I have been having email conversations with my friend from New Zealand, Susan Mac Gregor. We were in a writer’s group together when I was in Auckland. We periodically have been emailing, but recently we’ve been having more frequent conversations around the topic of what she calls “deathing life,” Susan was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, a serious brain cancer, and she has been sharing her insights and experiences with me. Part of what initiated our increased emails is the fact that I have been preparing to give a series of lectures in Grand Junction, Colorado, on Health Care Decisions Day. These talks will be on end-of-life decision-making, holistic decision-making, and also staff wellness for hospice workers. I had asked Susan to give some feedback on a draft for my talk and this really sparked off our conversations. As I have been wanting to expand the focus of this blog, Being Fully Human, it seemed like a good idea to post these conversations as Susan shares her honest insight and experience about the process of “deathing life,” living life right up to the point of death.
Susan has written a fairly long biography, and we’ll publish that at some point, but for this post, I’ll excerpt it and then also start with a summary that she has written about her “deathing life” process. I asked Susan about an image to include in the blog post and she said,
“Having only now read your email the things that come to mind as a picture for the blog could be based on what has been shared…perhaps something with swirling patterns of coloured light, transposed with transparent images of symbols, angels or such.” So I will put a few of my paintings in the blog that fit that description.
My name is Susan Diane Mac Gregor. I was born in Whangarei, New Zealand, on 25th August 1958. I grew up in Northland enjoying its beautiful beaches, native forests, waterways, & small town lifestyle. When not reading much of my time was spent exploring nature, swimming, rescuing damaged birds or small animals & swimming. There were cats, pidgeons, chooks [chickens], sheep, dogs, canaries as pets, plus my blood brother & four fostered siblings to share time with. Despite some financial crises for my parents, it was an idyllic childhood.
As a young adult I entered training in Psychiatric Nursing, having chosen to diverge from my training at the Auckland Institute of Technology, where I qualified as an Industrial Cook. This led into my Career in Mental Health, & interest in Psychological methodologies. Upon qualifying I further developed my interest in caring for the Elderly, plus Special Interest in working with people with Dementia. Post Graduate study included a Diploma in Gerontology. Next I began developing qualifications & skills in Psychological Therapies, successfully completing the first year of study in a Diploma of Psychotherapy with Auckland University of Technology.
In addition to Susan’s health profession credentials, she is also a poet and spiritual seeker and we will hear more about that in further posts.
For today, we’ll include the email that Susan sent me that gave me the idea of posting her insights to share with others. I think she gives such a great, heartfelt, and wise words and experience.
It was with interest that I read about the latest books you’ve been reading. I have read many of the books you have cited in references, etc., including The Tibetan Book of the Dead, however not the recent Sufi book you mentioned.
I can’t give advice for your talk at the Hospice, as everyone’s experience differs, however I can write about my experience.
Initially I experienced shock & grief at receiving such a finite diagnosis. I remember looking around the rooms in my house at the things I had built up & worked hard for, & thinking what did all of that mean, was what I had invested to get those things worth it? The answer that came back in response to that question was a feeling of emptiness. Then my heart filled with sadness thinking about my 3x beautiful cats & Mahmoud being left behind & I was glad at least that Mahmoud’s life would be more comfortable, as a result of my previous efforts.
Within 2wks I was trundled off for brain surgery, after which my life completely changed. The surgery caused damage within my brain, leaving me with left sided paresthesia.
Mahmoud was devastated. His welfare was always on my mind, as was mine on his. I had a large amount of time left lying in my hospital bed with nothing to do but think.
Years prior I had experienced a “healing” at a Buddhist retreat, in which my “difficult to control” hypertension completely dissappeared, leaving my GP astounded. During that retreat I learnt that even illness has a beneficial purpose, i.e. to teach us something, to deepen us in some way spiritually, to raise our awareness or break through unhelpful patterning. Thus I started to look for the lessons in this experience.
For me cancer has done all of the above plus brought me to an awareness of how much love surrounds me. It has deepened my relationship with Mahmoud, with God, & given me fresh hope for humanity. I have been shown so much love & kindness, even from complete strangers. Often those with little in the way of possessions have given me the most. I have been able to see the busy, tense person who “didn’t have time “ that I used to be, reflected in people around me, & their counter balancers in the people who will let me que jump, or help me out in getting something in a supermarket, etc., because they see I’m disabled.
As a consequence of my health & disability mine & Mahmoud’s lifestyle has dramatically changed. We have needed to offload a lot of possessions & have moved to a two bedroom rental unit. The money from my salary no longer flows in & the goal of being mortgage free in 3yrs has disintegrated. However I have found that I am surrounded with so much love & kindnesss that my soul & heart are completely full.
From this point of realisation forward I have been able to take inventory of my life, looking at past regrets & losses, & freeing myself of built up emotions through self forgiveness & forgiveness of others. This has been aided by gratitude & compassion, both of which have deepened within me exponentially. I have become free again, letting go of pursuing goals, things, dreams…. most of which are erroneous now. Being present in each moment, with each breath, is how my days unfold. The natural world around me is exquisitely defined, colours, shapes, contrasts, each being impressed into my being through every sensory system I possess.
I still give … a smile, a kind word, my knowledge or time. My “deathing” life continues to have purpose & meaning, people ask me “what is this like”, “how do you stay so optimistic”, “are you afraid”, etc, etc. I do experience moments of fear, but at the end of the day my answer to all of these questions is, “this is life, I am blessed to have lived it, I believe in an after life, & it is my faith in God & Jesus Christ that sustains me when all else fails.
May your love-light continue to shine.
Love & Blessings, Susan xx