How we can truly support those facing death or grieving over loss

By Dr. Nick Busing

Living well and dying well are what we all hope for. As we face dying and death, we need all the support we can get. It comes from many places, but we all know about the challenges associated with crowded emergency departments, the wait for hospital beds, the inadequate number of community placements, the stress on home care, the shortage of personal support workers … the list goes on.

Most Canadians (75 per cent in recent surveys) want to die at home, but most cannot. Most palliative care today is still provided in the hospital. The reasons are complex and include the lack of adequate home care palliative services and the limited support available to families and caregivers as they struggle to support a loved one at home. Conversations about dying and death are often left too late, when families and friends are in a state of panic, and are unsure what to do, and therefore turn to the local hospital to help them out.

In my more than 40 years as a family doctor, I learned so much from my patients and their families. When I provided end-of-life care in the home, I often noted the critical role of the family and friends in providing support and care to the dying person. Those families who spoke to the dying person well before the last days to understand the values, wishes and beliefs that were important, coped better, as I am sure the patient did as well. This reinforced for me that dying, death, care-giving and loss are social problems with medical aspects and not medical problems with social aspects.

We need to mobilize our communities (person by person, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood) to become better able to support each other as we age. Compassionate Ottawa, a grassroots organization, only two years old, lives by the following vision: A compassionate Ottawa supports and empowers individuals, their families and their communities throughout life for dying and grieving well.Compassionate Ottawa was started by volunteers, and is sustained by volunteers, all of whom want to help our community normalize discussions about dying, death and grieving so that we can reach out to each other to provide support when needed.

The compassionate city movement was started in the United Kingdom and advocates for the role of the community in providing support and care. The long-term goal for us is to achieve a new model of care for those dealing with dying, death and grieving. Compassionate Ottawa is working with schools, workplaces and faith organizations to educate them about planning for dying and death so that they foster resiliency at the individual level. We are conducting advance care planning (ACP) workshops with many community groups. Our compassionate city strives to be one that recognizes that caring for each other should not be left to the health and social services but is the responsibility of all of us.

Amongst its initiatives, Compassionate Ottawa is proud to bring the HELP project (Healthy End of Life Project) to Canada from its origins in Australia. This three-year research project, with funding from the Mach-Gaensslen Foundation of Canada and led by researchers at Carleton University, will work with two faith groups and two community health centres in Ottawa to develop the skills and confidence to offer, ask for and accept help near the end of life. We will identify the challenges and successes we encounter and hope to have lessons that will be of use not only in Ottawa but also in communities across Canada.

We cannot continue to look only to the government’s health and social services to support our friends and relatives as they near the end of their lives. A push for more resiliency in the community would be a great benefit to all of us. And downstream it would mean fewer visits to the emergency rooms, fewer admissions to hospital, less demand for experts, less costly care and, hopefully, a more satisfied and stronger population.

Complete Article HERE!

Love at the end of life

By Maryse Zeidler

Meaghan Jackson has a surprising amount of insight into death and love for a 36-year-old.

“Working here, it’s changed me,” Jackson said from a wood-panelled room at the North Shore Hospice, where she has worked as a music therapist for four years.

“It’s completely changed the trajectory of my life.”

Meaghan Jackson is a music therapist at the North Shore Hospice. Jackson says working in palliative care has changed her life.

Jackson guides the residents at the hospice through their final days. She helps them write songs for their loved ones, and plays music for them as they take their last breaths.

Jackson has worked in “death and dying” since she was 22. She says her experiences prompted her to have children early in life, and focus on the present, no matter how difficult.

“I practice the art of being present when that present isn’t pleasant,” she said.

Health practitioners like Jackson say their experiences working with dying patients offer insights into love, relationships and how to focus on what matters.

A room at the B.C. Cancer Centre in Vancouver. Health practitioners say patients facing death tend to prioritize their relationships.

Each of the four practitioners interviewed for this story — a doctor, a social worker, a nurse and a music therapist — say dying patients tend to focus their energy and attention on the people they love.

Dr. Pippa Hawley, a palliative care doctor at the B.C. Cancer Centre, says she has seen couples and families reconcile after decades apart. She’s also seen several of her dying patients get married in the palliative care unit, sometimes in their beds.

Hawley says dying patients don’t have time to take loved ones for granted.

“All of that stuff that we bother with on a day-to-day basis just fades into irrelevancy,” she says.

Dying patients face many challenges with their partners, even when they prioritize love.

Melanie McDonald, a social worker who also works in palliative care at the B.C. Cancer Centre, says every couple she helps deals with death differently.

Couples who thrive during difficult moments are often those who can balance sadness with joy and love, she says.

Social worker Melanie McDonald says couples face many challenges when faced with death.

Nurse Jane Webley, who leads Vancouver Coastal Health’s palliative care unit, says the strongest couples are best at honestly communicating their needs, feelings and end-of-life plans.

Webley says patients who find it too difficult to discuss those matters are often the same ones who push loved ones away and face death alone.

“I think that’s a protection mechanism,” she said. “I would say 90 per cent of the time, it’s fear — and that fear is brought about by lack of communication.”

Dr. Hawley says some of her patients are never able to communicate their feelings and needs. Often, she says, that’s been a long-standing issue for them.

“People tend to die as they have lived,” she said.

Talking about death and end-of-life plans is often easier for older couples who are often more in touch with mortality. But Webley says it’s never too soon to have those difficult conversations.

Another challenge couples face when one is dying is learning to give or receive help, health practitioners say.

Social worker McDonald says people who aren’t used to being caregivers, typically men, often struggle when they’re suddenly thrust into that position. But most people learn to take on that role, she says.

Health practitioners say that learning to ask for help can be a steep learning curve for some patients.

Dr. Hawley says patients can face problems as they lose their independence. But she says it’s important for people to let their partners care for them.

“Don’t feel like you’re a burden,” she said. “It’s actually a wonderful gift to be allowed to care for somebody, to show them that you love them.”

All four of the health care practitioners say love at the end of life can take many shapes.

“Love looks differently in different situations,” says social worker McDonald. “Love shows up in the end of life in friendship and in families and pets and faith traditions and all sorts of different ways.”

Complete Article HERE!

A cartoonist drew a touching tribute to his dying dog.

His readers gave him an outpouring of sympathy.

Stephan Pastis’s tribute to his dog, Edee.

By Michael Cavna

Stephan Pastis ducked into an Arizona coffeehouse last September and began to grieve. He sketched and cried as he wrote the words, “We put our dog to sleep on Wednesday.” The plot twist was, about 800 miles away, Pastis’s dog was still alive, though her time drew near.

Edee, a loving and gentle springer spaniel, was the only dog Pastis had ever had. Now here he was, a cartoonist who uses drawing as a coping technique, on a personal trip far from his Northern California home, unable to comfort Edee and say goodbye to her one last time before she was put down.

The resulting art was not the sort of sentiment that readers usually expect from Pastis, a former lawyer. As the creator of the popular comic “Pearls Before Swine,” he entertains millions of fans by often trafficking in darker and snarkier human emotions, as channeled through a gallery of animal characters, including the self-serving Rat and the wide-eyed innocent Pig.

Although some comic-strip creators draw upon events from their personal lives for inspiration, most cartoonists don’t share their experiences directly through their work, free of fictive elements or filtering techniques. But on that emotional day in Phoenix — where Pastis was visiting his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease — the cartoonist decided to get as directly personal as an artist can get. “I’ve always run to my creativity to cope with life,” Pastis says.

The main characters in “Pearls Before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis.

So he wrote that Edee had cancer. He wrote that she was so sweet that “even kids that were afraid of dogs would pet her.” He wrote that she would “protect” him from squirrels and a stuffed mallard duck while he worked in his Santa Rosa studio. And he wrote of the “hurt” in the hearts of his family, including his wife, their 21-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

The punchline-free purity of that comic strip, published in December, struck a chord. Hundreds of readers contacted Pastis. And this week, his syndicate, Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel, announced that the Edee strip was its most buzzed-about comic of 2018, with nearly 500 comments and almost 1,200 “likes.”

That speaks, his syndicate says, to the power of going personal.

“It connects the readers to the comic at a whole different level,” says John Glynn, president and editorial director of Andrews McMeel Syndication. “It can, however, be jarring if the audience isn’t used to it.

“Stephan has done it well and regularly enough over the years,” Glynn continues, “that his readers know that they see a version of the cartoonist that you don’t see in most comics.”

A recurring character in “Pearls Before Swine” is an avatar of Pastis, comedically depicted as a beer-bellied, stubble-faced, overambitious and pun-happy hack whose work is insulted by the very characters he has created. But on occasion, Pastis the avatar will share an honest, true-life slice of himself.

When those genuine ideas come, Pastis says, he typically tries to draw them, even if he ultimately doesn’t publish them — because he doesn’t want to gum up the creative flow.

“When I sit down to write,” he says, “what’s there is there. When something tragic has happened” — from the death of a relative, say, to the enormity of a terrorist act — “the ideas seem to have a narrow spigot, and what’s there is something you have to get out — you have to write it.”

Last September, though, Pastis was feeling especially emotional. He had just come from being on set for a Disney film adaptation of his kids’ book series, “Timmy Failure.” Now here he was in Phoenix, where his father did not recognize him, and then his wife called to say that Edee would need to be put to sleep within hours to minimize the pet’s suffering — much sooner than they had expected.

“I was all by myself out there,” he says.

Edee, the family pet of “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis.

The cartoonist walked to the Lux Central cafe, pulled his ball cap down low and got lost in his art, listening to such mournful music as “To Build a Home” by the Cinematic Orchestra. He was trying to communicate through pictures both his love for his pet — he never had a dog as a boy and had come to fear dogs after once being bitten — and the degree to which Edee had become a part of the family over six years.

Edee was due to be put down at 11 a.m. Pastis finished drawing and headed to the Phoenix Art Museum — where he gazed at Frida Kahlo’s 1938 painting, “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” — before calling his wife to hear how Edee’s final moments went.

Pastis had touched many readers in 2003, when he created a heart-wrenching comic after watching a news report about a bus attack in Jerusalem that killed six children. And the cartoonist got especially personal in 2012 when a poignant “Pearls” strip eulogized his father-in-law.

For Edee, Pastis let that creative spigot again flow.

“Sometimes when you write from the heart, in a moment like that, it has a way of distilling the essence of what is in you in a very straight, direct way,” Pastis says. “What comes out is sometimes pretty meaningful.”

When the strip ran Dec. 9, the immediate response was strong and uncommonly large, the cartoonist says. Many of the readers who contacted him had recently lost their pets.

Wrote one commenter on the syndicate’s GoComics.com site: “Your comic is really hard to read. I can tell because my eyes are starting to sweat.” Some readers offered thanks and condolences and spoke of a pet’s afterlife across “the Rainbow Bridge.” Another commenter said: “Sometimes the best comics are the sad ones.”

A comic strip like that, Pastis says, “provides a sort of release of emotion — it becomes this thing they can connect to.”

And comics have the ability, he continues, “to comment on your life in a way that helps you and the people around you.”

Complete Article HERE!

Reinventing yourself:

Mourning, accepting, and moving forward

It’s okay to mourn your former self.

By

I am not the same person I used to be, and I have been mourning who I once was. My former self is gone. Dead. I’m not that person anymore, and I may never be again. It’s been a struggle, but I’m finally accepting how my life has changed and finding ways to move forward.

Throughout this period of mourning, I’ve wondered what my life will be like moving forward. What will I do as an entirely different person? Who am I? How is this new person supposed to live life? What am I supposed to do? Everything is new and different, and I don’t know how this new person is supposed to live day to day. I’m no longer me. It’s like trying to learn to live life as a completely different person. I’m changed. My thought process has been altered in a way I am still trying to understand. Even with all the uncertainty, I’m learning how to be this new person. I’m figuring out who I am, and I’m trying to adjust my ways. My life has been flipped upside down (and shaken a few times, vigorously).

I’m not going to discuss what has changed my life so profoundly, but it is indeed a life-altering change. I went through the five stages of grief, and I feel I have finally fully entered the acceptance stage. I’m moving forward one tiny step at a time. I’m learning how to live with the changes and trying to reclaim as much of my former self as I can. At this point, I don’t how much will be possible, but I’m making peace with it. I’m holding on to every little bit of my former self that I can so I don’t lose myself completely. I’m using those small parts to build a new me with enough of my old self that I recognize the person I’m becoming. I truly am a work in progress right now, and I’m hoping I grow enough that these changes don’t seem so awful. I really am getting there, and some of who I’ve always been is reappearing each day. I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I am slowly moving toward it. I’ll make it. It took a while for me to believe I’d get there, but I’m on my way.

This, too, will pass?

It might not. I’m thinking it likely won’t. And if it doesn’t, I’m learning that it’s okay.

Are you having an identity crisis? Let me tell you what I have learned during my journey.

  • You haven’t lost yourself completely.
    It might be difficult to find yourself, but it’s okay. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and hard work, but if you keep digging within yourself…well, there you are. Your heart feels the same toward others, and your head rationalizes the same way. Emotions impact you the same. That’s you. It might feel like you have disappeared, but you’re the same at your core. You’re still in there, and even if parts of you don’t resurface for the world to see, it’s okay.
  • Reinventing doesn’t mean giving up on yourself.
    Who you truly are will be the center of your rebirth. It will help determine who you become when you reinvent yourself. No matter what changes occur, you are still you. Even if no one else sees it, you are still in there. You’re not sacrificing your identity. You’re going to use parts of it to evolve, so the person you become reflects the very essence of who you are. That new person? It’s a refined version. It’s a better version. It is you in an evolved form—You 2.0.
  • Digging out of an identity crisis is hard, but it’s worth it.
    Every day, I feel better about myself. Every single day I spend working on reinventing myself, I regain a bit of happiness. I catch glimpses of my former self here and there, and it reminds me that it’s still me in there. It doesn’t matter how you reinvent yourself. It only matters that you keep working at it. When you realize you are still you inside, the hardest part is done. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, keep trudging along. It doesn’t matter how fast you move. It only matters that you keep moving and keep going forward. You’ll get there.
  • It’s okay to mourn your former self.
    Sometimes we need to go through a period of mourning. Working through the stages of grief spit me out on the other side. I’m still flailing around a bit, but acceptance has made me determined. Mourning taught me many things. I’ve learned to cope with the changes, and these coping skills are a gift of grieving. I’m using them to reinvent and learn to love myself again no matter how different I may be. Take time to grieve. Learn how to cope through grieving. Use it to reinvent yourself and grow into a person you love.

No matter what you’re going through, keep going. Just keep pushing forward. You’re going to make it to that light at the end of the tunnel.

Complete Article HERE!

Transition Green Burials is Promoting the Growth of This Eco-Friendly Practice

Climate change is on everyone’s mind as initiatives for renewable energy and sustainable public habits adapt to a more environmentally-friendly approach.

While numerous avenues for reducing the adverse impact of energy production and ocean contamination dominate most of the narrative around preserving the ecosystem, many more obscure and often overlooked practices lead to the accretion of environmental contaminants.

One of those areas is the traditional Western approach to burial practices and its subsequent impact on local ecosystems. Embalming fluid, typically composed of formaldehyde, ethanol, and water, is commonly used in burials throughout Western culture to preserve bodies for funeral services before being put to rest.

However, the proliferation of costly funeral services has led to increased exposure to formaldehyde, both to individuals who work with it directly and the environment. Compounding the issue is the myriad metals — such as bronze and steel — that are laid to rest during funeral services that do not readily compose in the soil. As demand for cemetery land undoubtedly grows, the adverse impact of the contaminants synonymous with funeral practices grows.

Transition Green Burials is a company focused on promoting the conversion to more eco-friendly burial practices, known as ‘green burials’ or natural burials.

Identifying Sources of Burial Pollutants

Formaldehyde produces the most concerning ecological threat with common burials practices because of its widespread use and identity as a dangerous animal carcinogen.

Highly toxic to animals, formaldehyde is implicated in cancer, nervous system disorders, and lateral sclerosis. Formaldehyde can also break down into urotropine during decomposition, an anti-bacterial chemical commonly used in antibiotics for bacterial infections, but that is harmful to the natural bacteria in the soil.

Pesticides and herbicides are often used in the internment process too, compounding the negative effects of formaldehyde on the soil surrounding burial areas. The downstream effects of the chemicals used in the internment process can eventually even lead to contamination of underground water sources.

Outside of common internment practices, cremation processes also lead to the emission of mercury and toxic plastic into the environment. Further, high carbon loads are needed for the cremation process, leading to increased carbon emissions, one of the fundamental focuses of environmental initiatives like The Paris Climate Agreement. With nearly 50 percent of Americans selecting cremation today, few realize the pollutants that are dispersed into the air from the procedure.

Many conservation groups, like the Green Burial Council, are seeking to promote more eco-friendly practices by limiting the use of embalming fluids, herbicides, and pesticides in the process. Further, some groups are promoting the use of biodegradable coffins, design to break down over time, mitigating the long-term impact of steel or brass caskets that can destroy habitats as burial grounds expand.

Transitioning to Fixed Cost Green Burials

The Green Burial Council cites the rise of certified green burial sites across the US as an indication of the legitimacy of their cause, and their emphasis on protecting worker health, reducing toxic pollutants, and promoting habitat conservation is gaining traction among various burial grounds and activists.  

Similarly, Transition Green Burials is taking a hybrid approach to the issue with a focus on both the environmental impact and financial advantages of green burials through their TransitionCoin, which is designed to incentivize people to change conventional burial practices.

TransitionCoin provides a fixed cost for green burials — including all of the associated services required in the course of the burial. The targeting of a fixed price is derived from the rapidly increasing cost of funeral home services, which can reach as high as $25,000 and can lead to financial struggles among grieving families.

With a fixed cost for any green burial, people who select TransitionCoin can reduce financial costs and contribute to the growing Green Burial Movement.

The conventional burial practices among Western countries using caskets and multiple proceedings through a funeral home is also more of an isolated and recent phenomenon that began following the Civil War in the US. Several religions — including Judaism — forbid the embalming of the deceased out of religious tradition, and preserving chemicals or embalming fluid are also rarely used in Islamic burials.

Green burials grounds and services have also emerged across the US already. States like California and South Carolina have certified green burial preserves set up that are registered with the Green Burial Council. The Green Burial Council provides certified standards for funeral services, cemeteries, and burial product manufacturers. There are currently 39 states with funeral providers accredited by the Green Burial Council for eco-friendly burials.

The notion of analyzing green burial practices is one of the more obscure concepts within environmental conservation, but, nonetheless, is important to take into consideration as the widespread use of formaldehyde and pesticides continue. Transition Green Burials and the Green Burial Council are actively promoting the shift to a more eco-friendly approach, and it is beginning to gain traction among both environmental activists and funeral parlors.

Complete Article HERE!

How To Grieve When A Loved One Chooses To Die

By Chloe Gray

My great grandma, or Mia, as we knew her, was 100 when she decided she was ready to die. I found this out through a nonchalant conversation with my granny, her daughter, just after Christmas. She was eating a bowl of porridge at the breakfast bar, and said: “Mia wants to go, and that’s legal in Canada.”

Was I shocked? Not really. Although I didn’t actually know that Canada, where she had lived all her life, offered medically assisted dying (MAiD), my family are the type to take things into our own hands.

It’s a weird thing, euthanasia. It’s something you’re taught about in RE lessons at school, debating whether we have a right to ‘play God’. It’s something I agreed with as a faraway idea that I’d never have to consider. Something I thought was good in theory but hadn’t ever put any serious thought into the practice.

When I learned about Mia, I agreed with it still. Everyone I told did too, commenting on how brave her decision was and how amazing it was that she had this ‘opportunity’. They may have been thinking about the procedure itself rather than offering support but that was okay, because this was, overall, A Good Thing.

Meanwhile, with my family, talk swiftly turned to logistics. Timetables detailing who would be where and when were emailed around and the bank split Mia’s estate equally, with cheques ready to be collected by her children on the ride home from the facility. It helped the Canadian side of the family to deal with it Monica Geller-style, working pragmatically through the practical elements of her life.

“We’re more open to things that are predictable,” says Dr Anna Janssen, a psychologist specialising in palliative care. “There’s something safer about it, and that means we can be more flexible in our thinking and more open with ourselves and each other.”

But while they were handling the logistical side, it became very clear that we needed to introduce this flexibility into the emotional side of things, too.

The ‘five stages of grief’ ends with ‘acceptance’. The problem here was that for Mia to go with our blessing, we needed to accept her death before she actually died. That’s an unchartered process; grieving while someone is still alive and well(ish) feels weird. My auntie Penny summarised it perfectly, saying she felt she was going through grief sideways, like a breech birth.

Feeling emotion with a deadline meant we had to sprint through the confusion, the sadness, the relief of it all. If we had been Monica about the logistics, we Chandler-ed around the feelings part somewhat chaotically. But we still all felt weirdly…lucky? “With assisted dying, everyone involved has choice in the death,” explains Judy Tatelbaum, author of The Courage to Grieve. “That makes a great difference. Anticipatory grief is very healthy.”

But I was worried about what the minutes and days after she died would bring, seeing as we had already ‘grieved’. “Maybe the grief afterwards is easier, as some feelings have happened already,” said Dr Janssen. “But eventually there will be something new, because the context has changed, and you can’t feel it until the person has actually died.”

And so the 9th of January came. I asked not to know the exact time she was meeting her doctor, because what do you do in the minutes that someone you love is dying? In the most extreme version of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment, I went into a meeting, curious about whether she’d still be alive when I came out. She wasn’t. But there was an email telling the whole story, including how she had greeted the doctor by asking if he was the nice man who was going to help her.

Yes, my experience introduced a new closeness to my family. But it highlighted a flaw in the current MAiD plan. The message from the guidelines, the ethical debates and the psychologists I’ve spoken to is that assisted dying should be about having autonomy. It should make it easier, because you plan and prepare for the place, time, aftermath and even the feelings. But MAiD is such new territory that there are the same unknowns as with ‘regular’ dying.

Up until now, humans have only ever died after suffering through old age or illness or suddenly and shockingly in an accident. Those five stages of grief have been based on these same experiences over thousands of years. Now, suddenly, we’ve introduced a model where death can be scheduled into our diaries, and we can’t just apply the same rules. There are no history or self-help books to teach us how to navigate a brand-new type of grief that brings up a totally different, sporadic, rushed and uncertain feeling.

While there are articles and research papers discussing ethical, religious and legal boundaries, all the conversations have forgotten the people, families and feelings. And maybe that’s because, as Dr Janssen pointed out to me, it’s easier to discuss facts and figures than it is to discuss emotions.

For my family, MAiD was the first time we all properly discussed dying. Perhaps this is the taboo-breaking policy the world needs? You can’t send out a ‘save the date’ without telling people what for, after all. But to stop the turbulence, there’s still a grief taboo that needs to be broken. “We need to talk about the psychology of death and grief, but also the psychology of living. We talked about the death, but not about how we’re then meant to live well,” said Penny.

For families going through MAiD this year, in five years, or further in the future, when it could be a global policy, the system will benefit if we open up. “At the moment we don’t talk about it enough to know whether that [five stages] model requires more thought,” agrees Dr Janssen. “In my academic brain, I’m thinking we need to ask what MAiD means for people, but really, we’ll simply hear more if we take the time.”

My granny has since told me not to be shocked if she asks for MAiD. Is that a conversation she would have had with me if it wasn’t for Mia taking the plunge? Probably not. And while I haven’t yet applied my newfound skill for discussing death with anyone else, I’ll no longer hold back – especially when talking about my own.

Complete Article HERE!

What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

By Kelsey Osgood

One sunny Thursday evening in June, eight people, ranging from thirty-somethings to senior citizens, sat around a table at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center nibbling on cookies.

In front of them stood Sally Kaplan, one of three facilitators present from the organization What Matters, a New York City-based not-for-profit that facilitates group and individual conversations about advanced care planning. Sally interrupted the snacking to provide the group with a directive: pair off with the person next to you and talk about when you first realized you were mortal.

The participants looked around at each other; a few nervously giggled. There was a moment of uncertain silence. And then, everyone turned to their partner, and a rush of words poured forth. Death, it seems, can be confronted.

The What Matters event is just one example of a surge in Jewish programming focused on end-of-life issues, from speeches to workshops to unstructured discussions reminiscent of Death Cafes, where strangers meet over coffee and cake to talk about any topic related to death they so choose. (I’ve attended and written about death cafes before, although at the earlier ones I attended, participants ate pancakes or Chinese food rather than desserts.) The first “café mortel” was held in Switzerland in 2004. Since then, the movement has spread globally: from living rooms in Cincinnati to (thwarted) plans for a permanent café in London to China, where sickness and mortality remain taboo.

And the death café now has Jewish equivalents: Over the past years, death café-esque events have been held at Jewish community centers, senior homes, synagogues, and even mortuaries. Most recently, a coalition of Westchester County, New York synagogues organized a series[ of “death cafes” (the events were more structured than the traditional café mortel) centered around subjects like Jewish funerals and the afterlife in traditional Jewish thought. In Israel, Rabbis Miriam Berkowitz and Valerie Stessin, who founded the pastoral care initiative Kashouvot, have also hosted death cafes in the past. The Dinner Party, a network of meal-based gatherings for young adults who have experienced loss, currently offers kosher dinners in New York City.

In 2016, Death Over Dinner, an American initiative similar to Death Cafe, partnered up with IKAR, a Los Angeles-based non-denominational Jewish community, and Reboot, a nonprofit Jewish think tank, to launch Death Over Dinner: Jewish Edition.

“We launched [the pilot] on Yom Kippur, because that is the quintessential Jewish moment of facing our mortality,” says Francine Hermelin, the creative director of Reboot. Though Reboot and Ikar have hosted dinners themselves, in addition to having partnered with organizations like Moishe House and the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, they also offer an online questionnaire that helps guide a potential host to stage a dinner in his or her own home. They soon plan to add printable cards with verbal prompts, including quotes from psalms, Talmudic wisdom, and food for thought from contemporary rabbis, as an additional resource.

“[This initiative] is to make that personal shift, and ultimately a cultural shift, where talking about death is no longer a conversation we’re afraid of but a conversation that we are embracing,” Hermelin says.

The increased focus on mortality in recent years is likely the result of a combination of factors: an aging population living increasingly longer and facing unprecedented healthcare situations, a greater openness towards talking about historical taboos generally, and a growing consumer interest in wellness, including a concept of “the good death.” And Jewish initiatives focused on death and mourning want to take part in this larger dialogue, using spirituality and Jewish tradition as a foundation. Indeed, a 2017 Pew study found that “geographically and theologically diverse” faith communities were uniquely suited to address concerns around death and mourning, even for those with no prior religious affiliation.

“We [in the Jewish community] seized upon this wave,” says Kaplan, who points to books like Atal Gawande’s On Being Mortal and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air as examples of the trend. Though What Matters is non-denominational––Kaplan describes it as “value neutral and person-centered”––Kaplan says she sees confronting mortality through discussion as a “very Jewish” enterprise, one she feels is reflected in Jewish texts. “People are surprised that there are so many Talmudic stories that deal with advanced care planning!” For further insight, Kaplan referred me to Rabbi Mychal Springer, Director of the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who cites the story of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nassi, who was unable to die while his students were incessantly praying for him, until his handmaid dropped a jug from the roof and distracted them. In the moment of silence, Ha-Nassi was able to depart peacefully. ” This is a classic example of the way the rabbis were saying we shouldn’t prolong the dying process,” Rabbi Springer said.

Support doesn’t always come in the form of face-to-face groups: Lab/Shul, a creative Jewish community based in Lower Manhattan, operates an initiative called Kaddish Club, which includes a monthly potluck dinner in New York City, and a 15-minute weekly phone call they’ve dubbed Virtual Mourners’ Kaddish. During the calls, which began in 2014, the far-flung bereaved reflect on their departed loved ones, share some wisdom, and then recite Kaddish together.

“We’ve had folks call in from all over the country and all over the world,” says Sarah Strnad, Lab/Shul’s Director of Operations. “A lot of the traditional options [i.e. daily kaddish in a synagogue setting]… don’t always work in our modern lives.” Strnad says one of the most moving things about the calls is how they end up becoming micro-communities. “Even on the virtual calls, when people might never see each other in person, they remember each other’s stories and they can give each other support week after week.”

Of the current offerings, few are Orthodox in orientation. This might be because those who identify as Orthodox see processes around death as strictly prescribed ––decisions about life support deferred always to the ordained, mourning periods a certain length, prayers predetermined –– and therefore not necessary to hash out.

But Elad Nehorai, founder of Hevria and Forward contributor has imminent plans to hold a death café that will include a more observant audience (though he hopes to provide a space for the observant, he stresses that anyone is welcome). Nehorai, who has attended “secular” death cafes in the past, told me, “It was actually my fascination with death that caused me to choose to be Hasidic after growing up secular. Death has this fascinating power to force us to face what we really believe. Even as believers, we must face our beliefs in a brave way.  Death forces us to do that.” (Full disclosure: Elad and I collaborated in organizing this event.)

During the course of my writing this piece, I attended my grandfather’s memorial service, tried to comfort a friend whose loved one was gravely ill, and heard a rabbi speak about ministering to a father grieving for his child as one of his first clerical duties.

Even though I had thought it slight hyperbole when she said it, I realized Francine Hermelin’s assertion that “we’re always experiencing death” was absolutely true. Though we may find it difficult to face our end with courage, as Nehorai hopes we can, we should do our utmost to be as prepared, emotionally, logistically, and spiritually, when the time inevitably comes, for as it says in Genesis, “For you are dust, and dust you shall return.”

Thankfully, there is increasingly more out there to help us do just that.

Complete Article HERE!