What Color is Dying? (Hint: It’s a Trick Question)

1000px-Question_opening-closing.svg

During a chat over coffee this morning a colleague asked me the above-mentioned question and…I admit it…the first color that came to mind was black.

He smiled and said that was the first color that came to his mind, too, and during the following discussion we agreed that black would probably be the first color springing to mind for the majority of Americans and possibly other western cultures, too.  (It would probably be white for many of those from eastern cultures.)

So why is this a trick question?  Because black (and white in some cultures) is the color associated with death.  But dying people aren’t dead yet.  They’re still very much alive.  This question reveals how we tend to subconsciously view the dying as close-enough-to-dead-to-count, an unfortunate tendency that does a lot of harm to everybody.

This prejudice is deeply ingrained as evidenced by the fact that even my colleague and I (who have worked extensively with the dying in hospice) still defaulted to black as our first association.  Like any solid prejudice I believe it’ll take work to examine, uproot, and then change it, but it’s worth the effort because if we don’t, we’ll all wind up as one of “those people” while we’re dying and suffer the stigma and exile that currently goes along with it.

Once my colleague and I recognized and talked about our conditioned response, we then asked the question again and came up with completely different responses.  He said that, for him, dying is actually quite purple, a color that he loves and relates to on a deep level.  I on the other hand kept seeing a prism in my mind, shattering a sunbeam into a thousand different colors.

And here’s what I found most interesting about the difference.  When I saw dying as black I felt like I’d just pulled a plastic bag over my head.  But when I let that go and suddenly saw it as a prism full of rainbows instead, that feeling of suffocation turned into curiosity and wonder and a delightful sense of mystery which honestly was the experience I tended to actually have when I worked with hospice.  It was really, really magical hanging out with dying people, not black at all.

BTW, the opening/closing question marks at the top of the post came from a Wikipedia discussion of question marks (“also known as an interrogation pointinterrogation markquestion pointquery, or eroteme”), which was kind of interesting in its own right and totally distracted me.  (Not hard to do though.)  Here’s the link.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Prejudice Sometimes Has To Die Off With The Generations Carrying It

Jacob’s Ladder by William Blake

In an article today in the L.A. Times, GOP divide deepens on abortion, immigration, gay rights, Paul West touches on a dynamic I once observed during my hospice work.  Some areas of deep and lasting social change can’t happen until the generations carrying the old prejudices die off.

The difference between some of the social values of the GOP and a majority of the upcoming generation of new voters is just one example.  From the article: 

Polling of voters ages 18 to 29 has shown that a majority hold views that run counter to the GOP stance on same-sex marriage and abortion rights…The younger generation is the most diverse in American history and thinks of itself as very tolerant and pro-diversity…

To be fair, I think the Democrats have their own set of deep prejudices which they’re equally blind to.  (Like against religious conservatives.  And for those thinking “but that’s not prejudice, that’s just right” you might want to take a look.  The reason prejudice works at all is because it feels so true.)  But today I wanted to explore the embedded racial prejudice I saw in an elderly patient I once worked with.

As I’m sure everyone is aware, back in the early 1900′s in the deep south, racial bigotry wasn’t bigotry…it was law.  It was language.  It was culture and custom.  It was so deeply entrenched in the psyches and world view of the time that the majority of people carrying it didn’t even know.  Like I mentioned above, for them it wasn’t prejudice, it was the truth.

It went so deep in fact that the passage of almost a century ultimately couldn’t wipe it out of the psyche of an elderly woman I helped care for.

She was a person who actually prided herself on the fact that she was racially tolerant.  She was raised in the south before and during the Depression but claimed to be descended from a great man who fought to emancipate the slaves, and she clearly admired and longed to emulate him.  She told me story after glowing story about all the acts of tolerance in her own life, and yet when she temporarily descended into some profound disorientation as a result of a bad fall, a broken hip, and an unfortunate reaction to pain medication, her mind unconsciously reverted to the social mores that were dominant in her childhood.

The language that started coming out of that sweet old lady’s mouth was shocking, ugly, and unbelievably hurtful.  What made matters far worse was that, before anyone realized this was going to be a problem, she’d been placed in the home of a temporary caregiver who was African American and the verbal abuse this poor woman sustained before she finally insisted that the patient be moved somewhere else was horrifying.  The whole situation was beyond awful.  It was tragic, graphic and, frankly, a little frightening to see what’s lurking just below our society’s surface, polished veneer.

But it also provided me with a fascinating insight.  Her temporary dementia gave me a glimpse into a past that I’d only read about in the history books.  A couple of times, while watching her flailing and fighting with the demons still lurking deep in her mind, I felt like I’d stepped into a time machine and gone back with her to the 1930′s Jim Crow deep south, to stand on a dusty street for myself and listen first hand.

Beyond the ugliness it felt like a privilege, too, like I’d been allowed to witness something important and rare.  While on the one hand it was chilling and left me with a heavy sense of responsibility to live every day with more integrity and respect for everyone I come into contact with (which, let’s face it, is a lot of work) on the other hand it was reassuring to see that, with as far as we still have to go…still…we have come a long way since then.

That patient came from what I think of as an earlier, transitional generation, one that shows at least some initial signs of change–a sometimes willing/sometimes reluctant resignation to move in a new direction–but is bound to some extent by the unconscious world view they inherited in childhood.

And then I look at myself, the next generation, and how I’m bound by something else, by a prejudice against prejudice itself.  I was raised to look for, identify, and challenge the old, established prejudices, to try and change them, in myself and in the world around me.  But in the end I, too, will always be bound to some degree by the fact that I can’t help but see things in terms of their differences as a result.

And then I look at my children and their friends, at how, because of our efforts before them, they’ve turned out to be so much more truly and honestly blind to differences at all.  They’re used to seeing people of every color in the media.  They’ve grown up drawing their friends and heroes from both genders, from among the able and disabled, from those of different sexual orientations, from those who come from different nations and religions or no religion at all.  They can navigate the growing diversity in the same way they can the new technologies; intuitively and unconsciously.  For them, differences aren’t that big a deal and they’re tired of hearing us harp about it.

I admit, sometimes their blindness scares me.  I don’t know if they appreciate it enough…how far we’ve come or how fragile the changes are.  I don’t know if they’ll safeguard them adequately, push for more, and ensure that we don’t get lazy and slip back again into the older, uglier cultural norms.  But then again I come from a generation of fear.

In the end, it’s their torch to bear, not mine.  I realize that.  I have to trust them…and their children and their children…to take our collective human spirit into a future that’s beyond my ability to envision or dream.  And I have to accept that eventually I, too, am going to have to die to let them do it.

I do take faith in the fact that, looking back over history, the spiral seems to move in an upward direction over time.  As our numbers have grown and we’ve been pushed into ever closer contact with one another, it does seem like the overall trend has been up.  That’s we’re seeing less of the differences and more of the similarities, and while the older powers-that-be have been tearing everything apart in panic, the upcoming generation has been relentlessly weaving it back together only in a completely different way.

There’s a quote from Ann Frank that I love:

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality.  It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical.  Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death.  I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness.  I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too.  I feel the suffering of millions.  And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.  In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.  Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”     July 15, 1944

I draw my hope from both the older generation that’s now passing and taking its old, open wounds with it, as well as our children who are pouring their new vision into the world in a flood of sweeping change.  Taken together like that they don’t seem as much like they’re in opposition; they seem more like successive steps on a ladder heading upward.

I guess I too believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Shark Whisperer

I just stumbled across this three minute, somewhat-unnerving-yet-deeply-moving video of Christina Zenato, a woman diver, interacting with sharks down in the Bahamas.  Frankly, I didn’t believe this kind of gentle relationship was even possible and yet here it is anyway.  Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong.

Disclaimer:  Evidently she’s a pro, so I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. 


What fascinated me most was what happened in my brain while I watched.  I swear I could feel it rewiring.  Some deep and unquestioned prejudice against sharks took a hit here.  Big time.

(Which was strange, because I thought I was already fairly enlightened in my attitude toward sharks.  The hubster feels a deep affinity for them and his love for them has rubbed off on me over time, so it was surprising to discover these deep underlying layers of stereotype still lurking in the shadowy recesses of my mind.)

Initially, I admit I thought this woman was an idiot, especially when she started feeding them by hand.  But by the end I realized she has a much fuller understanding of sharks than I do, based on actual, nourishing, beautiful and real life interactions with them.   Something I totally lack…which is probably why my bias has thrived.

Prejudice is funny that way, isn’t it?  It feeds on unfamiliarity.  It doesn’t tend to fare as well when faced with living, breathing, sentient beings.

(Stray thought: Believing in stereotypes is like eating cheap carbs.  They’re like white bread, candy, and soda pop for the mind, not very healthy but what a rush!   Relationships with living, flesh and blood creatures, on the other hand, are more like whole grains; harder and slower to digest but far more nourishing in the long run.)

Once again I’m reminded that all creatures tend to respond positively to understanding, patience, respect, and intelligent handling.  I don’t know why I keep falling back into the default belief that some creatures (including some humans) are impervious to kindness and love…that monsters are real.  That kind of early conditioning is hard to shake I guess.

The video is only a couple minutes long.  If you get the chance I highly recommend it.  It’s soothing and inspiring.

About the technique she employs at the end of the video:  “Practicing a little known technique of rubbing and manipulating her fingers across the ampullae of Lorenzini, the visible dots [electro-receptive sensory organs] all around a shark’s head and face, she induces a tonic immobility. To the observer, this looks like a shark falling asleep right in her lap.”  

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Sense of Presence (Can you feel me now?)

Uncle George, husband, father, friend, and legendary storyteller.

I thought a lot about my encounter with Alf and the Fly this weekend, about how vivid the sensation was when I felt Alf’s presence during the memorial service.  The subject was up again because we drove down to Reno to join extended family in celebrating the life of an uncle who died earlier this year.  During a conversation with one of my cousins (a daughter of said uncle), she described a moment, while going through his things shortly after he died, when she suddenly felt like he was right there with her, giving her an intimate message of love through, of all things, an obscure word in one of the National Geographic magazines that he loved.

She, too, experienced a sense of presence.

Many of you might recognize what she described because you’ve felt something like it yourself.  It turns out that experiencing a sense of presence is fairly common, not only among the survivors of those who’ve recently died but in a variety of other settings as well.  The experience is so common in fact that it’s been given names like the third man, widow effect, and the ever magical imaginary friend of young children. There has also been a fair amount of research done on the phenomenon and I’d like to touch on a few of the studies as referenced in a fascinating book called The Third Man Factor by John Geiger.

(BTW, if you ever get a wild hair and feel like reading a variety of personal accounts of  a sense of presence, here’s a forum on The Third Man Factor website.  These examples are unique because most of them result in a person surviving a situation where otherwise they might have perished.)

Geiger’s book deals primarily with the experience of a sensed presence in extreme, survival situations but he references other circumstances where the experience regularly manifests.  Needless to say, given my focus on dying, I was particularly interested in those dealing with the widow effect, the experience of a sense of ongoing relationship with someone who’s died.  He cites one study by researchers at the University of Arizona at Tuscon in 1988, where about half of the 500 widows questioned reported sensing the presence of their deceased partner, and another survey of 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales which produced a similar finding.

“That study, by W. Dewi Rees, published in the British Medical Journal, found that most people who had the experience reported they had visits intermittently throughout the day, while 10 percent said they ‘felt that the dead spouse was always with them.’  All said they sensed the presence of the deceased; a few also said they actually saw or heard him.  Rees found the experiences were in no way frightening, and concluded, ‘these hallucinations are…normal and helpful accompaniments of widowhood.’  Other research into widows of men killed in automobile accidents in Japan found the incidence even higher, and there, too, the researchers concluded the presence ‘may be a positive sign in helping them adapt to the loss.’”  (pp. 153-154)

Geiger also sites a larger survey conducted in the UK in 1995 that didn’t just look at widows and widowers, but included a broader cross-section of society.  It revealed that “the continuation of an important relationship after death is not confined to those who have lost a spouse.”  People reported sensing the presence of parents and other family members as well as friends.

Clearly this experience of sensed presence is widespread among the recently bereaved.  Yet prevalent or not, as most people are painfully aware, there’s a social stigma attached to talking about it.  I’ve found the majority of people, at least initially, are reluctant.  Some, deeply so.  They’re afraid others will think less of them for believing in “that kind of thing,” or worse, that people won’t believe it happened at all.   But it does happen, to a large segment of the population, and I hope that Geiger’s book will be a watershed, marking a shift in trend where it becomes more acceptable for people to speak openly about their experiences.

Because being able to speak about these experiences is important for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

I found it interesting that Geiger himself expected a lot of resistance to the idea that the experience of a sensed presence is real and was surprised when none materialized.  He realized most people don’t doubt that the experiences are actually happening.   The controversy centers around what might be causing them.

The first thrust of The Third Man Factor is to confirm the experience itself and Geiger lays out evidence that makes it indisputable.  People are sensing something that feels like a presence.  (This is huge.  Absolutely huge. He’s finally provided a framework within which people of all intellectual backgrounds can talk about the subject.)

The second purpose aims at reconciling the traditionally supernatural elements of these experiences with possible scientific explanations and he presents some compelling evidence for the role that stress, loneliness, and neurological function play in the phenomenon.   The book is well researched and, while his conclusions ultimately raised as many questions for me as they answered, I was still wildly relieved to hear the subject discussed in a practical, factual manner instead of the half-embarrassed, half-apologetic whispers that I usually hear.

Now, let me be clear.  While I’ve long been intrigued by the dynamic tension between science and spirituality, and I’m always curious to hear what both sides have to say, on a purely practical level I, personally, don’t care what’s causing these experiences of sensed presence.  It’s not relevant to me.  It’s an interesting question, don’t get me wrong, and fun to explore when nobody’s dying.  But when someone is dying, the arguments are really just an intellectual exercise.

Once you’re in that room and it’s you or your loved one lying on the bed suffering, once it’s you facing down the maw of unbearable loss, once it’s your family that’s been swept away in the maelström of vulnerability that dying entails, you’ll probably discover that the arguments about what’s causing an experience of sensed presence aren’t nearly as important as whether or not it helps.

It’s like drowning in the middle of the ocean.  If a boat pulls up and throws you a life buoy you probably won’t care about where the thing was manufactured.  Nor will you ask to see a business card from whoever is throwing it to you.   What you will care about, deeply, is whether or not it floats and, if it does, you’ll grab it with gusto and hang on for dear life.

I think everyone should be allowed to speak openly about any unusual experience they have during the dying process.  (FYI, there are a lot of them.) Because even though no one can definitively explain them yet, they still provide enormous comfort and reassurance during a journey that’s tough at best and devastating at worst.

I’ve often felt frustrated by the fact that such a luminous, nourishing, (and it turns out commonplace) human experience is relegated to the back of the shame-closet where we stash our bogey men and under-the-bed monsters.  I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel embarrassed because they experienced something that helped them cope and heal.  Neither should anyone have to hide the fact that they’re experiencing something lovely even if it’s odd, because doing so robs the rest of us.  I’ve studied the faces of those listening when this kind of thing is shared and the effect of these stories on others is almost always one of wonder, hope, or relief.

Which are good things, things that are in relatively short supply.  We want more wonder, hope, and relief in the rooms of the dying.  Trust me on this one.  They help.

These days, in rational society, we tend to resist things that involve Mystery.  We have our science and we like our rational explanations and we’re uncomfortable with odd-shaped things that sound weird and don’t fit.  The problem with that is, as soon as we enter the dying process we also enter the Mystery.  The two things are a package deal and the ticket covers both rides.  Everyone has to grapple with the fact that questions grossly outnumber answers at the end of life, both existentially and physiologically.

Whether these questions revolve around an experience of sensed presence, or the surprising level of foreknowledge or control many have over the actual moment of death, or the perennial biggie concerning what will happen to us once it’s all over, or the most basic question of Well…what’s causing this symptom?, one thing is certain; sooner or later something will occur during dying that everyone will guess at but no one will know.  And if that something is a sense of presence that lightens the load or eases the pain?  If it provides a pool of nourishment from which we can drink a little courage, respite, or strength?

Then perhaps the most useful explanation is simply that these experiences of sensed presence are a rare and beautiful gift at a time when we need one the most.  Maybe it’s okay to not know any more than that for now, but open both hands anyway, accept the gift, and whisper thanks.

For anyone interested, here’s a brief interview of John Geiger talking about the book, The Third Man Factor.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn




Them Worms, Them Worms

I was planning on writing about Maggie Full of Grace and her life after polio in this post but have been characteristically sidetracked.  (It’s not hard to do.)  You see, I can never think of Maggie without thinking about her disability, and disability as a whole has blossomed into a topic that’s curious to me.

Probably because I was so oblivious to it in my youth.  I had little exposure to the disabled kids back then because long, long ago and far, far away, “special needs” kids rode on “special” buses to “special” schools and were referred to, in the brainless vernacular widely employed in those days, as retards and cripples.

(Anyone who thinks the good old days were the Golden Age and that the world is now morally deteriorating should cast their mind back to some of the common cruelties of yesteryear.  Trust me.  We weren’t nearly as golden as we like to remember.)

I was in my forties and working with hospice before I finally had my first, up close, and sustained interaction with a person of disability.   By then I had dutifully learned a newer, kinder vernacular based on an upwardly evolving world view.  I’d cleaned up the ugly, childhood slang, learned to speak respectfully about the disabled, and sincerely believed I was now wise, open minded, and prejudice-free.

Aaaah…but those worms within.

I soon discovered that, while my surface language had improved, it was just camouflage.  The old, subconscious memes of childhood were still very much alive and skulking around in face paint, just underneath.  Has anyone else ever experienced this?  Discovered that what you want  to believe and what you were once conditioned to believe just don’t synch?  It’s kind of weird how old biases can continue to operate without our even knowing it.

I found that a lot of what came out of my mouth was condescending.  Patronizing.  Even when I tried not to I’d sometimes fall back into talking to people as if they were stupid, childish, or deaf.  It was horrifying.  At times I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me.  I wanted to clap my hands over my mouth, drag me outside, and beat me.   What was wrong with me?  Why couldn’t I stop?  Was I really, in spite of all my best efforts and a deep and genuine desire not to be one, a bigot?

It turns out, no.  (Thank god.)  I was unfamiliar, inexperienced, and badly educated, yes, but fortunately these are all things that can be rectified.  The people I worked with were surprisingly generous with me, seeing through my awkwardness to the sincerity that lay just underneath, and given enough time I finally discovered that they weren’t even disabled people at all.  They were people.  Sans label.  Go figure.

If you get a chance check these out.  This a YouTube video of Aaron Fotheringham cruising around in a skateboard park in his wheelchair.  And this one is a video of The China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe dancing the Thousand Hand Guanyin.  (All the dancers are deaf.)  Besides being outrageously entertaining I’ve found that both these videos are helpful for blowing the creepy, old world view about disabilities right out of the water.

I look at my kids and their friends and it’s obvious they won’t have to struggle with a lot of the stereotypes that saturated me earlier on.  I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for that.  I know that doesn’t mean the Great Work is finished by any means.  No sirree bob.  There’s still a lot of work to do before we’re all seeing and accepting one another for who we really are.  But still, at least some of the worms are dying and I think it’s safe to celebrate the small wins.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn