A Full-Filled Life: A Lesson on Living, Dying, and Uncertainty

Christy, 35, had been coming to counseling for issues related to a messy breakup with her long term partner, and to address the challenges of dating again. Finding out she had been cheated on, and then “thrown away” by her ex, she struggled with constant worry about the future, and more specifically, about being hurt again. She would go on first dates, but rarely made it the second. Whenever she got close to anyone, she would sabotage the relationship by either pushing the other person away prematurely, or by acting irrationally, ensuring that the other person would eventually leave her.

We talked about how in her best efforts to avoid more pain, she was actually inviting it in over and over again. She described feeling like her inability to predict the future created a lot of anxiety, because she could not prepare for any challenges that may lurk there. Despite trying to help her shift focus onto what was in her control, such as her behavior and how to manage her inner experience, she struggled to shift course. But then something happened that changed everything.

She had learned that her mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Inoperable, the doctors had given her only a few months to live. In the days and weeks leading up to her mother’s death, she wept often during sessions as she talked about her feelings of profound grief and loss. Christy told me stories about how her mother, a woman who had lived a robust life, had grown up in a small town on the western slope, and how she had eventually moved to the city in order to pursue higher education. Having lost her own mother to breast cancer, Christy also discussed how her mother had honored Christy’s grandmother by cooking her grandmother’s favorite recipes throughout her life, telling Christy stories about her own experiences growing up, and how Christy’s mother had always talked about how thankful she was for having a good mom, and for having Christy as a daughter.

Christy’s mother had taught her valuable lessons on how to survive grief, the importance of gratitude, and had also shown her how to live a full life. She told me about how her mother had always had a passion for learning, embracing new experiences, and trying new things. For example, Christy told me how on a whim, her mother had signed both of them up for painting classes when Christy was 10 years old, and how as a little girl, she had only painted with the bright colors. Her gaze softened as she remembered how her mother had put up all their paintings , bold color on every wall.

At times Christy would talk openly about the gratitude she had for having been raised by a strong, independent woman, and at others, she would succumb to uncontrollable sobs that shook her entire frame.

…her mother had taught her valuable lessons on grief along with the importance of living a full life…

About four months after her mother died, and after taking time off from therapy, Christy came back ready to resume the work, but with a new focal point. She discussed how she was doing her best to stop ruminating about the past, or the future. She talked about how the experience of having lost both her mother, and grandmother to cancer, had changed everything. Life was precious. For example, she discussed how she had decided to go back to school and pursue her Master’s degree, something her mother had always encouraged her to do. She also discussed how she was going to resume dating again, but instead of focusing on what others thought of her, she was choosing to instead think about what qualities and values mattered most to her in a potential partner. And on a whim, she had decided to sign up for cooking classes.

As what often happens through a profound grief experience, Christy’s priorities had shifted in a significant way. No longer focusing on worry thoughts about a future she couldn’t predict, she had a renewed sense about what mattered most to her, and wanted to spend her energy wisely. She wanted to spend her energy on what mattered. She talked about how her mother had taught her that living life meant being present in it. She discussed how, and with my help, she was going to learn how to stay intentional about soaking up the bold color found in every moment.

As we talked about her life, and the excitement she had for what would happen next, we marveled at our ability as human beings to feel both grief and joy at the same time. We discussed how, more than likely, each emotion was just a different side of the same coin. She smiled, and said she was grateful for all of it.

Clear Reflections

Future worry is not a new phenomenon. For those who have struggled with grief and loss in any capacity, worrying about the future is an old acquaintance that pops in whenever it feels like it. We can find it sitting by our bedside as we try to fall asleep, showing up in our dreams unannounced, or stepping in at other times, intrusive and unwanted. However it manifests in your life, and unwelcome as it may be, worrying about the future is something you are wired to do. Here are some thoughts to help you come back to the moment.

What can you do to stay present? What activities or hobbies keep you fully engaged? Do them regularly.

Capture moments of joy. Those moments where you know you are truly happy matter, and can keep you in the here and now. Write about a few of these moments. If you can’t think of any, what are some things you can do to feel joyful?

What are you grateful for this week? Who are the people you are grateful for this week?

What are you curious about? What is a skill or hobby you have always wanted to learn? How can you take steps toward learning or experiencing that skill or hobby? Take those steps.

Live fully. Practice gratitude. Capture joy.

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