11/07/2013 03:50 pm ET

10 Things Death Can Teach

When I was studying Mexican literature in graduate school, I learned about the Days of the Dead, which were celebrated just a few days ago. It is a time to honor family members and ancestors whose lives made ours possible. While most people here in the United States rarely celebrate death, I have come to learn that there are many lessons that death can teach.

Lesson 1: Your dreams are meant to wake you up.

The other night I dreamt that someone sold me the formula for writing a memoir. One half exposition, one half resolution, the shadowy backstreet figure said. It was easy, he said. I woke, as if I'd escaped a drug deal gone bad, and went into my creativity studio to write.

Because what I have learned, from studying and researching and writing about traumatic memory and dreams and nightmares and the way the mind heals, is this -- dreams are meant to wake us up. And we have the chance for awakening every night.

This dream was about patience. This dream was about the fact that many of my writing coaching clients want to feel that they are almost done with their books when they have a first draft. This dream is about the fact that I have recently started a new memoir. This dream is about the fact that the valuable things in life take many seasons, many years, many layers and visions and revisions. You can't rush this. If you do, a nightmare will ensue.

Lesson 2: What you most fear is the entryway to the sacred.

When something happens that you have feared and fretted about -- or when you are confronted with the return of something you thought you left behind -- and it scares the living bejeezus out of you, your first instinct will be to tense up, or run away, or if you can't, then do get numb and leave the room even when your body is still there.

Don't. For this is your opportunity to learn, evolve, and grow at a lightning speed -- if you can breathe. If you can relax into what is happening, and be there. If you can let the feelings wash over you and feel them.

This takes practice. You will have to practice it as many times as you breathe each day.

Lesson 3: We are the same.

When I went to Michigan last year for my Aunt Ruby's funeral, I looked into my cousin Rene's eyes and I saw myself. She has deep brown, downturned eyes, and I have almond-shaped, blue eyes. But what I saw was my own younger self -- the 8-year-old who went to live with her family after my parents' divorce and found comfort in a larger family.

When my sister came for our Great Uncle Barney's funeral a week and a half later, I saw her look into Rene's eyes and see the same thing. We are who we were as children. Family reminds us of this. There are deep patterns that we carry in the ancestral line. Our job is to honor the ones that help -- and heal the ones that hurt. And when we do this, we affect all families. For we are the same.

Lesson 4: And we are different.

It takes two parents to create a baby. Everything on this planet has been co-created. By wind and rain. By hands and machine. By ideas and history. By love and repulsion.

When you find yourself moving forward toward someone, and then away again, celebrate this. This is how movement happens. All seasons come and go. The earth itself was tilted on its axis, and it is this that creates the four seasons.

When you find yourself getting tilted, remember this.

Lesson 5: Endings are ways of growing, too.

When you know a song is about to end on the car radio, you sing a little more intensely along with it. In the last semester of teaching before retirement, you appreciate all the little tasks that you are doing for the last time. It is a gift to know something is ending.

When we say goodbye, we take the other person into us and make their memory part of who we are. This is how we grow.

Lesson 6: Look up.

The gathering for my Great Uncle Barney's funeral was smaller. He was 92, and had lived for over 20 years in Florida when his funeral was held in Michigan. But my family shines during death. Every single one of us who attended the mass also went to the service at the cemetery, and then we stayed and watched the gravediggers put the casket in the ground and cover it. We admired their work. We saw the poetry in it. Then we grabbed water bottles from the car, and Kleenex, and washed the stones for him and Uncle Denny, and took pictures.

And then I looked up. And there, in a crack in the heavy clouds, was blue sky and sunshine.

"Look up!" I said.

My daughter smiled. She is used to my saying this. One day, at a family funeral years from now, maybe after I am gone, I imagine she will say it, too.

"Look up!"

Lesson 7: Work.

The main thing I do in writing workshops is this: inspire.

The main thing I do in individual sessions is this: tell people to keep working.

Every painting, every book, every ballet and concert and circus took work. Days when you were tired and kept going. Days when you had to start over. days when you asked for help. Days when you rested in order to go deeper the next day.

The collages my cousin Frannie created for the funerals took work. Not just night after night of organization and arrangement and gluing. Years of being the one with the camera. Years of printing the pictures after each birth, death, wedding, baptism, holiday. Years of being told, "That's enough, Fran. Put the camera way."

That dream you are working on now? That is your camera. Don't let anyone tell you to put it away. Get back to work.

Lesson 8: All beginnings live on.

As we sat at the kitchen table and looked through old pictures, we recollected pieces of ourselves that had been dropped or lost along the way.

Whatever you think you've left behind is still in you. Your origin is greater than what you can remember. Remember this and be strong. You may have forgotten what your ancestors went through to bring you here, but they remember. Carry on.

Lesson 9: You are not the same tree.

Each year, a tree grows. Each year, another branch shoots out and another ring swirls through the trunk. You are not the same as you were a year ago. Even as the origins and seeds and potential live on in us, it is up to us to drink the rain, to reach for sun, to shelter birds.

These are choices we make.

Make your choice. Do your work. And wait. It takes years to become a tree.

Lesson 10: The stars are always there.

When I woke this morning to write, the stars were bright. The big dipper's three stars pointed the way to due north, as I did, when I sat to begin writing.

And now the birds are calling, the milky dawn is welcoming another November morning, the yellow leaves of the oak trees can be seen in the pale light.

But the stars are still there. Aunt Ruby is still here. Uncle Barney is still here. Denis and Mary Agnes, Sister Marie Denis, Uncle Denny -- they are all still here.

And we are still here, too. From another perspective, our earth shines like a star.

Who have you lost? They are still here.

What did you forget? It is still here.

What did you come here to do? It is waiting for you.

What is your work? That is what this day is calling you to do.