They are particularly open to learning from this perspective, aware more than they ever imagined of the fragility of human life as they are surrounded by the harsh reality of death in the global pandemic. As their teacher, I want to bring in elders who can share their wisdom of how to live in the face of death.
Isabel Stenzel Byrnes is a young elder who was supposed to die many times because she has cystic fibrosis, a fatal lung disease. But she hasn’t died and has survived to the age of 49 with the help of a double lung transplant. She was left behind by her twin sister Ana who also survived cystic fibrosis and two double lung transplants before succumbing to colon cancer in September 2013. A few months earlier Ana and Isa had given a Tedx talk together, and after Ana’s passing, Isa gave another talk, this time alone. Those of us who knew the twins as “the power of two,” marveled at her ability to share her story, but she explained:
“I have the strength to stand before you and talk about loss because I spent my entire life practicing the art of saying goodbye.”
Isa is a master of loss. She has lost countless friends to cystic fibrosis and credits them with teaching her to be the best person she could be through loving and being loved. But Isa also reminded us that losing someone we love is the hardest experience any of us will have to go through, because it goes against our basic instinct; we are wired for attachment in a world where everyone is temporary.
Isa offered the lessons she has learned through her own struggles, kidding those who might be in denial, “if you are not planning on losing any loved ones, these lessons don’t apply to you.”
Her first lesson is that we are more than our emotions and are capable of being mindful of our feelings, observing them likes the ocean’s waves and not being paralyzed or overwhelmed by them; to go with the flow. “Trust that we can be stronger than our sorrows.”
The second lesson is that we can find purpose in all of this losing. Fully experiencing her own pain enables her to be more compassionate of others’ pain. Isa personally finds purpose by working as a hospice social worker where wisdom she has gained from her life experiences provides peace of mind to those in terminal stages of dying. She also leads therapeutic writing groups for those grieving a loss.
Isa warns us that although we may wish it was clear and orderly, there is no right or wrong way to say goodbye, because dying is chaotic and illogic. She says that grief is an art, not a science and we make sense of what happened and find purpose in our own individual ways. She notes that her own Japanese and German cultures influence her to be stoic, reflective, and persevering, putting one foot in front of the other.