09/05/2014 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Death as a Reminder of How to Live


My mother's gentle voice woke me up, "Grandpa died." I sat up on the mattress at the foot of my grandfather's hospice bed. The light in the living room was soft. My uncle and aunt were already awake, standing at the side of his bed. My grandfather's long, slow breathing had quieted only a few moments before.

My mother and I had driven from upstate New York to Illinois on short notice when we heard that her father was in the last hours of his life. We both felt the stress and inconvenience of having to shuffle our schedules and make the 15-hour drive. I grumbled to myself about rescheduling clients and losing creative momentum, until I remembered that to be with someone in the last moments of his life is a privilege.

Before we arrived, my grandfather told one of his caretakers of his regrets. When my mom and her siblings told stories about growing up, very few didn't include being beaten by their father. Many of them scattered as soon as they were old enough to leave. There is evidence of their fractured lives: drug addiction, children taken away, decades of grudges and lies. While lying in a hospice bed in his quiet living room, he said if he had known he was such a bad father, he would have done it all differently.

It saddens me to think of my grandfather lying in a bed contemplating his poor choices. There wasn't time left for reconciliation or making amends. Only time to feel the weight of that realization before sliding into unconsciousness. Out of his 14 children, only two were in the room with him when he died. The many spaces where bodies and hearts could have stood were vacant.

There is another side to the story. My grandfather was also generous and steadfast. He was a chiropractor and a homeopath. He spent his life healing people. Every time we visited, neighbors stopped by and recounted stories of how he had helped their families. I choose to see that side of him reflected in the kindness of many of his children who give love at every opportunity.

Do our angry, self-centered and flawed selves outweigh the generous, loving and joyful selves? It seems often in our world that it does. We all have moments when we are giving and moments when we are selfish. When we choose to see only one side, we deny the other. This is the constant tension between ego and heart. We are complex creatures, all capable of cruelty as well as compassion. The questions we ask about reconciling conflicting behaviors is a question about how we want to live.

When I lean heavily on judging others, I feel tight, small, and unhealthy. It's as though the discomfort in my body is sending me clues. When I choose to look for the good intentions beneath the behavior, it opens a door in my mind. The judgment moves asides and curiosity steps in. As I stood by my grandfather's side, I felt forgiveness. I had grown up with stories that influenced my perception of him. But in the end, I let go of the past and simply stood near a man who made countless choices through his life -- some good, some bad.

When I lead clients through an exercise in uncovering what they're seeking in their self-destructive choices, the answers are always: peace, love, happiness, or another universal positive experience. Ultimately, we are all seeking the same feelings. But the ways we go about achieving that are worlds apart. In the haze of fear, our choices can lead us directly into the suffering we're trying to avoid.

Perhaps my grandfather wanted peace and quiet, or perhaps he wanted to make his children tough. I'll never know for certain. I know that his decisions to both beat up on and provide for his children are rippling through the generations. From an early age, those terrible stories helped me define what kind of person I wanted to become. I knew I wanted to be a source of healing for other people, both like my grandfather and unlike him.

At first glance, my grandfather provides an example of how not to treat people. He would never have won Father of The Year. But when I look closer, I see a father who provided for 14 children and never abandoned them. He both healed and harmed in his lifetime. He represents the two sides within all of us. The side that we give our attention to is the self that we will become.