Keynote Speaker “Tips from the Tombstone”
“Someone once said to me that if I was a stick of rock, and you snapped me in half, you’d see the word death running through me!”
What Lis Allen means by that, is that death has played a significant role in her entire life. Her childhood was heavily impacted by the death of her brother, the murder of her aunt and in adult life, the suicide of her niece. In addition, her work as a palliative care nurse and manager of a cancer charity, she has helped literally hundreds of families face death.
She explained that, since she can remember, she’s been driven by a clear purpose: “I have always wanted to help people enjoy life to the full, live everyday as if it was their last. None of us know when our last day will be and we’re a long time dead! We should all look for joy in every day. We simply mustn’t sweat the small stuff.”
For Lis, her view of mental toughness is that it’s about being open minded enough to listen, being respectful of other viewpoints, and being willing and open to embrace their ideas. She believes that being constantly challenged to consider our own views of the world, avoiding rigidity in our thinking and learning from other people requires a lot of mental strength.
Lis burst into a cheesy grin when I asked if she thought she was mentally tough, “I absolutely think I am mentally tough, but it’s taken me 6 decades to get there! It’s something we constant develop throughout our lives – there are always challenging situations that arise to test us!”
“My parents were medics and they met during the Second World War on the front line. They were dealing with life and death situations the whole time, and that gave them a fantastic perspective on how to live a great life. When you’re facing death daily, you don’t take time or people for granted, you are very in the moment, you’re very present. I believe that human behaviour is learned, that we are constantly learning from the people around us. I leant from my parents to have a very positive attitude, and that was a fantastic place to start.”
Lis was 10 years old when her brother died, and immediately she started to question her own mortality. Her parents dealt with his death very pragmatically, “I can remember life carrying on as normal, to all intents and purposes. And I can remember sitting at the top of the stairs, just after he died, thinking what would happen if I died? Would anybody notice? For me it was quite a traumatic experience, but at the same time, the people around me were apparently being very calm, sanguine and stoic about it.
“Then when I was 18, my aunt, who I was very close to, was murdered. Again, my family took it in their stride, and so I thought, oh, people get murdered, and nobody seems to bat an eyelid.
“My brother had died, my aunt had been murdered, and I realised I might not be here next week. Those two very personal experiences were a catalyst very early on in my life. It took me 37 years before something happened which gave me the opportunity to address the grief, sadness, fear and the trauma of my aunt’s murder.”
At University Lis chose to study social anthropology, psychology and English. They were her passions and in fact, they ended up being a lifelong study for her, both academically and experientially. Driven by a passion to make a difference to the world, she left University to study nursing at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, aged 21. In addition to dealing with deaths whilst working on the wards, she experienced traumatic deaths such as deaths from overdoses and stabbings whilst working in A and E. “The other nurses and I would have conversations all the time around ethics, morals, life and death, .
After several career changes and raising a family of four, Lis went back to nursing and into palliative care.
“It’s very demanding work for what I think are obvious reasons. You’re dealing with people’s emotions, very powerful emotions of the person who’s dying, and their relatives. It was a constant challenge to balance my professional status and caring, personal status.
“You need to be hypersensitive to somebody else’s needs, whilst being also being hypersensitive about how you share your knowledge and expertise, so you can give them the emotional and physical support that’s personal to them.
“Over the years, I have been privileged to support hundreds of dying patients and their families. Having a ‘compass’ or purpose in life has helped me to see that relationships are the most important thing we can have. Without open, honest relationships, life is diminished.
Having emotional control is a key factor in the mentally tough and Lis agrees that it’s important to be in control of our emotions, acknowledge our true feelings and learn to be present in the moment. She adds, “When you are in control of your emotions, you can think straight and make good decisions”. She is adamant about how leaders should lead by example, and be responsible for introducing some peace and joy into organisations.
“I’ve led a very full life, but I’ve never considered myself as ‘driven’ because I was loving what I was doing. Having such a passion for something makes it easier to be resilient and confident, and develop your mental toughness.”
Dealing with so much death has brought her the answers for living a great life. Lis, I salute you, and your incredible mental toughness.
If you’re interested in developing your Mental Toughness, get in touch with Penny Mallory at [email protected]