By Marc Gilson
The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.- Cicero
The first time I “lost a client,” it came as a shock because he died so unexpectedly: heart attack, less than 24 hours after he had completed a coaching session with me. When I learned the news, my first reaction was, “But we’d just been doing a session a few hours ago!” As if that was somehow supposed to change things. Change life. Change death.
Such moments bring into sharp focus not only one’s own mortality, but the terrible suddenness with which death can take people from us. Today I got word of another client who had passed away. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. I’ve lost clients due to terminal illness and various diseases, accidents, and in two cases, servicemen who died while serving overseas, one just 19 years old at the time of his death, about the age my son is now. But no matter the reason, it’s always difficult news to get.
Losing a client is not the same, of course, as losing a close friend or family member. Clients are often wonderful people, but to me they’re not loved ones. They are not people with whom I spend a lot of time socializing. They don’t come over for dinner. We don’t watch baseball games together. They’re clients.
And yet there’s a set of hard-to-define feelings that go along with losing a coaching client. In varying degrees, I do grieve for these people, sometimes heavily even though, as I said, they’re not family to me. In most cases, I’ve never even met them face-to-face (I conduct most of my sessions via phone or Skype)
I think the reason this odd sense of grief hits me when a client dies is that I often know so much about their inner lives. Sure, I don’t spend much time talking to them about their favorite movies or who they think will win the Super Bowl this year. But I get to know their struggles, their fears, their hopes. I know how much they wanted to see Paris. I know how much love and hope they had for their children or grandchildren. I know how much they were looking forward to Christmas or to next Spring when they could get back outside to work in the garden. I know how they struggled with their inner demons, with addictions, phobias, worries big and small. I know their regrets and disappointments. I know about their victories and losses. Sometimes clients will share more with a coach or therapist about their inner lives than they share with their closest loved ones.
So there’s an intimacy, I guess you could say, that is built up over time; some kind of openness that is at once vulnerable and yet strengthened and protected by the trust engendered by the client/coach relationship. It’s impossible to do coaching work – listening to your client, watching their story unfold, hearing their history, watching them work so hard to improve themselves – without also also seeing something of yourself reflected in their lives and struggles. This personalizes the relationship in ways I’m still sometimes surprised by.
No two people are really, truly identical. But there are common challenges to life that many of us share together and yet face alone. It’s amazing to me how often I see the same kinds of lines and patterns emerge on the maps of people’s lives. The same fears, worries, hopes, transitions, transformations, losses. Moments of bold self-honesty and moments of blind self-delusion. Moments of bliss and moments of unspeakable despair. Anger, rage, subtle forms of self-destruction. These experiences may come wrapped in different packages in different people’s lives, but once you start unpacking the boxes the contents are surprisingly similar from life to life.
So when a client dies unexpectedly, I’m often left with the impression of something having been snuffed out; a life, obviously. But with that life go stories untold, hopes unfulfilled, words unsaid, races half-run. Clients, to me, are always works in progress (we all are, really). When one passes away, especially suddenly, it leaves me with a sense of something incomplete or unfinished, like a house left only partially built. It’s a disconcerting feeling for me. So much momentum, suddenly coming to a full stop. So much actually happening in their lives, and yet their time is done.
I think in this day and age, we’re often exposed to a rather sterile version of the dying process: the quiet hospital or hospice room, the bed, the pain medication, the flowers, the loved ones there at the bedside, some tears, and then it’s over.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in “that room” several times, and expect to be there again. And someday I’ll likely be the one in that bed. In such instances where death is more or less a process managed by nurses and IV drips, maybe there’s more of a sense of closure somehow – of a life well-lived, or at least a life concluded.
It’s a kind of procedure, a gentle transition that allows at least a little time for reflections, goodbyes, and preparations. I don’t mean to generalize, be insensitive, or suggest that this kind of experience is somehow easy. It’s just one version of how people often die.
But not everyone dies that way. Some die alone. Some die suddenly. Some are not ready to go. And some die far, far too soon. The book lies unfinished, the symphony incomplete, the bucket list left with unchecked boxes.
That client whose death I learned about today was in his 60’s. He’d been dealing with a range of health issues, and during what would turn out to be our last phone session together he’d mentioned the likelihood of having to go back into the hospital for more treatment. To me, this was nothing unusual; it seemed like he was always headed to, or coming from, a medical appointment of some kind.
I don’t know all the details, but according to his housekeeper who visited him once a week, he did go back into the hospital, took a quick and severe downward turn at some point, spent a short amount of time in a coma, and then passed away during the night. I don’t know much more than that. But I do know this: When I asked his nurse from the hospital, “Who was with him when he passed?” she took a deep breath, let out a sigh, and said, “No one.”
A widower, he’d never remarried and had no children. He had a few friends and colleagues, but his health had deteriorated so quickly, and he was so private about most things that few, including me, knew the seriousness of the situation or even that he was really that ill.
So, last night he drove himself to the hospital, admitted himself, and whether he sensed it or not, had what would be his last interactions in this life with his nurses and doctors. No flowers, no goodbyes, no hand-holding, no tears at the bedside.
Sad, yes. But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to define anybody’s life solely by the circumstances of their death (yeah I can think of some exceptions to that statement too, but they’re rare). In fact, I’m not completely convinced that this man – although he died alone – didn’t prefer it that way somehow.
I don’t know what others really knew of my client. I expect they knew he loved his two old spaniels. I expect people enjoyed his rather corny sense of humor (he was great at making puns). They probably knew he loved fly fishing. I expect they recognized in him a generous, kind human being.
What I doubt many know is that he had plans for this summer. He wanted to take a fishing trip to Alaska – a place he’d longed to visit. I doubt anybody knows that he had been suffering from severe nightmares that woke him in the middle of the night off and on since he’d been in the Army. I doubt anybody knows that he carried an immense sense of guilt and regret over how badly he’d treated a one-time close friend back in college. I doubt very many people know just how much he really missed his departed wife. I could go on, but you get the idea.
He had, as we all do, an inner world that he rarely shared with others. Sometimes keeping things to ourselves is best – we all need our privacy after all. But sometimes we sacrifice something of a relational, powerful value when we hide too much. Personally, I find it hard to contemplate mortality without confronting that fact.
I don’t know that there’s any grand “Moral To The Story” here. I guess what I’ve learned from all this is something of a hard lesson. Life rarely unfolds in a steady, predictable manner. Sure, there’s that classic story arc one’s life might take. But while you can control some aspects of life in order to fit the story you’re trying to write, it has a way of squirming away, out of our grasp.
And sometimes it ends suddenly, without warning, and can take with it a world most of us never see in one another. Perhaps what I’m grieving is not so much the loss of a loved one when a client dies, but the loss of such a rich inner world so infrequently shared with even the closest people in their lives.
Grief is not an emotion. It’s a process made up of dozens, maybe hundreds, of emotions running a wild gamut from despair to anger, denial to confusion, sadness to healing, any or all of the above. Grief is a spinning wheel, and for the bereaved, there’s really no way to predict, from moment to moment, just where the wheel will stop. Sometimes, when a client dies, I find myself saying, “Why should this impact me? Why am I grieving this? This isn’t family. This isn’t even a close friend.”
But I know the answer now and it’s really pretty simple. Once you know what someone is like on the inside, once you hear them talk about their inner world, once they’ve shared with you what has hurt them, what they value in life, what they regret, and what their challenges really are, well, I guess maybe in some sense they are family, or something very close to it. And I can’t help but think that it’s something of a gift whenever anyone shares these things with me.
Sure, it’s my job and I’m paid to engage clients on this level. But when you stop and think about all the people in your life – friends, co-workers, kids, cousins, mom, dad, clients, whomever – remember that no matter where they are in life, they have their own inner world, one you may know far less about than you realize.
But if they open the door to that world for you, treat it as an honor and graciously accept their invitation. Enter these parts of their lives with a sense of respect and care. Visit them on a level a little deeper than, “Hey! How’s it going?”
Life is a temporary thing. How temporary, none of us can really say for sure. Speaking for myself, I don’t want to wait for another phone call about another loss to be reminded to stay in tune with the people in my life whom I love and trust.
Take some time today to acknowledge those people whose inner world mixes with yours, and recognize how much that enriches your own life. That you trust someone with that…that they trust you with that, well that’s kind of a miracle, isn’t it? You don’t have to be a life coach or a therapist to make yourself available to others in your life. You don’t need to barge into anyone’s private thoughts or feelings in order to show them that you care.
Life is happening right now, but that can stop, at any time, for any of us. Sometimes we die surrounded by loving family. Sometimes we die alone in a hospital bed, or suddenly on the field of battle, or surrounded by little more than memories. But while we live, we’re a part of a much bigger family that is facing difficult challenges, tough decisions, good days and bad ones.
And as I sit here reflecting on my client, a man I knew but never met, I know that because he shared his inner world with me, I have both the honor and responsibility to carry a little of his world around with me, to reflect upon it, to learn from it, and to let it serve as a marker of a life deserving of remembrance.
Special thanks to my co-coach, Jen Kennedy, for her help with this piece.
Marc Gilson is a writer, consultant, and life coach living in Lake Oswego, Oregon. For more on his coaching services, visit http://www.lightwavecoaching.com/ or email email@example.com