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

Advertisements

Random Hot Tip About Dying #5

the-tunnel-of-trees

(This photo is taken from an email forward I received full of beautiful tunnel photos, none of which were credited of course.  Grrrr.  I’d LOVE to give credit where it’s so richly deserved so if anyone knows who took this shot, please, please, please let me know!)

This post is continued, as expected, from Random Hot Tip #4.  It’s a looooong one.  Sorry.  (Although if you think reading it is hard, you should try writing it.  F**k.)

Last but not least we come to random hot tip #5:

There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone.  Pick yours and start making it work for you now.

To be honest, this morning I’m wishing I never added this tip to the list.  It’s a loaded subject…something I realized with chagrin as soon as I sat down to write this.  Plus, I’m not a chaplain or an atheist or a ghost or anyone else qualified to address either side of this existential topic with authority.

But since I swore to myself that this time I’d follow through and explain every last tip I so glibly tossed out there, I guess I’m stuck with it. I’m only going to share what I observed and then one thought I had about it, hopefully without upsetting anyone enough to make them yell at me.  Here goes.

One of the many intriguing things I encountered while working with hospice was the wide range of beliefs about what happens after a person dies.  I’d already heard about most of them of course, but still, they take on a whole new light in a hospice setting.

For one thing, they finally matter.  A lot.  The people I was working with were about to actually find out what happens for themselves, and they cared about it in a way that people who aren’t dying yet just don’t.

In addition, I was experiencing a kind of full body immersion in each belief while hopping from home to home.  Working in hospice, it’s critical to understand and embrace the unique beliefs of each home we enter in order to best support the dying person and their loved ones from the foundation they’ve built in their own lives.  We don’t have to adopt their beliefs of course…we can’t, there are too many of them and often conflicting besides…but we try to observe every sign of respect, and look closely for whatever value, love, and strength is inherent in each, and then use that as much as possible to deliver our help.

(It really changes you, by the way, learning how to find, respect, and embrace the good in someone else’s beliefs without having to believe it yourself.  I can’t tell you how much more mysterious and beautiful and friendly the world becomes in an instant.  It’s pretty amazing. Harder to do outside a hospice setting though.)

I couldn’t help but notice how much this particular belief, the one about what happens to a person after they die, influenced the way each person viewed the value of whatever life they had left, as well as shaping how they faced their dying process.  While each belief I encountered was absolutely unique, collectively they seemed to break down into three broad categories:

1) The belief that their spirit or consciousness or self will continue in some way afterwards.

2) The belief that their consciousness or personality or sense-of-self will end with physical death (and hopefully that their legacy lies in the good effect they had on the world.  Without this second part their depression was pretty pronounced.)

3) The belief that they really, truly don’t know what happens and they’re waiting to find out.

The majority of people around here fell into the first category, which was also the one that seemed to help most with a person’s fear of dying (unless they felt guilty about something and worried about punishment after the fact.)

The number of people in the second category were far fewer and, while they savored the sweetness available at the end as much as anyone, overall I found them less prepared to cope with the many indignities involved, with a greater tendency to devalue their life as their helplessness grew.

And in the end I didn’t see anyone who genuinely believed number three.  While there were a number of people who said they didn’t know what happens (actually, they always said nobody knows what will happen) it eventually became clear that really, they believed in one of the other two but were just reluctant to say so for various reasons.

Okay.  That’s what I observed.  Now here’s one of the main thoughts I had about it.

I think all three beliefs have the potential to wield a final influence that’s helpful or harmful.  But in reality, there was a general trend worth noting.

Belief Number One…the one that says some version of the self continues after death…usually did the best job of helping the dying person face and navigate the profound challenges involved at the end of life.  These people tended to experience less bitterness about the indignities they were experiencing and genuinely longed for their lives more all the way to the end.

Now, BEFORE ANYONE STARTS SCREAMING AT ME:

I’m not suggesting that this in any way makes Belief Number One a superior belief, or that it means everyone should embrace it.  I’m not.  That would be utterly useless and disrespectful besides.

What I DO think is that Belief Number One has had tens of thousands of years worth of a head start on weaving some kind of nourishing, helpful meaning into the overwhelming existential realities of dying and death.  Collectively, we’ve been living with, exploring, and deepening our belief in an afterlife since the dawn of human history so no wonder it works for us now.

Belief Number Two (let’s leave Three out of this for a moment) is a relative newbie on the scene and has, in some ways understandably, spent more of its time trying to reject the meaning offered by Belief Number One than it has developing an alternative but equally helpful and nourishing meaning of its own. But with the growing number of people embracing this belief I think it’s work that really needs to be done if they’re not to overwhelmingly choose suicide or euthanasia at the end as seems to be the current trend. (I only mention this because killing ourselves and each other, especially in large numbers, can wreak havoc on a society.)

We humans need meaning. It’s not a weakness, it’s just a thing.

I have a couple of friends who believe they’ll cease to exist at the point of death (actually they believe everyone will, but then that spirit of generalization is a quality generally shared across beliefs.)  But they also feel a profound curiosity about some tendrils of mystery they glimpsed during an experience with the loss of a loved one.  They feel attracted to what they experienced and uplifted by it, but are reluctant to admit it publicly because it’s precisely the kind of thing that’s so easy for the other side to misunderstand, twist, and then crow over.

But in private they share that they’re as moved as anyone else by the symptoms of strange and serendipitous beauty they witnessed towards the end.  It’s just that they ascribe the mystery involved to something else, even if they’re not entirely sure what yet.

And then there’s Belief Number Three.  Even though I never worked with a patient who truly embraced this belief, I know other people who do, at least so far.  (We’ll see if it holds up under the final test.)  And, after six years of watching people die, this is the one that I myself have drifted in closest to.

I’ve had a number of people over the years ask me some version of the question After everything you’ve seen what do YOU think happens after a person dies?   And honestly?  At this point I kind of feel like the sky’s the limit.  I suspect anything can happen.  Maybe ALL of it happens, just to different people.  Maybe some go to Valhalla or Hades or Heaven, maybe some stick around for a while to help their descendents along, maybe some really do just cease to exist while others merge with Nirvana or a mountain or the entire universe somehow.  Maybe some reincarnate, or get stuck haunting for a while, while others continue on in some way or form or place that nobody has even imagined yet.

I really, truly don’t know what to believe about all that anymore.

But I’ll share something I experienced numerous times that left a deep impression. It was this sensation of a vast kind of love that tended to show up in the dying rooms.  How, when everything else was finally stripped away and all of us were left there, raw and quivering and totally exposed, what remained was this current of love in the room that swept me off my feet and sent me reeling every single time.  I honestly, hand to god, don’t know where it was coming from…that’s my mystery.  Whether it was just me feeling it, or if it was coming from the other people who were there, or from something outside of us all, or some combination that then took on an existence of its own, I just don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s influence was about as real as it gets.  It was tangible and helpful in the most physical way, and weirdly it both seared and reassured me, and sometimes other people told me it helped them, too, and over time as my eyes adjusted to it, I started to see it in a lot more places.  Like…well, almost everywhere.  And after a while the sheer energy of it started to transform me to the point where I was having a little trouble functioning in the world actually, which is an interesting but different story.

And then one day I realized, to my surprise, that I was shifting away from everything I used to believe in and starting to just believe in that experience of love instead.  And that’s kind of where I am now.  I have no idea what will happen after I die and don’t really care beyond some mild curiosity.  However, I do hope that whatever happens, this big love that gets generated from where-I-do-not-know will still be around because, if it is, I feel like I can deal with anything else.

That being said, the question of “afterwards” feels kind of irrelevant to me right now.  The big gift I’m getting out of believing in this love is that, whatever happens next, it’s nurturing and comforting me today.  It makes me want to be a better, kinder, more compassionate and understanding person now, it lends me courage and meaning and strength now, and it inspires me to take better care of my little corner of the world right now.

And ultimately, I think that’s something practical and immediate that any of these belief should also shoot for.  Whether or not they wind up being true in the long run, if they deepen and enrich and strengthen our lives and communities and world right now then we should develop and embrace them.  Because we desperately need all the help we can get while we’re here.

Anyway, that’s my two cents worth.  Add a couple dollars and it’ll buy you a beer.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

 

After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission

Good Without God

Random Hot Tip About Dying #3

(And now that the Modo Adventure has come to it’s happy conclusion I return to the Random Tips About Dying series.  This post is continued from Random Hot Tip About Dying #2.)

The third tip goes something like this:

3) Learn about dying from people who are familiar and comfortable with it.  The terrified can’t teach you much you don’t already know.

One evening I went to a restaurant with a convivial group of people to hang out after a community meeting.  There were about nine of us, all adults except for one young adolescent girl who accompanied her mom.

During the free-for-all discussion that rolled around the table over dessert the young girl, a devoted animal lover, shared with shining eyes that she wanted to start volunteering with the local Humane Society.  But before she could even finish the sentence her mother torpedoed the idea by telling her, “But honey you don’t understand.  They put animals down there.”

800px-Puppy_near_Coltani_-_17_apr_2010

I listened to the murmur of assent rising from everyone else at the table and watched the girl’s shining eyes grow stormy as one person after another tried to explain (in the kindest way) that she didn’t know what she was getting into and that, really, she wanted to stay as far away from that kind of thing as possible.

She tried to argue but no one would listen. As a group they were convinced that their deep aversion was in fact the wise and correct response.  In the meantime I was sitting there having vivid flashbacks of the same kind of reaction I received from people when I first shared that I wanted to work with hospice.

Initially, the girl was just frustrated but then I saw a kind of helplessness start to settle in as she felt the door closing on her dream of caring for vulnerable animals.  We could all see that she felt a calling deep down in that place where we get those kinds of messages, but nonetheless every set of arms present was trying to hold her back from answering it. Her shoulders finally sagged as she fell into angry silence.

I heard somebody explaining that the animals are just going to die anyway, and then there was a momentary lull as everyone nodded their heads and gazed at the girl in sympathy.

I finally spoke up.

“But, you guys,” I looked around the table as every head swung my way.  “They still need love before they die. Even more so.”

I watched as each face registered first surprise, then a dawning thoughtfulness as they considered this other perspective.  In the meantime, the girl looked like a wilting flower that had just been watered.

She sat back up, smiled, and said, “Yeah. YEAH!  That’s what I mean, that’s what I wanna do! I’m not afraid of them dying.”

She waxed on with renewed enthusiasm for about a minute as everybody else sat and digested the idea.  Then one of the men turned towards me with a puzzled smile and said, “I never thought of it like that but it’s really true. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

Which leads me back to tip #3.  This story is a prime example of what a closed loop looks like.  Everyone sitting at that table believed the same thing: that dying was something repugnant and horrible to be avoided at all costs, even if it meant abandoning a group of vulnerable animals and thwarting a young girl’s dream in the process. And because they all believed it, all they could do is reinforce and confirm each other’s belief.

Please understand, it’s not that they didn’t care about all those dogs and cats at the shelter.  They did, a lot. Boise is a powerful animal advocacy town and the adoption rates are actually higher here than most of the country.  We love our four-footed friends around here, we really do.

But in this case, the group’s fear of dying outweighed their love for animals for the simple reason that they’d never been presented with a different perspective from someone who didn’t believe that dying is repugnant and horrible and to be avoided at all costs.  Granted people like that are a minority in the population right now, but there are more of us than you’d think and the numbers are growing.  Finding someone who’s familiar and comfortable with dying isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be.

I should add that this story is a prime example of something else that bears noting: There’s a pernicious subconscious assumption permeating our cultural view that anything dying is already as good as dead.  This one drives me nuts.  It’s not true.  NOT TRUE.

NOT. TRUE. AT. ALL.

Dying animals and people are still very, very, very much alive and, more than almost any other time of life, they need to be gathered in, supported, nourished, and loved…NOT abandoned.  (That is, of course, unless they want to crawl off into the bushes and die alone in which case I’m all for respecting their wishes.  But that’s different than abandoning them.)

In a future post I’d like to publish a list of links to posts, articles, and other resources that  provide a view of dying that’s more holistic than the current, entrenched one. It’s a view that acknowledges the hardships involved but also reveals the moving and luminous beauty that involved in life at it’s last.  But that will take some time to assemble so not today.

Next post should be about Random Tip #4: A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

P.S. The photo of the adorable Doberman puppy above is from a Wikipedia article about dogs and can be found here.

P.P.S. Here are the previous posts in this series:

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

The differing legacies of good deaths and bad ones, and an extra bonus of grace.

Good deaths have a ripple effect that go out for a long, long way, for a long, long time and, unfortunately, so do bad deaths.

I just stumbled across a blog post titled rapture? (not what you think) on Wild Celtic Rose where she describes a personal experience with each kind of death, and she manages to convey the lasting legacy of each far more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to do.  I highly recommend a read if you get a couple free minutes sometime.  (It’s not that long and you may cry from the beauty at the end.  I sure did.)

She also brushes lightly over a couple of other interesting (and loaded) topics.

The first involves the subject of respecting another person’s right to die the way they choose (and one possible cost of not respecting said right.)

The second involves the legal right we all have to forego any treatment and die if that’s what we prefer.

And the third involves that elusive, fragile, and exquisite grace that usually surfaces when faith is respected across a divide in beliefs.  She captures the spirit of this so beautifully when she says (talking about the good death):

“Sometimes we look at other beliefs with skepticism at best.

I can say that the honest, giving, loving, non-judgmental way in which Craig and Nina lived their lives is as “Christ like” as I have ever seen.

I honestly don’t know if there is a heaven or not.

Even though we are of different faiths, I thoroughly believe that if there is one, that Craig is there and he will be joined by Nina and the rest of his family.”

A beautiful expression of how we can still love and be moved by another’s faith without necessarily sharing their beliefs.

I really, really hope you have a rapturous, awakening, living-it-like-it-was your-last kind of moment sometime this week.  We should all be that lucky.

Love,

Dia

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

Your Early Exposure to Death: Was It Scary Or Curious?

“Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world”.  From Children and Pet Loss.

(This post follows Five Major Influences that help Shape Our Acceptance Or Fear of Dying and Death.)

Before I start, I want to say that every person is unique, so of course the relationship they forge with death over time will be unique, too.

It’s like a lifelong dance we do; each successive loss is a new partner that whirls us about the floor for however long it lasts, then drops us in our chair by the wall again.  Every encounter is different and our perspective on dying evolves with each one.  As John Gray over at Going Gently wisely reminds me from time to time, there is no right or wrong way to look at dying.  Each person’s experience just is what it is, and that makes it absolutely true for them and deserving of respect.

Having said all that, it’s also important to remember that both trauma and beauty are inherent in the dying process.  And with increased, gentle awareness, it’s possible to help ease the first and strengthen the latter.  (That’s actually one of the main goals of hospice and palliative care.)  In practice though, this shift happens a lot faster with a person who’s already open to the good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while there really is no right or wrong way to look at dying, there are some perspectives that might be more helpful than others.  (Of course, anyone currently reeling with a loss is sacred and off-limits.  Period.  I’m not talking about you trying to change anything right now.  You have enough on your plate.)  But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to consider at least trying to tweak our view of dying before our next up on the dance floor.  It could make a difference.

So what shapes any given perspective?

Well, early impressions sure pack a punch and go a long way towards forming our view of dying thereafter.  There are a number of variables that feed into whether our first brush with death leans toward the strengthening or scary side, but the top three would probably include, 1) how big the loss is, 2) how the people around us respond, and 3) the manner of the death.

A friend of the hubster’s came for a visit a couple years ago, and when we ventured onto the topic of my work with hospice and my perspective about the beautiful side of dying, he disagreed that there was anything beautiful about it.  He related the story of his first experience with death and, truly, it was not a good one.  He lost his father to illness when he was in his teens, a time when he was particularly vulnerable and unprepared, and he was still, some forty odd years later, carrying a burden from that loss.  In his experience, dying really had been something bleak and terrible; there wasn’t anything good involved to help counter the pain.  Dying was a force that stripped him of the father he still desperately needed and then left him struggling alone in the vast hole it ripped in his life.

So when I spoke about the beautiful side of dying I encountered in my work, he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.  Because beauty had played no part in his primary encounter with death, it was difficult for him to even consider it as a possibility.

My aunt had a similar devastating encounter with death when her husband died in his forties of colon cancer back in the eighties.  The battle for a cure beforehand had involved five years of grueling, toxic, and unproductive treatment and then, on top of it all, towards the end of the fight his pain was poorly managed (as happened more often than not, back then.)  His death was not pretty and the scars it left for my aunt were profound.   So when my grandmother, her mother, died a peaceful, easy death a little while later, my aunt declined to be in the room when she passed because her prior experience made her believe that dying, by nature, is gruesome and harsh.

I always wondered (privately of course, I never said anything to her) if being present at my grandmother’s benign death might have helped heal some of the earlier trauma but, of course, there was no way to know.

But then my mother, her sister and best friend, died a few years ago and my aunt wound up accidentally being in the room when she passed in spite of her intention not to.  The moment was profoundly beautiful for all of us assembled, a final gift of grace from a woman whose life had been all about love, and it provided me with a means of finally learning the answer to my question.  When I asked my aunt about it later she answered that, yes, witnessing my mother’s good death really did help ease the burden of horror she’d been carrying for so many years.  She felt a little more peaceful with it now.

It was a revelation for me…the realization that our initial perspective on death isn’t written in stone.  That, if the luck of the draw brought us a difficult first death, we’re not helplessly doomed to tremble at the thought forever after.  It is possible to ease some of the fear of dying and create a measure of peace.

Of course first brushes with death don’t always involve a primary relationship, in fact they usually don’t, and these milder, less threatening experiences can provide an opportunity to get one’s toes wet a little at a time.  One of the most common ways that children get a first look at death is through the loss of a family pet or other animal, and these encounters provide a golden opportunity for teaching them how to navigate the dying world with courage and strength.  Children take their cues on how to respond to death (and everything else for that matter) from the adults around them so it’s important what we model for them.

I found the following story on a forum where people were discussing the potential value or harm, for children, of holding funerals for a pet.  I thought I’d include it here because it’s such a great example of how a parent’s response can so profoundly shape a child’s perspective of not only death, but the value of life:

“My parents’ dog died at home when I was two and a half — they hadn’t wanted to put him down at the vet’s. I recall him quite vividly lying there on the kitchen floor on some sheets of newspaper, and I also remember the questions I asked my mom and dad as I grappled with what had happened. I asked if I could pet him, and they said that would be okay. They were quite attached to the dog, which they’d gotten before they were married and had been a fellow-traveler with them in their journey together, and so they both cried a little. I remember trying to comfort my mom, telling her it’d be okay. Later, I watched my dad dig a large hole out in the woods, carry Jonathan out in a fuzzy red blanket, bury him and mark the spot with a large piece of white quartz.

I was very clear on what was happening, for the most part, even at two and a half. I think your daughter would be fine with it at six.

Those events left a very strong impression on me, evidently: they’re my very first memories. Though sort of melancholy, they’re by no means bad memories. My dad still lives in the same house. Occasionally, when I go back home to visit, I notice that piece of quartz a little way out in the woods, half-buried in leaf litter. I think: that rock is a testament to a life not taken for granted.”posted by killdevil at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2007 [28 favorites]

For anyone looking to learn more about how to guide children through the loss of a pet (or anyone struggling with the loss of a pet themselves) The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a really terrific website.  A lot of people deny that the loss of an animal relationship can be just as devastating as the loss of a human one.  Whoever runs this website is not one of them.

So our early exposure to death goes a long way towards shaping and sizing our lifetime fear of it, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t change.  I’d love to hear some accounts of other people’s first exposure to dying or death.  Did it influence you more towards acceptance or fear?  (Or no influence at all?)

In the next post I’d like to talk about the influence of the attitude of those who teach us about death.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Hmmm…An Agnostic Reports A Light While Dying

I recently heard a fascinating dying story.

A woman told me how her elderly mother…either a scientist or an engineer (I can’t remember now, sorry) who was hours from death, drifting in and out of consciousness and totally non-lucid even when she was conscious…began to report on what she was experiencing internally, in a disembodied kind of voice.

It seems the discipline of a lifetime dies hard.

What struck us both was that the last thing she communicated was an experience of light.  She said There’s a light.  Twice.  Which seemed surprising because her mother was a firm agnostic.

The conversation paused briefly as we mused over this.  I mentioned that I’ve heard a lot about this experience of light (of course, who hasn’t?) but the scientist hanging around in my own head, while curious, has remained unconvinced  without further evidence.  The fact that her mother was a scientist and agnostic definitely carried some weight.

To which the daughter, who seemed to share her mother’s rational sensibilities, responded that it didn’t necessarily mean anything more than that her mother was having a visual experience of light.  There’s no way to know for sure what was causing it, and certainly no way to know if it was a sign of anything else.  And I got that.  There really isn’t.

But still…it comforted me.  I mean, seriously, out of all the possible experiences I can think of having to go through during my own transition, heading for light is definitely up there in the top three.  It sure beats seeing something like monsters coming to get me, or heading for a giant buzz saw, or disappearing into a gaping, empty, black void.

Light is good.  I’m all in for light.

And…if any such light turns out to be the precursor to something more cool?  Well, even the non-committal scientist in my head grins at the thought and says, IF that’s the case, then she’s totally on board, too.

Photo by Zouavman Le Zouave at Wikpedia

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

It’s OK To Still Love Their Bodies Once They’re Gone

Before Mr. B died, he made sure his body would be left lying for twenty-four peaceful hours–at home–before going to the crematorium.  How sure?  Sure as in he sat down with his lawyer and wrote it into his will sure, making his wish legally binding in Idaho.

His request may sound strange to a lot of people–it certainly does to the average person around here–but the practice is customary among Buddhists who believe that the bond between personality and body takes time to unwind after death.  (I’m not Buddhist but I think the following link is a fairly good explanation of Buddhist beliefs about death and dying for those curious to learn more.)  Of course, the Buddhist belief is different from the prevalent one held in our culture which says our personality/essence/soul/consciousness/whatever one calls it…our us-ness…separates from the body completely at the moment of death.  Even Christians and scientists are aligned on this point–they don’t seem to diverge until the question of what-happens-afterward crops up.

Mr. B’s family was totally on board with his choice and perfectly willing to keep him around.  And me?  I was all for it, too.  I had a personal stake in finding out what effect this choice would have on the loved ones Mr. B was leaving behind. Two years later and I’m still grappling with the distress I felt at abandoning my mother’s body in the hospice house where she died.  I looked at this opportunity with Mr. B as my chance…a gift!…to see what it’s like for a willing, loving, respectful family to keep the body of their dead beloved with them for a little longer–to discover if it helps ease their grieving afterwards.

The hubster and I lingered for an hour or two after Mr. B died, drifting along on the tender current of hugs, tears, laughter, phone calls, rehashing, and story-telling that always follow a good death.  But finally I needed to head home.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep during the night and required a shower and a nap.  Just before leaving, I returned to the bed, leaned over, and laid my cheek against Mr. B’s, whispering I sure do love you, sir.  Have a safe journey.  Knowing you was an honor and a gift.  Then, unexpectedly, I started to cry.

Mr. B’s face was still soft and life-like and, for whatever reason, in that moment it felt like like he was still there.  Not necessarily inhabiting his body per se, but just present somehow.  Around.  It seemed like he was smiling and relieved.  Like everything was okay.  No…better than okay…good.  It felt like he’d suddenly gotten a lot bigger, too, in some insubstantial but still oddly tactile kind of way.  Hard to describe.  (This experience of a sense of presence is actually common among the bereaved, with some studies putting the rate of occurrence at well above 50%.)

That momentary sense of his presence pierced the numbness of fatigue creeping over me and sent me plunging back down into my heart again.  The tears felt painful, bewildering, and sweet, all at the same time.  It reminded me of the day I discovered the stuffed animals my daughter abandoned the day she left home, still sprawling against the pillows in her bedroom.  It was unexpected, walking in and finding them like that–an innocent reminder of her childhood life with us–and I curled up on her bed, gathered them in my arms, and lay there in the ache of remembering for the longest time.

We shared a bond, these toys and I.  They’d been left behind, like I’d been left behind. She loved them, like she loved me.  And lying there clinging to their soft bodies and fake fur, I was awash in all the nourishing, enduring love she’d left behind for us.  I could feel her again, all across the bed, and I realized we’re all born magical like that–with a mysterious ability to place a tangible, lasting kernel of ourselves inside the people we love so that no matter where we go, no matter how big the hole our departure creates, at least we never leave those behind us completely alone.

(This post is turning out to be longer than I originally anticipated so I’m going to spare you all and spread it out over a couple posts.  Next time: Their Body: It’s Not Them Anymore But It Still Deserves Our Thanks)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011 

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

Part III: Both The Light And The Darkness Conceal and Reveal

(In Part I and Part II of Chapter 5, I described my quirky attempt to break free of agoraphobia by hiking back into the mountains for three days and three nights alone with my fears.  When I left you last week I’d just come through my greatest terror; that of the sun setting, leaving me alone in the wilderness at night.  Part III is the conclusion.)

The perspective I gained that evening, that darkness delivers a profound gift has, over time, effected a slow yet massive transformation.  Initially, during those three days up in the mountains I clung to the realization primarily as a way to help ease my fear of being alone at night in the wild.  But over the coming years it unfolded in ways I never could have imagined, slowly permeating and changing my understanding of another, more human dimension of darkness; the kind that arises inside us from living with things like pain,  suffering, and death.

It was during this mountain retreat, six years after my grandmother’s death, that I decided to begin my work with hospice and later, by the bedsides of the dying, I wound up experiencing the same sense of revelation and coming home that I’d felt under the evening sky.  All the vulnerable, generous people I worked with were like the stars all over again—shining beings gradually re-emerging as the bodies that had veiled them faded and thinned.  During the hours I spent with them and their loved ones—bathing and turning and wiping and rinsing and listening and laughing and crying—I felt like I’d finagled a seat in their caravan as they journeyed out all together to the farthest edges of life, a beautiful, twilight place that reveals something else, something breathtaking that lies out just beyond.  And as I watched this transformation take place over and over again it slowly dawned on me that the process of dying is not so much about shrinking and expiring as it is about finally growing too big to contain anymore.

A gentleman who’d lost his wife of sixty-plus years once told me that he woke up a couple of times, in the nights immediately following her death, to glimpse her for a moment standing next to his bed looking down at him.  That sometimes, in quiet moments he’d still hear her voice clearly speaking his name.  A woman devastated by the recent loss of her husband told me it was eerie how she kept seeing an eagle overhead–a bird he’d always felt an affinity for–every time she felt like she couldn’t go on.  And still another man confided in a low voice that he’d seen his dead brother the day before, waiting by the graveside as the wife who’d only survived him by eight months was laid to rest.  Over and over I’ve heard similar stories from those who’ve bid a loved one good-bye, and while the events they relate take different forms there’s a common theme between them—a sense that the bond of love itself is not severed even though the loved one has physically disappeared.

Lying there in the mountains I was aware that many of the stars I looked at were actually gone, exploded millions and billions of years ago in supernovas.  What I was gazing at, breathless and awed, was their remaining light, the part that continues to travel through the vast reach of space and time long after the stars themselves die.  I wonder if these stories people told me of sensing the continued presence of a deceased loved one are like that somehow, indicating that sometimes, for those who are aching with injury and loss, there’s another tender, reassuring glimpse available to remind us we don’t have to worry.  We don’t entirely disappear.  No matter how dire things look in the short-term all the light…the love…that we generate over a lifetime continues on.

Here’s an example of something I experienced that falls into the pilot and lightning, lovely-but-not-a-clue category.  Over the years I noticed a phenomenon taking place in the midsections of patients engaged in the late stages of dying.  There was a faint radiance emanating from their solar plexus which increased in intensity as the wasting process accelerated.  I speculated on physical causes, wondering whether there might be a link between the physiological deterioration taking place and an emerging light source.  In physics, unstable atoms emit photons of light when one of their electrons jump from one level to the next and I wondered if perhaps a dying person’s atoms become increasingly unstable as their body shuts down, emitting a cascading increase of light.  I also considered a possible late stage, chemically-induced bioluminescence, like fireflies or the microscopic, sea organisms that light up the wakes of boats.

But most of the time I was just bemused by it.  Those glimpses had the same effect on me as struggling over the last, hot sand dune to gaze across the sparkling expanse of the sea.  The beauty soothed something hunched and shaken inside me.  The radiance in those exhausted, collapsing bodies was so unexpected and lovely that it felt as though the ordinary world was slipping out from beneath my feet and, whatever was happening, whatever was causing it, seeing that light triggered moments that made my heart both break and soar.

But as tantalizing as glimpses of that kind of phenomena were, I have to admit the view that really knocked my socks off was the one looking back towards here; this small, ordinary looking, blue, sky-encased life we live in most of the time.  It’s not that I started seeing unusual things here, too.  It was that, from out there at the edge, everything ordinary taking place back here looked like a miracle.  Changing a shirt, taking a bite out of a sandwich, saying hello, saying good-bye.  Complaining and tears.  Smiles and breath.  People longing and loving, pooping and peeing—nothing looked mundane or small anymore.  Nothing.

I remember all those moments when I turned from a dying person’s bedside and headed back to my life—when I left their homes, climbed into the car, and just sat there staring, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles like I was about to fall off a cliff.  I’d tremble for a while, looking down the street at the trees, cars, and houses, my heart ripped wide open and bleeding down somewhere near the gas pedal because everything suddenly looked huge and luminous.  And I’d reel from the fact that just a few hours earlier I’d been totally oblivious, taking it all for granted.

Stupid, stupid me.

Knowing that in a few hours time the awareness would fade and I’d be taking it for granted all over again.

Secretly, I like to imagine there’s something mysterious and radiant hidden inside of me, too—a hitherto unsuspected light in my midsection being slowly strengthened and seasoned by all the suffering and love, loss and joy, despair and redemption I’ve managed to endure and survive.  And that when my time comes it won’t be disease or neglect, violence, incompetence, or age, but instead this very light inside that kills me by swelling to an immensity, a brilliance, that finally grows too big for further restraint.

These days I spend a lot less time thinking about how not to die and more of it trying to truly live, to touch and savor everything I can while I’ve still got the chance; the pleasant and crappy, fun and hard, dark and luminous, all of it.  It doesn’t feel so much anymore like my dying will come as the result of a final, catastrophic failure; of my body or my choices or the medical system that cares for me.  Rather it seems like it will simply be the arrival of my own promised twilight, finally coming full circle in a vast and primordial cycle encoded in my body from the start.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

From THE ONION: “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100%”

I adore these writers.  For those who haven’t read it before, The Onion is a satirical magazine (originally paper with a now-huge online presence) that makes fun of absolutely everything.  I just came across this tongue-in-cheek article from 1997 that directly addresses the poll I took a few weeks ago, asking about whether or not people believe we’ll eventually find a cure for death.  Here’s a bit:

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—World Health Organization officials expressed disappointment Monday at the group’s finding that, despite the enormous efforts of doctors, rescue workers and other medical professionals worldwide, the global death rate remains constant at 100 percent.

Death, a metabolic affliction causing total shutdown of all life functions, has long been considered humanity’s number one health concern. Responsible for 100 percent of all recorded fatalities worldwide, the condition has no cure.

“I was really hoping, what with all those new radiology treatments, rescue helicopters, aerobics TV shows and what have you, that we might at least make a dent in it this year,” WHO Director General Dr. Gernst Bladt said. “Unfortunately, it would appear that the death rate remains constant and total, as it has inviolably since the dawn of time.”

A sense of humor about these things is invaluable.  For anyone who hasn’t taken the poll yet, you can still go back and let me know what you think.  I continue tracking it.  Someone dropped by recently who thinks that we will eventually find a cure for death but unfortunately they didn’t leave a comment.  If anyone else with that perspective happens to drop in for a vote, would you mind leaving a comment, too?  In spite of the satirical note of this Onion article, I’d really love to hear your thoughts about it.  I’m fascinated by all different views.

Thanks!

The Stars We Steer By

LH 95 star forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud

The results are in from the thirty-seven people who voted in the poll, (hardly representative but enough for a tiny feel), and I’m both surprised and heartened.

But before I launch into that discussion, I wanted to thank everyone who voted, as well as everyone who tried to vote but couldn’t because of technical difficulties.  There were a lot of you latter, I know.  This post got about five times the number of hits as translated into votes so clearly, the glitch some of you reported was a big one.  Bummer.  I really wanted to know what you thought.  I’ve recently been assailed by doubts about the value of what I’m trying to do with this blog and the eventual book, and I was trying to establish whether there was really a need for it or not.

Note to self: Learn more, much more, about conducting a casual poll.

And now to the results.  Taking into consideration that the sampling was minuscule and the line of questioning was leading at best, I was still surprised to find that my suspicions were baseless.  In spite of all the progress medical science has made over the last century, everyone who responded still sees death as the natural conclusion to our biological destiny.  While there were those who thought our age span might be extended beyond 120 years, a few who thought we’d find a cure for aging, and some who thought disease would eventually be eradicated, nobody checked the Live Forever box.   The proponents of Immortalism will undoubtedly be bummed, but it makes the job I’ve undertaken seem more feasible.

For those who didn’t know yet, I have an agenda here.

We all have our particular stars to shoot for and I’m no different.  Mine involves trying to ease some of the unnecessary levels of fear I’ve seen around dying.  I’m not gunning for ALL the fear mind you, because some of it is appropriate and perfectly healthy.  It’s like a couple of people mentioned in their comments; the instinct to survive is in our DNA and, without the fight or flight response, we wouldn’t last long as a species.

No.  What I’d like to target is the unnecessary fear.  The excess.  The bogey man part.  The kind of terror that results from things like lack of education and unrealistic expectations, from misinterpreting symptoms to grossly underestimating our own strength.  I want to tackle the kind of creeping, obsessive fear that arises from focusing on external, technological solutions which we often can’t control, to the exclusion of internal strengths that we can.

That last one was what I was trying to gauge with the poll.  As a society, we’re dedicating our resources and faith to medical science at a rate that’s escalating geometrically, and I wanted to find out just how much faith.  Because if most people are starting to believe deep down that dying is ultimately unnecessary then, honestly, there wouldn’t be much left for me to do here.  The hope of living forever raises an entirely different set of fears about dying that I wouldn’t have a clue how to address.

If that was the case I’d be free to begin a whole new star-hunt.

However, thirty-seven out of thirty-seven people still believe that dying is biologically inevitable and, while it’s not universally representative, it’ll have to do.  I’ll just assume that trying to ease some of the fear around dying is still a relevant and worthwhile goal to pursue after all.

Note to self:  Possible things to talk about in future posts.

1)  Cultivating internal resources like courage, endurance, gratitude, trust, humility, strength, inner dignity, etc., provides the most powerful fall-back position for when technological solutions fail.  (Other options:  Despair.  Rage.  Blame.  Generally falling into the abyss.)

2)  Cultivating the above also dramatically improves the quality of life before dying.

3)  Instead of devoting all our attention to fighting over who’s going to pay for the viral growth of outside, institutional services, we can also look into designing and building closer, committed homes and communities where it’ll be easier to help care for one another.

4)  Before we pour our hearts, souls, and tax dollars into more of the bitter, divisive legislative battles raging, we could first try to weave a constructive, workable meaning for suffering to help us navigate with a little more grace.  (Of course this would require courage, trust, humility, etc., which brings us right back to the practical uses of number one.)

I know there’s a way to die that isn’t as scary as most people think it is.  I’ve seen it.  I witnessed a variety of ways to navigate the process that not only make it less devastating for the person who’s dying, but actually helps buoy and heal those who have to pick up the pieces afterwards and carry on.  I just need to figure out if there’s a practical way to communicate what I learned to anybody else.

That’s my star.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

Poll: Do You Think Medical Science Can Someday “Cure” Death?

Update:  There was some confusion about where to find the poll.  Bad post design.  Sorry.  I’ve now moved it up to the top.  Please click on all the answers that seem true to you.

This week, my friends, I’d really like to get your input on something.

The other night, as I was watching the usual parade of age-related drug and medical commercials during the evening news, (the target demographic for network news is pretty unmistakable these days,) I thought I heard a subliminal message running throughout.  If I’m hearing correctly, it’s an oblique, unspoken promise to the general population that goes something like this:

If we (i.e. medical scientific research) can find a cure for aging and disease, then nobody will have to die anymore.

Is it just me, or is there an unconscious (conscious?) expectation being fostered in our public awareness that someday death will be “cured”?

Do you think death is curable?

In order to take a broader pulse, I’ve developed this brief, informal poll.  (Here’s hoping it works.  I’ve never done a poll before.)

If you wouldn’t mind, I’d really appreciate your taking a moment to answer.  In fact, if you wanted to invite anybody else to take this poll, too, well that would be just dandy.  There are various ways to share the link below, or you can always cut and paste the URL yourself.

The more the merrier.

And if you’re as curious as I am to find out if there’s a real paradigm shift taking place (i.e. we’re starting to believe en masse that we don’t have to die) there should be a tab at the bottom of the poll you can click on to see the results so far.

I know the possibilities I’ve provided are pretty limited, so if you have an insight that doesn’t fit in to any of the choices provided, feel free to expand in the comment section.  I’d really like to hear what you think.  This is driving me nuts.

Thanks.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Buoyancy, A Curious Japanese Ritual, and Admitting Confusion

IMDb

Today I hurt.  In pursuit of my timid triathlon quest I lifted weights yesterday, so today it’s harder to lift anything else.  And once I finished the round of weights, I went down to the pool to swim laps for the first time in over a decade and made an awkward discovery.  Most people probably already know this but it turns out fat is really buoyant.  I mean really. There are about sixty pounds or so standing in between me and my old fighting weight and, gauging from the way my body responded to the water yesterday, I think most of it is in my butt.  I may as well have had a life-preserver strapped to it.  Or an inflatable boat.  No matter how deep I dove or how hard I kicked to stay down there, my rear-end inevitably led back up to the surface like a drowning person seeking air.  It was embarrassing.  The self-delusion I’ve clung to over the years took a critical (necessary?) hit and now I’m forced to admit there is nothing, nothing, sleek left about my body.

The poor dear.  I owe her big time.

And now on to what I really wanted to talk about in this post.  There was a powerful insight I had while watching the Japanese  film “Departures” a couple of weeks ago but the problem is, I’m still not exactly sure what it was.  (Actually, I feel kind of like a quote I found once in a whole oats forum: The answers we found only served to raise a whole new set of questions.  We’re as confused as ever, but we believe we’re now confused on a higher level and about more important things.) Please bear with me here while I struggle to explain this.  For starters, there are a few things I do know about the insight.  For instance, it was a big one.  It felt like it might explain a lot of what I’ve been trying to communicate about dying in this blog.  It’s also continued to eat at me because I suspect understanding this one insight could go a long way toward easing the excess terror a lot of people feel about dying these days.

But what is it exactly?  Well, to explain that I need to describe three of the scenes that triggered the insight.  But Spoiler Alert:  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, these scenes will give a major part of the plot away.

Ready to go ahead anyway?  Okay.  Here we go.

The first is a scene where the main character, Daigo (who’s taken employment as someone who reverently prepares the bodies of the dead for cremation) meets an old childhood friend on the street.  The friend has his family with him and Daigo stops to greet them.  But the friend gruffly sends his wife and child on up the street without introducing them, telling Daigo that he knows he’s working with the dead and therefore wants nothing to do with him.  He ends the encounter saying something like  “get yourself a decent job” before walking away.

The second scene involves the death of this old friend’s elderly mother.  Daigo is asked to perform the “encoffining” ceremony for her; an exquisite, formalized, Japanese ritual of bathing and dressing the deceased in front of the watching family.  By the time this scene arrives in the movie, we’ve already witnessed the profound and often healing influence this ceremony has on the families, so we’re expectant that something similar is about to happen to Daigo’s friend.

And we’re not disappointed.  True to form, as he watches Daigo not only restore the dignity to his mother’s body that death stripped from it, but also elevate it to an almost transcendent state of beauty, the friend’s perception of  Daigo’s work transforms.  We all watch as the childhood friend finally “gets it.”  He’s moved.  He weeps, and he thanks Daigo for the gift he’s given his whole family.

Then, in the third scene, Daigo visits the recently deceased body of the father who abandoned him in early childhood.  He stands in a strange room gazing down at a body he doesn’t recognize and with which, other than anger, he feels no emotional ties.  Suddenly, two men hurry into the room hauling a cheap coffin.  They set it down, seize the shoulders and feet of the body, and start to heave it into the box.

We’re all shocked.  This time there is no beautiful, reverent ceremony.   No respect for the family standing in observance.  No restoration of dignity to the body or anything else for that matter.  Quite the opposite.  The actions of the two men only deepen the natural horror that always goes with the violent severance of life.  They treat the body as a “thing.”  As so much trash or waste to be collected, dumped, and burned.  Far from providing healing, this callousness threatens to increase Daigo’s trauma.

Needless to say he’s outraged and this heat transforms his wound.  He stops the men mid-transfer, and drives them away.  Then he kneels down beside the body to perform the ceremony of encoffining, and in so doing finally finds the healing for himself that he’s provided for so many other families.

These scenes were aching, beautiful, and real for me.  I recognized the peculiar transformation of healing that can come through deep pain, because I often saw the same thing in my work with hospice.

And…suddenly…I’m realizing I’ve misunderstood what the source of that healing really is.  All this time, I’ve thought it was caused by the power of the dying process itself, but it’s not.  It’s more than that.

Dying generates an enormous, surging wave of energy that sweeps through the lives of everyone involved.  It’s like a tsunami of upheaval, destruction, and change; physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.  The sheer magnitude of the energy involved inevitably wrenches and devastates to some degree, even with a relatively benign death.  The natural, physical violence involved as a body dies dictates that.  Dying as an energy is a lot like nuclear power or the roiling energy of the sun.  It’s an elemental force of nature.

I’ve mistakenly assumed that the positive transformations portrayed in the movie, the kind I often saw in my hospice work, were built into the dying process itself.  But now I’m thinking not so much.  The energy of dying is neutral.  It doesn’t care how we feel about it.  It doesn’t care whether it traumatizes us or not.  It doesn’t care if we face it with courage and respect, or run away from it horrified and screaming.  Healing us is not its job, anymore than it’s the sun’s job to make sure our houses are warm.  The power dying generates has the potential to heal, of course, but it probably won’t unless we learn how to harness  and direct it.

In Departures, Daigo shows us one way to harness it; with respect, willingness, humility, compassion, and tremendous courage.

The movie puts a concrete face on the beauty, dignity, grace, and healing that can accompany dying and death, something that I’ve been trying to describe in this blog for a while.  (With questionable success.)   And the movie does so without romanticizing or hiding the gruesome, gritty realities that are also involved.  There are a couple of graphic scenes (skillfully deployed with humor) which add something critically important.  The truth is that dying and death are primarily energies of destruction.  Yes, they’re still crucial to the world if there’s going to be enough room and resources left for all the new life yet to come, but that fact doesn’t tend to make the graphic nature of it all easier.  It’s important to learn the tools we can use to manage the graphic elements involved, things like humor, reverence, and building a bigger context.

There’s a deep paradox embedded in our nation’s perspective about dying.  On the one hand, our national eyes look at it through a scientific medical paradigm through which we’ve increasingly grown to see dying as a failure and a waste.  Now, I don’t in any way mean to dismiss the profound gifts that medical advances have brought to our lives or suggest that we should ever return to a world without them.  However, it’s important to understand that the lens of technology we’ve adopted has created a growing distortion in our expectations about death.  In attempting to reduce it from a universal force of nature to the level of a technological glitch, we’ve objectified dying in much the same way that the two men in the third scene objectified the body of Daigo’s father.  These days, in both medical research and public awareness, we increasingly see death as a mess and a waste, and we tend to treat it with a corresponding aggressiveness, disrespect, and callousness as we attempt to conquer and eliminate it.

But something else entirely is taking place on the individual level.  While our societal consciousness reels in a kind of perpetual horror of dying, I’ve met so many individuals whose lives have been touched in a beautiful, dignified way by the death of someone they loved, usually because of the help and guidance they received from a hospice or other agency that (in direct opposition to the scientific medical view) perceived dying as an incredibly valuable time of life.  These people I met had been through hell, no question.  But they’d also learned how to see what was happening through eyes of respect.  During their difficult journeys they were allowed and encouraged to unleash the fullest extent of their love, even in the face of unalterable and permanent separation.  To varying degrees, they had each tasted what it was like to rage, to long, to grieve, to laugh, to tremble, to hope, to ache, to collapse, and then to survive and come through a deep, irreparable loss within a circle of respect and safety, holding the hands of others who didn’t minimize, dismiss, or pull back from their experience.

This paradox between a technological perspective and a reverent one is, on a deep level, tearing us apart.  Our scientific determination to conquer death is engaged in a ferocious battle with our deep human desire to die a peaceful one and, even though we know deep down that we can’t have both, we still throw all our considerable resources at the first goal, and then bitterly fight over what policies to set that can guarantee the second.

It’s made us a little schizophrenic.

I don’t pretend to know what the solution to the conflict will be.  That’s something that only time, growth, and group wisdom can reveal.

But I do know what’s helping me climb out of the clash.  In a lot of ways I felt like my job with hospice was similar to Daigo’s, only I did mine with the living.  I bathed and dressed and prepared them, too, with as much reverence and respect as I could muster, and I did my best, minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day, to restore the people who were dying and the people who loved them to a sense of their own dignity, courage, and strength.   I know it was something I never would have learned how to do without the help of my mentors…the experienced hospice staff who taught me…and I also know that I really want to figure out some way to pass their gift to me downstream.

Which is why I recommend this movie so highly.  Because I think it can help.  If you ever get a chance, give it a look.  Departures.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

I have a secret.

I think I may want to do a triathlon.

There.  It’s not a secret anymore. (How scary.)  I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m firmly committed though.  Don’t go getting all supportive.  I can’t just come out and boldly state I’M GOING TO DO A TRIATHLON yet, because the only-slightly-open-to-the-idea part of me who’s standing there perusing the brochure would startle, slide to the back of the crowd, and head straight home.  No.  I have to sneak up on her.  I have to peek over her shoulder and nonchalantly say Hey, a triathlon eh?  Interesting idea.  Think you’ll do it? No pressure.  No energy on it.  Just detached interest and vague agreement.  I have to enroll her in this and it may not be easy.

To be honest, even just thinking about it as a remote possibility is surprisingly emotional.  It’s strange.  It’s like how I imagine a woman might feel who long since gave up trying to have a baby, but then suddenly considered trying to conceive again.  The idea is fraught with the possibility of a lot of renewed pain, so I have to approach it carefully.

I’ve been pretty lost where my body is concerned for about a decade now.  Long, long ago and far, far away, in a mythic land of youth and pre-depression, I was a finely-tuned athlete.  At various times in my life I swam competitively, played tennis and championship field hockey, and as a gymnast was once invited to a training camp for the Olympics.  (I chickened out.  I’m athletic but not terribly competitive which was always hard on my coaches.)  I used to run for miles every morning for the joy of it, do twelve hour day-hikes through mountainous terrain alone, and if the tiny college I attended had only had a dance department I would have graduated with a useless degree in Tap and Modern instead of the useless degree in Literature I have today.

But then the depression came along, and for the next nineteen years or so it relentlessly ate away at my natural energy and drive.  Then perimenopause jumped onto the pile, too.  For a while I still had the advantage of strength and sheer momentum to keep me staggering ahead but, with the other two double-teaming me, eventually my body gave in and collapsed to the mat.  The weight kept increasing, the fatigue took over, my joints started to hurt, and it finally just seemed easier to give up and put it all behind me.  The old activities became distant memories.  All that remained were my daily jaunts back in the hills with our gradual succession of dogs.

(I think anyone who’s ever been willing to quit on themselves completely, but didn’t for the simple reason that their dog…leash in mouth…wouldn’t take no for an answer, will understand when I say just how much I owe them and why I loved them all so deeply.)

Over the years I’ve tried to school myself to forget the natural athlete I was, (like I schooled myself to forget so many of the other things that I lost through the worst of the depression,) and I thought I was doing okay.  But now, all of a sudden, out of the blue, I’m thinking Hey, maybe I can do a triathlon and it’s stirring up a whole lot of buried stuff.

For instance, I mentioned it to the woman at the YMCA (I just joined) who was showing me how to use the weight machines and, as soon as the words came out of my mouth, to my horror I started crying and couldn’t stop.  I was aghast.  At first I tried to explain but it was too hard to talk coherently with my face beet red and my heart pounding and my stomach sinking the way they were.  She seemed to understand anyway.  She waited until I pulled myself back together again, then offered to help me create a beginning training schedule, which we did.

It calmed me.  It was a step.

So here I am today, ready to openly admit that I’m secretly contemplating trying to consider to see if maybe I might want to try and train for a triathlon, just in case I actually decide to do one at some point in the undetermined future.  We’ll see if it happens.  Frankly, right now it feels like declaring for the summit of Mt. Everest.  But then again, you never know.

This kind of secret, insidious desire…the type that comes out of nowhere and challenges all the low expectations one has settled for over time…can sometimes surprise to the upside.  I just need to be careful not to crush it.  It’s like a teeny tiny flicker of flame.  I can’t just drop a log on it, that would snuff it out.  I need to feed this little, precarious dream with tinder and twigs in small handfuls first, until it gets big enough to put on a branch or two.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll wind up with a full blown bonfire at some point.  Stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, I now have to go buy a pair of tennis shoes.  And then tomorrow I have to go back to the Y to work on the weights and swim laps for half an hour.  I seem to be able to commit to that much.  The rest…well…the rest will just take as long as it takes.  And that’s okay.  Whoever the tenacious, secret person is down inside me wanting this, she seems to be nothing if not patient.

image from Wikipedia

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn