Cheryl's Blog

September 2011 – an excerpt from my favorite chapter of You Can Create an Exceptional Life


Thank you for your feedback about my new book, You Can Create an Exceptional Life.  As a writer, there’s always a part of me that waits with held breath to see how my words land.  It’s satisfying to know that they’re reaching you in the way I hoped they would.

This is the final excerpt from my favorite chapter – the last one.  I hope it calms your fear – even a little – about death and the dying process.  The book is released on September 20th and I look forward to sharing it with you…


The End of the Movie

Cheryl Richardson & Luoise Hay

As I step out of the shower, I can feel the weight of melancholy pulling at my chest. There’s a sadness I can’t explain. I sit down on the edge of the tub and give presence to it-allow it to live and breathe within me, and wait for it to deliver its wisdom. With each slow, deep breath, the answer begins to surface. Spring is in the ethers, and my winter of writing is coming to an end. It’s almost time to say goodbye to this book.

I know the routine. As the ending of a book creeps up on me, I tend to simultaneously rush to finish it and slow down to savor the process one last time. This is my final chapter, and finishing is always bittersweet. But there’s something more. . . .

I realize that I’m also anxious about a dear friend who is seriously ill. I’m afraid for him, for me, for us. I towel-dry my hair, brush on a bit of mascara, and glide some gloss across my lips. I need to get dressed. Louise and I are in downtown Vancouver for an event, and we’re meeting for breakfast in half an hour (and she’s always early). This time, I have an agenda.

We sit at a quiet table in the back of the restaurant at our hotel. The ritual has now become second nature: I sit down, immediately take out my iPhone and press Record, and I unpack my notes. Sitting in front of Louise, I feel a bit wobbly, vulnerable. I’m doing my best to hold back the tears, but I can’t help but feel transparent in her presence. She can see that something is wrong but doesn’t say anything. Instead, she just stares into my eyes and waits for me to speak.

I have a dear friend who is seriously ill, I tell her, and I’m afraid he might be dying. While I want to be positive, I can’t help but worry about whether or not he’ll make it, and I don’t know how to talk to him about it. I know you’ve had plenty of experience with illness and death, and I just need to know what to do.

“You love him,” she responds immediately. “And you make it a good experience. When people are in trouble, I always concentrate on a few things. First, I focus on who they are as a person, not on their disease. I like to remind them of how wonderful they are- how funny, thoughtful, wise, or kind. And I often bring up favorite memories from our time together. Most important, I allow them to lead the process. We need to respect where people are. I simply ask how they feel in any given situation, and let their answer direct where our conversation will go from there.”

As I listen to Louise speak, reluctant tears spill from my eyes, and she reaches into her bag for a tissue. “You never know where we’re going on these trips, do you?” she notes with a smile, tucking the tissue into my hand. “It’s hard when this happens.”

I know we must think positive, but-

“But wait,” she interrupts, “death is not negative. Death is a positive step in life. We’re all going to do it. You’re upset because you just don’t want your friend to do it at this time.”

Or in a way that’s painful, I admit.

“Yes, it’s important to be sure that our loved ones are pain free. I remember when my mother was ready to go. She was 91 and became very sick, and they wanted to perform a monumental operation on her. I said, ‘no way! You’re not going to put this woman through something like that at her age. Just keep her out of pain.’ That was the top priority-keep her out of pain and let her drift off. And that’s what happened. Over the next several days, she drifted in and out of consciousness. She would drift out and come back talking about relatives, and then drift off again and come back with another story. She didn’t have pain, which was so important to me.

“We’re all going to leave this life at some point, Cheryl, and I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of. You see, I wasn’t raised with hell and damnation. I mean, I lived it . . . but since I wasn’t raised with that concept, I’m not afraid of death. I don’t think I’m going to hell. I’ve done that already.”

This last statement was said in such a matter-of-fact way that it could only be recited by someone who had transcended a painful past. I nod, smile, and wipe my cheeks.

“We need to address the vast array of stuff we’re taught about death,” Louise continues. “If your parents went to a church filled with messages of hellfire and damnation, you could be very frightened of death. You’ll wonder, Have I been good enough, and if not, am I going to burn forever? And if you think you’re going to burn forever, then you’ll be scared shitless of dying.

So, you’re not afraid of death at this point in your life? I ask Louise.

“No. I don’t want to go right now because there are things I want to do, but I’m going to say that throughout my entire life. We all will. There’s always one more thing to do-a child’s wedding to attend, a baby ready to be born, or a book to write.

I also have this very strong feeling that we arrive in the middle of the movie, and we leave in the middle of the movie. The movie is continuous. We enter and we exit. All of us do that. There’s no wrong time or right time, there’s just our time-it was our time to be born and our time to go.”

I think about the idea of leaving in the middle of the movie and agree that it is the hard part of death- never having a “buttoned-up time” to go.

Louise explains, “I believe that long before we arrive, the soul makes the choice to experience certain lessons-lessons about loving each other and ourselves. When we learn the lesson of love, we may leave with joy. There is no need for pain or suffering. We know that next time, wherever we choose to incarnate, we will take all of the love with us.”

So the question is, then, how to make peace with leaving in the middle of the movie. The problem, as I see it, is that we are so uncomfortable with death. We don’t talk about it. We don’t prepare for it. We don’t even allow ourselves to think about our fears and concerns. We live in a culture that avoids the topic altogether. Instead, we wait until we’re up against a serious illness and forced to make important decisions under pressure-for loved ones or ourselves-and then wonder why it’s so frightening and painful.

To make peace with leaving, we first need to be willing to address the issue. We need to face the awkwardness and uncomfortable feelings associated with death by looking fear in the eye. When we do, we discover what that fear has to teach us.

I certainly ignored anything having to do with death until my early 30s, when I had the privilege of going through the process of dying in a conscious way with someone I cared about. Her name was Lucy, and she was in her 80s. Lucy had a house filled with lifelong treasures, a wise mind, and a big heart . . . but no family. During a hospital visit for a bad chest cold, she was told that she was dying of cancer, and she promptly asked me to help her get her affairs in order. My first reaction was, No way! I have no interest whatsoever in stepping into that minefield. However, after further discussion, my compassion (and guilt) got the better of me, and I reluctantly agreed.

What unfolded over the next three months was nothing short of a miracle. One by one, Lucy and I reviewed the treasures in her home and made plans to give them to specific people. I became intimately familiar with her life, her loves, and her desires for how to end her life. I made her a promise that I would follow through on her wishes, both while she was dying and once she was gone.

On the night of Lucy’s death, I had given a speech and was home tucked in bed when something told me to get up and drive the hour-long trip to see her. Knowing enough to trust my gut, I did what it instructed and went to the hospital. Once there, I found my friend unconscious, in a private room, stationed with a loving and compassionate nurse who assured me that she could hear everything I said.

For almost an hour I sat by Lucy’s side, reviewing the instructions she had given me about her end-of-life planning. I talked them through, out loud, as she lay before me. I assured her that all was in order and that it was okay to make the transition to a more peaceful place. Was I frightened? You bet. But I was also prepared.

While I was looking at her beautiful face, she suddenly woke up, looked directly into my eyes, gave me a big smile, and took her last breath. In that moment, something significant shifted. Death and I had become intimate friends.

I sat by Lucy’s side that night for quite a while after she passed, staring at her face, her hands, and her lifeless body, contemplating this scary thing we call death. But I wasn’t scared. Instead, I felt safe, touched in a tender and profound way, and surprised by how natural the actual process turned out to be. Yes, I would miss my friend, but from this new perspective, death wasn’t the silent monster I had made it out to be-a bogeyman who needed to be locked away, only to be let out at the last possible moment. It was a gentle state of release and surrender, the completion of a promise.

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© Copyright 1999-2011. Cheryl Richardson, P.O. Box 13, Newburyport, MA 01950. All rights reserved.