No one I know died last week.
That's a relief. A week like that hasn't happened since April 2012. For the past 18 months, I've known two or three people every week who've died of cancer. I had known some of them for months, even years. Some I met just before they died.
All of them have touched me deeply. I can only hope that my presence was beneficial to them and their loved ones.
This is part of what I do for a living. I'm a clinical psychologist. My specialty is in working with people who have cancer and their caregivers. Make no mistake, the vast majority of people who have cancer-- an increasing percentage of the population every year-- do very well, and live on for years without the disease. I get to see many of these people put their lives back together or build on the already strong foundations they have spent a lifetime constructing.
I've been doing this for 15 years. I know I've helped a lot of people at some awful times in their lives. Frequently it's been at the worst time of their lives, and we mutually look forward to the day it becomes a distant memory. All too often, we navigate the mystery space between the known and the unknown, as Roshi Joan Halifax so eloquently puts it, the slippery transition between living and dying. This means illuminating the bureaucratic and spiritual paths that carry all of us away from this life.
I would be remiss though in saying I haven't benefited from the experience myself. It's not completely accurate to think of this as a job or a career, although it certainly is that. I think of it more as service.
I can't say I recommend this line of work for everyone. Most people react sanely when they find out what I do. Typically, there's an awkward pause. Then, "wow, isn't that depressing?".
You know what? It's really not. I get to see resilience. I get to see grace. I get to fight for dignity. I get to reduce suffering without the naïve assumption that any of us are exempt from our own mortality. I also get forced into a hyper-acute awareness of how important self-care is for any caregiver, professional or personal. I often get inspiration from reading about warrior cultures past and present, the punishing training regimens that Spartans would embark on, feats of agility and endurance practiced by Mongols and Comanches, or tales of superhuman resolve during more recent combat missions.
In order to serve the ill and dying, I find I do a better job if I'm in perpetual training mode in every way I can. I try to train in the way of our ancient warrior ancestors-- I run in sandals as they did, work out with kettle bells and a mace as they did in the ancient gladiator training camps, meditate twice a day. I eat a lot of plants. Very few jobs raise the stakes so high. Too many of us wait until we realize how high the stakes are to take care of ourselves.
Once in a while, when a week like the one that just passed rolls along, I get to pause and take stock. My work requires training, focus and intention. So does living. So does dying.
Life is constant training for the unknown. Don't wait till the bell rings to announce the next round to get in shape. Don't pack your bags at the airport.
Train now for the unexpected.