I am a death and dying educator and a grief therapist. For the last 25 years, I have spent my days walking through the fields of loss and grief in the same way my grandfather used to comb through the alfalfa fields on the ranch where I grew up. Every morning, in his overalls and felt hat, he would walk and look, surveying each nuance of the landscape, pulling up a weed here and nurturing a bud there.
His intuitive sense of coaxing life from that which had worth, while pruning away that which did not, was the thing that helped him turn a plot of alkali-filled dirt that no one else wanted into a thriving ranch that generations of our family lived on until after his death at 94.
The fields I have spent the last quarter century walking through are different. They take me toward the things most people avoid. “Why?” is the question most often posed to me. Why would you walk toward end of life every day?
The soul-baring and honest answer to that question is that death brings gifts that nothing else can. It brings strangers into your life who touch your soul in a moment in ways that someone who may have known you for decades never will. It brings moments of clarity that are so profound they change how you live your life. The gifts are cumulative, which is the one thing that has kept me — like my grandfather before me — rising each day and heading out into my field to walk and to look, surveying each nuance of the landscape, pulling up a weed here and nurturing a bud there.
One day in April of 2020, I saw a bud.
I came across the story of Nick Cordero, a Broadway actor who was among the first to fight COVID19. His wife, Amanda Kloots, had gone public with his battle and was closely documenting every moment they were facing.
The story had me from the moment that I first read about it, and I immediately became one of the many thousands of people who joined Amanda on Instagram every day at 3 pm to be part of the battle cry for Nick by singing along to his song, “Live Your Life.”
This anthem is an ode to embracing the journey, wherever it takes you. The energy that accumulated among the group of people who committed to this daily ritual and sang their hearts out for a man and a family most of them (like me) had never met, is the very thing I refer to when I say that death and grief bring gifts like no other and changes how you live your life.
In a perfect world, this rally cry sent out by thousands of people everyday at 3 pm would have created a force of healing that would lead Nick Cordero out of the hospital and back into the beautiful life he had waiting for him.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, and on July 5, 2020, Nick died of COVID19, a tragedy of epic proportions. The loss, however, does not negate the gifts. The shared experiences of random people around the world singing a song for a man they did not know but had somehow fallen in love with, the hope and solidarity this filled them with, the crushing weight of losing someone they were rooting for every day, the realization that life, for any of us, is so precious and fleeting… all of these things are gifts. This song, the process of coming together and feeling the power of hope, the heartbreak, and then witnessing the crippling grief and the amazing resilience of a young family facing loss but continuing to live their life – well, it has changed people. Thousands of them.
Now, there is a newly released cover of Nick’s song recorded by an artist named @bylenii – this is another bud.
I first learned of Lenii when Amanda Kloots posted a video of her sitting street side in the bed of a pick-up truck. As she covered Nick’s song, the energy of the moment was palpable. In that angelic voice paired with a single guitar, the café lights strung above the truck bed, and nothing but a quiet street in the background, a sense of the sacred was palpable.
The song, the setting, the sanctity — it all touched me deeply. I picked up my phone and sent a heartfelt comment to Lenii on Instagram. She replied, and we connected in the way that people do when they’re in proximity to things precious. I had found another bud, and this one was bright and so on the brink of blooming. We have stayed connected through the months and watching her career right now, is a bit like watching a young vine begin to spread its little tendrils out into the world…
A few weeks ago, an old and dear friend of mine lay dying. This friend, Julie, had battled an aggressive and relentless cancer for 26 years, raised three beautiful children as a single mom, never missed a school or sport event, worked full time, laughed, played, never complained, and just kept giving cancer the middle finger again and again. She endured horrendous treatments and each time her disease returned and the doctors would give her grim news, she would listen to their words, smile, turn on her heels, and in the words of Nick Cordero, just live her life.
Julie and I spent many hours together in her final days. She wanted to leave something behind that might help those who are afraid of death, like she had been. We recorded our raw, real-time conversations — and the result is this video: a beautiful legacy that she leaves for her loved ones and for anyone who might be afraid to die. When she finally arrived to the end of her life, something she had spent years dreading- there was no fear. She was radiant — peaceful, ready, and totally trusting in her next step — which she fully believed was into the white light of eternity.
On a whim, I contacted Lenii. I asked her if she would sing a few lines of her song for Julie. I explained how Julie embodied the very live-your-life mantra that is at the heart of the song. Less than five minutes later, my phone pinged. Lenii had gone straight to her piano and created a version of the song she sang especially for Julie.
The evening before Julie died, as she lay there quietly, in that space between worlds, I held her hand and played her song. As Lenii’s voice rose up through the air, I asked the same army of angels that I always do to help my friend find her way, and I asked if that new guy Nick might stop by and say hello after she arrives. After all, they have an anthem in common. And by my estimation, Nick wrote it and Julie spent her life living it.
My last image of Julie is one I want to remember forever. She was surrounded by her three children – not awkwardly surrounded by three people standing around a bed, mind you; she was the middle body in a dog pile of four of people — all packed onto her double bed; peaceful, sad, love filled, deeply connected people. Each of her children had a hand placed somewhere upon her, lending their support to the woman who brought them into this world, as she gently worked her way out.
There, in that humble little house, with the windows open to the evening air, the sense of the sacred was palpable once again. They may not have known it, but her children were giving their mother the ability to peacefully leave this world, because they had become exactly who she had raised them to be.
There they each were, in the thick of it, facing the hardest moment they had ever known. And just like their momma, they were living their lives despite it. She was teaching them that even when you are dying, it’s alright to live your life.