Living A Meaningful Life When Our Bodies Decline

What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us. Helen Keller, author

Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, estimated that the ability to define your life’s meaning adds to your life expectancy. His study found that individuals who had something meaningful to get up for in the morning, lived longer and were sharper than those who did not.

Sometimes our goals have to change with our abilities. Quilting may replace time spent rigorously weeding a garden. Teaching active children may step aside as you write your memoir. I’m reminded of Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking. Physical challenges need never be a factor as we define ourselves, live meaningful lives, or contribute to society. 

Affirmation: I will find ways to live a meaningful life.

Coaching question: What will you do to continue to live a meaningful life as you age? 

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash 

Embracing “Bubble-Ups”

So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good.” Helen Keller

One of the daughters I interviewed for my book referred to her sudden mother-memories as “bubble-ups.” We all have them. Those sights, smells, songs, sayings that cause the bubbling up of a memory of a precious person in our life who is gone. 

These bubble-ups frequently catch us off guard, surprising us with their power. Other bubble-ups are predictable like when the University of Nebraska football team takes the field, I can’t help but shed a tear…my dad is right there with me.

Affirmation: Memories are precious to me.

Coaching questions: What “bubble-ups” do you have? How do you handle them?


Photo by Paul Schellekens on Unsplash

It’s Possible to Be Joyful Again

What we have once enjoyed we can never lose; all that we deeply love becomes a part of us. Helen Keller

Loss of a loved one is always difficult. It’s the price we pay for having a great love. However, we can be joyful again as we learn to accommodate to life after loss.

C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed likened accepting your life after loss to a man learning to walk after a leg has been amputated. Lewis writes, “The amputee may get along quite well, may even become facile and agile on crutches or on a carefully designed artificial limb. But the amputee must accommodate to permanent loss. He or she will never walk as before; repair does not mean a return to the way things were.”

Our life will never be as it was before our loss but knowing that those we love are always a part of us, we can be joyful again. 

Affirmation: I can be joyful again after loss.

Coaching questions: How are you different after loss? In what ways have you accommodated to your loss? What will help you be joyful again? 


Do No Harm

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trail and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. Helen Keller

It breaks my heart to read the posts of women in motherless daughters’ groups telling a woman who is in despair over having just lost her mother that “it doesn’t get any better.” I shout out at my computer screen, “For Heaven’s sake, give the poor grieving woman some hope!” Most of us, if we’re over forty, have suffered at least one significant loss. If all of us never recovered, we would all be walking around like the Zombies we were that first week.

Even Helen Keller, with no sight, hearing or voice, offered a message of hope for those who are suffering and in distress. I believe it’s important to acknowledge a person’s grief, be with her in the reality of the moment, offer no platitudes like “she’s better off now” or “you’ll be fine.” Saying nothing is always good. Your presence is what matters. Reminisce with her about her loved one. But please, please, don’t take away hope for her future. Hope may be the only thread attaching her to this Earth—sometimes, literally.

Affirmation: I will be a healer and do no harm.  

Coaching questions: What helped you most in times of despair? What words or presence brought you the most comfort? How do you show up for your friends and family in times of distress?


Stop Pursuing Happiness

Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. Helen Keller, author

Why were over forty women willing to tell me their sad tale of mother loss? Their universal response was because they wanted their experience to make a difference to another person. Telling me their story and having it become a part of a book gave their loss meaning—and meaning gives us happiness. 

Happiness can’t be pursued, it’s the side effect of dedication to the pursuit of something meaningful beyond our own gratification. This is why creating something to share—a painting, a garden, a book, an afghan, a festive meal, etc—gives us pleasure. This is why volunteering at the school, hospital, church, etc—gives us pleasure. Stop pursuing happiness and begin to look for the meaning in your life. 

Affirmation: I find happiness in meaningful experiences. 

Coaching question: Where do you find meaning and purpose in your life? 


Don’t Be Blind-Sighted By Bubble-Ups

So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good. Helen Keller

A woman I spoke with who had lost her mother years ago called her sudden memories of her mother “bubble-ups.” One bubble-up for her was, “My mother had many friends, sometimes I wonder where they were after she died.” One of my bubble-ups is when the University of Nebraska football team takes the field. In that moment, I can’t help but shed a tear because I feel the presence of my beloved dad.

We are frequently blind-sighted by our bubble-ups. A memory suddenly assails us and brings tears, anger, or guilt. Be patient with yourself as the memory comes and goes. “Tis the season for bubble-ups.

Affirmation: I accept my memories as they come. 

Coaching questions: What “bubble-ups” have you experienced? How have you handled them? If necessary, reframe them from annoying to precious.

Taking a Risk

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. Helen Keller

Eighteen years ago today I met my husband, Ken. He was 57, I was 55 and we met on Today, meeting in cyberspace may not be unusual but in 2000, it was a “You met him where!!?” kind of thing. We were both recent widowers looking for a companion for dinner or a movie during the long Illinois winter. 

Our meeting was risky. We were perfect strangers, meeting in cyberspace, talking a few times on the phone, then sitting down face to face at a neighborhood restaurant. We were willing to have a daring adventure. We married two years later and are living happily in paradise on sunny Marco Island. Sometimes you just have to embrace the adventure. 

Affirmation: I am adventurous.

Coaching questions: What is an adventure you’d like to embrace? What’s holding you back? How might your life be different if you took a chance? 


I Just Don’t Know What To Say

Who we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us. Helen Keller, American author, political activist, first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree

Helen Keller has the right idea when it comes to words of sympathy. Offering supporting words to friends who are in emotional pain due to the critical illness or death of a loved one can be fraught with peril. Saying things like, “she’s in a better place” or “everything happens for a reason” or “I know just how you feel,” can be hurtful to many. Telling your own Super Griever story is not helpful either. Sharing a memory of the loved one, showing concern for the caregiver/grieving person herself, or saying nothing at all but being present is good too.

Don’t let “not knowing what to say” keep you from being a comforting person in your friend’s life. Send a card or a text, show up with tacos, offer to take the dog for a walk or their kids to a movie. Don’t be afraid to say, “I just don’t know what to say.” Trust me, she’ll get your message.

Affirmation: I care about my friends.

Coaching questions: When you have experienced a loss, what was helpful and comforting to you? Give some thought right now about how you might respond to a grieving or completely overwhelmed friend. Your words and actions will be ready when you need them in the moment.