…”for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved” (-Joseph Campbell, A Hero With a Thousand Faces)
My grandmother was and had been a surprising force of nature – quiet and unassuming, but possessing the gravitational force of a respected matriarch around which her children orbit and congregate. At the time of starting this piece of writing, she was actively dying and has since passed away. And true to form and force, she wanted to die at home and she did – a choice desired by many but obtained by few. She was lucky – comfortable, well-attended, and loved, privileges not accessible to everyone, particularly at the time of death.
Where do you hope to die?
Historically, family would care for their departed loved one but that is not common – many people have never been near a shed body. As a medical practitioner, part of my graduate training included being around the deceased (in a cadaver lab). When it came time then to visit my grandmother after her passing, being in the presence of a corpse was not unfamiliar. I sat with her body, stroking her hair and talking to her, witness to energetic shift and her peace. And, as a grandchild, I was more peripheral in her passing and family dynamics – thankful to be included in some way and allowed to visit her in life and death, while supporting where I could and can, but I was by no means primary. That said, for her privacy and out of respect for my family, I will end my public writings about her passing here. But know that she and we, her family, are at ease.
Who do you want in attendance at your death? How would you like your body to be cared for and disposed of?
Death is equal parts terrible and wonderful. A transition into another state of being that is guaranteed for us all, but despite this being a universal outcome, few want to talk about it, even in the face of it (doctors can even be challenged here). Denial, silencing, avoidance all attempt to keep this taboo just that….forbidden and perpetually unfamiliar. Compare this to historical significance, and death was featured in life – wakes would occur at home, Victorians crafted huge cemeteries which they used recreationally . Death deserves, at the very least, contemplation and discussion so that your loved ones know your wishes. Just like talking about sex won’t get you pregnant, talking about death won’t make you dead.
“Your silence will not protect you” (-Audre Lorde; silence disempowers – this is true for death as well)
How would you like your transition to be marked? Have you considered using a death doula?
I am a shamanic practitioner, a yoga instructor, and an ordained minister. I am also a physical therapist and my practice focuses more on holistic health and wellness, including, not surprisingly, spiritual wellness. Spirituality, for me, lends meaning to life and provides comfort, resilience, belonging, and awe. It is a core value of mine, and I try to bring it to all I do.
As a shamanic practitioner, trained in core shamanic practice, I know that there is a spiritual realm, beyond space and time, and there is an after- death existence. There are certain ways a body proceeds through death, and there are ways to help the dying and deceased proceed through the transition, called psychopomp. Shamanic practitioners die metaphorically when doing their work – they enter the spirit realm through altered consciousness. Practices of theirs/ours will include metaphorical dismemberment as well, another form of death. Many shamanic practitioners had near death experiences as their catalyst to the shamanic path. They/we recognize the importance of the lives of the deceased (ancestors) and that we will one day be ancestors as well. Practitioners use their comfort with death as a way to enhance their lives and the lives of those in their community – the impermanence lends sacredness. Cultures may have their own specific practices unique to their heritage, land, and mythology, but many generalities such as the above are shared.
What spiritual or religious beliefs do you have surrounding dying and death? How do those practices define a “good death” for you? And how can we expand our inclusivity of “good death” to avoid victim-blaming, shaming, and/or exclusion around something that is so very uncontrollable?
COVID-19 (coronavirus) has normalized conversations around death to an extent and has made these conversations more accessible, through things like virtual death cafes. Death is at the forefront of our collective consciousness, as we continue to lose individuals to the virus worldwide. And death cafés are a safe space to explore the impact of dying and death, what your wishes might be, process your experiences, among open and caring individuals.
Have you attended a death café? Find one here: https://deathcafe.com/
From my experience, fears is the main gate-keeper of the exploration and conversation around death. Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, prolific author, and podcast producer, notes that there are common reasons people fear dying:
- “My death would cause grief to my relatives and friends
- All my plans and projects would come to an end
- The process of dying might be painful
- I could no longer have any experiences
- I would no longer be able to care for my dependents
- I am afraid of what might happen to me if there is a life after death” (see Smoke Gets in Your Eyes)
What is your main fear, and how can you address it?
“Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends”. Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create. Philosophers have proclaimed this for thousands of years just as vehemently as we insist upon ignoring it generation after generation.” (-Caitlin Doughty)
Additional Questions for the Reader:
- Have you discussed death with your loved ones? Do they know your desires and do you know theirs?
- Do you have an advanced directive or living will?
- What components of death are terrible verses wonderful (as I described above)?
- What are your priorities? If you were to acknowledge that death might come at any time, how would you wish to change your life to make more time for your priorities?
- What do you need to do now to make older age easier for you?
- What do you believe happens at death? Do these beliefs bring comfort or fear?
- What is the worst way to die and the best way to die?
- How have you witnessed (or can imagine) the dying process be eased?
- Death doulas are an unregulated(there are benefits to this) and often unpaid or underpaid profession. They care for the dying, the deceased, and the family. If you are interested in hiring one or interested in training, there are many options that you can research. However, the common recommendation, for those that are interested professionally, is to start by volunteering at a palliative care/hospice facility.
“We must care for each other. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to assist the dying. Just as we should practice death nesting personally in our daily lives, we should consider death nesting as an entire village so we can be prepared to support one another” (Anne-Marie Keppel, Death Nesting)
May you find peace, ease, and inspiration here. May you flourish in the life you have for the time you have it.
Resources (also see references and links in text):
- The Art of Dying Well https://www.artofdyingwell.org/
- Doughty, C. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs, From Here to Eternity
- Fersko-Weiss H. Finding Peace at the End of Life
- Halifax, J. Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassiona and Fearlessness in the Face of Death
- Levine S. A Year to Live
- Tisdale, S. Advice for Future Corpses
- Yacoboni, C., ed. How Do You Pray?
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), and copyright protected. For questions or collaboration, please email firstname.lastname@example.org