).

The final category of “Just Say Enough,” certainly constituted the great majority of people. The key: Nothing fancy, flowery or eloquent is necessary. Perhaps saying, “I am sorry for your loss,” is trite, it is trite for a reason. It works. If one were to follow up the sentence with anything else at all, it should focus solely on the other person, as in, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do.” If there is going to be an extended conversation it needs to be motivated and instigated by the grieving person, not you. Pending my relationship with the individual, the time, place and even, to a large degree, my mood, I may or may not have conversed further.

As I conclude this short blog concerning appropriate ways to converse with grieving persons, I am reminded about a conversation I had with one of our Crafton math professors, Sherri Wilson, shortly after my mom’s passing.

Sherri and I have shared the same office hallway for the better part of my 12 years at Crafton. We are cordial and friendly with each other though not at all close -I mean she does teach math after all, yeech. The first time Sherri saw me after my mother’s death she came, knocked on my door and, quite appropriately and confidently, shared her condolences. What struck me about the conversation with Sherri was two-fold: First her personal self-confidence and security to boldly share her condolences was, as I have come to find out, rare and unusual; and, second, the look of genuine concern in her eye. This look could not be fake or construed…it was the real deal.

Sherri did not say anything magical or fancy, just the basics. Yet after I had my very brief conversation with her, I felt a little better. Why? Another human being, whom I do not know all that well, cared. I expect my family and closed loved ones to care, yet to feel this loving kindness from one outside of my “tribe” was so encouraging.

Death is undoubtedly awkward. Yet since we live in a world in which EVERYONE dies, perhaps it is high time we learn how to become effectively conversant within this context.

Thanks Sherri.

My Mother Passed Away The Day Before Yesterday

My mother passed away the day before yesterday. I knew I would eventually experience this day, and well, as I think about it, I am glad I have. If I had not, her son would have went before her and that is a pain no parent should ever have to bear. My surviving dad, in whose living room I now sit and write these words, is repeating the mantra through anguish and tears, “I always wanted to go first, dammit.” He now has to bear the pain of losing a spouse of nearly 60 years. I don’t think he means those words as then it would have been his spouse, lover and life partner now bearing this unparalleled pain. Yet guttural pain is not known for its reasoning skills, nor should it.

My mother passed away the day before yesterday. My dad does not want to be left alone -for even one second- therefore I am now performing my role in the rotating schedule of figure person of strength, courage, support and above all, love. He wants to simultaneously cry, reflect, cry, take care of business, cry, sleep, cry and cry some more. The thought has crossed his children’s minds that he may now want to take his own life to go be with her. He will not be left alone at this time –for even one second.

My mother passed away the day before yesterday. How am I you ask? I was already fearful of my mental and emotional health when one, or both, of my parents passed. Just a few years ago when my mother had a terrible health scare I was paralyzed with anxiety for days. However, I feel very little anxiety at this time. Death is such a powerful force–there is no arguing with it, compromising with it, negotiating with it…death wins. I believe the peace I am currently feeling is due to the absolute fact that death is the ultimate, there-is-nothing-you-can-do-about-so-what’s-the-point? feeling. The strongest emotion is “missing”….meaning dealing with the reality that I now will always miss her.

My mother passed away the day before yesterday. The most beautiful, and quite unexpected, reality of this situation is the powerful presence of love: The love that is holding us all together at this time. The intense love of my life partner, whose inner beauty is only matched by one other person, and she passed away the day before yesterday. The love I see in my children’s eyes for their grandparents, parents, cousins and family members. The love that has been hibernating now for decades has now awoken…the love I have for my siblings. And the love for the man who, along with the woman who passed away the day before yesterday, brought me into this world.

My mother passed away the day before yesterday, so what is next? In many ways, I have no idea. No clue. No hint. And don’t care. Yet I do know I am going to love on my father in a way I have never loved before. I do know love is going to get us through. I do know this rogue, independent man of reason, is not so rogue, independent, or even reasonable. I need the love of family. I need to emotionally vent. I need my children as much as they currently need their father.

My mother passed away the day before yesterday, and I am seeing the love, support and encouragement of both close friends and acquaintances, colleagues and gym buddies and my beloved and precious students both past and present. All of these groups, in particular my students, have no idea of the depth and extreme importance of what their support, love and encouragement means to me. Thank you. Really. Thank you.

My mother passed away the day before yesterday and I now sit on her couch, in her room, in her house. I look at her things, embrace her unique touch and style and steep in the thankfulness of the many precious treasures that woman has brought into my life. One of my fondest memories is a letter she wrote me when I was 14 years-old, at the height of my teen “shit show” powers. The woman who passed away the day before yesterday was not a terribly expressive or tactile person when I was growing up. This letter was I all I needed and went it something like this:

“Dear Jim, I know I do not tell you I love you a lot or give you a lot of hugs, but you must know that every day that I make your breakfast, lunch and dinner; do your laundry or drive you to practice; clean your room or make your bed, is me telling you how much I love you. Please never forget that. I love you.”

 That is all this 14 year-old needed to hear.

My mother passed away the day before yesterday.

Damn.

The Practical and Political Implications of Death: The Podcast with Kevin Collins

Jimmy sits down with a funeral director who deals with death on a daily basis. With over 55 million deaths each year (2 people die every 1 second) listen in as Jimmy and Kevin discuss the psychology, cultural practices and politics of one of the biggest businesses on the planet. They discuss grieving, death/humor, religion and the political ramifications of all things death. A pretty eye opening podcast on a subject most rarely think about…until faced with it.

Why? Adam Yahel Diaz: A Man Of Peace, A Man Of Community. R.I.P.

Sometimes you search and find something to write about, while at other times the writing finds you. Such is the case with this blog entry, as yesterday I woke up to find that a young man, 26 year-old Crafton Hills College student Adam Yahel Diaz, whom I had just seen the evening prior, had passed away in car accident while driving to San Francisco early Friday morning.

During the entire day on Friday, I received Facebook messages, phone calls and emails from the Crafton Hills Community, both students and educators alike, all with the strong need to process the tragedy that just unfolded before us -processing that took the form of planning events, recalling memories and telling stories of our personal relationships with Adam.

At the outset, please understand that I knew far more about Adam, from friends and colleagues, than I actually personally knew Adam. I was not a close friend nor confidante,  just a person who had occasional informal encounters with him and who frequently heard others speak very highly of him.

It seems everyone knew him.

Crafton Hills is a community college. The nature of these institutions is generally one of transience, in that most students juggle work, school, family, while finding little time to work on building a sense of community as “real life” is just too demanding.  This is what set Adam apart from the majority of students, he not only strove to build community, he embodied it.

Unlike High School, where you have the “popular” crowd, the community college has no such social stratification. However, if you were to choose the “popular kid” at Crafton Hills, it would have been Adam Yahel Diaz. He was that guy everyone seemed to know from somewhere. Why? Because you did not go to Adam, he, eventually, came to you.

And he seemed to go everywhere. I know because Adam came to me.

Adam was involved in school governance, the arts program, campus life and just about any event that worked to build community on the campus. I had never met him, though knew of him, until early March when he approached me about delivering a speech for our campus wide event, Day of Advocacy, with a topic entitled, “Securing the Blessings: On a Healthy Relationship Between Church and State.”11061203_10155840126605131_5553587300401995126_n

This speech was so Adam. It was about building bridges between groups -in this case church and state- coming together and putting aside our differences for the sake of unity—for the sake of community. Adam had never been my student so I never really was able to coach him up in a way I would have liked. The speech itself was not always terribly clear…but that mattered so little, if at all.

Why?

Because, as I quickly learned with Adam, it was about who he was…not necessarily what he said. His spirit reverberated enormous positive energy and brilliance of light. You might not have known exactly where he was always going with an idea but, wherever it was, you wanted to go with him. We wanted in on that positive energy train—his spirit was strong, captivating, genuine and undeniable. If only all my students could tap into their inner charisma the way he did, our campus, hence, our world, would never be the same.

As my dad used to say, Adam was the kind of guy that could probably sell snowballs to Eskimos—but Adam was not a salesman. Rather, he freely gave away his positive and powerful energy to all those in his presence.

His smile was pleasantly and permanently etched on his face.

When such a tragic passing takes place, many begin the struggle to “make sense” and attempt to answer life’s deepest question: Why? It is, perhaps, the ultimate tension.

Yet, such a question might only lead one down the road of false hope, at best, and, at worst, utter frustration and bitterness.

It is not time to focus on the “why” but rather the “what”—as in what are the gifts, the lessons, the blessings that Adam graced us with and how we can we, the community of Crafton Hills College and beyond, carry these on in his honor and on his behalf?

I respect faith. In fact, I respect faith so much I would never cheapen it with my frail interpretation of how it plays out in life…and death. A wise friend of ours once told us a saying that resonated so deeply we keep it permanently displayed in our home: “I would never worship a God I could fully understand.”

Is this passing part of a universal plan? Whether it is or it is not, it makes little difference. I am the type of person who focuses on what I do know and not things I cannot possibly know -at least with any degree of certainty.

And what do we know?

I know that shortly after finding out this news, a colleague called me up in tears. “I just wrote him three letters of recommendation for three Ivy league school this past week,” she said. This only testifies to the fact he never waited for colleges or life to come to him, he always went to them. I know this.

We know Adam was a builder. He proactively built relationships, bridges, and, above all, community –a nice touch for a community college.

And now we find that real life has come to us in a tragic and powerful way. We know that we must now accept and live with this new reality that Adam is no longer among us, physically. Yet, we also know he leaves all of us with a bevy of powerful gifts, lessons and blessings that we have the duty to carry on. We have an obligation to come together as a community, express our love and concern for one another, and live in a manner that Adam desired for us all.

We will miss you Adam.

You came to us…and now none of us will ever be the same.

(A memorial will be held at Crafton Hills College on Tuesday, April 14 at 1:00pm in the LRC building. Perhaps this will be a good starting point in continuing to build the community Adam so jovially worked towards)

Death. Just Death: A Blog I’ve Been Just Dying To Write

Death.
Yuck.
 Do I have to blog about it?
In the spirit of openness and synchronicity with the universe (more about this later), it seems I must deal with the issue so many of us go to such great lengths to avoid—death and dying. To begin our discussion on all things grim reaper, some necessary backstory is in order.
I was recently contacted by an acquaintance, Lisa, to assist her in a TEDx event in which she was going to be participating.  For those unaware, TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues, even death — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world. This TEDx was at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.
I describe Lisa as an acquaintance (yet ironically Facebook “friends”) even though we attended John Burroughs High School together and, as she puts it, have been “orbiting” in the same atmospheric social circles for well over 30 years, yet never really connecting at any qualitative level.
This all changed when I received an email from her requesting my assistance in her TEDx presentation, as she was aware I was a Speech Professor and was recommended by a mutual friend. Her topic? Death.
Lisa is one of those people who possess an aura of positivity and friendliness accompanied by a strong and undeniable, though carefully veiled, strength.  One cannot allow her overwhelmingly warm, bubbly and charismatic demeanor to conceal that she has the heart of prizefighter who will ultimately not take no for an answer. She is the warm and fuzzy teddy bear with the tenacious heart of a lion.
It is little wonder as to why.
Lisa lost her son Justin, who was a young teen at the time, to cancer about 12 years ago. If this were not enough, some years later her youngest son, Jacob, was diagnosed with the same cancer at the same age his older brother was diagnosed. Today, her youngest son is cancer free yet still needs to be checked every 6 months. Perhaps these horrific events explain her tenacious heart, but how the teddy bear demeanor? She is remarkable.
As a result, Lisa is now an advocate for people learning how to deal with death.  She has started “Death Cafés” in which all people are invited to come and discuss all things death; be it coping with the death of a loved one, dealing with your own mortality, or just curious and in need of discussion. In addition, she has started a non-profit, “Justin Time” in which children can attend and express their thoughts and emotions concerning the death of a loved one through artistic expression.
Simply, if it’s about death, it’s all good with Lisa. If she were a radio station her motto would read, “All Death, All The Time.”
The basic philosophical underpinning behind Lisa’s relationship with death is that people do not like to discuss it and do not know or even realize the basics of the grieving process for themselves or others.  To exemplify her message as simply as I can, if you attempt to console one who is grieving with saying, “He is in a better place,” they will want to slug you; rather asking, “What happened? Tell me more,” is music to a grieving person’s ear.
The process of death is not about wonderfully motivated, yet painfully insulting, platitudes; rather it is about expression and discussion.
I, perhaps like most Americans, am guilty of being a “death denying” person who is not interested in the discussion. I hate death so much because I love life so much.  As I think about it, I suppose it is not the fear of death that haunts me as much as the fear of no life does; this in spite of the fact I have spoken with enough people who have had near death experiences and speak of a complete warmness and joy in the process. Yes I fear, yet concurrently believe it is a beautiful transition into what awaits us, whatever that might be.
And speaking of synchronicity (paragraph 4, look), as I was assisting Lisa I had a unexpected conversation with an old friend who, unbeknownst to me, nearly died from Lyme Disease several years ago, recovered, and now loves life more than ever—yet has absolutely no fear of death in the least; in fact, she is very excited for it.
I’m also aware, through first hand personal experience, that some people on death’s doorstep converse, out loud in a semi-conscious state, with long dead friends and family. And speaking of synchronicity yet again, the day of Lisa’s talk, my partner Rene’ told me her 94 year old grandmother, who is very close to passing in a retirement home, is now having conversations and making plans with her deceased family.
Am I pimpin an afterlife philosophy? Hell no. I have no idea. Am I pimpin an afterlife period? Hell Hell no. Jimmy’s preaching days are long over. I just believe there is something— and if it’s nothing? Not a damn thing I can do about it. Still, it’s my blog so hear me out.
In all, human beings hate change. We resist change. Most of us would rather live a half-assed lifestyle and avoid change over living a full and complete life that requires risk and change. Perhaps this is the same with death. Death demands change.
Far from a Hindu expert on anything, I am reminded of the Hindu God Shiva who is understood to be the “destroyer,” or God of death, as it were. However, though Shiva is associated with destruction, this is not considered a negative in the Hindu religion as Shiva is also considered to be the “transformer” –as destruction opens the path for a new creation of the universe, a new opportunity for the beauty and drama of universal illusion to unfold.
Lord-Shiva-Picture-HD-
So, no longer just an acquaintance and now a new friend, Lisa, has guided me into an honest and thoughtful reflection concerning death. Is it a beautiful transition? Yes. And what do I still think about death?
Yuck.
You might say Jimmy’s in death tension. I love change…and death may be the ultimate form of it.

 Lisa and jim