The Top Ten Things I Learned from my Mother’s Death

Ben Whitehair
May 11, 2014 · 11 min read
From left:
Me, Nikki, Mom, & Jake. Yeah, I know. I had a mullet.

A little over a month ago, just before 4 am on March 26th, 2014, Nancy Gayle Coleman—my mother—released her physical body and began her next journey. She would have turned 56 last week.

Her four children were by her bedside in her final hours. Earlier in the day, when she saw the four of us together for the first time in nearly a decade, she exclaimed “this is awesome!” Those are the last words I heard her say.


My (half) sister is now an orphan (her father committed murder/suicide in 2006) and we’re raising money to take care of her health and education.
To learn more and donate visit http://www.gofundme.com/Faleena.


The story of my mother’s life—and death—is…well, kind of crazy. Here goes.

Until I was about 12 or so, my mother was an angel. She spent time with me and my siblings, was a facilitator for my homeschooling, and provided an incredible example of how to live in gratitude, love unconditionally, and instilled a belief that I could do and be anything or anyone I wanted.

My mom was the Student Body President of CU-Boulder, at the time the largest student government in the country with an autonomous budget of millions and millions of dollars. She got her MBA at the University of Denver, and was the youngest Deputy State Treasurer in the country during the late 80’s and early 90’s. She was a powerful, and supremely intelligent woman, was civically engaged, and even a champion marathon runner. She was married to my father for 17 years, and they had three children. Myself (now 28), my brother Jake(now 26), and my sister Nikki (now 24).

My parents got divorced right before I turned 12, and shortly thereafter my mom got re-married to her second husband, Mike. He was one of the greatest horse trainers in the country, and ultimately taught each of us kids to be champion horse riders, ropers, bull riders, etc. and we won many a rodeo. He also gave us the gift of my half-sister Faleena who is now 15. The full story, though, is that he was an abusive alcoholic and ultimately committed murder/suicide in 2006. My mom’s third husband was a pathological liar who had other wives, and her fourth husband was also abusive. On her own turn, my mom attempted to hire people to kill my Dad, and effectively cut out each of her children from her life for many years. She and I didn’t speak for six years, and my brother saw her for the first time in almost a decade on her death bed.

I share these details not to vilify her, but to provide a backdrop of the complexity of the situation. And because I know there are so many others who have similar situations that, so often, we hide or pretend don’t exist. Which leads to the first lesson:

RADICAL HONESTY—WITH YOURSELF AND OTHERS—CREATES FREEDOM

It’s often difficult for me to acknowledge and relate the facts of my mother’s life. But I also know that the secrecy, and pretending that everything was ok for so many years was perhaps the most insidious disease created. Had you met my mother at any given time, you would likely have walked away with the belief that her life was wonderful and everything was great. And while I’m sure there were pieces of my mother’s experience that felt like that, I think she overwhelmingly experienced anger, sadness, shame, grief, and a myriad of painful emotions. Most of which she ignored, bottled up, or hid. I believe this is the root of what ultimately created the cancer in her body.

What I have learned in my own life is that what we resist persists. If I simply deny what I’m feeling I cannot move forward.

Over the past decade or so I have become increasingly willing to share my whole self. My deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires. Sharing these with others, especially in my most intimate relationships, has transformed my life. I have learned that my “darkest” thoughts and emotions are generally the most important to share. And that I am worthy of being loved and accepted for all of me.

GRIEVING IS A PROCESS: EXPERIENCE YOUR EXPERIENCE

There is no right or wrong way to experience death. I have wept, laughed, been angry, made crude jokes, disengaged, and sat in silence. I have experienced the entire gamut of emotion, and it sometimes shifts in an instant. And, for maybe the first time in my adult life, I have allowed myself to experience every emotion. At times it’s been difficult. Especially when I feel anger or frustration at the mess my mom left. But I have learned that not only would ignoring those emotions keep me stuck there, but that honoring the deceased does not mean never feeling nor expressing “negative” emotions towards them. It’s ok that I experience anger towards my mom. She left quite the catastrofuck, and pretending otherwise serves no one.

I’ve also become clear that each person has their own individual process. The way I deal with the situation may not be the way my sisters do so. What has worked for us is being honest with each other regarding where we are in our process, and allowing each other to be where they are. One day I may be experiencing tremendous remorse while my brother is experiencing happiness and gratitude. What’s beautiful is that we can both experience our own thoughts and emotions while still supporting each other.

My sisters Nikki and Faleena

To donate to Faleena’s health and education, visit: http://www.gofundme.com/Faleena.


THE PATTERNS YOU INHERIT FROM YOUR PARENTS ARE NOT PERMANENT

Each of us has the power to end, or begin, new cycles and patterns for the following generations. I’m very clear that the cult of secrecy I inherited from my mother stops with me. I’m no longer sugar coating the truth or pretending that traumatic things didn’t happen. And it’s really a simple choice. Each and every radically honest conversation I have with myself, a friend, or a family member is one step closer to the life I want to lead; one step closer to my vision for the world.

I spent 6 years not speaking to my mom. One of the reasons I told myself was that I wasn’t willing to ignore the things my mom didn’t want to talk about or pretend they didn’t exist. After a lot of personal development work, though, I realized that forgiving someone is a gift to myself. I choose to believe that my mom was doing the best she could with what she knew. Was it “good enough?” No, not really. But holding onto resentment was only sabotaging my relationships, and keeping me from a relationship with Faleena.

I’m truly grateful that, two years ago, I reached out to my mother and broke the cycle of silence. This is not to say that this is the answer for everyone, particularly in an abusive situation. You’ll get to decide that for yourself. But my invitation is to ask what’s underneath the choice you’re making. Is it perhaps that you’ve become trapped in a commitment to being right about something, when letting go would ultimately free you?

Beyond that, choose from vision. Three years ago it seemed impossible that my siblings and I would be united, each profoundly happy and healthy, choosing every day to be our best. To this day I’m still not quite sure how we got to the amazing places we are, but I do know that I was crystal clear on my vision for our family. Whenever I had doubts, I returned to that vision.

It’s up to me to choose what patterns, beliefs, and cycles my family carries forward.

YOU HAVE THE CHOICE, RIGHT NOW, TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER

The past informs, but does not dictate, the future. You can radically change everything in your life right now. All of the circumstances, the stories, the beliefs about how that’s not possible are just made up. It doesn’t mean there may not be difficulty or friction, but you can absolutely choose to change it all. There’s nothing immovable keeping you from pursuing your passion, going after that person you’re in love with, or moving across the world.

Everything is a choice. What are you choosing?

FOLLOW YOUR BLISS

I like to think that life is long, if you know how to live it. I’m also of the belief that the meaning of life is to be happy. To “come alive,” as Howard Thurman says:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Putting off your best for never serves no one, and there is always a way to create the life of your dreams. If I died tomorrow I’d be relatively annoyed—I still have a lot of difference to make on this planet—but I wouldn’t have any regrets. I have lived, loved, and pursued my dreams every day. I know that it’s possible, and my vision for the world is one in which everyone gets to experience their deepest desires.

Take even the smallest step today in the direction of your dreams. You’ll be amazed at how this adds up over time.

THERE’S NO EXTRA CREDIT FOR THE STRUGGLE

I’ve come to the belief that “easy” and “hard” are choices. Moreover, that effort is very distinct from struggle. The greatest things in life often require effort, but this does not mean they need to be a struggle. It’s the difference between living your life as if you “have to” do things, or you “get to” do things. I have eliminated “have to” from my vocabulary and that alone has transformed my life.

I watched my mom struggle for most the last two decades, and I used to think that I got bonus points (not sure where exactly I turn those in…) for having a hard life. For the difficulty I experienced. But ultimately that’s on me. I can choose to struggle, or I can choose to glide through life. Again, this is not about being lazy or sitting on your laurels, but rather the choice to experience life from a different paradigm.

There’s no asterisk on your grave with a footnote that says “struggled a lot to achieve.” There’s no gold star that comes with your first million dollars if you hated the experience of getting there. What if you’ve struggled enough already, and your entire future were struggle-free…if you chose it to be?

IF YOUR GOAT DIES, AND YOU LEAVE IT IN THE FREEZER, SOMEONE WILL EVENTUALLY NEED TO DEAL WITH IT (HANDLE YO $HIT)

Yeah. So it turns out my mom left not one, not two, but six dead goats in various freezers around her ranch. In fairness, she had an active goat farm going and goats do sometimes pass away. However, these goats had been in freezers for a long time. And more than anything, they represent all of the things my mom didn’t want to handle. All of the things that perpetually got pushed to a back burner.

The tragedy, though, is that not dealing with something doesn’t make it go away. Ultimately, all of the mess my mom left now gets to be dealt with by her children. Not exactly the legacy most people want to leave.

I’m confident that my mom felt like she was drowning; in debt, in things, in problems. From the outside, though, all of these things were manageable. In less than 30 days, my sister Nikki cleaned up or handled probably 85% of the issues my mom had created over the past decades. She did this by breaking up every problem into the next action step needed, and addressing one issue at a time. By breaking things down and taking committed action every day, you can handle any issue.

Having the courage to face the truth and put your affairs in order—especially when you have kids or are dealing with serious illness—is a true gift to those you love.

GET HEALTH INSURANCE

Insurance can be a strange thing. It’s easy to say it isn’t needed because normally times are good and there isn’t an emergency situation. But things don’t always go according to plan. Life throws curve balls, and sometimes the consequences can be catastrophic. It’s easy to think: well, I’m fine now, I’m generally pretty healthy, I’ll be fine. But tragedies do happen. People get in car accidents every day. And the #1 reason people declare bankruptcy in America is due to health care costs.

The first bill we got from the hospital was over $100,000. Even though she had breast cancer years before, my mom could have been on her husband’s health insurance or received Obamacare. Just typing that word I can already sense some people jumping to conclusions or to rail against Obamacare. Here’s the deal: had my mom put herself on Obamacare, that $100K bill would have been only a few thousand.

And here’s the real kicker. My mom’s denial around her health, and all she made up about the government and health care, ultimately just hurts Faleena. Because my mom chose “not to believe in insurance,” her six-figure debt means that instead of having money leftover in her estate to pay for my little sister’s college, that money goes to pay a hospital bill.

Especially if you’re a parent, one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids and family members is to have a backstop against tragedy. The real sufferers of the decision not to are typically those you love.

YOU CAN’T TAKE YOUR STUFF WITH YOU

Turns out my mom was a bit of a hoarder. #UnderstatementOfTheCentury. I can only imagine that my mom clung to physical possessions as a way to feel control. As a search for some way to ground herself in reality. Unfortunately, no amount of physical possessions will heal an emotional wound.

This experience has me looking at all of my physical things and asking myself, what value is this adding to my life? Am I really using it? Are the memories I have associated with this thing perhaps greater than the thing itself?

I think that the actual weight of all the things one owns creates a sort of footprint. The heavier that footprint, the more weighted down one gets. I’m not advocating for throwing every thing away and living out of a knapsack, but oftentimes we hold onto things in a way that keeps us tied to the past, rather than allowing space for the new. For the future.

Taking a regular inventory of the things in your life and purging anything you haven’t used in a year will open up space for all the things and experiences you’ve yet to acquire.

LIFE IS A GIFT

I don’t know what happens after I’m complete with this body, but I do know that I have it now. I know that heaven on earth is possible, and that each of us creates our own reality. I know that love is possible, and that anyone absolutely has the power within themselves to live the life of their dreams. I also know that this life can be taken from us in an instant.

I invite you to let the people you love know how much you care. Don’t wait until tomorrow.


Again, my little sister Faleena is now orphaned at 15 and left without financial resources to take care of her health, education, and reaching adulthood. Any and all financial support you can provide would mean the world to my family—especially Faleena. All the details to donate are here: http://www.gofundme.com/Faleena

Faleena with her horse Lani

Ben Whitehair is an LA-based actor. He grew up in Colorado and spent many years as a homeschooled cowboy. #TrueStory When not in front of the camera, Ben acts as a Broadway investor (Romeo + Juliet w/ Orlando Bloom) and film producer, entrepreneur, chair of the SAG-AFTRA NextGen Performers Committee, career coach, facilitator of the LA Actors Tweetup, blogger, and social media philosopher. For more (including embarrassing baby pictures) visit BenWhitehair.com. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

    Ben Whitehair

    Written by

    Actor. Entrepreneur. Politico. Hooligan. I was Time Magazine's 2006 Person of the Year (seriously, look it up). I have embarrassing baby pictures on my website.

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