05/22/18

Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death?

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As the media brings us constant news of strangers’ deaths, grief memoirs fill our shelves and dramatic meditations are performed to big crowds, we have reached a new understanding of mortality, says Edmund de Waal

A 2016 performance of An Occupation of Loss. Artist Taryn Simon gathered professional mourners from 15 countries to demonstrate how they perform grief.

Bereavement is ragged. The papers are full of a child’s last months, the protests outside hospitals, the press conferences, court cases, international entreaties, the noise of vituperation and outrage at the end of a life. A memorial after a violent death is put up on a suburban fence. It is torn down, then restored. This funeral in south London becomes spectacle: the cortege goes round and round the streets. The mourners throw eggs at the press. On the radio a grieving mother talks of the death of her young son, pleading for an end to violence. This is the death that will make a difference. She is speaking to her son, speaking for her son. Her words slip between the tenses.

Having spent the last nine months reading books submitted for the Wellcome book prize, celebrating writing on medicine, health and “what it is to be human”, it has become clear to me that we are living through an extraordinary moment where we are much possessed by death. Death is the most private and personal of our acts, our own solitariness is total at the moment of departure. But the ways in which we talk about death, the registers of our expressions of grief or our silences about the process of dying are part of a complex public space.

Some are explorations of the rituals of mourning, how an amplification of loss in the company of others – the connection to others’ grief – can allow a voicing of what you might not be able to voice yourself. The actor and writer Natasha Gordon’s play about her familial Jamaican extended wake, Nine Night, is coming to the end of a successful run at the National Theatre. The nine nights of the wake are a theatre of remembrance, a highly codified period of time shaped to allow the deceased to leave the family.

Theatre of remembrance … Hattie Ladbury and Franc Ashman in Nine Night, Natasha Gordon’s play about a Jamaican wake.

Julia Samuel records in Grief Works, her remarkable book of stories of bereavement, a woman who “asked friends and family to sit shiva [the Jewish mourning tradition] with me at a certain time and place”. And that there was anguish when these particular times were ignored: two friends came at times that were “convenient for them rather than when she was sitting shiva, thus ‘raising all the issues I was temporarily trying to keep contained’”.

As an academic writes in the accompanying notes to artist Taryn Simon’s performance An Occupation of Loss, recently staged in London, “communication between the living and the dead is possible only in mediated forms”. There are obligations we have to fulfil to those who have died. Simon gathered professional mourners from 15 countries (Ghana, Cambodia, Armenia and Ecuador, among others). The mourners wailed and sobbed and keened, the intensity of their expression, their sheer volume, a challenge to the idea that there has to be a silence that surrounds bereavement.

There are silences. Contemporary books on death often take as their premise that to be writing in the first place is a breaking of a taboo. “It’s time to talk about dying,” writes Kathryn Mannix in her book about her work in palliative care, With the End in Mind. “There are only two days with fewer than 24 hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookmarks astride our lives: one is celebrated every year, yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious.” These books record the silence that we in the west have created. By removing dying into a medical context, where expertise and knowledge lie so emphatically with others, we have made death unusual, a process clouded by incomprehension. And by novelty.

So one kind of language we need is that of clarity. A lucidity that allows for the involvement of family and friends alongside healthcare professionals. Clarity, writes Mannix, around the questions such as “when does a treatment that was begun to save a life become an interference that is simply prolonging death? People who are found to be dying despite the best efforts of a hospital admission can only express a choice if the hospital is clear about their outlook.” Conversations about palliative care need extraordinary skill and empathy. These are skills that can be learned.

But for someone writing about their own grief, there are no guidelines. You might have read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, or the poems of John Donne, the theories of John Bowlby or Donald Winnicott, Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, but it simply doesn’t register. Being well read doesn’t help when someone who matters dies. Part of this attempt to start again, to find a form out of the formlessness of grief, is a reluctance to take on the generic language of sympathy, the homogeneous effect of cliche. Bereavement is bereavement, not a masterclass in being well read in the classics. “The death of a loved one is also the death of a private, whole, personal and unique culture, with its own special language and its own secret, and it will never be again, nor will there be another like it,” writes David Grossman in Falling Out of Time, his novel about the death of his son. A death needs a special language.

The language of loss and the framing of sympathy in everyday life is so impoverished, so mired in cliche and euphemism, that deep metaphors of “passing” become thinned to nothing, to sentimentality. The iterations of “losing the battle” and the valorising, endlessly, of “courage” is a way of making the bereaved feel they need to enact a particular role. And then there is the “being strong”. If you are told how wonderful you are for not showing emotion, or for continuing as before, where does that leave being scared? How about denial? Or anger, terror, desolation, loneliness? How about confusion? Why only endurance, resilience, strength? In this need to name, to find precision, accuracy is a measure of love. I think of Marion Coutts’ book The Iceberg, on her dying husband Tom Lubbock’s language, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, charting everything, weighing her responses to her grief. This is different, they say, writing this is a work of mourning.

The greatest of these books find a language that encompasses the sheer confusion of bereavement. In her forthcoming book Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love, Lisa Appignanesi writes that “Death, like desire, tears you out of your recognisable self. It tears you apart. That you was all mixed up with the other. And both of you have disappeared. The I who speaks, like the I who tells this story, is no longer reliable.” This is the other loss, that of selfhood, of control, of a forward momentum, of certainty. Appignanesi’s grief at the untimeliness of her husband’s death makes time itself deranged. Her days and weeks and months go awry. Her sense of the past is also called into question. It is excoriating: “My lived past, which had been lived as a double act, had been ransacked, stolen.” Bereavement, she notes, has a deep etymology of plunder. It tears you apart. Where all these registers go wrong, you oscillate between kinds of behaviour that are disinhibited, a derangement of self. It can be physical, a falling, a losing your way. I think of the crow in Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers as the deranged, ransacking presence in a family where the mother has died.

A deranged, ransacking presence’ … Cillian Murphy in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.

These are images that go deep into history. In the Book of Lamentations we read that God “has made me dwell in darkness … he has walled me in and I cannot break out … He has weighed me down with chains … He has made my path a maze … He has forced me off my way and mangled me.” The Hebrew word eikh (how) opens the Book of Lamentations and then reappears throughout the text. This how is not a question, more a bewildered exhortation. You are beyond questions. All you can do is repeat.

In Anne Carson’s poem Nox, a response to the death of her brother, she refused to accept any conventional form. So the poem comes like a box, a casket, of fragments, attempts at definitions, parts of memories. This seems appropriate. The shape of grief is different each time. That is why the shard – the pieces of broken pottery that are ubiquitous across all cultures – is often used as an expressive image of loss. Think of Job lamenting to God, sitting on a pile of broken shards. In my own practice as a potter, whenever I pick up pieces of a dropped vessel I notice that each shard has its own particularity. Each hurts.

In her study of the deaths of writers, The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe writes that “moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” Bereavement takes a pathway that is different for each and every one of us. It takes different registers, different words. And that is what I take away from this very particular nine months of reading and reflecting on mortality. That there is change in the public space around death. This change is remarkable and wonderful when it comes to end-of-life care: the hospice movement and the training in palliative care are one of the greatest and most compassionate changes to occur in the last 30 years.

And, more slowly, it is happening outside the hospitals and clinics and hospices. People do want to read and talk about grief. For this we have to be grateful to those writers who are trying to find their own shard-like languages to express their own bereavements.

Complete Article HERE!

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05/12/18

How to deal with death as part of life

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Everyone must figure out their own way to handle the fear of death.

Since he watched his mother drop dead, Richard Bridgman’s fear of death has left him emotionally paralyzed.

It was right around Thanksgiving — nearly 45 years ago — and Bridgman was sleeping overnight on his mom’s living room couch.

“In the middle of the night, she walked into the room and said, ‘Richard, I’m dying,’” recalls Bridgman, who tried to reassure his mom that she’d be okay. But his mother, who had a heart condition, was suffering a massive heart attack. “She looked at me and fell over on her head. I didn’t know what to do. She was dead.”

Death haunted much of Bridgman’s early years. His stepfather died when Bridgman was 15. His father, an alcoholic, died when Bridgman was 17. And Bridgman was 26 when his mom died before his eyes. Now, 72, and long retired from the bill collection business he once owned in the Springfield, Ill., area, he has spent most of his adult years trying to cope with — if not overcome — his immense fear of death.

“Death became an obsession,” he said. “No matter where I went or what I did, death was always in the back of my mind.”

Most people prefer not to think about death, much less plan for it. In a tech-crazed world, where time is commonly measured in 140 characters and 6-second sound bites, life would appear to be dissected into so many bite-sized morsels that discussion of death doesn’t even seem to fit into the equation.

“Everybody has a fear of death, no matter what culture, religion or country they come from,” said Kelvin Chin, author of “Overcoming the Fear of Death” and founder of the Overcoming the Fear of Death Foundation and the non-profit turningwithin.org. “Fear is simply an emotion caused by the anticipation of unhappiness.”

But wait. What if death isn’t actually unhappy? What if it simply — is? For Bridgman, whose fear of death was overwhelming, that simple question was a critical step in learning to emotionally deal with death. That question was posed to him by Chin, who he discovered via a Google search. Several supportive phone consultations with Chin — combined with a simple meditation process that Chin teaches — have helped to keep Bridgman’s fears under control.

“I spent so much money on psychiatrists and psychotherapists — none of them did any good,” says Bridgman. But Chin steered Bridgman towards meditation. “Meditation is better than medicine,” Bridgman said.

Everyone must figure out their own way to handle the fear of death. One expert, who overcame her own fear through years of attending to the dying, says death is rarely the terrible thing that most folks fret about.

“Death is usually a peaceful process,” explains Donna Authers, a professional caregiver, motivational speaker and author of the book “A Sacred Walk: Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying.”

“Very few people die screaming. They just go to sleep.”

But it took Authers years to learn the lesson that death need not be frightening. As a child, death haunted her. When she was two years old, her father was killed in World War II. Her mother, who had remarried, died on Authers’ fifth birthday. “Instead of a birthday party, I woke up to the worst day of my life,” she said. Her grandfather committed suicide when Authers was 15.

It was Authers’ grandmother — while dying from cancer — who taught Authers the most critical lesson in accepting death’s inevitability. Authers brought her grandmother home to tend to her during her final days. But her grandmother could sense her granddaughter’s terrible fear.

That’s when her grandmother took her by the hand and, unafraid, reminded Authers, “Death is part of life. You, too, will be where I am someday, and you can’t face death with fear,” she said. That changed everything. Seeing her grandmother bravely face death caused her own fears to dissolve. “I was no longer afraid of death and dying,” recalls Authers.

Authers ultimately left her job as an IBM marketing executive to become a caregiver. Through the years, she has found that faith is the most important quality among those who face death without fear. “People who have faith in something don’t grieve like those who have no hope,” said Authers.

Increasingly, however, Chin has found that Millennials — more than any other demographic — fear death the most.

“It’s the downside of social media,” said Chin. “The bombardment and speed of communication leads to an overload that can trigger a fear of death.”

Perhaps even the world of politics can play a role, suggests Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College and author of “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.”

In times of political upheaval— particularly when people are reminded of their mortality — the fear of death increases even as they tend to be attracted to political figures who promise them more security, said Solomon, who has conducted numerous experiments on this issue.

“When people are reminded of their own mortality, in an effort to bolster faith in their own view of reality, they become more hostile to anyone who is different.”

Even then, says Solomon, perhaps nothing alleviates a dying person’s fear of death more than love.

A terminally-ill grandmother he knew was distraught at the prospect of death. No doctor and no medicine could help her. Then, she received a short phone call from her granddaughter, begging her for her cupcake recipe. “No one can make them like you,” her granddaughter said.

“That call did more in five minutes than anything else could have,’” says Solomon. “It reminded the grandmother that she will live on in the memories of the people she loves. That was all she needed to know.”

Complete Article HERE!

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04/25/18

‘Death is not a failure’: Medical schools adapt end-of-life lessons

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By Lindsay Kalter

Local medical schools are in the process of a curricula revamp that will train students to focus more on end-of-life care, making Massachusetts the first in the nation to reach a statewide commitment to quality of life.

“Massachusetts is really leading the way on this. It led the way on universal health care, on gay marriage, and it’s leading the way on this, too,” said Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and author of the book “Being Mortal.” “I’ve learned the question is not do you fight or do you give up. The question really is, what are we fighting for? What’s the quality of life we can fight for?”

The Massachusetts Coalition for Serious Illness Care has orchestrated the effort among four local institutions: Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine and University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Gawande, co-founder of the coalition, said Massachusetts has the opportunity to create a national model for medical schools across the country.

It’s an important shift, he said, from the fix-it mentality that many doctors are taught to possess. He said the extent of his end-of-life training amounted to an hour of discussion in the first two years of medical school.

“You go in focusing on wanting to be a hero and fix things,” Gawande said. “Teaching people in med school what it means to be an effective clinician for giving people cutting-edge care for quality of life — as opposed to quantity of life — is a neglected skill.”

The medical schools are taking inventory of what skills they’re already teaching and will add various training methods including role play patient actors. UMass Medical School’s simulation lab is already starting to be used for skills that extend beyond sewing and suturing, said Dr. Jennifer Reidy, the school’s chief of palliative care.

Medical students will be required to have conversations with people about breaking difficult news, prognosis and end-of-life planning.

“We’re using it to teach complex communication procedures,” Reidy said. “We want to ensure our newest clinicians are well-situated to practice these skills.”

The changes will be implemented in full by the beginning of next academic year, Reidy said.

Tiffany Chen, a third-year medical student at UMass, said the topic of death is still taboo even in the medical field.

“It’s really hard to talk about death, and it’s hard to conceptualize,” Chen said. “But death is not a failure and there’s always something you can do for a patient. If we can infiltrate the medical field with that mindset, we could do a lot of good.”

Complete Article HERE!

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04/18/18

Your Body is a Teeming Battleground

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It’s time to rethink the quest to control aging, death, and disease—and the fear of mortality that fuels it.

By Barbara Ehrenreich

I went to medical school, at least in part, to get to know death and perhaps to make my peace with it. So did many of my doctor friends, as I would find out. One day—usually when you’re young, though sometimes later—the thought hits you: You really are going to die. That moment is shocking, frightening, terrible. You try to pretend it hasn’t happened (it’s only a thought, after all), and you go about your business, worrying about this or that, until the day you put your hand to your neck—in the shower, say—and … What is that? Those hard lumps that you know, at first touch, should not be there? But there they are, and they mean death. Your death, and you can’t pretend anymore.

I never wanted to be surprised that way, and I thought that if I became a doctor and saw a lot of death, I might get used to it; it wouldn’t surprise me, and I could learn to live with it. My strategy worked pretty well. Over the decades, from all my patients, I learned that I would be well until I got sick and that although I could do some things to delay the inevitable a bit, whatever control I had was limited. I learned that I had to live as if I would die tomorrow and at the same time as if I would live forever. Meanwhile, I watched as what had been called “medical care”—that is, treating the sick—turned into “health care,” keeping people healthy, at an ever-rising cost.

In her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich ventures into the fast-growing literature on aging, disease, and death, tracing her own disaffection with a medical and social culture unable to face mortality. She argues that what “makes death such an intolerable prospect” is our belief in a reductionist science that promises something it cannot deliver—ultimate control over our bodies. The time has come to rethink our need for such mastery, she urges, and reconcile ourselves to the idea that it may not be possible.

Ehrenreich is well equipped for her mission; she has a doctorate in biology and years of social and political work behind her, as well as decades of writing. I first discovered her in medical school, when I read her early book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (1973). From it I learned that my small group of nine women in the otherwise male class of ’77 belonged to a long, if forgotten, tradition. I also learned that social progress is not always an upward-trending line. The author of more than a dozen books, Ehrenreich has a reputation for chronicling cultural shifts before others notice them. She delights in confronting entrenched assumptions, popular delusions, grandiose ambitions—and in teasing out their unexpected consequences.

Often she incorporates firsthand experience into her analysis. For her best-known book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), she spent a year working at unskilled jobs. In Living With a Wild God (2014), she recounted her own spiritual epiphanies in adolescence and her struggle, as a determined atheist, to understand her “furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.” Before all that, in 2000, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and begun paying special attention to surprising new science about cancer, cells, and our immune system. Now 76, Ehrenreich explores that science in Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. Once again, she is swept up by big questions. Not least among them is “whether the natural world is dead or in some sense alive” and behaving in unpredicted and unpredictable ways that have much to tell us about our approach to mortality.

She starts by looking at the many preventive medical procedures we are encouraged, even badgered, to undergo—those regular physical exams, colonoscopies, blood tests, mammograms. She had always pretty much done what doctors advised (she underwent chemotherapy), figuring that it made sense to treat disease before illness overwhelmed the body. But after watching many fitness-obsessed people die early, and realizing that she herself is now “old enough to die,” she questions that premise. Where is the evidence that all the effort at prevention saves lives or delays death?

It’s hard to find, she discovers. In people who have a strong family history of heart disease, treating high cholesterol does decrease mortality, on average. But for those who don’t have that predisposition, it doesn’t. Colonoscopies have not been proved more effective at reducing deaths from colon cancer than other, cheaper, less-invasive tests. Sometimes procedures cause more trouble than they prevent. Mammograms, for instance, detect tumors that might never be fatal, and can lead to over-treatment, which carries its own risks. The insight is counterintuitive—although finding diseases early on should prolong lives, the screenings we undergo don’t seem to lower mortality rates overall—and Ehrenreich decides that she will no longer get most preventive care.

She is just as clear-eyed about other approaches to delaying our decay—exercise, diet, meditation. Though she became a “fitness devotee” herself in middle age, she finds symptoms of cultural malaise rather than health benefits in the fitness and diet obsessions of the past 40 years. Wellness programs do little to reduce companies’ immediate health-care costs, and the pursuit of fitness, Ehrenreich argues, is often simply one more “class cue.” Workouts easily become just that—work, another demand for self-discipline, competition, and control. Ironically, when she reached her 70s, her knees began giving her trouble not from age-appropriate arthritis but from overexertion.

Turning from her critique of preventive medicine and fitness culture as death-postponement strategies, Ehrenreich is even more unsettled by research indicating that our immune system is not the magical “protective cloak” she learned about in graduate school. What really gets her rethinking her scientific beliefs is the evolving story of the macrophage—the specialized white blood cell that she always thought of as her good shepherd “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Macrophages have traditionally been understood as one of our crucial first-line defenses against disease. They are found throughout our body—in our bones, brain, lymph nodes, lungs, and breasts—and circulate in our blood. They look like the amoebas we learned about in high school, those slippery, one-celled, independent creatures that move by stretching out and contracting, and eat by wrapping themselves around their prey, invaginating and absorbing it. The usual story went like this: Whenever macrophages find threats to our well-being in our midst—bacteria, viruses, fungi, or cancer cells—they kill them and eat them by engulfing and absorbing them. Ehrenreich assumed that keeping her immune system—and valiant macrophages—strong through exercise, diet, and positive thoughts was the key to not getting sick, not getting cancer, not getting old.

But research around the turn of the millennium suggested a different view. Macrophages do not always kill our cancer cells; sometimes they even help them grow and spread. They escort certain cancer cells through the tight walls of our blood vessels, and protect them as they circulate in our bloodstream, looking for a congenial new home. When such a site is found—in a bone or breast, liver or lung—macrophages then support those cancer cells as they mature into the metastases that will go on to kill us.

Scientists are now discovering that the macrophage is as much wolf as shepherd in other diseases as well. It may play a role in auto-immune disorders, and even in the usual afflictions of aging—heart attacks, strokes, arthritis. We thought we knew the causes of those (cholesterol, cigarettes, inactivity) and therefore the recourse (diet, abstinence, exercise); but now it appears that inflammation, caused in large part by our macrophages, may be a trigger. Ehrenreich ponders the heretical question: Can it be that instead of working to keep our immune system healthy, we should all along have been doing the opposite?

Ehrenreich is not, however, an apostle of unwellness, and Natural Causes is not a how-to book. Instead she focuses on the conceptual and “deep moral reverberations” of the discovery that our immune system can aid and abet a “cellular rebellion against the entire organism.” What if our convenient “holistic, utopian” view of the “mindbody” as a “well-ordered mechanism”—kept in harmony by positive thinking and solicitous tending—is wrong?

Ehrenreich proves a fascinating guide to the science suggesting that our cells, like the macrophages that sometimes destroy and sometimes defend, can act unpredictably and yet not randomly. It is almost as if our cells can choose when and how to behave—unregulated by any deterministic mechanism. But that would mean they have “agency, or the ability to initiate an action,” as she puts it. And what would that imply? If macrophages are actually deciding which cancer cells to destroy or to preserve, “maybe, crazy as it sounds, they are not following any kind of ‘instructions,’ but doing what they feel like doing.”Researchers are now finding this same agency everywhere, Ehrenreich reports—in fruit flies; in viruses; in atoms, electrons, and photons. Such discoveries must mean that agency, the capacity for making decisions—electrons jumping up a quantum level or not, photons passing through this hole in a screen rather than another—is not the rare, and human, prerogative we once thought.

Ehrenreich detects a paradigm shift in the making, away from holism and toward “a biology based on conflict within the body and carried on by the body’s own cells as they compete for space and food and oxygen.” This vision of the body as an embattled “confederation of parts”—the opposite of a coherent whole, subject to command and control—is “dystopian,” she writes. And yet it has liberating, humbling implications. “If there is a lesson here,” she proposes, it’s that “we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else.” Of course, the struggle to win the battles within our body may be one we’ll never be able to resist. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll devise high-tech ways to induce, or persuade, our traitorous immune cells to cooperate with our health. But whatever technological miracles appear in our future, Ehrenreich hopes we can come to accept that the ultimate outcome will be, as it has always been, out of our control.

Researchers are now finding this same agency everywhere, Ehrenreich reports—in fruit flies; in viruses; in atoms, electrons, and photons. Such discoveries must mean that agency, the capacity for making decisions—electrons jumping up a quantum level or not, photons passing through this hole in a screen rather than another—is not the rare, and human, prerogative we once thought.

Ehrenreich detects a paradigm shift in the making, away from holism and toward “a biology based on conflict within the body and carried on by the body’s own cells as they compete for space and food and oxygen.” This vision of the body as an embattled “confederation of parts”—the opposite of a coherent whole, subject to command and control—is “dystopian,” she writes. And yet it has liberating, humbling implications. “If there is a lesson here,” she proposes, it’s that “we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else.” Of course, the struggle to win the battles within our body may be one we’ll never be able to resist. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll devise high-tech ways to induce, or persuade, our traitorous immune cells to cooperate with our health. But whatever technological miracles appear in our future, Ehrenreich hopes we can come to accept that the ultimate outcome will be, as it has always been, out of our control.

No, because I’ve noticed, in my life as a doctor, that the truism is true: People die the way they’ve lived—even the demented and even, somehow, the brain-dead. The brave die bravely; the curious, with curiosity; the optimistic, optimistically. Those who are by nature accepters, accept; those who by nature fight for control die fighting for control, and Ehrenreich is a fighter.

Yes, because I’ve also noticed that everyone I’ve seen die does come to accept the inevitable loss of control at his or her finally unevadable death. Usually that happens over weeks or months, sometimes over years; occasionally it happens over days, hours, or even minutes. This acceptance is perhaps as developmentally determined as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. At the end, something magical appears to occur—something beautiful, something Other—that seems to heal the spirit, allay all fear, and settle, finally, the struggle for control.

Complete Article HERE!

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03/27/18

Coming to terms with the end of life

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by Penny Heneke

Being well ensconced in my senior years, I am faced with the daunting prospect of my mortality. An article I read recently commented that people are afraid to face and to speak of this pending permanent change of address. For me death lurks in the dark like a boogey man under the bed. An elderly, crabby aunt I boarded with as a teenager scanned the death notices each day. She positively cackled with delight when she discovered an acquaintance she had outlived.

Nor is death and dying a scintillating topic to introduce for conversation in an evening entertaining friends. While seniors are renown for recounting “organ recitals” of their many health problems in great detail, death itself is a taboo subject. For some, life is a painful battle against debilitating health issues and for most of us it is trying to find strategies to deal with the everyday evidence of our evaporating capabilities along this final stage of our life journey.

Perhaps a sense of humour is a valuable tool to deal with our aversion to death. A friend on his 90th birthday decided to deal with his advancing age by walking around with a sticky note plastered on his forehead announcing, “expiry date: overdue.”

In the meantime, seniors have to cope with the everyday incomprehensible things we seem to do as we amble along to this dead end. If the solution were only as simple as one friend remarked: “Oh, for some happy pills.”

One morning, my husband, Ken emerged from the unlit walk-in closet attired in my fluffy, light blue, terry housecoat. It fitted him to a tee, as today my hubby is a shell of his former robust five-foot-10. Shrinkage of over 4 inches has occurred due to arthritis. When he realised his faux pas, he looked sheepish and commented: “I’m really losing it.”

I couldn’t laugh too loud as I find myself in the same category. At my recent optometrist appointment, I was squinting through the phoropter the optometrist was using to test my eyesight, not wishing to admit that the finest print was a blur. I had always had 20/20 vision. In an attempt to improve the images, I closed one eye. As the consultation continued with the instrument going back and forth, I suddenly could not see anything in the one lens — just blackness. My optometrist was puzzled and made some lens adjustments.

“Can you see now?” she asked.

“No, it’s still pitch black,” I replied. “I can’t see a thing.”

She sounded puzzled and moved the machine aside. After a moment’s hesitation, she placed a hand gently on my shoulder and remarked: “My dear, you have your eye closed!”

While my vision might be fading fast, Ken suffered a mini-stroke and lost the use of his right eye. Family and friends responded sympathetically by telling him of someone they knew with the same predicament and yet was still legally able to drive. Neither Ken nor I felt reassured learning how many one-eyed people are out there on the roads driving.

I don’t think it was his eyesight that caused Ken to panic as he was leaving for a doctor’s appointment. He patted his pockets frantically looking for his car keys until I pointed out that he had them in his hand.

Never mind the missing death discussion, aging itself takes a great deal of adjustment. My recurrent nightmare of losing my teeth has been replaced by one of losing clumps of my hair and going bald.

After spending a life time amassing material objects, I have reversed the procedure by decluttering. Now I am fine tuning the unburdening of my “stuff.” I am in the last stage, which I am calling, “closure.” This is as close to the “D” word as I can get.

Preparing for the end, I announced to my children that I was drafting my own obituary notice. I don’t trust them to get the facts right. This resulted from my perusal of the obituary notices each day in the daily newspaper. My first feeling is one of sadness looking at all the smiling faces of people who have passed. However, I am also struck by a few who have had unflattering photographs placed with their notice. In order to avoid this dilemma, I have picked a photo — admittedly a good few years younger — of myself for my obituary. My daughters love to tease me by saying that I will have no control over the whole issue. At least I would have tried.

The lyrics from the English punk rock band, the Clash, “Should I stay, or should I go” underscore that we really have little choice in the timing of our departure so it’s best to make the most of what you still have left of life.

Complete Article HERE!

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03/23/18

Rethinking Dying, Part 5

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The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death

Philosopher Stephen Cave begins with a dark but compelling question: When did you first realize you were going to die? And even more interesting: Why do we humans so often resist the inevitability of death? Cave explores four narratives — common across civilizations — that we tell ourselves “in order to help us manage the terror of death.”

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03/7/18

Living like I’m dying

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I’m leaning into death to see if I can change how I feel about it.

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I imagine I’m not the only person who’s written their own obituary, but maybe I’m the first one to see it in print. Writing my obit was the first task in an exercise that came to an end yesterday.

“Brown, Laurie Jane. (October 7, 1957 – March 4, 2018). Laurie died suddenly yesterday in Toronto at age 60.”

I feel like Scrooge seeing his own gravestone.

I am in perfect health, but having recently turned 60 years old, I am feeling an increasing urgency about, well, everything. Why not give myself the deadline to end all deadlines? On Dec. 4, 2017, I decided I had three months to live. Three months to make more of whatever time I have left.

So for the past three months I have been thinking about death everyday. “Is this the last time I hand wash this sweater? Is this the last time I talk with my son?” It was jarring, but I kept going. I wanted to get to a less anxious feeling about my own mortality. By trying to live as if I was dying, would I live each day differently? Might that take some of the sting out of my impending death? Is that even possible?

The first thing anyone with three months to live is told to do is “get your affairs in order.” I updated my will and my living will. Next, I collected all my banking and legal information and printed it. (Kids – it’s in a bankers box on the floor of my closet, along with the full obituary.)

I started my death exercise without telling anyone. Good thing – I could have ruined a few dinner parties. I did let one girlfriend in on it and her response was “March is still too cold to stand by your grave. Can you make it May?”

With two months left on the calendar, I flipped between two very different states of mind. On a good day? I believe I’ve had a full life, a lucky life and I’m good to go right now. But on a bad day, it’s a different story: I want to be a grandmother, I want to create more, I want to grow old. My children need me and my new partner needs me. I couldn’t bear to contemplate the end of a love I had barely begun.

I never used to think about death until my mother died at 58 of ovarian cancer. I was terrified that would happen to me. Now, I scroll through my Facebook feed reading chemo updates and news of departed friends. I feel like death is hunting me and my senses are working overtime to hear the approach. I don’t want to live in fear – so I’m leaning into death to see if I can change that.

Each morning, I opened my eyes and thought of the day in front of me. I paid attention to the morning light through my window, the luxurious feel of my bed sheets, the realization that I had no pain, and I felt great. My feet hit the floor and I jumped into my day joyously. My mantra became ‘say yes until it breaks you.’ I was sounding like an inspirational poster, with kittens. And yet, I didn’t feel as if I was truly living each day like it was my last.

Too embarrassed to talk to people about what I was up to, I turned to books. Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson struck a huge nerve.

Stephen has been witnessing death for decades, both as head of a palliative-care unit in Toronto and as a “grief whisperer,” helping the dying and their families navigate death. Stephen has no 10-step plan to a wise death but talking about it with him on Pondercast, my podcast, was such a relief.

When my mother lay sick and dying, I felt frozen and mute, and she was keeping what she felt to herself. Probably because I didn’t ask. I have terrible regret about that. I know I’m not alone in these feelings after a parent dies.

We live in a death-phobic culture. We don’t acknowledge dying people, we keep turning the conversation in the other direction, toward life and “keeping up the fight.” We institutionalize our terminally ill and our aged and we outsource the task of dealing with our dead. Illness and death are kept as far from the living as possible – it’s no wonder we are at a loss to find anyone to talk about it with.

In the same way that women have fought to take back the birth experience – bringing it home, surrounding birth with family and siblings, making it a human experience instead of a medical one – might we do the same thing with death?

I began to question my motives in taking on this three-month death exercise. It became clear that I was anxious to learn how to handle death. I wanted to bring order to the chaos of feelings I had. I thought I could learn to embrace death just enough to think I had it pegged.

My experiment is a pale shadow to the real thing. It doesn’t compare to the anxiety and fear felt by those who are truly ill. Nor what I once felt waiting for a biopsy report.

I can’t embrace death, death will embrace me. It will have its way with me. It will be messy and confusing. Death will ask everything of me. Will I be able to accept that? Is it too much to ask that that I might I leave my life loving it?

Perhaps the strangest outcome of this morbid exercise is realizing I have a moral obligation in my final days. Dying will be my last and perhaps most important act of parenting. I need to show my children how it’s done. That death carries with it a responsibility is helpful to me, it gives my death some purpose.

I have started awkward and halting conversations about death with my father, and have asked him to let me in. I want him to share his coming death with me. It will help me when my time comes.

Keeping death in the forefront of my mind is informing everything I’m doing. It’s a funny liminal place to be – but the balance of it feels right.

Laurie Brown lives in Toronto.

Complete Article HERE!

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