Dr. Ken Druck’s work in personal transformation, male psychology, parenting, and grief literacy has awakened readers to their absolute best selves for almost four decades. In this episode, Dr. Druck and Dr. Bob talk about healing after a loss.
Dr. Bob: I’m here with a good friend of mine who I’m excited to have this conversation with. Ken Druck and I have had many conversations over the years, most of which end up being fairly deep and a lot of insights come out of them. I think we’re just both in this space of really contemplating life as well as death just because of who we are and our experiences. I’m excited to have Ken share some of his insights. He’ll do that in just a moment, but I’d like to introduce him to you. Ken’s work in personal transformation, parenting, psychology, and the literacy of grief has really helped people become, I think, their best selves for almost 40 years now. When you look at Ken, you can’t believe he’s been doing this work for that long. He’s the recipient of numerous awards including a Distinguished Contribution to Psychology, Visionary Leadership Award.
He has really a lifetime of service to the community. He’s recognized really as a lifeline to people all over the world, to individuals, families, and communities through his work, which includes the founding of the Jenna Druck Center to honor the life and spirit of his daughter, Jenna; and we’ll talk a bit about Jenna and the foundation that he created. Ken really has kind of set a new standard of care and healing out of tragedies like 9/11, Columbine, Katrina, and Sandy Hook, and I look forward to having him talk a little bit about how those experiences have shaped his life and his perspective. Ken has recently come out with a new book called Courageous Aging: Your Best Years Ever Reimagined. In this book, Dr. Ken explores the fears, some of the myths and biases in our culture about aging, so it’s a perfect setup here for this conversation. In the book, he also kind of debunks a lot of the myths and offers a path to help people immerse themselves in the wisdom that we’ve cultivated over the course of our lives. With that introduction, I would like to introduce and ask Ken to say hello.
Dr. Ken Druck: Greetings, Bob. So good to be with you and in a conversation, in a life and death conversation. My goodness. What a wonderful forum you’ve created to be able to talk openly and safely about all these important issues that so directly improve the quality of our lives and the quality of our deaths.
Dr. Bob: Yeah. Well, I appreciate that. The inspiration for this really comes from life, from just being in this space. You’re the same way. You’re having conversations with people, both personal and in your professional life. I think, like me, there are many times when you think, wow, if somebody else had been able to listen in on this conversation, how much value would they have received, how much insight into their own issues and their own struggles and their own sort of triumphs. The conversations I have with my patients, with their families, with people like you, I think are so valuable, and I don’t want to keep it to ourselves, right? I feel compelled and pulled to really allow people in on these conversations, so thank you for being willing to join in.
Dr. Ken Druck: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Bob: Yeah, absolutely. In your introduction, I abbreviated it. There’s so much more, and I think we’re going to have a conversation that will last about 30 minutes. I know that the wealth of information that you have and the experiences and insights could go on for 30 hours or potentially 30 days. It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re going to try to keep this concise enough, and then probably have follow- up conversations as time goes on. I posed some questions to you in advance of our conversation, and I want to jump right in. I don’t mince words, and I don’t pull back. I just want to get this out there because I want this to be part of our conversation, and I want it to inform and infuse our conversation. What are your thoughts about death? Are you afraid of dying? Do you have fear about dying? When you think about death, what comes up for you?
Dr. Ken Druck: Well, it’s a great question that does go right to the core. For me, the fear or the feelings about death are a moving target. It’s not as though you run a marathon and you cross the 26-mile line and it’s done. I think things that happen over the seasons and the course of our lives ask us or challenge us or force us to confront how we feel about death, and I’m no different. The death of my daughter 21 years ago was an opportunity as well as a tragedy— the opportunity to face down my biggest fears of death. My daughter had died. I had to come face-to-face with that reality, starting with holding her body in my hands, in my arms, facing the idea that her life as we knew it had ended. I thought going all the way back to last year where my 92-year-old mother passed, and I had a chance to help her die.
I think the things that happen that we react to or the losses we suffer effect and change and create opportunities for us to face down our biggest fears of death, to comes to terms with our life as it really is, life on its terms as it is, and to settle some of those fears. Now, are they going to be settled forever? Are we going to find peace or make peace and have peace forever and it’s a done deal? No. Those concerns, those feelings, the sorrow, the love, the complex of emotions that come with dealing with death are going to bubble up and resurface. We want to make sure not just to wait for death to arrive or somebody we love to pass. We want to be proactive and take steps to get ahead of the pain curve, to get ahead of the fear curve.
Dr. Bob: That’s awesome. How do you do that? I know it might be hard just to distill it down into a sentence or two, but how do you get ahead of that? If there’s somebody who maybe has fear because of an experience because maybe somebody in your family had a tragic death or a difficult death and, like many people, you live with this underlying anxiety or fear about this mystery and when is it going to happen and how painful is it going to be. How do you think people can get ahead of that?
Dr. Ken Druck: Well, I boiled it down to what I call the five ideals of courageous living and how we face down the fear of death. I’ve got basically five things that I recommend. Number one, stay humble, find peace in your unknowingness because there’re sometimes in life where we just don’t know, and we have to hold that unknowingness in gentle hands rather than trying to force and will it into knowingness. We’re basically part of something so big that at times it’s unfathomable. The true nature of the universe—where life comes from, where it goes when we die—is an unfolding mystery. All we have to do is look up at the stars to understand that. The second thing is to cultivate a calm mind that allows naturally arising fears and doubts to come and go and learn to breathe and release even those primordial fears. It’s kind of a form of surrender, and we can learn how to make peace with life as it really is by summoning courage, by facing in.
Third is to take the elephant out of the room by opening the lines of conversation, just as you and I are doing today by talking about death and discussing our thoughts and feelings with people we trust. Fourth, keeping the faith of whatever we believe in our heart to be true or what we wish to be true. It’s okay to abide by a hoped-for narrative without knowing that it’s 100% accurate or not. We don’t have to know with complete certainty that oh, here’s what it is, here’s the program for death, I read it somewhere or somebody told me this is what it is, or this is my sense of it. It’s okay to keep the faith, to have it be a gesture of faith, to believe whatever we believe in our heart is true.
Lastly, it’s also just fine to have faith in a divine truth without apology or justification. We can do that while respecting and honoring the rights of other people who have different views or different religion or different spiritual path that they’re on and a different view of things. Those are the things that I believe we can do to cultivate a courageous attitude towards living and to face down the fear of death.
Dr. Bob: That’s beautiful, so really this is universal. I mean, it’s regarding any fear or anything that might be challenging us or limiting us in our life, not specifically around a fear of death, but that seems to be a big one for a lot of people, right?
Dr. Ken Druck: Yeah. You know, Bob. We’ve got these brilliant emotional systems. They’re as sophisticated if not more so in some ways than all the other systems that sustain life. We have this emotional system, which gives us internal signals, radar signals, from inside of ourselves, right inside of our hearts, showing up as our emotions. When these feelings turn up, it’s our job to learn how to manage them, to decipher them, to decode them, to understand them, and to utilize them as part of our radar, as part of our self management, and to use them to our advantage rather than oh, that’s a negative feeling, I better shoot it. That’s negative.
We’ve been brainwashed into believing that there are negative feelings rather than understanding that some feelings that bubble up and surface are going to be sorrow, fear, anxiety, worry, frustration, that we need to read these feelings, not become prisoners to them, but to read them and to have them inform us about what action to take, to inform us that it’s time to vent those feelings. We’re not built to hold them in steel compartments inside of our bodies, but to vent them in a healthy and constructive way and to turn those feelings into something good.
Dr. Bob: Yeah. I think that’s powerful. I think people need to be given permission to feel, right? My sense is that so many people when they start to feel something that might be uncomfortable for them, and this is a pattern that develops over time, they feel something, they don’t how to navigate that, they don’t know how to manage it, and so they just choose not to feel it. They turn away from it.
Dr. Ken Druck: They become flooded. Exactly. They become emotionally flooded. This is particularly true of us as guys. We learned at a very early age basic training as a male shows us that to feel is to fail. If you’re feeling something unless it’s anger because anger is a good.
Dr. Bob: Yeah, that’s acceptable.
Dr. Ken Druck: If you’re feeling something, it means you’re not handling it, you’re weak, you’re dependent, you’re less of a man. You’re less of a guy if you’re feeling something because sensitivity and emotionality are perceived as signs of weakness. We got to fess up. We got to suck it up and deal with those feelings. We shouldn’t be feeling those things. We become self-denying, self-rejecting creatures. We push our feelings away to the point that we lose our radar. We lose contact with our own radar. When somebody says, “Hey, what are you feeling?” We don’t know what they’re talking about. What are you feeling? You mean, what am I thinking? No, what are you feeling? How is this working for you? You just got a diagnosis, a bad diagnosis. How are you doing with that?
When it comes to some of the most challenging moments, the moments of truth in life, relationships and our health and how long we’re going to be here in our living and dying process, those emotions are what gets us through. Those emotions are the very tools and knowing them, reading them, and processing those emotions keeps us alive every moment of whatever time we have rather than us beginning to die emotionally long before our time and disconnect from those people we love.
Dr. Bob: Yes. I get it. I think most people who hear this will resonate to some degree with that but obviously, it’s not easy, right?
Dr. Ken Druck: No, not to summon courage. Just like every other work ethic, everything else, there are times that all of us can look back and count that we summoned more courage, newfound courage to face into becoming a mom or dad, face into taking a job or starting a career or going to college or, even as parents, letting our kids go to kindergarten or sending them off to college. We had to summon courage. We have to summon even greater courage to face into some of the fears and some of the issues that arise naturally in the second half of life, including facing into our own impermanence, the fact that life is a package deal, we don’t get to live forever, at least not in this form, and we have to deal with that.
How we summon that courage is clear. We do it the same way we’ve done it before. We face something. We talk openly about it. We air out. We don’t try to do it all at once. We strengthen ourselves. We get ourselves into game shape and improve the condition we’re in, our mental toughness by doing this, by talking about it, by taking moments of reflection, by summoning all of our abilities to comprehend, to surrender, to let go, and to arrive in the season of life that we’re presently living rather than dragging the past around and regrets, remorse, unforgiveness, harsh criticism. Rather than dragging, we have to learn how to let that go. There’s a whole university and school of thought about how to summon greater courage because it is a process that occurs over time that we can all plug into, and it’s going to be different for every one of us.
Dr. Bob: I feel like there’s so much incredible value in what you’ve shared so far. I want to encourage people, the listeners, to go back and listen again. There’s no way that anybody will be able to take in what’s been shared here in one listen. I really especially, well, the whole thing—but I’d also like to kind of summarize because I think it’s so critical. There are so many people who find themselves in this space of despair, of feeling like they can’t climb out of that place, it’s dark, it’s pulling them in, and they don’t know how they’re going to do that, and to give them those tools to help people understand that even if they can’t look at their own experience in the times when they’ve found the courage to look at others around them, to see that yes, people have been in this space before, and they have found a way out.
I think that looking at the whole of human experience and finding examples of people in your own community or that can inspire you. Obviously, if you can find your own inner kind of compass and go back and identify those times of your own life, you’ll hopefully connect with that. I see people who have just lost somebody or they’re dealing with these terrible challenges from an illness or an injury, and they say, “I can’t do this. I don’t have the strength. I’m not going to make it. I can’t get through this.” I help them see, if possible, other people have done this. This experience is an experience that people have had for thousands or tens of thousands of years, and people get through it. It’s not easy, it doesn’t happen immediately, but you are part of this human race. You have the same inner strength and capacity as anybody else, but I want-
Dr. Ken Druck: I like what you’re saying. I want to add to that.
Dr. Bob: Yeah, please.
Dr. Ken Druck: Asking for help. Help is the least utilized four-letter word in the English language. Asking for help. When I think about all the people that I know that I’ve sent to you for help, you have been an inspiration. Sometimes we can’t do this alone. It’s okay to ask for help, to call in support, asking others how they did it, whether that’s reading… I mean, I wrote the Courageous Aging book so that people would have something to refer to be able to see how others have done it, how other people have tried to run from some of these things and fail, and how other people have courageously learned to face into whatever they were dealing with. So reading a book, reading articles.
I think also seeking inspiration. There’s music that I play every day because without words it inspires me. It’s music that comes from a source of inspiration that’s coming through a great composer, so I listen to music. There are all kinds of ways of nourishing ourselves, whether it’s music or great food or walking in nature. I think what you said before about remembering the past seasons of our lives where we had great courage and remembering I can do this, look what I did. I can do this. Lastly, it’s surrendering at times. There are times where we’re standing in a moment of inescapable sorrow or facing into unknowingness or feeling emptiness. Those are moments where it’s okay to surrender into tears. It’s okay to surrender to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.
Also, that surrender sometimes takes us into a sense of what’s beyond this life— of what I call the great beyond, the enormity, to have a sense that we are joining. Wherever my daughter is, I’m going to be with her. Wherever she is or isn’t, I’m going to be there. Wherever my ancestors, those who have gone before me are. And with those feelings, it’s not only to make peace with ourselves, but it’s to free up the next and final phase of our lives, which is paying it forward, paying the gratitude for the blessing that we’ve had, being given this life, being able to experience all the things that we sometimes take for granted.
Being able to give our gratitude by paying it forward, planting a tree that we won’t necessarily ever get to sit in the shade of, but that our children, our grandchildren, and future generations will be able to sit in the shade of that giving tree. That is one of the most important aspects of making peace and understanding that it’s okay. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s terrifying at times. Yes, it requires courage that I haven’t had to summon before, but that I can do this, and I will go forward. This is the nature and the way of life. I don’t get to play God, I don’t get to live forever in the way that I know, and I surrender to it.
Dr. Bob: It’s no wonder why you are being asked to come and be with people who are experiencing tragic loss. You have such a gift of sharing that perspective, sharing the understanding of one who’s been there and who has learned how to navigate it. I know that you would be the first person to admit that you’re not finished with your growth and working through your sorrow that will never end, right?
Dr. Ken Druck: It’s okay. You know what, Bob, a mom once said it to me—she had lost her only son— and she told me after a couple of years I hadn’t seen her. She said, “Ken, the most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s okay that it’s not okay.” She said, “It’s not okay. I reject the idea that my son had to die so young, that he didn’t get to live out his life the way we had all planned. That was my dream, that was what I had put my heart and soul into. That was my future as well, and it’s been lost to him. His life has been lost to him and to me and his father.” She said, “But I’ve learned over time that it’s okay that it’s not okay. Some things in life aren’t okay. I’m never going to accept that history as good.”
It sucked is what she said. “It just sucks that this is the way it is. This is the way it turned out. This is the way history will write it.” She said, “But I also have found peace that this is the way of life. I’m not the only one who’s suffered a loss of a child way before their time and had to face into the challenge of living out the rest of my life as an expression of love rather than despair. I accept that challenge and I’ve faced into it, and I’m learning how to live forward in my life and to make my life an expression of the love that never dies rather than to despair over the fact that my son died young.”
Dr. Bob: Conceptually it’s powerful, but really in practicality, it is as well. I’m around, as you are as well, a lot of people who are anticipating an upcoming loss of a loved one or who have experienced the loss of a loved one. I think one of the most powerful and valuable ways for them to go forward is with the understanding that their loved one, their son, their daughter, their brother, sister, wife, husband, father, that they would never want that person, those loved ones who are left behind, to hold back, to be held back because of that loss. It’s honoring those who have gone by living your life as completely, fully, forcefully, intentionally as possible.
Dr. Ken Druck: Exactly. You and I talked about it, and I have my code of honor, my five honorings, and that is the core of those five honorings—that we somehow summon the courage to go on with our lives, to write new chapters of life even though they will not be here to write those chapters with us, that we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to live forward. We’re going to go on, and we’re going to make the rest of our days meaningful and purposeful, and we’re going to keep our love alive by doing one of the other honorings, which is to create a spiritual relationship with them. What I mean by spiritual is that it’s the unseen, unknown conversation we have purely out of faith. When I tell my daughter, Jenna, I love her every day, do I know that I’m connecting with her? No, but it’s an act of faith. I’m not going to let that love go unexpressed. When I feel she is close and she’s loving me and something wonderful has happened and she’s celebrating with me, am I going to deny that arrogantly? You know, I know what life is, I know what death is. She’s gone. That’s not really her. I’m a delusional father. No. I’m going to allow that love to flow to me.
The five honorings are writing new chapters of life; creating a spiritual relationship with them even though it’s not what we signed up for. Survival, our own survival, is an honoring, finding a way to get to the next breath even though at times we are so lost and feel so empty and so sad; then embodying some element of their spirit that will live on with us. It could be their kindness, their sense of humor, something they loved. Whatever it is, embodying that and becoming more of that as we grow up and as we grow older. Lastly, it really has to do with how we treat other people, that we treat those people in our lives as an expression of our love because many families unravel at the time of loss. We’re so raw, the emotions are so raw.
After 9/11 we instituted a program that had to do with the way we treated one another and was an expression of our love for the person we lost, and it was called Take the High Road. Taking the high road, even though there’s that rawness of emotion in our families and people want to resort to blame or who loved who or who did what. To step outside of that. Let it go, be forgiving, be patient, be kind to one another in that moment of rawness, and treat our families as an expression of love to the person we’re either losing or have lost.
Dr. Bob: I love it. Those are awesome, the honorings. For somebody who wants to read more about those five honorings, where would they find that?
Dr. Ken Druck: They’d go right to my website. It’s www.kendruck.com. They can go onto my Dr. Ken Druck Facebook page. That’s facebook.com/kendruck. I welcome a phone call in our offices in Del Mar and San Diego. Any way I can be of help, I’m honored and privileged to be able to continue working with you on teams. You and I find our way to helping families together, and I’m always honored to be of assistance to families that you’re working with that, frankly, would be lost without you as a lifeline. I’m so glad that we’ve had a chance to have this conversation to be able to share it.
Dr. Bob: Yeah. I am too as well. Again, we touched on some really poignant and important topics and kind of scratched the surface a little bit. I think there were some really great highlights. Again, I think people will benefit from re-listening to this and having it be available. Your website has a wealth of information and support. Before we get off, I want to ask just briefly about your new book because I know that it’s been taking up an enormous amount of your time, getting the book out, getting the book promoted, getting it into people’s hands, letting people know about it. It’s phenomenal. It’s called Courageous Aging. I just want you to share a bit about the inspiration for putting this book together and just give a few of the highlights if you could.
Dr. Ken Druck: Yeah, Bob. The Courageous Aging book wrote me. This season in my life, all the issues, all the challenges that come up as we get older, especially when we wake up and we realize that we’ve been sold a bill of goods, myths, and misconceptions about getting older and that many of our imaginings of our future are really saturated with dread and fear and cultural biases. We look at other cultures around the world. In India, when you turn 60, you’re just waking up. Life is just beginning. For us, you turn 60 and you’re on the back nine of life. Your life is over. You’re supposed to retire and become irrelevant.
Yet I’m at age 68. I’ve entered the most creative phase of my life. I’ve never been more creative. I’m writing books, I’m writing articles, I’m speaking. My work with people has never been better, more focused, more loving, more caring and compassionate. I decided that, as I have in other seasons of life, that the best way for me to learn was to ride the horse in the direction it was going and to write. My meditation is writing, and I write myself into greater awareness. I also share the awarenesses that I’m coming across, and then I’m learning from other people.
Courageous Aging is really a formula for aging positively, successfully, in a robust way and reimagining our best possible future and creating a critical path so that we can realize that future. Every chapter deals with a different element and challenge of aging. The first chapters are a self-audit where you could actually test yourself. How am I doing on getting older? Where are my hot spots? Where am I struggling? Where am I doing great and soaring? We can take inventory because everything good starts with a little self-reflection. I think once we’ve taken inventory we can begin to focus and fashion our course to have our best possible future, and every chapter deals with a different element of what it takes to create that best possible future.
Dr. Bob: Timing is amazing, right? I mean, there’s so many of us who are moving into this space, this space of, I guess, aging and trying to figure out what does the future hold. How do I continue to find value, having meaning? Like you said, I’m not ready to hang it up and just start golfing and rocking on my rocking chair. I think that
Dr. Ken Druck: By the way, you know who I’m getting feedback from? I’m getting feedback from 40-year-olds who read the book, 50-year-olds. We think of aging as an issue for people past 60, 65. The aging angst and biases infect people who are turning 30. They’re dreading, “Oh my god! I’m turning 30.” The dread of getting older and the invitation to lose our vitality, our passion, our energy, and to kind of shut it down is there at every turn, at every turn of life and every changing season. It’s no different for those of us turning 70 in some ways than it is for those of us turning 50. We all have to face it and really take charge of creating the future that we want rather than buying into the cultural norm, which is being sent out to pasture or having to give up things we love.
Dr. Bob: I love it, and I would imagine that it wouldn’t need a whole lot of modification to be really appropriate for and valuable for people who are 20, right?
Dr. Ken Druck: It really isn’t because you’re going to be changing seasons.
Dr. Bob: All the time.
Dr. Ken Druck: …and how you do that and how you go about that should be dictated on the basis of how you feel, not what somebody else tells you that you should feel or do. We all need to set our own course, and we change. That’s okay. It’s okay to grieve the younger version of yourself. That’s all right. It’s okay. Grieve it and then move forward because this new season, you’re going to miss it if you’re so obsessed with what you lost and what’s past. You’re going to miss the opportunity of this new season of life. Even if it’s towards the end of your life, don’t miss out on the best part of your life. It may be that the coming weeks, months, and years of your life, if you’re given that, are going to be the best ones ever, so show up for it, be there, let go of the past, grieve the past self, and embrace what’s right under your nose, what’s right here now.
Dr. Bob: How do people get a copy of the book?
Dr. Ken Druck: They can go on amazon.com, they can go to their favorite bookstore and order it, amazon.com. If you have a Kindle or something, you can download it for, I think, 7 or 8 dollars right away, or they’ll get it to your house in a day or two on amazon.com and, of course, it’s available in the bookstores. If you have any trouble getting a hold of the book, just contact our offices or go to our website. You can order it directly from our website too at kendruck.com.
Dr. Bob: All right, my friend. Well, I think for this podcast, we have moved past the time that I was anticipating, not surprisingly. We will
Dr. Bob: Yeah. If you’re open to it, Ken, I’d love to have you back another time to
Dr. Ken Druck: Always an honor, Bob. Always an honor to talk with you and work with you.
Dr. Bob: And you as well, my friend. I just want to share that I find you so refreshing. You are a brilliant, loving, compassionate servant of mankind. I’m inspired and humbled by the work that you’re doing and by having you in my life. I want you to know that.
Dr. Ken Druck: Bless you. The feeling is completely mutual. I thank you so much. I’m learning how to receive. That’s one of my goals in this point of life is to open my heart, touch my heart, and learn how to receive. What’s you’ve just given me is beautiful. I’m going to take that in and savor it today.
Dr. Bob: All right. Beautiful, my friend. Love you. Thank you for being part of my life and thank you for sharing all this beautiful insight for our listeners.
Dr. Ken Druck: Thank you. Love you too, my brother.