I recently saw a documentary called Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (Flooks, Lichtenstein & Tempest, 2018), about the life and death of Teddy Pendergrass. For those of you who don’t know, Teddy Pendergrass was a soul singer who became popular in the ‘70s. But at 31, at the height of his fame, he had a bad car accident that made him a quadriplegic. Fortunately, he was able to breathe on his own, talk, and raise his arms half-way.
Understandably, he fell into a deep depression. Can you imagine? He went from being a famous, successful star to suddenly becoming some guy in a wheelchair; hardly able to move. He hadn’t invested his money well and didn’t have much to support himself and his family. Talk about changes in identity!
He ended up going to a therapist who was also in a wheelchair. Session after session, Teddy showed up, but finally came to the conclusion to end his life. His therapist told him that he had a moral obligation to tell his family his decision, and Teddy agreed to have one last session with all of them there.
When the time came, his family begged him not to take his life, but Teddy was adamant he was not going to change his mind. On the way out the door, he said to his therapist, “Well, I probably won’t see you again, so good-bye”.
His therapist hung on to the word “probably” and then suggested the most surprising thing: that he set up a time for his family and close friends to get together and stage a funeral for him, during which time Teddy would be covered with a sheet. He was not to say a word while everyone spoke about him as if he were dead.
After everyone finished, the sheet was lifted and he said, “I want to live”.
He then concentrated on building up his strength and because he was able to lift his arms, he could exercise his lungs and was eventually able to sing.
His therapist, who hadn’t been in a wheelchair that long himself, said, “saving his life was like saving my own”.
I love this story. Not so much because he went on to find fame and fortune again, but because he took his suicidal thoughts as far as he could without actually playing it out. This unorthodox ritual is finally what it took to turn him around and give him the inspiration he needed to find purpose in his life again.
I wonder what his friends and family told him that changed his mind? What would I say to a loved one in a similar situation? Why hadn’t their desperate pleadings in the therapy session make a difference, but what was said in the funeral did. What would I want to hear if I were playing dead?
What would you need to hear to help keep you going in the worst of times? Can you tell yourself these things now? How do we accept the unacceptable in our lives? What abilities do you still have, and what can you do to continue to develop them? Can you find purpose and meaning in your life just the way you are? What do you value about yourself? Can you ask your loved ones now what they value about you, what it is they would miss if you were dead?
This movie, too, reminded me of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, a true account by Mitch Albom (1997). Morrie was Mitch’s mentor who ended up having a terminal illness. Morrie decided that he wanted a memorial service while he was alive, so that he could hear what it was that people loved about him. His thought was: why wait until I am dead when I can’t hear what they say?
Would you want to do the same thing?