Five months into our family’s yearlong adventure living abroad in Sweden, I'm wondering where all the light went. It sure is dim and dark outside. Yeah yeah, I knew it would be like this. But living in it is always different than knowing, in your head, it is coming.
In my life I’ve had many, many experiences of choosing to “lean into light” — to recover from fear and pain to love and joy — yet this is the first time I’m actually facing this kind of dark.
Long seasons of cold, rain, wind and dark have been known to knock people off-center, and I am committed to utilizing all the tools I’ve got for self care, as the season rolls on. Buy a UV light? Maybe. Get outside, walk up stairs and hike up hills? Oh yes.
How would you make it — without too many grumpy days — through a long dark winter?
Letter writing has always been a therapeutic art for me, so I’ll write through the winter. Last week I wrote this letter for parents to use as they wish, since there is a growing number of parents who want their holidays to be less about presents, or “stuff” — and more about connection and quality time.
Whether you are a parent or not, chances are you want less stress and debt this holiday season. Consider this. How much more rewarding would it be to spend less time, money and attention on presents and more quality time with people you’ll miss indescribably when you die? Yep, when you leave your body. Because we all will, right?
In western cultures, we tend to avoid talking about our inevitable physical death. What purpose does this serve? If anything, I've seen people enjoy life more when they stop pretending to be immortal.
There’s no good reason to wait until we’re taking our last breaths. Ask the big questions now. Express your big feelings now. To your friends, to your mom or cousin or favorite co-workers…
What would you do if you knew you had two weeks to live?
What art is living inside of you, that you are denying and want to step-up?
What makes you feel alive, and are you doing that enough?
They'll feel your love.
From one perspective, living in a human body is rivetingly blissful and filled with pleasure. From another perspective, our bodies are limited and the real "light" is on the "other side," after we leave our bodies. Wherever you stand in the range of these beliefs, I will assert that we are here on this Earth to become really good at leaning into light. During long dark winters, or divorce or destructive wildfire, or adolescent growing pains or while we're looking for a new job that actually feels worth our time...
Asking the big questions and expressing the big feelings can help us feel alive.
My Love... my sweet Hjalmar...
You were such a good papa to Rosco. It is a sign of his brilliance that he found you, an old gentle soul whose presence is ancient like a rock whipped coarse by the ocean.
You found him at one year old, and for 14 years he got to live by your side running free, chasing squirrels, swimming in a freshwater creek hole more beautiful than most humans ever even get to see.
When we began dating and took a road trip to San Diego, I was startled to find you spooning him during a nap in our rental van. So open to showing love for your dog. I'll never forget that sight, and I'd come to see that it was the way you were with him. You loved being with him, next to him, two gentle, patient souls who had found each other.
He was ready to move on, and in this time of grieving for our family I just want you to know how grateful I am that you shared him with me, and how proud I am that you are the father of my child. The patience I have learned from you -- true, old, wide, ancient patience -- I now see that you learned in part from Rosco. You were mirrors for each other in this way.
And he waited, to die. Fifteen years in human time, 105 in dog years. He really liked being with you, part of your family. And he stuck around, even with at least 14 years of seizures, to show Helena what Dog Love is like. I remain convinced it is Love in some ways evolved beyond what humans know.
And as you feel appreciated and seen for the spectacular man and father you are, I also ask that you fully grieve the loss of your sweet boy. He feels it, I promise you that. The grieving is part of the love.
So here is a sweet song, my favorite instrument as you know (piano) and my favorite in part because of how much it helps us humans to feel. I picked a song by a Korean composer because of how much beauty you've shared with me from the Japanese and other Asian cultures. www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2Oeg32zW3E
Rosco, the dog who "smiled" when he ran. The dog who could have taught the world how to heal with physical touch, simply by his loving presence and soft, willing body.
I love you outside of words and far beyond this lifetime. It feels empty here without our Zubby around, waiting for an affectionate foot or an elbow, or hand...
As I write, I hear the sound of our old dog snoring. It's a gentle, quiet snore, not disturbing whatsoever, but tonight it stands out more than ever because I know Rosco is dying.
We're all dying, yes. And with old age, most likely we get closer to leaving our body.
Rosco is old for a dog. The lumps on his sides, which weren't found to be cancerous on his last vet visit, seem to have grown in recent weeks. He is moving much slower than he did last month. Something has shifted.
Not only am I certain he knows there is big change in the air with our family venturing to Sweden for a year beginning sometime this summer, but I am certain that he also hears me and "knows" what I'm saying when I talk with him, whether I speak out loud or not. I tell him we are going, though he already knows that. I tell him that I see he is in pain, and that if he feels ready to die, we are willing to hold him as he passes. I tell him that if he isn't ready to die quite yet, he can live with my dad and get lots of petting and treats. But Rosco knows all that. He feels it. Dogs are energetically very in tune -- in ways the majority of adult humans cannot relate to.
I tell him I am listening. I ask him to show me signs. I've held a dog as she died before, and Lusa was my soulmate. I'm willing, honored and ready to do it again. It's up to him.
If he's ready to go after being brought from an abusive home to the animal shelter as a 1-year-old puppy, and then being adopted by my husband and spending 14 good years in his care -- then I accept that.
Having seen how miserable end-of-life can be when close relatives aren't ready to let go, and someone is in pain and wants to go themselves... I want to be loving, and let go.
But how does he want to die?
I don't mean medically. I mean, if we really were to show love for him... if we really were to care deeply about how he spends his last days... if we considered it important to support our loyal, affectionate, protective, playful friend by assisting him to leave his body in a state of mind that is truly peaceful...
What would that look like?
How can we help him to pass, feeling loved?
What does dignity look like in dying?
Do we take him to the beach one day, let him run in the waves and then bring him home where a vet comes by with an end-of-life injection? And we hold his body close, petting his fur gently as his heart stops beating, telling him, "You're a good boy Rosco..." just as I've done dozens of times during his seizures?
Do we feed him raw meat and take a family walk the hour before?
Do we all sit and pet him, tell him we love him together, or should it be just his dad?
What we do not want to do is let him suffer in pain for any longer than he needs to. It's just so hard to tell sometimes with dogs, stoic as they can be with revealing their pain. We want to let him go when he is ready. Really, for us that feels like love.
Half of me writes this article to process this sad reality, myself. By stating in writing that we want to support Rosco to pass when he's ready, maybe that means we'll get a clearer message somehow.
The other half writes because I'm not afraid to talk about death, and to wonder how I'd prefer to die and to ask...
How do you want to die?
Have you thought about it? Perhaps you know how you don't want to die: in horrible pain, or in terrible fear, or all tied up with tubes in a hospital bed.
Most of us have no control over how we die; we're not going to take our own lives prematurely. But we do get to dream. To be in conversation with the great mystery of the future, and all that is unfolding. To lend light to the wanting, to give name to the joy.
When you take your last breaths, do you want:
I'd like to live another 50 years or so, and watch our daughter grow up and blow my mind with her brilliance, courage, playfulness, passion and grace. I'd like another Queensland Heeler puppy to care for its entire life. I want to live to see my husband living his art and joy for work. I want to live at least as long as my parents, so I can care for them with my whole heart, as a duty of honor. At least as long as it takes for our daughter to choose to have children, or not, so that I can play with my grandchildren...
And when I leave this body, I want:
That's what dignity in dying looks like for me. That's what dignity in dying might look like for Rosco. What does dignity in dying look like for you?
With the passing of Prince, I am one of many in shock and grieving big time. But as I listen to my favorite songs of his -- Seven, Kiss, Adore, Erotic City, Purple Rain -- and the tears fall, it isn't only his death I am grieving. Prince is fine. He lived a phenomenal life and he's not in his body now. Yes, it's a loss. That voice, that soul, seriously. Hotness gets no hotter. And I mostly don't mean sexual hotness; I mean life fire. Indescribable life fire. My own life, particularly as a girl in the 80s and 90s, has been profoundly blessed by his talent, his passion, his soul. And all he gave and would continue to give, which so many of us had no idea about...
Yes it is a loss, and yet, while gripped by grief's gaping wound, I'm committed to not silencing its most profound message.
As I listen, a voice within me asks, "What is really the sad part in all of this?" How might Prince want us to feel, in honor of his life?
Whether or not you have children, you've heard this phrase:
It goes so fast.
While pregnant with my daughter, this was the most common thing people told me. Yes, yes, I would think, it goes so fast. You turn around and your child is graduating from high school and you're a sloppy mess of tears, wondering where your toddler went.
But I wondered, what do they really mean? What is the deeper message beneath this popular statement?
Years of reflection have led me to one core finding. And perhaps anticlimactically, it is the very same message beneath every great sadness, every great joy, every great union:
Be in love with your children, be in love with life, the whole time. As much as you can, be in love.
Fall in love with every moment and ounce of life that you can. Just aim for that. Then love yourself even when you aren't successful with it. Let love open you up; it's far more fun than the alternative. Listen to your inner voice. Tune out the noise and hear your own song. Cliche, cliche, cliche. Yet are we listening? Am I listening? Grief like this spotlights the places where I'm not.
How about you?
If you really love to dance, if your wild fire tiger comes unraveled in hot sauce when you move your hips to music you love... do you dance enough?
On a daily basis, are you captive to your To Do List, attentive to errands and appointments as afternoon comes, barely hearing the song of your heart's enormous capacity for feeling? Or do you open space for feeling every day, letting the grief that is present in life show you the way to greater love?
We step over feeling to favor something else. And that something else is there to block us from the most powerful thing a human can do: FEEL. And feel what? Love. Essentially, feeling grief for the passing of someone we cherish -- like Prince -- is an expression of Love.
Treasure life while you're in it. Don't wait until your death bed and don't wait for other people's funerals. That's what people are saying when they say to new parents, "It goes so fast." They're saying: W-a-k-e u-p. And why is so often said? Because we all need 10,000 reminders to remember the Love we are made of.
Dear Prince Rogers Nelson,
Thank you for your gifts. I am FLOORED by your existence. Your music seduced my soul. Your profound passion kissed this planet into greater bliss and beauty with every song you sang.
My deepest bow goes to you as you shift from the precious body that housed you, to a realm where the freedom you lived for, reigns.
This morning a wise friend shared vulnerable words around a struggle with how we process death. In our culture that is afraid of the dark, the unknown, the mystery, the shadow, we tend to avoid acknowledging these things when somebody has passed away.
Sure, let's focus on their light and their beauty, yet...
Can we also elevate our capacity for holding, and love the whole of them, by giving voice to the parts of them that struggled to face this sad and beautiful human existence? Would this not offer us a greater sense of being seen from "the other side" (post-death of the body)?
Dear friends and family, please, don't just love the light in me.
Once I leave this human body, I sure would appreciate having my humanness honored too. My shadow spots, my struggles, my willingness to be with depression and to grapple with it out loud, my deep down kick-and-scream about feeling confined to a body, my cycles with sugar... I'd like that to be spoken of when my body dies, by my dearest loved ones. I would like to see, from the other side, that people were talking about how they loved me even when I was grumpy, how I was still precious even on my frustrated, crabby and cynical days.
That would feel complete.
To accept that we're in this human experience, and it's OK that we sometimes feel really, really messed up about that.
With great Love for those who've left their bodies, and all of us who someday will too. With deep Love to all who've felt the grief of a loved one's death, and to those who feel it every day for the collective, for all the dying that is happening every single second, of every single day.
May we practice leaning into light while we're here, but not deny that though we're made of light, this plane where we reside sure has its sorrow.
One recent evening, I heard the shocking news that she had passed. Aja ("asia"), daughter of a very dear friend of mine, one of the most soulful and vibrant young ladies I had ever met. She'd passed in the night, it wasn't known how, and a ripple of disbelief rocked the world around her.
I met Aja through her mother Ginger, and instantly adored her. The kind of person who wasn't afraid to tell you that she loved you, she had either outgrown the scarcity myth around love being special, reserved for only those precious few around you, or she never bought into it in the first place.
One day out of the blue she asked me to photograph her wedding in Kauai. Feeling incompetent, I said, "But Aja, I'm not a real photographer. Your wedding photos should be stunning, and what if the ones I take aren't?"
Without stomping her foot down, it was as if she did. Emphatically, she said, "Jessie, I love you. I want you to photograph my wedding."
She clearly didn't wait to die before getting the "Love is All That Matters" memo. The wisest don't.
And so it was. Months later I found myself immersed in the tropical kiss of fiery Kauai herself, photographing a feisty mermaid in her gown. And when we reached the "Trash the Dress" session on the beach in Hanalei, I found myself taking photos in my bikini. I thought I was dreaming. Not to be in Kauai, not to be photographing a wedding there, but to be doing it in my bikini -- let's just say that's not exactly my comfort zone attire. Aja's free-spirited affection and acceptance of me had opened a window to a place where it didn't matter how much fat I had on my thighs. I was loved, happy and free.
Hundreds of other people have stories like this about Aja. Somehow she was an expert at making people feel loved. I assert there is no greater art in the human experience.
Hearing of her death left a hollow dark pit in my chest, especially when I thought of the pain her mother must be feeling. Part of me still doesn't believe she's gone. A light that burned so intensely bright.
I imagined those creamy childhood cherub cheeks her mother would kiss as a child. The squeals she'd make when she landed a perfect gymnastics move. Her smooth, assuring voice and how her two younger brothers, Tyler and Travis, would do without their older sister's wise embrace.
And her father. She was the apple of his eye, every second of her precious life. Would they ever get over this?
Soon I decided No, they wouldn't. Just as she thought, spoke and moved so vivaciously through life while breathing, Aja would live with no less of a spark after she left her body. The pit of sadness left in the hearts of all who love her, would feed the depth of empathy and love we were all capable of choosing, and might even be moved to choose more, once she had gone.
At her ceremony, held in a gym packed wall to wall, it was the words of her father that broke the dam withholding tears inside my chest.
"This is not a sad day." Tim Chew spoke into the microphone. And just when I thought he might gloss over the sadness, highlighting only the beautiful life she lived, he continued, "No, this is not about sadness. If it were, there would be no flowers. There would be nobody here..." He went on, "What is sad is all the people who die every day unnoticed, unnamed." Dam, busted. That a man so eternally in love with his first born, his only daughter, on this day dedicated to her, could take it to this level... Pulling from within his noble heart, a voice for those far less fortunate than his daughter. Awe.
Dear Aja, I am truly touched by your existence. Your wide open love made me feel like an instant big sister, and your acceptance helped me feel free in my own skin. I was one of many witnesses to how you loved, and my life is forever better because of you. Thank you for living. Shine on, feisty mermaid.
One of the most mind-altering things I've ever done is write a living will.
I started writing without thinking, just writing from my heart about what I would want people to know if I were to die young and unexpectedly. It was instantly ego-crushing, and heart-opening.
Writing my own living will brought the most important things in life to the surface of my attention and allowed the unimportant things to simmer out of sight.
If you're looking for a way to paint your life with a touch of exquisite depth, consider writing your own Living Will. You don't need to get it notarized unless you want to. For now, it can just be an act of truth telling and a powerful way to listen to your clearest inner wisdom.
Here's the exercise...
Pull out a piece of paper and a pen. Take some deep breaths, inhale, exhale... to get grounded. Invite your heart to take center stage.
Now imagine yourself suddenly passing on, so tomorrow when the sun rises, you are no longer physically embodied in the lives of those who love you most.
At the top of the paper, write, "To the people who love me most in life..." and then continue writing whatever comes up in your mind.
Here are some prompts:
What is most important that they know about you?
How would you like them to remember you?
What hasn't been said that you'd like them to be aware of?
How would you like them to handle any of the material things you possess?
What are you grateful for, that they showed you, gave you, wanted for you?
How would you want to be remembered? What kind of celebration or ceremony would you want them to hold in your honor?
What is your wish for them in life?
It can be two paragraphs, 5 pages, whatever your heart genuinely wants to spill. Kudos for taking a deep dive to let your inner wisdom be seen and, more than before, lived.
Our featured free recording for September is a 35-minute conversation with mailman Sean Lanham called Mailman Magic and the Power of Letters. You can listen here!
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.