Dying Without an Elephant

Elephant on bench looking out window

Toward the end of my brother’s life, he spent every waking hour in a faux-leather armchair by his living room window. He was companioned by the puff-puff-puffing of an oxygen concentrator, a walker with a basket full of pills, a laptop that helped him stay connected to people around the world—and an elephant.

I don’t know whether the elephant’s name was Denial or Hope, but the sicker my brother got, the bigger the elephant grew, nourished on secrecy, silence, and relentless positivity. The floor around its feet was covered in eggshells.

That elephant robbed me of some of the most meaningful time I could’ve spent with my brother. I never got to tell him how much I admired and loved him. I didn’t get to thank him or relive memories that only the two of us shared. And I never got to say goodbye.

I didn’t realize what I’d missed until Kelly Lindsay was diagnosed with glioblastoma and began writing about his experience in a CaringBridge blog. He refused to embrace battle metaphors. He wasn’t “fighting” cancer, his tumor wasn’t an “invader,” and he wasn’t striving to “beat” a disease that would eventually kill him. Instead, he strove to unconditionally love it.

Not only was Kelly’s experience elephant-free, his choice to love his tumor put me in an uncomfortable position. I could not love Kelly and hate what he loved. If I was going to love him, I had to love all of him, including his tumor.

I didn’t want to do that. I struggled to accept, much less love, the thing that was killing him. So, I asked Kelly for help.

“This tumor is part of me, and I’m actually grateful for that part,” he said from a faux-leather chair with a view out his living room window. “The whole year has been valuable. Not in ways I could really enumerate, and not in ways that, when I was first diagnosed, I’d say, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s great news.’ As far as a learning experience, it’s not one I would’ve wished on myself or on anybody else, but it’s been pretty spectacular.”

Kelly had cancer once before, and his wife Diana had it twice. She was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2006, and oncologists gave her three to 12 months to live. Kelly was her caregiver then and, miraculously, she became his caregiver more than a decade later.

The two of them were in cancer graduate school, and that might be what enabled Kelly to harvest riches from an experience that everyone else would rather avoid. He said the year after Diana’s diagnosis was the best one of his life.

“And this year, if it’s not the best year, is the second-best,” he said. “It just shows how wrong I can be about a big picture. It’s all actually pretty exciting, Petra. In a way I wouldn’t have thought.”

Kelly and Diana transmuted their cancer experience into something that has benefitted hundreds, if not thousands, of people through the founding of a nonprofit called Healing Circles. It offers social support through small groups of people (called circles) who have a challenge or interest in common.

“In a lot of the circles at Healing Circles, people have focused on death and dying and made it an interesting, intriguing part of life,” said Kelly. “Instead of this scary, awful thing that ends something, it starts something, and you don’t want to miss it. I want to know when the side effects end so I can enjoy this other part of it that doesn’t need to be scary. It doesn’t even need to be endured. It needs to be enjoyed, so that’s probably where the loving part comes, too. This is a whole new aspect of life. Why rush through it?”

Loving someone who’s dying without an elephant is excruciating. It was difficult to simultaneously hold onto Kelly and let him go. To stay present with him and grieve the loss that I knew was coming. I say that as a distant planet orbiting Kelly’s sun. By contrast, the orbit of his brother Tom brought him much nearer, close enough to be overcome by his love for Kelly and the loss he knew was imminent.

Could I have born the anticipatory grief that Tom bore for Kelly? Could I have grieved for my brother the way Tom grieved for his? Would I have had the courage to speak openly about the death we both knew was coming?

I think so. I prefer the present pain of acceptance to the deferred pain of denial. Death comes with or without an elephant, and grief is inevitable.

When Tom’s friend Bin, whose mother died of glioblastoma, learned that Kelly had been transferred to hospice, he wrote, “Lean into this crazy shit, my friend. The only thing worse than what’s happening is pretending it’s not.”

I didn’t have the opportunity to lean in with my brother, and pretending that he wasn’t dying didn’t keep him alive. So, I will say now what I couldn’t say then.

“Petey” and “Tommy”

Thank you, Tommy, for being such a good-natured companion throughout our child- and adulthood. I can’t remember a time when you didn’t take the high road.

Thank you for your thoughtful kindness and for the compassionate way you advocated and cared for our parents. And thank you for loving me in a way no one else could.

I miss your bear hugs. I miss your mind. I miss our in-jokes and the way you called me “Petey.” I even miss the noogies.

There are nearly eight billion people on this planet, but it feels empty without you.

Oh, hell

My 80-year-old mother and I got into a big argument about hell on Sunday. She’s absolutely certain that I’m going there, and I’m just as certain that I’m not.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. One of the most important laws of physics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only change forms.
  2. I believe that our essential selves–the core of who we are–are made up of energy.
  3. This was made clear to me at the funeral of my friend Jill, who died in a car accident at the age of 16. Seeing her body at the funeral was a shock. Though it looked like Jill, her essential “Jillness” was gone, and all that was left was a shell.
  4. Jill’s death caused my then-fundamentalist Christian faith to crumble. It took me 20 years to rebuild a belief system that made sense to me. But I never stopped believing that Jill’s consciousness had survived the accident.
  5. I concluded that, because a disembodied consciousness (or “soul”) does not have physical senses, you can’t hurt it by hitting, stabbing, or burning it.
  6. So, even if a physical hell did exist, how could it hurt something that is pure consciousness?

There are many other reasons why I don’t believe there’s a hell (more of my journey away from fundamentalist Christianity is described here). But as I said, Mom is just as sure that there is a hell, and that it’s my destiny. There’s a little girl inside me who has always yearned for my mother’s approval, and it hurts to know that the only way I will ever receive it is to become what I am not. I find it difficult to reconcile Mom’s professions of love for me on the one hand with her insistence that I am going to hell on the other.

A few years ago, Mom got not one, but two ulcers. She attributed them to my sister’s and my refusal to accept Jesus as our lord and savior. She was hospitalized, so I called the hospital’s gift shop and asked them to fill up two helium balloons, then write my name on one of them with a permanent marker, and my sister’s name on the other. I asked them to take the balloons up to Mom’s room, then called Mom and instructed her to go outside and let the balloons go. I wanted her to experience the release of that, but she didn’t do it. She asked my brother to go outside and do it for her, saying she’d watch from the window. I don’t know if he ever did. The whole meaning of the ritual was lost.

So here’s take two: A declaration of emancipation.

Declaration of Emancipation

Hear ye, hear ye!
Be it known to all that read this that

[my mother’s name]

is herewith absolved of any responsibility for
the eternal welfare of

Petra Elisabeth Martin

Petra joyfully takes complete responsibility for
her spiritual journey in this life
and for her life thereafter.

Declared on this 30th day of December 2009


Petra Elisabeth Martin

I don’t know if it’ll help Mom, but it helped me. When my son and I want to let things go, we find big rocks, write what we want to release on them in permanent marker, and throw them off a bridge into the water. It gives us a satisfying feeling of release.

Our New Year’s Eve tradition (in fact, we just did it today), is to conduct a burning bowl ceremony. We write on slips of tissue paper all the things that we want to release, take turns sharing them with each other, touch the paper to the flame of a candle, and then drop the burning paper into a metal bowl. One of the things I burned up today was “My mother’s expectations.”


If Death were a restaurant,
And I was seated beside your table,
I’d look through the menu
and then tell the waiter,
“I’ll have what he’s having.”

You couldn’t have ordered it up any better.

Unfortunately, the waiter brought your meal
Forty years too soon.

Sebastian Degen died at age 47
on July 2, 2009

The upside of fear

I’ve heard many times that the opposite of love is not hatred, as you might expect, but fear. The implication, of course, is that love is good and fear is bad. But I recently read something that has me thinking. Fear is what keeps us alive.

We’re born with a fierce survival instinct, and all of us have felt it first-hand. Near-misses, such as swerving to avoid a collision with a cement truck, trigger a surge of adrenaline that prepares us to fight or flee. Our initial feeling is fear, which is followed (almost immediately) by a hormonal surge that equips us to do something about it.

If it weren’t for our built-in fear of death, we’d step out of our lives at the first sign of discomfort and request a cosmic do-over. Fear keeps us on the planet.

The fear of death can erode, however, and when it does, we have a safety net. Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, and victims of torture have survived unspeakable suffering because of the love and responsibility they felt for their families.

Usually, we are kept alive by two layers of emotions: fear of
death and the love and responsibility we feel for our families

If we lose our fear of death, feelings of love and
responsibility keep us fighting for survival

When you have lived a full life and come toward the end of your years, the fear of death naturally erodes. Knowing that your loved ones can care for themselves gives you peace of mind, and you can allow yourself to relax your grip on life. When my grandfather was in his late eighties, he said, “I just want to go home.” We adored him and were very sad when he died at 89, but we knew it was what he wanted.

A well-lived life isn’t the only thing that causes people to relax their grip, however. Sometimes, depression and mental anguish become so great that they extinguish all emotions, including the fear of death and feelings of love and responsibility. This causes a total eclipse, which can lead people to put a permanent end to their own suffering.

Profound mental anguish can snuff out the feelings that usually keep us alive

A year ago day today, my friend Marc died of a total eclipse. I’ve thought a lot about how and why his safety net eroded. Obviously, Marc lost his fear of death. But what about the love and responsibility he felt for his wife and twin 11-year-old sons?

Clearly, all of Marc’s emotional systems failed. Marc thought he was ending his own suffering when he pulled the trigger. He didn’t realize that his suffering would increase exponentially as it passed to the wife, children, parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues who would, on some level, be grappling with his death for the rest of their lives.

I alternate between feelings of compassion and empathy (because of the despair that Marc died of) and anger (because of the pain that he forced the rest of us to live with). On some level, I guess I also feel a little envy. Marc’s pain is gone. Mine will remain for a long, long time.


Marc Alan Olson

September 15, 1965~September 21, 2007

Born in Tacoma, Marc graduated from University of Puget Sound with a degree in Physics in 1987. While there, he and his dear friend, Scott Andrews founded Passages, the outdoor orientation program for freshmen. Marc also served on the UPS Board of Trustees. He worked as a software engineer at Microsoft since 1989. Marc lived his life to the fullest with energy and commitment, admired by all who knew him. He was a devoted and loving husband, father and friend who had many passions in life including learning, reading, cooking, flying, photography, hiking, boating, skiing and anything that immersed him in the great outdoors. With his wife and kids, Marc loved nothing more than hosting friends and family at their “little bit of paradise” on Stuart Island, enjoying fine food and wine, fellowship and spectacular sunsets. Marc will be remembered by his many friends for his brilliant mind, generous spirit and insatiable appetite for life. Marc is survived by his parents, Judy and Terry Olson, wife, Jean, twin sons, Alex and Jake, brother, Craig, sister, Marce and their families. A Memorial Service to celebrate Marc’s Life will be held on Thursday, Sept. 27th, 1:00 p.m. at University Presbyterian Church, 4540 15th Ave NE, Seattle. All are welcome. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to a college fund that will be established for Alex and Jake.

How I lost my faith

When I was in the fourth grade, my sister, brother, and I responded to a hell-fire and brimstone altar call at the Bible Baptist Church in Rantoul, Illinois. My mother had been raised a Christian by devout Methodist parents, and her brother was a Methodist minister. But she also became “born again” and raised the bar. She got baptised in the church’s baptismal tank, which amounted to a declaration of war between her and my father. From then on, it was us against him.

Mom and Dad were now “unequally yoked,” and the pressure was on for him to see the light and accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. But Dad, who had been raised by an Army chaplain with a mean streak, would have none of it.

After Dad retired from the Air Force, we headed west, where he and Mom owned an unfinished house in Roy, Washington. There, we attended the Roy Missionary Church, where I eventually became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, and camp counselor.

It was while preparing one of my “sermons” for the youth group that I realized God was too small. I went out onto my grandfather’s land and prayed, “God, this is too easy. I could fit you into a shoebox and that can’t be right. Show me how big you are.”

At that time, I had my first serious boyfriend. His mother had died of cancer when his little sister was nine, and I had a special place in my heart for her. Jill was one of the brightest lights and most deeply spiritual people I’d ever met. She joined our youth group and caught the eye of Mike, who asked me to help him write poems with which to woo her. Soon, Mike and Jill fell in love.

I lived with my parents during my first two years of college and then packed my car and headed to Seattle Pacific University for the last two years. On my way out of town, I stopped by the cemetary where Jill’s mother was buried, knelt by her grave, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Please take care of her for me.”

In the winter of my senior year at college, Mike and Jill were killed in a car accident. It took place right in front of Jill’s house and her father was the first one on the scene.

Jill’s father asked me to speak at the funeral, which I did. Seeing Jill’s broken body in a casket was difficult, but having both caskets in front of me while addressing the hundreds of people who attended the funeral was even harder. It was, without question, the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done.

When Mike and Jill’s lives ended, my war with God began. I had asked–I had specifically asked–God to take care of Jill, and he killed her. If he didn’t outright kill her, then he failed to prevent her death, which was just as bad.

The prayer I’d said on my grandfather’s land had been answered–this God certainly didn’t fit in a shoebox. I felt completely betrayed and wanted nothing to do with him. My faith crumbled. The black-and-white world in which I had found comfort vanished. I was adrift on seas of gray under an angry sky and lost sight of everything that had once lent order to my universe.


Oddly, it never occurred to me not to believe in God–I guess I needed him to exist so I’d have someone to blame. I eventually rebuilt a spiritual world view that made sense to me, but it took almost 20 years to do it. It is nothing like my mother’s.

My mother believes that Mike and Jill, who had been together for a number of years, may have been finding it difficult to keep from getting physical with each other. She believes that God “took” them before they managed to fornicate. “You mean death is better than premarital sex?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, nodding sadly.

* The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Hopeless” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

The tractor beams that bring us home

I lived in Seattle for about 20 years, but soon after my son was born, I began to feel the urge to move. This was unusual for me because:

  • My father was in the military while I was growing up, and all I ever wanted was Never To Move Again.
  • My marriage came to an end when my son was 12 months old, so if we moved, we’d be doing it on our own.
  • My support network was in Seattle and moving away from it, especially as a single parent, made no sense at all.
  • My father was very ill, and I was making many trips south of Seattle to visit him and support my mother.

But in the fall of 2001, my father died. Three days later, my divorce was final, and a few weeks after that, I got in my car, drove north, got on a ferry, and started looking at property on Whidbey Island. It took about a year to get my house ready to sell, sell it, buy a new house, pack everything we owned, and move.

What possessed me? I still don’t know. Architect Ross Chapin once told me, “Whidbey is a calling,” and I couldn’t agree more. I was “called” so intensely that I felt like I got caught in a tractor beam.

We’ve lived here six years now, and I’ve spoken to many Islanders who felt just as intensely called, in spite of the fact that it can be challenging to earn a living here. Sometimes, when I’m in Langley, I still can’t believe how wonderful life here is, and I expect a klieg light to fall out of the sky, as it did in the movie, “The Truman Show.” (The idyllic island town that Truman lived in turned out to be a movie set.)

There were so many logical reasons for me not to move to Whidbey Island.  But I followed my heart and did it anyway, which just goes to show that I can learn from my mistakes. The rewards are incredible. This place felt like home the moment we set foot on it, and we’ve never been happier.

Before we moved, I felt a sense of longing. I felt receptive and open to the possibility of leaving Seattle, I trusted that moving was the right thing for us to do, and I feel incredibly happy now that I’ve done it.

Longing Receptive

Trusting Happy

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Longing,” “Receptive,” “Trusting,” and “Happy” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.