Spending Time with Stephen Jenkinson

My wife and I this past June spent 3 days with Stephen Jenkinson at a workshop at the Rowe Center in western Mass. He is featured in the documentary Grief Walker and the author of Die Wise – A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.

His book does not suggest ways to make dying easier. It pours no honey to make the medicine go down. Instead, with lyrical prose, deep wisdom, and stories from his two decades of working with dying people and their families, Stephen Jenkinson places death at the center of the page and asks us to behold it in all its painful beauty. Die Wise teaches the skills of dying, skills that have to be learned in the course of living deeply and well. Die Wise is for those who will fail to live forever.

About the end of life he saids:

“Many among us now are crazy for meanings, and crazed by seeking them out. The meanings of life aren’t inherited. What is inherited is the mandate to make meanings of life by how we live. The endings of life give life’s meanings a chance to show. The beginning of the end of our order, our way, is now in view. This isn’t punishment, any more than dying is a punishment for being born. Instead, the world whispers: All we need of you is that you be human, now. Our work is to sort out what being human should be in such a time.”

The Old Man in A Night on Buddy’s Bench “felt unsettled … he wanted to know whether he’d done all he was supposed to do. Had his purpose run its course? Should he throw away his to-do list?”

Stephen Jenkinson explores this in his work and in the video below.

I also recommend checking out the film – Grief Walker.

Author’s Spotlight: Patti Smith on Fresh Air

This month’s spotlight is on an interview that Patty Smith had on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Her song, Dream of Life, has often been played at memorials. Patty Smith spoke very eloquently about loss and being with loved ones at death. Below is an excerpt from that interview.

Patty Smith Interview
Fresh Air – Terry Gross
October 23, 2105

“Speak to me, speak to me, heart. I feel a needing to bridge the clouds. Softly go, a way I wish to know, to know, a way I wish to know, to know. Oh, you’ll ride, surely dance in a ring backwards and forwards. Those who seek feel the glow, a glow we all will know, will know, a glow we all will know, will know. On that day, filled with grace, on the way to heart’s communion. Steps we take, steps we trace, all the way the heart’s reunion. Paths that cross will cross again. Paths that cross will cross again.”

GROSS: That’s Patti Smith from her 1998 album “Dream Of Life.” And that song was written to comfort Robert Mapplethorpe, who is the subject of her memoir “Just Kids.” You write that, you know, when Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in March of ’89, the morning that he died you describe your feelings. And you say that you were shuddering, overwhelmed by a sense of excitement, acceleration, as if, because of the closeness that you experienced with Robert, you were to be privy to his new adventure, the miracle of his death. You say this wild sensation stayed with you for some days. Could you describe that? Did you know he was dying when you – had you gotten the phone call when you felt this? Or were feeling this, you know, without even…

SMITH: No, I felt that after he died.

GROSS: After he died…

SMITH: I had already received the call that he had died. I mean, we knew that he was dying. We knew that he was dying the last couple of weeks of his life. I talked to him – I talked to Robert in the last hour that he could still speak. And I listened to his breathing before I went to sleep. His brother called me and let me listen to his breathing. And he died that morning. So that sensation that I felt was his, you know, acceleration into his next place after death. I could really feel that. I’ve experienced a lot of death since Robert. I sat with Allen Ginsberg when he died. I was with my husband when he died, my parents. But Robert – the acceleration and energy I felt after Robert’s death was unique. And it did stay with me for quite a while. And I think that each of us, you know, our energy leaves in a different way, according to the person, you know, according to the energy of the person, the way the spirit manifests. Each of us die differently. And we have, you know, I believe that – I believe we all have a unique journey, whether it’s a journey of pure energy, if there’s any intelligence within the journey. But I think each of us have our own way of dissipating or entering a new field.

GROSS: You say that one of the people who you were with when he died was Allen Ginsberg. And in your memoir, you mention some advice that Ginsberg had given you after your husband died. He said, let go of the spirit of the departed, and continue your life’s celebration. Having experienced as much death as you have, is that good advice, do you think?

SMITH: Yes. I mean, I think that – you know, the idea that time heals all wounds is not really true. Our wounds aren’t really ever healed. We just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days we’re going to feel intense pain all over again. And we just have to say, OK, I know you. If (laughter) – you can come along with me today. And the same way that sometimes we start laughing at – in the middle of nowhere, remembering something that happened with someone we’ve lost. And, you know, life is the best thing that we have. We each have a life. We each have to negotiate it and navigate it. And I think it’s very important that we enjoy our life, that we get everything we can out of it. And it doesn’t take away from our love of the departed. I mean, I take Fred along with me in the things that I do – or Robert or my father or my mother. You know, whoever wants to come along, they can be with me. And – you know, and if I want them, I can sense them. You know, we have our own life, but we can still walk with the people that we miss or that we lose. And I think it’s very important to not be afraid to experience joy in the middle of sorrow. When my brother died, my sister and I sat with his body, our beloved brother, and we wept. And then, I don’t know what happened. One of us triggered laughter in the other. My brother and sister and I used to laugh so much that we would get sick. And my sister and I started laughing, sitting with my brother, as if he had infected us. And we laughed so hard that we were scolded by the funeral director. And – which – you know, my brother, who was so mischievous, I’m sure caused all of this. But it’s all right, you know? We knew the depth of our sorrow, so it was all right for us to also, you know, experience some joy in his presence because, you know, that’s what our life is, you know – it’s the fearful symmetry of Blake, you know, joy and sorrow. You don’t want to just feel one of them. They’re both valuable to the spirit.