By Rhoda Walter
Imagine spending a year as if it were your last. How might that shape your days and your priorities? Would you take a searching look at your life, your values, and your actions? What would you do now to help pave the way for a “good death?” What affairs would you want to get in order? Are there relationships you would want to mend?
For people who may really be facing their last year, these questions are not theoretical. Others of us can ask these questions with a little more distance; but still the question remains: Will we be ready?
Six Methow Valley women in our 60s undertook such an exploration this past year, using Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live as a guide. We met monthly for four hours to report on our insights, struggles, victories and blessings in the previous month and to reflect together on what we learned. We loosely followed Levine’s month-by-month suggestions and practices but each of us felt free to create our own unique curriculum.
We each came to this with different histories and focuses for the year. Two women had lost homes and belongings in the 2014 fires and had experienced other losses as well. Another had been around death a lot but hadn’t had the opportunity to share more personally about it. I wanted to learn how to live more fully and savor the gift of being alive. All of us wanted to become more comfortable with death and the deaths of loved ones. And we all wanted to bring mindfulness to the journey and to get our affairs in better order, including wills and living wills, plans for disposal of our bodies, and ideas for our own memorial services.
At our monthly meetings, we each had uninterrupted time to share about our month and to be truly heard. This was followed by questions, reflections and discussion. We didn’t give advice but were simply present together in exploring what was real and pressing for us. We explored questions like, “How am I not living fully? What do I fear about the dying process? Am I at peace with my own coming death?” We cultivated deep respect, caring and mutual support for each other. We experienced how loving and empowering it can be to share, in a safe space, our vulnerability and what we’re really thinking and feeling about our lives.
Each of our journeys was very personal and unique. One woman started the year in deep grief over the loss of a loved one and used the year to be with this grief, reflect on and honor her loved one to keep his memory alive, and contemplate how his death had changed her life. Another woman found herself becoming more comfortable with her mother’s approaching death. Another came to a deeper acceptance of her intuition, unique strengths and the value of her self in community.
For me, a lot of the year was about learning how to soften around the discomforts of my aging body, anxious thoughts, and disowned parts of myself instead of judging them and striving to overcome them. Plenty of grief showed up too: deaths of loved ones during the year, plus an intense grief connected to the destruction of the earth and the state of our country. As I used the group to explore these challenges, they supported me with wisdom and compassion.
At the meeting that marked the end of our year, we celebrated being alive and acknowledged all we had learned and let go of in the past year. In a ritual of completion, we created an “altar” with objects that represented what this past year meant to each of us. There were photos of loved ones, poems, objects from nature, and artwork that explored both living more fully and death itself.
If you are inspired to start a group to explore your own “year to live,” we can provide resources, and one of us could attend the first meeting to help you get started. For more information, contact me at 996-3369 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.