Victoria Noe

Award-winning Author, Speaker, Activist

Life, Loss and Legacy: Guest Post by Tracey Carruthers

Tracey Carruthers
I met Tracey in October, 2006, when she came to Chicago to move in with our friend, Delle Chatman. Her devotion to making Delle’s last days as meaningful and peaceful as possible was inspiring (if sometimes annoying when I was feeling most selfish). Her reflection on those days is longer than my typical posts, but worth every word. I'm grateful that she was there for Delle and has shared her experience with us all:

Thought doesn’t get much more personal and unclear than during a time of loss. In a way, in the matter of how we feel and how we deal with our feelings, it really doesn’t matter what the loss is; a job, a bet, a game, a tradition, a loved one…the important thing to remember is our feelings are our first clues to the quality of our thinking—our state of mind—and that’s what creates the quality of our experience of Life.  In this case…our experience of loss.

But Death feels so final, so absolute. We are consumed with feelings of guilt, despair, regret and so much more. We want to know, “Why?  Why Now?”  And yes, in those ominous times of terminal diagnosis, we want to know, “Why me?”  

As a coach I often engage in these most intimate of conversations with clients and relatives and friends.  The recurring theme revolves around how it feels: how it feels to lose someone who is the center of your life, how it feels to imagine the rest of your life without the presence of such a vital force, how it feels to face your own immortality and even…how it feels to die.

From 1980 to 2000, I was intimately involved as personal care taker, minister of last rites and planner of funeral arrangements for all of my immediate family members; my father in 1980, my husband in 1995, my fraternal grandmother in 1999 and my mother in 2000. There were other losses just as intimate and just as traumatic during those years—my maternal grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, close friends and lovers—that touched me just as deeply. Yet, no matter how many touch my life directly; it is clear to me that I am connected to and called to acknowledge all death. Every death, everywhere, touches me; enjoins me to justify my existence. There is no death, anywhere, that does not oblige me to look for something good—some meaning, some reason, some validation of the underlying purpose of Life.

Over those 20 years, I became adept, almost routinely conditioned to “handle” the ceremonial relationship I had established with Death. Those who knew me well were deeply concerned and wondered how long I could keep up the pace.  “It seems like you’ve had more than your share,” one friend said.  “I worry about you.”

She had cause to worry, because there was one phase of the life-loss-legacy experience that I had avoided or perhaps just hadn’t taken time to fully explore…Grief. 

2006 was a time of transition in my life.  I had recently retired and was weighing my options, in search of direction.  I was seeking discernment, learning to listen to my intuitive voice, and studying with Dr. Ron Jue, internationally recognized for his work as an executive coach.  His training—focused on integrating life, work and spirituality for greater effectiveness and fulfillment—prepared me for my most revealing rendezvous with Death.

In October I went to Chicago to help out a friend who had been living for four years with ovarian cancer.  Delle and I had known each other since my early days in California in the 80’s.  She wrote in Hollywood for many years, creating ground breaking characters such as an African American cowboy for the ABC series, “The Young Riders.”   She wrote the original screenplay for the award winning Showtime film, “Free of Eden,” starring Sidney Poitier. She authored two books, “The Unteachable Ten,” and “Death of a Parent.”

In Chicago she taught, preached and ministered at St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church and expanded her reach through a television ministry on WTTW’s “30 Good Minutes.”  She taught radio, TV and film writing to high school and college students as Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern and DePaul Universities.  She was an accomplished photographer who printed and sold her photographs as computer-augmented works of art.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, she gave birth to a remarkable daughter, Ramona, who is destined to do great things.

My search for direction and discernment had led me to understand that my purpose in life was to serve and coach those who were led by the Spirit. My immediate assignment was to take care of this incredible woman.

Everything I had learned from 1980 to 2000…every encounter with hospitals, doctors, cancer treatments, hospice care-givers, accountants,  lawyers, bureaucracy; every exhausting experience of contacting loved ones, writing obituaries, completing funeral arrangements, nurturing, disseminating personal effects…everything came into play for Delle.  Most of it was accomplished without conscious thought, sometimes executed in a thoughtless, robotic manner.

The key, the thing that made it all possible was the help of others. During the almost two months that I spent with Delle, her home was filled with visitors, friends and volunteers. A selected group that we called Delle’s Elves was the core.  They arranged and delivered a daily, nutritious meal service for the entire family. They drove her daughter to dance lessons and cancer support meetings. They meticulously catalogued and archived Delle’s intellectual property; thousands of photographs, works of art, manuscripts, journals, lectures, lesson plans, sermons, video and audio tapes, books, journals, office and art supplies.  They sorted clothing and personally delivered it to Delle’s designated charities. They filed her taxes, packed her effects, recommended a mover to ship it all for safe keeping and engaged a trusted real estate agent to sell her condo.

They worked tirelessly day and night, pausing only to sit and minister to and receive a blessing from the special servant who had been so faithful to them over years.  When she made her transition, they carried out Delle’s wishes to the letter, serving a gathering of hundreds at her Memorial Mass, and hosting and contributing to a grand celebration after the service. They nurtured her daughter, her brothers, her extended family, each other and me.   

Their acts of kindness provided living testimony to Delle’s goodness. Their unconditional love proclaimed a legacy most aspire to but few achieve. Finally I understood the meaning, the reason, the purpose of a life well lived. Delle’s life and the homage her friends paid to that life, was the ultimate validation, the proof positive that it’s the good that we do that makes the difference, that leaves the mark that lasts for all time. 

I am grateful to have witnessed this manifestation of true love, and when I finally returned home there was one more blessing waiting for me.

In the year that followed Delle’s death I experienced grief that was, at times, overwhelming.  I functioned, traveled, worked, coached, completed a book and lived a relatively normal life.  But there are months of 2007 that are still a blur. 

There were times when I couldn’t bear to leave my home.  I would get dressed for an event and then cancel at the last minute. I missed holidays, jazz festivals, birthday celebrations, hair appointments and nights out with the girls.  I avoided my family and friends.  When I did go out, I would shop as close to home as possible, avoiding eye contact with others, praying that no one would speak to me or require me to acknowledge their presence. 

There were other, miraculous times when the grief process was truly enlightening. I somehow managed to travel to the Caribbean, France, Montenegro, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans and San Francisco that year.  I knew that I was running away, trying to avoid the deep feelings that had engulfed me. I also knew that I needed to be with close friends, experience new adventures and revisit traditional, familiar haunts. 

It took a year.  I can’t tell you that I went through any specific phases in any regimental order. I can’t even say that I was consumed with the loss of such a vital, important, and loving spirit. Nor can I say for certain that it is over. The experience was all-encompassing, dynamic and purposeful. I believe that I was grieving for all those whose deaths had touched me so deeply. In truth, I had never taken time to fully recognize their lives or my loss.

In her book, Death of a Parent,Delle writes, “You’ve buried one of the giants in your world—your mother or your father…maybe both…Yet, everything else in your life is to a large extent just where you left it.  The load at work is just as heavy, the kids are just as rambunctious, the bills are piled just as high…The sun still shines, rain still falls, gravity still works, and none of the forces of nature seem to care one bit that your personal universe has been altered forever.” 

She goes on to observe, “Many cultures have gracious traditions of mourning built into their social customs.  But here in our society there is no set of rituals that allows people to hang their head after the funeral, no such thing as formal bereavement leave from our responsibilities.  Maybe there should be.”

Well Delle, thanks to you I took my leave. I used 2007 to transition to a greater, personal accountability to live a life of legacy, and to touch others in-kind. I am so grateful for the gift of that year, and the friends who stood by me, calling and checking on me to make sure I was okay…giving me the space and privacy to do what I had to do…allowing me to come to terms with my experience of loss.

I came out of that year with a bright and glowing relationship with my self and my spirit.  I learned to pay attention to the feelings that tell me when I need a moment of reflection to commune with my intuitive voice for options and solutions that take me forward with a more informed certainty and direction. We all owe ourselves and our future those moments. And even if they stretch out from moments to an entire year, we deserve the gift of that time for our healing and our blessing.

My gift, my blessing, is a deeper awareness that loss, and in particular Death, can inspire us toward a more intimate relationship with Life. For me, that’s the greatest legacy of all.

Tracey Carruthers is an author and Executive Coach. Her clients include CEOs and senior teams; entrepreneurs; civic leaders, coaches and consultants. Her philosophy embraces the wisdom and intelligence of the heart.  “Leading and coaching from the heart engages the intelligence of our innate wisdom,” says Tracey. “Listening from the wisdom of the heart reconnects us to the spirit within us, inspiring us to look at the possibilities of life with a brand new perspective.”

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