Is There Such a Thing as Death Etiquette?

05/21/2015 11:43 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

My mother used to say, "All my favorite people have already died." She doesn't say it much anymore because she knows that it is a phrase that disturbed me. Here I am in the present attempting to bring light and love into her life and she is bemoaning those with whom she had love in earlier decades when she was younger and less burdened.

I rearranged pictures on my hallway walls this week. It stunned me how many friends of mine have passed in the past few years. It is noticeable on FB that people and pets seem to be dropping quickly and in volume. Maybe dropping isn't the right word and I should instead say rising. A man who hunts and fishes for his protein lives in my building and says he saw two crows fall out of the sky last weekend on his drive home from the harbor. He pays attention to nature, not social media. Just as flowers blossom and wither, every living thing goes through its cycle and wishing doesn't change that truth. You can always buy plastic if you prefer perfection.

I didn't know whether I should group all the dead people in one section of the wall or if that creates too much of a magnet? When my brother Steven died suddenly by accident in 1993 at the age of 31, the only activity that somewhat consoled me was to gather pictures together of his essence and make collages to keep him around me in the future. It's become my form of artistic therapy. Today as I was putting into a frame some pictures of a friend who died on Steven's birthday in 2013, I found myself questioning death etiquette.

Do we include the pictures given at the time of death if they weren't in our life at that time? Or if I don't think they'd like that picture much and would instead like to be remembered more during their happier times? Do we remember them only as we want to remember them, or as they would wish to be remembered and is there a big difference?

With this friend there is not. He would love to know how much life has changed in the past two years for those whose lifestyles differ from mainstream rigid frameworks. I cherish the joyous energy we enjoyed on Tablerock in South Laguna in the '90s, and pictures taken when I rented a room in he and his lover's home. I hold dear the words from his last email to me: "You have always been a safe place to confide my problems and struggles with. You share your journey very honestly and candidly. I have always felt that would help others with the same issues to relate and make the struggle a little easier."

One of the collages is a woman who shared her truth, gave lots of gifts, then left rapidly. Can she see now how I frame her a decade after our connection and in the few years since she left the planet? She lived a secret life. She was a gorgeous woman who explored herself thoroughly. I'm not telling anyone about her choices but do I have to ignore that such a phenomenon affected her health and it reminds me to have integrity in every moment because it counts.

Five years ago I doubted I would live another five years. A website said I had a 50 percent chance of doing so. Happily, I've passed that deadline. Thankfully, medicine for my condition has improved and offers more than was expected half a decade ago. I've also done deep healing work to perhaps undo the internal patterning I was living at the time of diagnosis. I'm grateful I've had this internal reckoning that has made me claim more vibrantly the relationships that really nourish and support my authentic soul.

I don't want to sound like my mother, that all my closest peeps have passed, but so many have! As David Letterman shared this week as he left his 33-year assignment, change is terrifying but once on the other side of it, the rewards are immeasurable. I'm beginning a new phase of my work, tying together trauma psychology, energy medicine, and infant massage. Only by going through all these experiences as deeply as I have been fortunate enough to do, is there a unique understanding of what is most important in life, and perhaps in death as well.


I have a friend who is a pioneer in the field of hospice. She says everyone has a story and just wants to understand and make peace with it before they go. I remember distinctly something W. Brugh Joy M.D., author of Joy's Way and Avalanche, said in a workshop six months before my brother died. "When someone leaves us we have the opportunity to claim what characteristics they had and shared with us which we wish to live on in us, and in that way they keep dancing here in our hearts." Okay, maybe that last phrase I added on. I wish I could be as nourishing and unconditional a love as my brother had for me. I keep trying.

I've enjoyed wonderful people who made a unique imprint in my life. I don't want to think they are all lined up readying to greet me, but instead wish to think they are reminding me to breathe more deeply, watch more sunsets, and occasionally get out and watch the sun rise as well. As I walk by, I remember, always, if we are breathing, there are fresh days and ways to create, new relationships to co-create, and evermore integrated and mature gifts to give those we love in the present.