When someone we love passes, it leaves a hole in our heart and sometimes a lack of closure. It’s that lack of closure that keeps us in feelings of guilt, regret, and other emotions that we just can’t shake.
If you’d like to heal and move past those feelings and start living life again, this episode may help you achieve that.
(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)
Today I want to address something that is probably very timely. That is the death of people in our lives. When they pass on, how do we deal with it especially when we don’t have closure and haven’t reconciled, and we have feelings about it?
I’ve had people die in my life that I was very fortunate to be able to connect with before they died. My dad for example. I was estranged from my dad for about 10 years. I never spoke to him all that time. I didn’t call him, he didn’t call me. It’s not like we were angry with each other, we just never connected.
There was a reason we never connected of course. There was a time that my dad was pulling some stuff that I didn’t like, and I didn’t want to be associated with him. So I distanced myself. But, after 10 years, I thought I’ve had enough personal growth and development, so maybe I should go out there and handle myself and keep and honor my boundaries with him so that he doesn’t affect me like he used to.
I thought about doing it, and I continued to think about doing it, but I never reached out. Then one day, my brother calls, and he says, “Dad has cancer. I’m thinking, okay, that’s sad. I was affected, but what does that mean? He just got cancer, is he going to die?
And he says, “No, he’s in the hospital and it’s probably not going to be a good result.”
So now, this was it. This was the time I had to take it seriously, I had to decide that I need to reconcile, and at least patch things up. Whatever is going on between us, we have to fix it and at least connect again, and I’ll show up to my dad as my new and improved self that wouldn’t necessarily have the same fears, like a fear of confrontation, the fear of expressing myself. I wouldn’t have the same worries, and I could show up to him and just be honest with him.
Then if he started to get out of line, I could say, “Dad, you need to back off.” Because after you work on yourself, and you work on your personal development, and you work on telling people what your boundaries are, or at least expressing to them what’s acceptable and what’s not, then you should be able to show up in their life and honor yourself in this way so that they don’t break down your new and improved self.
You should be able to. You don’t always succeed, but you should be able to.
I look at family as the final frontier of personal growth and development because they’ve known you longer than almost anyone, pretty much all your life (most of them). They’ve known you since you were born, and that means they know a version of you that they are comfortable knowing, even if they don’t like you, and they don’t want to know a different version of you. And a lot of them will continue to treat you as if you are that same version of you that you were when you were younger.
Because of that, a lot of families might not get along because someone who goes out into the world and tries to improve themselves, tries to heal from old traumas, tries to get rid of their PTSD from either family or just old stuff, they run into family again and now family is, like I said, that final frontier: The biggest challenge for you. Because they’re probably going to show up in the same way they used to. And if you didn’t get along before, it’s going to be harder for you to keep this new and improved self at the forefront and running the show.
What tends to happen in a lot of cases is that the fearful, maybe “inner child” kicks in and says, “Oh, crap, it’s better just to be who I was around them, because at least we didn’t get into an argument, or at least there’s no confrontation, or at least it’s keeping the peace.”
So this inner child stuff comes up, the stuff that we really haven’t let go of yet, and it’s kind of our fallback just in case the toxicity gets too great and we don’t want to deal with it or we’re afraid to deal with it, and then our old behavior kicks in.
I’ve heard this from many people. You’ve probably dealt with this yourself, where you had to face someone, and now your old behavior kicks in instead of the new behavior that you felt good about and you’ve done a lot of work on, yet, where is it now? When we’re in front of someone that we could use this behavior, but where is it? It tends to go away.
Coming back to what I was saying, my dad developed bone cancer many years ago, and my brother called and said, “Dad’s in the hospital, so you might want to come and visit.” I thought this is it. This is the time I need to come and visit and make peace and just get to know my dad from a new “me”, from my new and improved self.
So I did. I bought a plane ticket, went to visit him and yes, he was in the hospital and I got along with my dad better than ever. I used to get along with my dad fine, but like I said he was pulling some shenanigans I didn’t like, but I got along with him better than ever because I felt good about myself and no one was going to take me down a notch.
I felt good in myself. I was proud of myself. I felt good honoring myself. The first time I saw him again I told myself, “If he starts to pull something, I will stand up for myself. I will say, “Dad, you need to back off because that’s inappropriate,” or “that’s disrespectful.”
I was ready to say almost anything to show my self compassion, to show myself respect, to keep my integrity, to keep my dignity, and I was willing to stand up for myself in those moments, so I felt really good going into the conversation, knowing it could go south, but deciding it wasn’t going to. And that’s a big decision! Because when you make it, you honor it.
I mean, there’s no question you just honor it because you are that new person. You aren’t that old person. You don’t let the scared inner child come out and then take over. You just don’t do it because you are that new person. You just have to set that in stone.
That’s what I did. It was still challenging, not saying it was easy, but I did that. I set it in stone and then we met and we talked and we laughed, and we had a great time, and he never crossed the line. He never did his old behaviors and I got to know him again from a new place. And I got to see him differently. I got to see him a lot differently because I was different. So these new eyes were seeing this person and realizing many things. One of them was that I didn’t know he was so grumpy. I’m not trying to put him down but he was just a grumpy guy! He gave the nurses a hard time and I was listening to him thinking “Wow, this is really who he always was.” But I never saw it and I never heard it before, because he’s just been my dad this whole time so I never thought about it.
But there he was just being grumpy with all these people and I thought, I guess this is how he’s always been. Not that he’s only been grumpy, but this is something I remember him doing and being, but I never thought it was a bad thing. I never thought it was a grumpy thing until I saw it with a fresh pair of eyes.
So that was interesting. And at the same time, he was in the hospital, of course people are going to be grumpy, but he was in good spirits, otherwise. So I get to see sides of him that I didn’t necessarily recognize before and that was great. To be able to recognize that, even if I didn’t really like some of the sides I saw of him, it was still neat because I felt good in myself. And I felt more like unconditionally loving toward him. I really felt like I could love him in a way that was more unconditional and not so stuck on old criteria.
I didn’t want to hold him up to standards that I used to have. I wanted to approach him as if he were a new person to me, which he was. When you show up as a new person, and you see someone from this new perspective, they are essentially a new person. It’s helpful to do this because you get to assess how you’re going to show up and how you’re going to respond to their behaviors, and you get to figure out what you need to work on in yourself if you are affected by their behaviors. Or you can figure out what you need to do, and how you need to respond or react to them if they start doing bad behaviors. It can be very helpful to be confident in what you’ve learned and how you have grown, and being willing to go through the final frontier of family as your personal growth challenge, because it can show you a lot
You’ll learn so much. And sometimes you’ll fail. That’s probably a strong way to put it, but sometimes you’ll fail. Sometimes you’ll show up as this new and improved version and then suddenly you’re whittled down to that scared inner child again, and you just want to get through the family gathering, or whatever it is.
Coming back to my story, I saw my dad and I got to spend a few days with him and rekindle the relationship. We really connected and I love the feeling of being able to tell myself, “It’s been 10 years, this is the time to do it. I probably shouldn’t have waited this long.”
Correct. Yes. I did tell myself that because here he is almost on his deathbed. He wasn’t at the time, but it felt like he was. It felt like this is the last I was going to see him. So it was very sad in that way. At the same time, I felt so good being able to rekindle and reconnect with him from this new place, from the new person I became.
And him seeing me, he loved seeing me. He was really happy that I showed up and of course, reconnecting with him was an amazing experience. But after a few days, I left. I didn’t know what else I could do. He was alive. He was kicking, and he was being let out of the hospital very soon.
I went home. And one day, I think I was in a Panera Bread, I got a phone call from him and he sounded better than ever. He sounded so happy. He said, “I feel so good. I think I have beaten this. I think everything is going to be great, and I can’t wait to connect with you again. And I want to show you this car that I’ve been looking at…” He was just sharing all this stuff, and we had the greatest conversation on the phone, a better conversation than I’ve ever had with him on any phone call that I’ve ever had.
Even while we were having this great conversation, for some reason I just knew in the back of my mind this would be the very last conversation with my dad that I’d ever have.
That really hit me but not because it was sad. It was, but it was because I got a chance to talk to him. I had this opportunity to talk to him. So I took advantage of it and I stayed on the phone as long as he wanted to and I just kept talking about the subjects that he brought up, and I was acting as if we were absolutely going to reconnect again. But I just knew inside this was it. Something told me this was the last time. I just decided that I was going to not think about that and talk to him for as long as I could. Then we said goodbye.
That was the last time I talked with him.
A few days later, my brother called and said, “They’re taking into hospice.” At the time I didn’t even know what hospice was, I thought it was another hospital facility. But now I know what Hospice is and if I had known, I think I might have flown back down so there might be some regret there.
If you don’t know, Hospice is a place they take you to take care of you before you die. It is basically the last stop, at least in the US. I don’t know how it is for other places, but it is the last stop before you die. And they’re very kind people that take care of you, and also make your death as painless as possible.
My brother said they took them into hospice, and again, I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I kind of knew that it was not good. Then a few days later I got that phone call that he died. So I got a chance.
I look back at the events that occurred and I’m so grateful I got that chance. Anything could have happened. He could have died before I ever got a chance to talk to him or reconnect. But for some reason, the universe lined this stuff up. My brother called me out of the blue and said what was happening, so I took that as an opportunity to reconnect with my dad. I had the money to fly down there and say my goodbyes. Or at least say, Hello, again. And also say my goodbyes in the sense that I knew that this would probably be the last time we connected.
We spent time together, reconnected, then after I left, I got a chance to talk to him on the phone before he died. I got to experience all of that, then reflect on it a bit so I could process it. What’s interesting about all of this is that I had an opportunity that not many people have. That’s one thing that’s interesting. Another interesting thing is that during those 10 years, I actually decided to accept that he already died.
That doesn’t mean I was eliminating him from my life. That didn’t mean I was going to never try to see him again. I just wanted to try on what it would be like, and what I would feel if he died. I visualized that happening. I visualized myself going to his funeral. And it was painful. It was hard. But I went through that process in my mind as hard as it was, just to feel what it would be like for when he did die.
It’s almost a preparation. I was getting a feel for what it would be like when he did die. I went through that process and after the process, I imagined myself grieving for days or weeks and just missing him. After a few weeks of doing this, just thinking that he was still dead, I came to an acceptance that he passed.
It might be a little morbid, but this is the exercise I did. I went through all of that. And when I did that, something released in me. The attachment to his life released. And I felt okay with it after that. The acceptance of the death, even though it was imagined, helped me release my attachment to his life.
I’m not sure how to explain it any better than that, but I realized what the impact of that visualization had on me only after he really died. Because when I found out the news that he was gone, I wasn’t sad.
It was sad. I did feel things. But I didn’t go into the normal grieving that somebody might do if they found out that someone they love just died. I found it strange. I thought am I a bad son? Did I not love him as much as I thought? Or am I just cold and heartless?
I had to go through that. It was more beating myself up than grieving. I eventually came to peace knowing that I had already grieved. I had already gone through his death. So I didn’t have to do that now. This is actually a good thing. Because of that, I was able to celebrate the love I had for him and his life.
I really feel because I had already gone through that grieving process, many years back, that when he died I was able to handle it well, and celebrate, and be thankful for the time I did have with him, and also be grateful for what he brought into my life and of course, for bringing me into this life.
There’s a lot I was grateful for, and I still am grateful for, with my dad. I had that visualization that brought me into the grieving and the acceptance, and it really felt like it prepared me for when it really happened.
I’m not giving you this advice. I’m not saying that you should do this. It’s a hard process. It’s probably not even recommended that you do this. I don’t know, maybe it is, but I did it and it worked. It’s hard because it’s like going to the hospital and getting an operation with your loved ones, and then signing the paper that says you could die.
That’s a hard paper to sign. The next paper might be “Who’s your next of kin?” And “Do you have a will?” and all of this paperwork that you might have to sign that really outlines what to do in the case of your death. It makes you face reality. It makes you face that death is real. It makes you realize you will have to go through this one day. If not your death, the death of someone else. How we handle it is going to affect our quality of life from that point on.
Again, I’m not saying that you should do what I did. If you want, you can, you can try it out. It helped me. It probably changed my life altogether. Because I was able to grieve beforehand, and then handle it well when it happened. Some people might not like this idea. I’m not saying it’s a good idea, but it helped me. One of the things it helped me with, and this was probably one of the bigger benefits of doing this exercise, is that my mom who was married to him for a number of years and has been divorced from him for a lot more years than she was married to him, and hadn’t seen him for a long time, when I told her my dad died. She said, “What? He died?” And I said, “Yeah.”
When I told her that, I felt Okay. I didn’t think she was going to be that effected because they had they’d been divorced for so long. And she’d been married to somebody else that she didn’t like, my stepfather, but she never talked to my dad. She never talked about my dad. She never thought about him at all.
So I told her, my dad, her ex-husband died. She was silent for a moment. Then when she could talk, she couldn’t get her words out through her tears. She was really affected and I did not expect that. And maybe it was dumb with me for not expecting that because they were married, they had a connection and I just didn’t think about it. I just didn’t think she thought about him that way or that she had any affinity for him at all
But apparently she did. She held on to it. They had a connection for a number of years. They created three kids, I’m one of them, and to have this person leave her life, it must have been a shock to her. So I feel like I was prepared even though I probably approached it wrong. I didn’t approach it carefully, like “Hey, I have some news for you, you’re not going to like it.” I just said, “My dad died” and it came as a shock to her. I didn’t soften the blow at all.
When I said it, she started to cry. She couldn’t handle it. She was really having a hard time with it. And I’m really grateful that I already went through the grieving so that I could be a support system for her in that moment.
I know there are benefits of grieving together. There definitely are. I’m not knocking that at all, but I think the way this turned out where my mom was feeling the shock and sadness, and where I was inside of me, I think really helped. Because I was there for her, I listened to her, and I gave her that safe space to shed her tears and express her grief. And it felt good to be there for her, even though I was sad for her now, because now she’s sad, and I didn’t know it would affect her that much, but I felt more prepared in that sense.
So now I look at my past and realize, “Okay, that process I went through, it was beneficial in so many ways.” It’s not something I would say you should do or you need to do, but I look at today, being in the middle of a pandemic, and people are dying, and there are people that my girlfriend and I know that are very close to us that have just died. What do we do about this? How do we handle this? And especially, and this is kind of the subject of today’s show, when there’s no closure? How do we handle when someone dies and we haven’t reached closure?
I think that’s hard. If you didn’t get a chance to connect with somebody before they died, especially if you’re not even allowed to connect with them because you’re not allowed in their room or in the hospital or wherever they are, and you can’t reach them, and then they pass on, what do you do with this unfinished feeling? This “leftover” that’s inside of you when you just want to reconnect and want to say all the things that you want to say but you can’t because they’re gone?
That’s very hard. And I know some people are hearing this right now and probably feeling some pain. I get that. My step-uncle, my stepfather’s brother, died and I never got to know him as an adult. I just never thought about him. My stepfather has a lot of brothers and I never thought of my step uncles as true family. They were just my stepfather’s brothers. But when this particular step-uncle died, he left all of his brother’s kids an inheritance. So I got part of an inheritance from someone I never thought about. It really helped too. It was shortly after my wife and I had no jobs and we were going to the soup kitchen.
We received this money out of nowhere and was like, “Whoa, this is very helpful.” It is one of the things that really helped us get out of the hole and I was so grateful to receive money out of nowhere from someone that I never thought about that I never considered connecting with. And he thought of me! He thought of his brother’s kids because he didn’t have kids. So he wanted to leave his estate and his money to all of his brother’s kids.
I got this letter in the mail and I’m thinking “Is this real?” I barely knew this guy. When I was younger, I really liked him. He was a great guy. But when I grew older, I never thought once about him. Then to find out that he died and left me this money, talk about not having closure! How do you thank someone that’s not there anymore? How do you reconcile it in yourself that you never reached out?
Lots of feelings of regret can come up, wishing you could have done something else, and maybe thinking you should have done something else. How often does that happen in our lives, where we regret all the things we didn’t do.
I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to all of this. I do have a process that you may have heard me talk about before. I think it’s an important process because anytime you have that leftover feeling that there’s something else, a lack of closure inside of you and you can’t get past it, where perhaps you wish you had reconnected with someone and made peace, or said something that you wanted to say, it feels like it will never go away.
I don’t like that feeling. I don’t know about you, but I want that feeling to go away. Not that we can just push it out (I’m not saying that’s what we do), I’m saying that we need to do something with it. We need to take this pressure, this energy inside of us and do something with it. Something meaningful, something that can actually make us whole again. Because we don’t feel ourselves. When someone dies in our life and we don’t have closure regarding their death because we didn’t connect or we were upset at each other, and then they died and we never got a chance to make peace, whatever it is, we don’t want this feeling of lack of closure, because there’s probably regret and guilt and maybe some other feelings that we don’t want to feel.
There’s no reason to carry that with you. There’s no reason to carry any of that with you. In most cases, we can’t prevent death. We can’t stop it from happening, and sometimes there are things that are just lined up that create it. Sometimes it just happens. And sometimes we feel responsible for it. And sometimes we don’t need to.
Even if we do feel responsible for it, we still have to get past it so that we can live the best life we possibly can. My perspective on death is that when someone dies, they want us to live. I would think that if someone had some sort of afterlife or reincarnation, or whatever it is, they would want us to live! I would think that the person dying would want us to live and be happy.
And if there’s any chance they didn’t want that before they died, if there’s an afterlife, they probably want it now because maybe they left their ego behind. I won’t get into the spiritual aspect of that, but there’s a lot of different beliefs there and some people don’t believe in any of that. Some people believe we just wink out. Maybe we do, who knows?
I look at it this way: If you are carrying around the residue of someone’s death inside of you, then we need to address it. I’m not saying I have the answer. I’m just saying I have a path that might help you and I hope it does. I’ll share my process next.
I never got a chance to talk to my step-uncle. I never pursued a conversation or connection with him my entire life. I knew him from childhood, but when he died and he left money to me, someone that never called him once, I had to deal with some feelings. Maybe some guilt.
One of the processes I like to use when it comes to not having closure around someone’s passing is to actually visualize that you are speaking with them now.
Some people might think this is a little far fetched or a little “woowoo”, but here’s why this can work, and can work powerfully sometimes. It’s because your brain processes it in a way that helps you heal. And you can do this with people that are alive right now. But what I mean is you visualize someone in front of you. You close your eyes and you imagine they’re there.
Then you either tell them what you wanted to say before they passed, or just talk to them like normal, like “How you doing?” Or even ask them questions. Or even be angry with them. Or whatever is left over inside of you is what you want to express.
I believe I did this process with my step-uncle after he passed. I pictured him in front of me (I remembered what he looked like from when I was a kid), and I said, “I am so grateful for this. And I feel so guilty that you did this for me, and I never once contacted you.”
I can picture him in my head right now as I do that. I’m just standing in front of him and he’s right there looking at me and he’s giving me the biggest smile. Right now, he’s giving me the biggest smile.
If somebody has passed in your life and you don’t have closure, this process is one way to help you get to it. Yes, I know it’s not real. It’s not like you’re really talking to them. Or maybe who knows? Some people believe it is. I’m not here to say that it is or isn’t. I’m here to say that how your brain processes it is the most important. Because my bigger picture is the dead want us to live.
That’s probably not a great way to say it, but they want us to live they want us to be happy. They want us to continue on and live the best life we can. I use that as a philosophy so when someone passes on, I make the best of the time that I have left.
My process is to picture the person who has passed and talk with them.
I had a client once, that when she was a very young girl, her brother committed suicide. I don’t know if she found his body or she saw it happen, but she was still traumatized from that event decades later. And during one of our calls, I asked her, “Have you ever spoken to him since that day?”
I don’t recall her answer, but when I ask many clients this question, they’re either confused or they say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I speak to him all the time.” They know what I mean. I ask, “Have you spoken to them since then?”
If the answer’s No, and you still don’t have closure, I think it’s a good idea to speak to the person that you don’t have closure with. They don’t even have to have passed on yet! You can do this while they are alive too because it doesn’t really matter whether you believe you’re speaking to them or not. When you visualize it, you’re going to have a real experience. It’s going to affect the way you think about them. It’s going to affect your emotions. You’re going to have a connection with it that is deep and probably profound.
I know some people are listening now and they’re saying, “Yeah, I speak to this person all the time. And I still don’t have closure.”
So here’s the important part: When it comes to closure, you have to say what’s on your mind even if it sounds like you’re selfish, or upset, or you’re calling them out, or you’re angry at them for dying… No matter what you’re thinking or feeling, it has to come out because you have to think about these thoughts and feelings that you have as pressure inside your body. And as long as you don’t express them, the pressure stays.
You know the pressure I’m talking about. It’s that unfinished feeling. It’s that thing you never said that you wish you’d said. Or it’s the upset that you never got to convey and now they’re gone. It can be upset that you had before they left or it could be upset because they left, because they passed on. I’ve known people that were angry that someone died on them.
Whether that sounds right or wrong, doesn’t matter. If your brain says, “I can’t say that to this person, it wasn’t their fault that they died.” If you have a thought like that, but you’re still upset that they died or you’re angry with them that they died, you need to express it.
What that might look like or sound like is, “I’m really angry that you left me. I’m really angry that you did that. I’m angry at you. I can’t believe you did this to me. You did this to us. How could you do this?”
This isn’t blaming the person, it’s getting it out of you. It’s pulling it out. If we can come to an agreement that the ego dies along with the body, then you’re going to get a response from this image that you see in your head that isn’t tied to old upsets, or hurt or old, unfinished conversations or arguments.
It’s not tied to those things at all. When you talk to the person who has passed, you’re going to create a conversation that leads to healing. What this means is you’re going to hear their responses, you’re going to see their facial expressions, you’re going to have an experience. Bt you have to play full-on. You can’t just stop and say, “I can’t say that to them.”
If you feel it, you say it to them. Because these are the things that you need to say, to get the pressure, those thoughts and feelings that you’re holding on to, out of your system. These things need to be expressed.
They’re not going to say, “You’re wrong and too bad.” They’re not going to do that! And even if they did, you can have a conversation with them about it. But most of the time, I’ve not heard of that happening. I’ve heard other things. Because the mind processes this in a way that’s healing.
If you have no spiritual bone in your body, perhaps you’re complete atheist and you don’t believe any of this afterlife stuff at all, it’s still a brain thing. It’s still a mind thing. It’s still a process that you go through. Everyone has an imagination. Just imagine it happening. Just imagine they’re standing right there in front of you or sitting, and you’re outside or inside wherever it is, and have the conversation with them. See where it goes.
This is what I had to do with my dad. This is what I had to do with my step-uncle. And this is what I know I’ll have to do with other people in my life. Hopefully, no one else will pass before I have a chance to talk with them, but I’m sure it’s going to happen. It does happen. This is what happens in life. But we can’t go through life holding on to old regrets and old pain, because that’s not living. At least not living in a way that we know that people that love us want to live.
This is kind of a deeper episode today about how to heal from some old wounds, or new ones that have developed, because people have passed and we don’t have closure because of that. I really want this to work for you. If you are holding on to anything. I really want you to even pretend. If you can’t go along with this at all, just pretend! Just say “I’m going to do it because Paul told me to do it. I don’t believe any of this crap but I’m just going to do it anyway.”
I have a feeling most people that listen to this show probably won’t say that, but I know there are some people that will. This is the show for critical thinkers after all. I believe that everyone should question everything, but you can’t question it until you try it. You can’t say, “That’s not going to work. I’m going to question that, and I’m not going to try it.”
You really don’t know if it works or not until you try it. And then you can question it later. This is why I like to “try things on” and see what works. This can and does work. It’s worked for many people that I’ve worked with and the woman that I talked with whose brother killed himself, healed after decades of this traumatic memory.
She healed because I asked her to talk to her brother. And I asked her to say whatever is on her mind, and she did. She’d never felt better about that situation until then. Of course, the sadness might still be there. You might still miss the person, but we need to resolve the lack of closure. We need to get to that point so that we can get to the emotions that might be underneath that might be stuck.
Sometimes we have sadness that’s stuck and we can’t actually feel it but we need to. We need to feel the sadness. We need to feel the grieving. We need to allow it to come up and out of us. It doesn’t mean it goes away forever because every time you think of that person, there’s going to be a missing part of your life.
But you can get past this. You can move forward. My belief is that the people that love us want us to be happy, whether they’re here or not. And the best gift we can give them is to live our lives to the fullest. This is the gift that we give those who have passed and the gift we give ourselves. I believe they want us to gift ourselves.
Again, this episode is a bit spiritual, and a little bit deep. I don’t mean to take you there if you’re not ready to go there, or if you don’t really believe any of this stuff, but I do know that the process that I’m suggesting here today can have a profound effect if you’re willing to give it a shot.
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