There is both beauty and pain on this journey of life. We are good at celebrating the joys, but genuine well-being depends upon being present to it all: the loss and the loneliness, the sorrow, the resentment and anger. Our challenges are not roadblocks keeping us from life — they are our life. It may not be what we wished for, but it’s ours to work with, to make sense of.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Becker.
Barbara Becker is a writer and interfaith leader who has dedicated more than twenty-five years to partnering with human rights advocates around the world. She has worked with the United Nations, Human Rights First, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, and has participated in a delegation of Zen Peacemakers and Lakota elders in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. Barbara has sat at the bedside of hundreds of patients as a hospice volunteer. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up on a quiet cul-de-sac in New Jersey across the street from a beautiful cemetery with expansive lawns. The cemetery was a benevolent place for our family — people often mistook it for a park.
I had an early curiosity about death after learning that my father had been married before he met my mother. His first wife had died in a tragic boating accident shortly after their honeymoon. The thought that someone had to die for me to live played out often in my young mind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” — Thomas Merton
This advice has been an important touchstone in my life. It cuts through any judgement I may have about others in all spheres of life. And in moments of self-doubt, it helps me remember that I, too, am worthy.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I would say that being open-minded and curious have served me well. I am especially interested in the ways in which people derive meaning in their lives. When I was a kid, I came across my father’s colorful six-book set on world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism). It opened a vast and exhilarating universe of beliefs and rituals that existed beyond our small town.
I was also encouraged to be creative early on in life. That used to look like building forts in the woods with my brothers or toy animals out of neon pipe cleaners. As an adult, I learned that this trait goes a long way from officiating at weddings to writing memoir!
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
When my earliest childhood friend Marisa was planning her wedding to her college sweetheart, she discovered a marble-sized mass in her breast. It turned out to be stage 4 cancer. She was just thirty years old. After a lumpectomy, a dozen rounds of chemo, and thirty radiation sessions, she and David married. But as time went on, her cancer metastasized further and her doctors said she had one year left to live. I knew that the worst would happen and we would lose her. That realization ripped a hole in my heart.
How did you react in the short term?
I became extremely anxious during that time. I seemed to wake around 3 a.m. every day, trying to catch my breath. I worried about mortality in general — Marisa’s, my own, my parents, my children. It was a very dark time.
To ease the anxiety, I read. I devoured so many books about life’s purpose that my husband began shaking his head every time I came home from the library with a new one.
I discovered that seekers and sages from Henry David Thoreau to the mystical poet Rumi to the Dalai Lama have long implored us to live with the end ever-present in our minds. The more we learn to accept our mortality, they said, the more we will embrace living.
Marisa did just that! She made the absolute most of her remaining time. She was an incredible lover of life. She travelled to Italy with her family between treatments. She spent deep, quality time with friends. My main memory of her during that last year was her spontaneous laughter and smile.
As the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
Inspired by Marisa’s attitude, I decided to go on a parallel journey of sorts. Just as the wisdom keepers had advised, I spent time answering the question for myself: What would I do if I had one year left to live?
I went on a meditation retreat, took on a volunteer project on behalf of refugees, planted tulip and daffodil bulbs in the park near our apartment. I even scraped together plane tickets to take my family to Turkey, rather than waiting for the “someday” when my kids would be older.
At the end of the day, I could see very clearly that it wasn’t so much about the bucket list as it was about being truly present to whatever was before me. It was like a new-found richness had entered my life.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
What I learned during that time about living with the end in mind helped me beyond measure when I eventually met other losses. In the years after Marisa died, both of my parents have died, as well as other close friends and colleagues.
Instead of running away, I have found myself running toward the big questions of life and death. I even signed on for the most counterintuitive thing I could do: I became a volunteer on a dedicated hospice floor at one of the busiest public hospitals in the country, Bellevue Hospital in New York City, where I made hundreds of visits with patients and family members at the end of their lives.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal?
There are two! Luckily I was trained to be at the bedside of the dying by two amazing Zen monks. It was through them that I learned how to show up authentically, with every fiber of my being. Without trying to “fix” things for the dying. And when it came time for my own parents to enter hospice, as hard as the end absolutely was, I was also acutely aware of a sense of awe, seeing that the end of life can be just as sacred as birth. In learning to help others, I ultimately found healing myself.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
As a writer, I know that the metaphors and stories we tell ourselves about loss matter. We fare better when our sense of meaning is big enough to hold the things that may not always make sense. For some people great comfort may come from religion. For others, it comes from time spent in nature.
In writing my memoir, Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind, I found the metaphor of “heartwood” to be just what I had been looking for. Imagine walking through an old growth forest. Inside every tree is a central pillar that is most prized by woodworkers, that gives the tree strength and stability. That core is called heartwood, and what most people don’t know is that it’s no longer living… it no longer transports water and nutrients. The living growth rings of the tree expand out from this central core. It turns out we’re a lot like the trees. Those we’ve loved who have died form our heartwood, our enduring strength.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I’ve recently hit a real test in my life, just as Heartwood was being released. On the day of my book launch, I was undergoing surgery for a new diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer. Having cancer is a radical lesson in surrender. I’m learning to walk step-by-step, not writing chapter 21 when I’m only on chapter 4, so to speak. First it is surgery, then the first week of treatment, the second, the third and so on. It’s not possible sometimes to think beyond one day at time. That has its benefit too — there’s a simple grace that unfolds when we slow down in the midst of a culture that can move at warp speed.
All of the people in Heartwood who I was fortunate to learn from — starting with my childhood friend Marisa — are such a source of strength to me now.
Thank you for sharing that. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
1 — There is both beauty and pain on this journey of life. We are good at celebrating the joys, but genuine well-being depends upon being present to it all: the loss and the loneliness, the sorrow, the resentment and anger. Our challenges are not roadblocks keeping us from life — they are our life. It may not be what we wished for, but it’s ours to work with, to make sense of.
2 — Richness can be found in paying exquisite attention to life. Listen more deeply. Treat everyday goodbyes — to work, school, the grocery store around the corner — with consequence.
3 — Nature is a balm — get outside. This is important for everyone, but especially for those of us who live in cities! My husband gave me a pair of binoculars when I got sick because I love birds. I have spent time near the East River in New York City, and you would be surprised at what I’ve seen, including a bald eagle soaring down the river!
4 — We cannot do it alone. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I learned that there’s an underground sisterhood of survivors who will drop everything to get you through. They’ll privately and courageously show you their scars and tell you what to expect from the blue dye the surgeon will use to trace your lymph nodes. This hard-earned wisdom is available to all who are grieving too. There are incredibly healers out there… everyday people who have gone through the fire and want to help. Use them, and become one yourself some day!
5 — We can do extraordinary things when we lead with love. With love as our focus, our view, there is no challenge we cannot get through. And as Henry David Thoreau once said, “There is no remedy for love but to love more.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would ask everyone to set aside their gadgets for an hour at the same time each day. No phones, computers, screens of any sort. It would be a time for connection, for meals, for planting trees, for reading books, for living deeply in the present. I would go as far as to say that I think the future of our planet depends upon it!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I have enormous admiration and respect for Sheryl Sandberg, who, after the tragic death of her beloved husband David, founded an organization called Option B. She and psychologist Adam Grant have done such a fantastic job presenting insights and eye-opening research on finding strengths in the face of adversity. My hat is off to them.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow my work by joining my email list on my website: http://barbarabecker.com/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!