The Curve Balls of Life and Death

Feb 15, 2011 | 1 comment

Lenann McGookey Gardner

Lenann McGookey Gardner

This lesson in living and dying is a guest post by Lenann McGookey Gardner. Lenann is an executive coach, speaker, and sales training expert. She originally wrote this essay in 2006.


Four members of my immediate family passed away over the last year. In answer to your question, two were older, and two were not.

One was a suicide – a much-loved, charming, handsome man in the prime of life, who was married to my dear daughter, and was the love of her life.

A fifth member of my immediate family has just been diagnosed with leukemia. And an opportunistic infection that had nothing to do with the leukemia, but did have to do with his chemotherapy-compromised immune system, tried to kill him, too.

On the one-year anniversary of my Dad’s death – the day, I had decided, that our “year from hell” would end – I found myself in the Intensive Care Unit of the UCLA Medical Center with an inert person, the leukemia sufferer, who could have died in my arms and it would not have surprised me one bit.

He has since recovered. He’s normal. And he’s looking forward to the next round of chemo.

But I feel like a punching bag!

Now, I have a business. I have obligations. I’m a serious, focused human being. But it’s impossible to have gone through all of this and not missed a beat.

I missed several beats. But I’m going on.

What have I learned?

Life is a series of challenges. (Duh.) There is the potential for happiness, despite the pain; in fact, I think the presence of pain in one’s life makes one appreciate the joyful aspects of life all the more. I really do believe that!

There are strategies we can adopt. Most of them involve stopping crying in one’s soup, and getting OUT. Even for the worst, most terrible crisis – the suicide – there is an organization called SOS (Survivors of Suicide), where other shocked people come, empathize and truly understand.

It’s possible to focus on LIFE. The dead people are … dead. But there are living people who need support and interaction. My daughter and I volunteer at a local organization that provides childcare to homeless small children. We work, one morning a week, with homeless infants. They’re alive. And they don’t have pleasant circumstances for their lives.

We try to make their living a little more pleasant, and hope that, while the babies are with us, their parents will get the jobs, earn the income, and find the housing they so desperately need, so that “our babies” will grow up in stable homes, rather than sleeping in shelters, in the back seats of cars, or on relatives’ floors.

It’s helpful to get grief counseling. There are therapists who specialize in this. And they help you grieve, experience your loss, and start to conceive your life without the lost loved ones.

It’s essential to keep moving. I have to go to the gym, and if I don’t get there, I get on my treadmill and RUN. Getting physically tired and sweaty doesn’t just give me cardiovascular benefit, it also gives me stress relief.

And it’s OK to do nice things for myself. I get massages a couple of times a month. I get my nails done weekly. I make time for the occasional pedicure. I connect with my friends, who are scattered geographically, more often than before. And I ask for their help.

I took a class called, “So You Want to Be a Torch Singer”. And I sang in public, in dangly earrings.

I write poetry, on the computer, fast, and when I read back through it, I see the progress of my feelings. I help put on wonderful memorial services, where the people I love are remembered, laughter happens, and we think of them with joy as well as sorrow. I’ve become very skillful at writing eulogies and obituaries, and I don’t run away, much, from my feelings of loss, nor from my feelings of love for those who are gone.

Loss has always been a part of my life – my mother died when I was a tiny girl. But I’ve been fortunate that, since then, there have been no major, unexpected deaths in my family. Till now.

When life threw me, and my family, this “curve ball” of a year, we learned that we could lean into each other. I appreciate them more. I feel more vulnerable – especially since I’m having yet another birthday tomorrow – but I’m happy with what I’m doing with my life overall, and I’m looking for opportunities to be helpful to other people, whether as a consultant or as a friend.

I didn’t ask for this curve ball, but I am learning from it. And this dose of reality probably makes me a more effective consultant, who can understand even more about my clients’ challenging life experiences after having lived through this tough year myself.

If you would like to help support the organization where my daughter and I are volunteering, please send a check to: Cuidando Los Ninos, 
P.O. Box 12786, 
Albuquerque, NM 87195.

Cuidando Los Ninos, which means “Caring for the Children”, is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, so your contribution is fully tax-deductible. CLN provides childcare for homeless infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and services to their parents to help them get into housing. 74% of the homeless families who finish CLN’s program complete it in housing and giving back to society by paying taxes.

A Good Goodbye