Death as an Organizing Principle for Life. Part 1.
Dr. Daniel (Danny) Friedland is a guest faculty member of MEA and the author of “Leading Well from Within,” which focuses on the science of practice of Conscious Leadership. He’s one of the most delightful humans I’ve ever met and a real mensch.
A few weeks ago, Danny received the news that he has terminal cancer, a grade 4 glioblastoma (GBM), the most aggressive form of primary brain cancer, that also afflicted Beau Biden and John McCain. This interview is meant to shine the light on the lessons Danny is experiencing in the 30+ days since he received his diagnosis as, while it’s impossible to predict his end of life, averages would suggest 15 months.
Chip: Danny, many people have heard of the “five stages of grief.” What have been your stages since getting this news and what emotional stages do you think you have ahead of you?
Danny: Thanks Chip! You and the MEA community have been such a blessed delight in my life and I so appreciate the opportunity to share our family learnings at this time in service to each of you here as well.
I want to emphasize at the outset that when you walk through the door into this world of cancer, if you are fortunate enough to have a family and dear friends, you bring everyone through this door with you, too.
Our family is still in the process of grieving and we have already been through all the stages of grief both individually as well as together.
I want to give a shout out of gratitude to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who introduced these 5 Stages of Grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross passed away in 2004, and I’m imagining that her family found these 5 stages as helpful to their grieving process as our family is finding it to ours now.
The 5 stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The blessing of knowing these stages is that it reassures that you are not going crazy when you are experiencing any of them, which can prevent you from experiencing the even more challenging, secondary experiences of shame, guilt and doubts of self-worth that can all too easily follow in the wake of some of these stages.
What our family is experiencing is that these stages are by no means a linear progression. We are cycling through them in a very dynamic way. So, for example, even after we are now experiencing many moments of glorious acceptance, we still have flares of anger, which show up as edginess and irritation, especially at the end of the day when our resources are depleted. And there are spikes of deep sadness. The irony is that as our family is growing much closer together, it comes with a deeper sense of sadness, in that we are also appreciating we have much more we have to lose, because of the expanded absence of the closeness we are now experiencing.
We’ve also been experiencing a progression of grief because of the way the diagnosis has unfolded. I received my radiologic MRI diagnosis, which was suggestive of a Grade 4 GBM on November 13, but only received my final definitive pathologic diagnosis based on the biopsy result on November 25th. My neurosurgeon expressed reasonable doubt over the initial radiologic diagnosis, which provided me with a honeymoon reprieve that we might get a better diagnosis than what I most feared would be the most aggressive form of primary brain cancer. (As a physician, I also carry the unique burden of not being able to have illusions, knowing starkly the seriousness of what a Grade 4 GBM means.)
So our family’s grief response was most intense the night November 25th when Sue and I returned home from this meeting with my neurosurgeon, Dr. Malone (who I want to emphasize, has been a blessing to me on this journey) with this gravest of diagnoses.
We arrived home to find our oldest son, Zach and youngest, Dyl waiting anxiously in our kitchen for the news we were about to deliver. They immediately noticed that we were numb in the shock of Denial, which without words was enough to communicate the full gravity of our situation. They immediately wailed in disbelief as we began to share more. We then cycled very quickly into a mix of Denial, Bargaining, Anger and Depression, which were expressed with a mix of free flowing tears and agitation. Dyl could not stop pacing and pulling at his hair. He kept repeating in anguish, “No, Daddy, No, No, Daddy, No...!”
What was most helpful in getting to a trace of Acceptance that evening was having the wherewithal to be mindful of everything that we were going though and our ability to run a series of rapid experiments where we did brief interventions. For example, we experimented, with coming to our heartspace and breathing soothing kindness into those areas of our body where it ached the most. We were observing whether this resulted in an expansion or a contraction of energy. For Sue, Zach and me this resulted in a subtle expansion of energy, but not for Dyl, who stated with even greater desperation, “This is not working for me!” What ultimately worked for him was grabbing his phone, asserting, “I’m going to my room to shoot a video!” (He needed to talk this out. More on this in below….)
What I found most helpful and grounding (and by extension my family found helpful, because they take comfort in my grounding in which I naturally express a greater sense of peace) was the phrase I kept repeating as a mantra, “It is what it is!” So much suffering comes from resistance. I experienced this phrase as a revelation, that while I might prefer it not be so, “it is what it is” facilitated our transition into the stage of Acceptance. And while we only experienced a trace of this stage of Acceptance amidst all of the other 4 stages that were dominating then, over these last few weeks, Acceptance has become our predominant experience, where the other stages are now becoming more infrequent experiences.
With all the extraordinary synchronicities that are unfolding in my life right now, I’m actually experiencing a stage beyond Acceptance right now. I’m experiencing a full awakening of what I teach others in my work of Awakening Conscious Leadership to elevate humanity in the world.
I now understand the Power of Conscious Leadership involves two additional components beyond a mindful mental quality, which we tend to think of as representing wisdom alone. I am now more fully appreciating that the full expression of Conscious Leadership, and the wisdom it holds is, when it is connected to an awakened heart and awakened connection to spirit. My experience of now being in full spiritual surrender to the divine (or however you express your connection to your deepest source of inspiration) is the ultimate expression of awakened servant leadership.
In this full awakening, I am living in a state of awe. I have never felt more alive, joyful and fulfilled! I never imagined life could ever be this sweet. And this is not in spite of my cancer. It’s because of my cancer!
I feel like my life is being directed by a cosmic script. I have completely accepted that what this script is calling for me is for me to be able to catalyze healing, growth of flourishing wellness that is not only going inside of me, but in everyone I’m blessed to touch now too.
And If you are feeling at all awe-inspired by what I’m sharing, then you too are experiencing my cancer as a blessing in your life, just as I am experiencing it in my life too!
Further, the scale at which all these synchronicities are currently unfolding, provides me a deeper sense of calling. I’m deeply sensing we are all being called to catalyze a coalition, to build a movement, including individuals and organizations that are already doing the work of facilitating healing, growth and flourishing wellness in the world at this historic time of need and opportunity. The MEA is a vital part of this coalition! (Cliffhanger: see more on this in tomorrow’s Part 2 of this post :))
Hope you enjoy this 9-minute video of me and Danny chatting.