Death doula turns grief into guidance


Last fall Catherine Hayes’ sister died in a helicopter accident; on April 26 she launches The Departure Lounge

After her sister’s untimely death, Lynn Valley resident Catherine Hayes has started a grief group called The Departure Lounge, set inside a large lodge cabin along the side of Hunter Creek.

By Maria Spitale-Leisk

These facts Catherine Hayes will always remember. It was the day her sister, her rock, was gone.

“She could always rally me in ways that nobody else understood,” says Hayes. “I had her for 43 years, you know, protecting me. Forty-three years – some people never have that, right?”

On Oct. 1 the early fall sun was warming Hayes’ face while she was singing her sister Karen Coulter’s praises to a mutual friend.

Coulter had already earned her engineering ticket to fix helicopters, but she wanted to go further.

“She had always wanted to fly,” says Hayes.

Coulter found her wings and got on with the air ambulance service in Alberta.

She soon found her way back to B.C. and took a job in Campbell River last summer. Coulter was in her element and loving life, according to her sister.

Nothing could prepare Hayes for the call that evening.

Friends were over for dinner and an unfamiliar number was illuminating her phone. Coulter’s helicopter had crashed in a remote forested area on the island, Hayes heard.

She tried to remain calm under the shocking circumstances, while hurrying to catch the next ferry to the island to be by her sister’s side.

In her mind Hayes thought: “I’m just going to go there and clean her up a bit and she’d be OK.”

On the ferry ride over Hayes had her life turned upside down.

“It is like being completely sucker punched just for no reason,” describes Hayes.

Her partner, Shawn, had only left her side momentarily to grab a coffee. Hayes’ cousin delivered the news over the phone while she was alone surrounded by strangers.

“He just said: ‘She died.’”

Her phone dropped and Hayes started screaming. The worst was yet to come.

When she got to Victoria, her sister wasn’t there, which sent Hayes on a wild goose chase.

“We couldn’t find her for a long time,” she recalls.

At first Hayes was told Coulter would be in Victoria. She wasn’t there. Maybe Comox?

Eventually, Hayes learned her sister’s body was still in the helicopter amongst the dense bush in pitch-black darkness.

The coroner wouldn’t arrive until daylight. It’s a scene that hauntingly plays over again in Hayes’ head.

Those first few days were the hardest. Hayes was presented with impossible questions that she couldn’t possibly prepare for.

Did she want the clothes her sister was wearing when she died?

“How do you respond to that?” says Hayes.

She would have recurring flashbacks of trying to reach her sister, but just going around in circles.

There was no beginning and end to her days – time blurred together into one vivid nightmare.

Hayes tried a host of remedies to turn her brain off at night – prescription and non-prescription – to no avail.

In the long days and months after the accident, along with overwhelming grief, Hayes had this nagging fear.

“Who’s going to go next? Is it going to be me? Is it going to be my son?”

The pain and anxiety became unbearable. Hayes compares it to being caught in an avalanche – you don’t know which way is up.

“And every time you do get a breath – you’re slammed again,” she says.

There is no textbook answer for how to handle grief. Hayes had someone say to her, you can’t be sad forever. But Hayes couldn’t see it any other way.

A framed collage of Coulter’s life leans up against a wall in Hayes’ kitchen. She curated the collage with some pictures discovered while cleaning out Coulter’s purse.

There’s a faded photo booth strip of the sisters goofing around in their teenage years.

“She probably even permed my hair and made me do it,” says Hayes, summoning a smile.

Hayes had no idea her sister had held on to the memento all these years in her wallet.

It’s these precious gifts from beyond the grave that buckle Hayes’ knees, often in the most unlikely places and without warning.

With the facts around her sister’s death seared into her brain, Hayes forgot how to take care of herself.

She says she felt like she was walking on her hands and eating with her feet. Nothing felt normal.

It was while hiking in Lynn Headwaters with a good friend that Hayes saw a faint light at the end of the tunnel.

The friend dropped the term “death doula” and Hayes was intrigued. She went home and immediately googled it.

“It was so clear to me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Hayes.

Except the timing for Hayes becoming a certified death doula was a little off, she admits.

You’re not supposed to take the program when you’re in the throes of grief, but Hayes pushed through to the other side.

She was a student learning about grief when she had already aced the painful exam.

Hayes took a three-month, end-of-life doula program overseen by the Conscious Dying Institute out of Colorado.

The serene setting for the course was an old brick building on the west side of Vancouver, with floor-to-ceiling windows and plenty of natural light.

Just like a birth doula, a death doula maps out the journey according to a personalized plan.

The doula helps a person with anything that might “flare up” during those last months, from tying up loose ends, to mending fences with a loved one, to pain management, to after-death arrangements.

Hayes said some people will take two weeks to answer the questions “because it really causes you to dig deep.”

This end-of-life direction goes deeper than a will or a medical representation agreement.

Families often hire a death doula a few months out from the main event.

A plan is made, called Your Best Three Months.

The doula helps their client check off items on their death wish list, covering off five elements of life from the spiritual to the physical.

Hayes took the test herself, as part of her training. One of the questions she faced was: While you’re still physically able, what do you want to do?

Hayes learned she wants to climb the Eiffel Tower. Step 1 – how is she getting there? She would have to budget her finances, take time off work, book a flight and find a place to stay.

Hayes took her travel planning one step at a time – just like her grief journey.

Half a year after her sister’s sudden death, Hayes is starting to put one foot in front of the other again.

She’s now a certified end-of-life doula and has started a grief group, called The Departure Lounge. The first meeting is April 26, set in a large log cabin with a fireplace nestled alongside Hunter Creek in Lynn Valley.

The guest speaker that evening will be her stepsister, Rev. Colleen Tanaka, who helped pull Hayes out of the grief fog.

There will be guided meditation. For people who want to share, they can talk briefly about their experience with grief. Afterwards, attendees can mingle together over coffee and tea.

It’s almost like matchmaking for the bereaved. After being introduced, Hayes is hoping some people will group up in the community on their own.

Hayes said her unfortunate experience makes her relatable to others who are grieving.

She’s already had an overwhelming response – more than 100 emails from people wanting to share their personal story of grief, including a dad who lost both sons in drunk driving accident.

“It’s like all of sudden I got this street cred,” she says.

Now that she’s getting stronger, Hayes wants to help as many people as she can. “We learn all kinds of things in school but there is nothing that teaches us about death and grief,” she says.

Hayes cites a Gord Downie quote: “Let’s turn our faces toward the sun and get whatever warmth there is.”

This November for her 45th birthday, Hayes will board a plane to Paris and soar towards the sky.

Complete Article HERE!


How to Pay Your Respects when Someone You Know Dies


Sometimes a death occurs when you aren’t particularly close to the person, but you still want to pay your respects. If a teacher, friend’s parent, or other person in your community dies, it’s nice to express sympathy to the family and honor the deceased. Pay respects by attending any memorial services for the person and offering condolences to their loved ones. Afterwards, it can be helpful to follow a few practices to remember the person.


METHOD 1  Attending the Memorial

Get the important information. Find out from family members, close friends, or members of the community when the memorial service will be held. If the person who died was a pillar in the local community, information about their services may be posted in the local newspaper.

  • Make sure you know when and where the service will be held. Review the directions ahead of time to avoid getting lost and arriving late.

Send flowers. Across many cultures and religions, a common way to pay respects is to send flowers. Plus, if you are unable to attend the memorial, sending flowers lets the person’s loved ones know that they are in your thoughts.[1]

  • Look online or visit your local florist to choose a nice arrangement. Have them sent to the funeral home so that they are there prior to the memorial.
  • If you are sending flowers from a long distance, it may be helpful to contact florists in the person’s area to have them send over your flowers.
  • Local and online florists can guide you on choosing and ordering arrangements that are designed specially for memorials.
  • A donation can be an alternative to flowers. Making a donation in the deceased’s name to a cause they cared about is a nice gesture. Check the obituary, as this is sometimes specified there.

Ask someone to join you for support. If you have never attended a funeral, or if you are a bit shaken by the death, it may be a good idea to bring someone with you. A parent, sibling, or friend can accompany you to the memorial and offer comfort if you need it.

  • Another good option is to go with someone who has a similar relationship with the deceased as you. For instance, you might go with another classmate, if a teacher has died. Or, you might attend a friend’s parent’s funeral with another mutual friend.

Arrive on time and dressed appropriately. Be respectful and proper by arriving to the memorial service on time. Aim to arrive at least 15-30 minutes before the service begins. Also, dress appropriately. It used to be common practice to wear black. That’s no longer necessary, but you should wear subdued clothing.[2]

  • Do some research before you dress. If the person followed a certain religion, you might look to see if there are general expectations for clothing in that place of worship.
  • Go for solid-colored clothing choices in mute shades like navy, burgundy, or grey as a rule. Avoid bright colors and busy prints or patterns. Also, try to be modest—don’t wear anything too revealing, such as low-cut tops or mini skirts.
  • If you are attending a wake or viewing, the attire might be more relaxed or casual. Still, stick to subdued colors. Also, if you are going to a viewing, you can arrive at any time and approach the casket. Just make sure you greet the person’s loved ones before viewing the body.

View the body, if you want. It is typical for everyone at the memorial service to pay their respects by viewing the body. This may take place before, during, or after the service. If you want to see the deceased one last time, you may go up when directed and view the body. If you don’t want to take part in this practice, remain seated.[3]

  • In some situations, a viewing, or wake, may be held immediately before the memorial or on a separate day. Wakes are usually more intimate but allow you to come and go as you please. The funeral itself, on the other hand, is more anonymous but requires you to be present for the entire service.

METHOD 2  Showing Sympathy to Their Loved Ones

Offer your condolences. Typically, after the service, mourners may line up to express their condolences to close family and friends of the deceased. When it’s your turn, keep it simple and straightforward. Go for something like “I am so sorry for your loss.”[4]

  • If you are attending a wake or viewing, you will typically greet and console the person’s family before viewing the body.

Skip the empty or religious platitudes. In an attempt to comfort the bereaved, some people communicate phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God makes no mistakes.” Even if they are well-intended, such platitudes may offend close family, especially if they do not share the same religious or spiritual beliefs.[5]

  • Avoid phrases that minimize the person’s experience, like “I know how you feel.” Even if you have lost someone, too, this day is not about your own loss. Focus on the person who has died only instead of comparing their death to someone else’s.
  • If you know the person is religious, it may be appropriate to communicate sincere words, like “I am praying for you and your family.”

Relay a fond memory. If you want to say more, it can be thoughtful to communicate a fond memory you have of the bereaved. This reminds them of the good times the person had, or of their kindness or compassion.[6]

  • For example, you might say, “Ms. Henry, I am truly sorry for your loss. Mr. Henry was such a caring man. I’ll never forget that time he pulled over in the rain to help me with a flat tire. He was one of a kind.”

Offer your help. You can show your sympathy in a practical way by offering to help the family. When people are grieving, basic chores like cooking, cleaning, or picking up groceries may be left undone. They can be overwhelmed and too uncomfortable to ask for help. Offer to come by the family home and help out as needed if you are close to the family, or make an unsolicited gesture of aid like bringing food.[7]

  • Make your intentions to help clear, such as saying, “I’ll come by on Tuesday to help with cleaning or cooking.” Pitching in with housecleaning, chores, or yard work can be helpful during this time.
  • In addition, you might drop off prepared foods like casseroles or sandwiches to ensure the family has food to eat. Other helpful gifts might include plastic or paper utensils, trash bags, paper towels, and household items, since the family may be hosting many guests.
  • You might also ask someone close to the family what holes exist in their needs. Take the initiative.
  • Oftentimes, everyone is supportive of mourners immediately after the death, but this support fades as time goes on. For this reason, stay in touch with the family and continue to help out in the weeks after the funeral.

Be brief. After you have expressed your condolences, said something kind about the deceased, and offered to help, move along. Everyone is hoping to talk to the family, so don’t hold them up for too long.

  • You may leave your number with someone and suggest that they call you later if they’d like to talk more.

Send a card. If you are unable to attend the memorial service, it is appropriate to send a thoughtful card or note in your absence. Choose a card that offers your condolences and then add a brief message telling the family that you will come by for a visit soon.

  • You might write a simple message on your card, such as “I am thinking of you and your family during your time of grief.”
  • You might have your card mailed to the site of the memorial (with flowers) or you might send it to the person’s family home, if you are close to the family.
  • Respect the family’s wishes and space. Some might welcome a personal visit, but others may want to grieve privately and be alone for a time.

METHOD 3 Remembering the Deceased

Visit the burial site. In the days and weeks after the funeral or memorial service, you can pay your respects by visiting the graveyard or crypt where the deceased was laid to rest. It is generally acceptable to bring flowers or other mementos of the dead. This is a great way to privately honor the deceased.[8]

Reminisce with others who knew the person. If you are close to the bereaved, it may be comforting to you and others to talk about the deceased. Do this on a case-by-case basis, as some people may want to talk about the person and others may not.

  • Talk about the great times you had with the person, and relay the qualities about them you will miss. If you want, you may try to keep it upbeat by telling funny stories about experiences you shared with the deceased.

Write down your memories. You might also consider writing down your memories of the deceased or even making a journal of notebook of these remembrances. Include things like their traits and qualities as a person, things you did together, happy memories you have of them, or reminisce about funny stories that involve them.

  • Creating a journal can be a useful grieving technique for people who process things visually rather than verbally. It can also help you explore why you might be so affected by a person’s passing.

Start a new tradition to honor the person. If you want to continue to pay respects to the deceased after their memorial service, you can implement a ritual that helps you keep the person’s memories alive. For instance, if a teacher who loved chocolate chip cookies died, you might bake them each month on the anniversary of their death.[9]

  • You might also ask other mourners to join you. For instance, you might go to lunch every other Friday at the person’s favorite restaurant.

Complete Article HERE!


Culture clash: Asian Americans balance Christianity and culture in rituals honoring their ancestors


by Ruth Tam

When my great-grandmother died, I didn’t know how to pay my respects.

I was 9 years old, and had seen other Chinese people bow at funerals and gravesites before. One, two, three times.

But, my parents told me as we approached her coffin, we don’t do that.

Nor would we participate in any of the traditional Chinese ancestral rites of burning incense and paper money, or leaving food for her as an offering in the afterlife.

Like 42 percent of Asian Americans, my parents are Christian. And for believers like them, Chinese ancestor veneration inappropriately elevates the dead. The bowing, in particular, is akin to “idol worship,” a direct contradiction of their faith. The burning of money and offering of food are supposed to be gifts to the dead in the afterlife. But to Christians, death isn’t the door to a spirit world where material things are needed, but the beginning of life in heaven.

This year, my father told me we would visit my grandparents’ graves around Qingming Jie, the annual Chinese Tombsweeping festival, which this year fell on April 5. Joining millions of Chinese families celebrating the spring holiday to honor the dead, we planned to make the pilgrimage to our family burial grounds. We would clean my grandparents’ gravesites and reflect on their lives. But we wouldn’t bow, burn incense and paper money or leave food.

My parents left Hong Kong 50 years ago. For the first time I wondered: Are they now more Christian than Chinese? Had Christianity become our primary culture here in America?

My family isn’t the only one grappling with these questions.

Before Chinese American Jordan Kwan and his family converted to Christianity, they would bring oranges and a dim sum dish to a cemetery in Oakland, Calif., and participate in all the traditional ancestor veneration rituals.

He remembers them changing their routine when he was in the sixth grade.

“You don’t have to bow,” his newly Christian parents told him.

How did Chinese families like ours come to feel that our culture was incompatible with Christianity?

Sze-Kar Wan, professor of New Testament at Southern Methodist University, says it stems from an error in translation.

In ancient Chinese, the word for ancestor veneration, “jizu,” was defined as the act of sacrifice to the deities. In a modern context, Wan says it simply describes the commemoration of the dead.

Historically, practicing ancestral rites is deeply knit into Chinese culture — particularly because it embodies filial piety, the Confucian virtue of respect for one’s elders. Although it plays a central role in the Tombsweeping festival, it is traditionally observed during all major holidays.

Europeans initially believed China to be an enlightened society without Christianity, but that changed by the mid-18th to 19th century. Western missionaries viewed some aspects of Chinese culture as an obstacle to their religion and did everything to counter them, Wan says.

This included translating “jizu” to “ancestor worship.” In doing so, missionaries played a part in defining Chinese tradition to the English-speaking world and pitting it against a Christian God.

“Do not worship any other god,” the Bible reads. “The Lord … is a jealous God.”

Chinese American Serena Cerezo Poon remembers traveling to Hong Kong from California for her grandmother’s funeral in 2003. Her cousin played Christian worship music on his guitar, drowning out the Buddhist monks chanting at nearby services. Her mother placed a sign next to her grandmother’s coffin that read, “No Bowing.”

“I was surprised she didn’t physically stand next to the coffin and stop people mid-bow,” Cerezo Poon said.

Before her family’s trip, Cerezo Poon had researched the influence missionaries had in China as a college student.

“Christian missionaries said it was evil,” she says of ancestor veneration. “But when it’s such a big part of the culture, it was like them saying ‘You can’t be Chinese anymore, it’s evil.’ ”

After Catholic and Protestant missionaries established more churches in China by the 19th century, many new converts were ostracized for their faith and their rejection of Chinese traditions such as ancestor veneration. In extreme examples, such as the 1899 Boxer rebellion, they were persecuted and killed.

Despite political challenges, Christianity in China has endured into the 21st century. In 2010, the Pew Research Center estimated the country’s Christian population to be over 67 million, 5 percent of the national population, and other scholars say current numbers could be nearly twice that.

Today, the influence of Western missionaries is still evident in Chinese Christians whose families like mine, Kwan’s and Cerezo Poon’s immigrated to the United States.

Chinese people decorate the gravesite of their deceased relative to mark the Qingming Festival at the Jiu Gong Shan cemetery in Beijing, in observance of the Qingming Festival, also known as Tombsweeping Day.

But the hard-line approach against ancestor veneration could be fading in a world where cultures are becoming increasingly hybrid.

“I think one could look at ancestor veneration as a continuation of memory,” Wan says. Our dead “do not have independent status or power from God, but we can acknowledge that they are now in the repose of God and that it is important to remember them. That could really be worked into the modern Christian worldview.”

Other Asian Americans have found a compromise between their mother culture and adopted religion.

Desiree Nguyen is a Vietnamese American Catholic whose ancestor veneration rituals closely resemble Chinese traditions.

“When I found out that some Vietnamese gave up ancestor worship after converting to Catholicism, I thought it was a real shame,” Nguyen says. “Ancestor veneration, or respecting elders, is really a crucial part of our culture.”

The Vatican has recognized this and officially allowed Vietnamese Catholics to practice ancestral veneration in 1968.

On major holidays, including Lunar New Year and Christmas, Nguyen’s family gathers around an altar for her ancestors. They light incense, bow three times, say Christian prayers and sometimes pray the rosary.

“I always thought white Christianity’s approach to death and spirits was pitifully narrow,” says Nguyen of the early condemnation of ancestor veneration. “Christianity is deeply layered and complex, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Regardless of religion, it can be difficult for immigrants to uphold and pass on rituals from their home country.

When my family paid our respects at my grandparents’ gravesites this spring, I couldn’t recall the last time we visited.

But we poured water over their headstones, swept wet twigs from the crevices and scrubbed the surface clean. We repurposed palm crosses from Palm Sunday, sticking them in the moist ground behind the memorials. Borrowing from Jewish tradition, we placed a stone on top of their graves, leaving notes for our deceased beneath.

We came to the cemetery to honor our ancestors. And when we remembered the dead, we reflected ourselves — a mix of culture and faith in a country where we now celebrate both.

Complete Article HERE!


Coping With The Stigma of Grieving an Overdose Death


Some people struggle to understand and communicate their emotions surrounding death and grief. When a loved one dies, they dive into planning services, organizing households or closing finances. However, the silence can be deafening when it comes to the avoidance of conversations about drug-related deaths. Overdose deaths outnumber traffic fatalities in the US, which means that we most likely all know — and are maybe even close to — someone who lost their battle to drug addiction. In fact, with the opioid epidemic still tearing through our country, the number of deaths due to overdose in 2016 crept into the top ten leading causes of death in the US.

The truth is, we don’t like to acknowledge that addiction can touch anyone. We blame weakness, willpower, poor parenting or poor choices, making it hard to imagine the real faces behind those statistics — the real lives lost and the real people grieving.

Grief for an overdose death is still a social taboo. It’s cloaked in stigma, often resulting in survivors feeling guilt and shame about discussing their grief and loss. However, for those experiencing the bereavement of an overdose death, there are ways to cope. Here are a few reasons why drug-related deaths are so difficult to talk about, and how we can open the dialogue up with compassion and understanding.

Much like when you lose a loved one to suicide, overdose deaths elicit complex emotions where people may believe the death was somehow avoidable. You might even feel like you can’t talk to anyone about the way you feel without an overwhelming sense of grief and shame.

You may struggle to talk about your grief because you feel like you could have done more to save them from their addiction and prevent the loss. If there were times that the deceased loved one asked you for money and you turned them away — fully knowing they’d use the money on drugs — you may feel guilty that maybe that money could have extended their lives. Another source of guilt comes from the sense of relief you might feel after years of fighting to help this person make it through addiction.

When grieving an overdose death, on top of feeling a sense of responsibility, you might also feel shame. You might feel the need to compare the experience of your loved one’s death with people who have lost someone to cancer, accidents or heart disease — and feel unworthy. As a parent of a child who died from an overdose, you might sense that others see the death as your child’s fault or that they deserved it. You may even wonder if they will think you were a bad or neglectful parent for having a child who suffered from addiction.

Feeling Judgment or Blame

When a death feels preventable, guilt and shame can limit your comfort of opening up about your feelings. Not only can you feel like your loved one is being judged, but that you are as well. When you try to open up, you might feel others blaming the death on the person and not on the addiction. When surrounded by these negative emotions, you might even start to blame yourself or family members for not doing more to save the person’s life.

The truth is — and you’ll have to tell yourself this again and again — while guilt, shame and blame are natural emotions in the grieving process, they aren’t rooted in truth. They are grounded in the very stigma we’re trying to shatter.

Judgment and blame can drive individuals and families to stay hidden instead of opening up to create a safe, healing space for everyone who has been touched by addiction. Nearly 50% of parents who have lost a child to overdose reported hearing remarks about blaming the deceased, so this is a conversation we need to take to the mainstream.

Feeling Reluctant and Isolated

In 2017, America saw more than 70,000 drug-related deaths. Addiction disturbs thousands of lives each year, including family and friends, yet we still feel an overwhelming sense of isolation because of society’s reluctance to talk about how we feel when we lose someone we love to drugs and alcohol.

If you have difficulty accepting the cause of death — the way many struggle to acknowledge how serious the addiction became — you might feel reluctant to share your grief with others. That isn’t just about talking to friends and family, but also a reluctance to speak to a grief counselor, support groups or a mental health professional. When we feel isolated, opening up and reaching out becomes more difficult. We don’t feel like others understand, want to get involved or, more often than not, that we just aren’t deserving.

Even when people who try to comfort you mean well, overdose deaths can elicit some awkward interactions that many people would rather just avoid than deal with, which can drive a survivor deeper into isolation. You might start to feel anxious about, or even fear, social situations where you might have to open up or address the situation with people you’re not wholly comfortable with. That anxiety can turn family members against each other. The fear can make lifelong friends suddenly cold enemies. It doesn’t have to be this way. Even though grief may cause us to say and feel emotions that fade, we can learn to cope, to have compassion and respect for people experiencing this complex loss — including ourselves.

Ways to Cope

Addiction is a devastating disease. If you haven’t experienced it or been through it with family and friends, then it is difficult to understand. Death caused by addiction is even harder to understand. Many times, the shame, guilt, isolation and fear stem from misunderstandings about the illness. When you feel like a failure because you feel you failed to care for your child, parent, friend or loved one, it’s difficult to open up about the complicated grief that accompanies overdose deaths.

Here are a few ways to cope with the stigma:

  • Educating people on the reality of drug addiction and overdose is one way to help people gain a more knowledgeable perspective about the situation. When someone makes a callous or uninformed comment, explain to them the real truth. You can use statistics, anecdotes from other lives, or your own personal story.
  • Have compassion for yourself. When you want to open up but feel hesitant, remind yourself that you have every right to feel whatever you feel — relief, sadness, guilt — and that people can and will surprise you with their empathy and understanding.
  • Drug addiction has been more prevalent in the news. More and more people are beginning to understand that it’s not about weakness or willpower, but about something much deeper than a chemical dependency. The more we can talk about the realities of drug overdose, the more people will begin to have compassion and respect for your complicated grief.

Ultimately, we feel these negative emotions surrounding an overdose-related death because we have been convinced that we — and our loved ones — simply aren’t worthy of grief and mourning like other deaths. However, you are not alone, and your complex emotions are worthy of healing. Even the most reluctant of sharers can find comfort during their grief by connecting with those going through similar experiences. That’s truly the most profound way to heal from grief due to addiction — making human connections.

Complete Article HERE!


Waking the dead a balm to the grieving process


Thanks to the kindness of fantastic friends and neighbours, we gave ‘Nan’ a great send-off

In some rural areas, the practice of watching over the recently deceased from the time of death to burial is still followed.


As this is an Easter column, I thought I would share some recent reflections on death. Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In the New Testament, the event is said to have occurred three days after Jesus was crucified by the Romans and died in approximately 30 AD. Although a holiday of high religious significance in the Christian faith, many traditions associated with Easter date back to pre-Christian, pagan times.

I hosted my first wake recently.

It was for my mother-in-law Marie, a lovely woman with whom I enjoyed 40-plus years of friendship and a shared sense of humour. Almost 94 when she passed away peacefully surrounded by her grandchildren, there was never any doubt that we would wake her in our home, which she shared with us for a decade or so.

The origin of the wake may date back to the ancient Jewish custom of leaving the burial chamber of a recently departed relative unsealed for three days before finally closing it up, supposedly so that family members would visit in the hope of seeing signs of a return to life.

We were introduced to wakes for the first time after moving to the west of Ireland. Until then, our funeral experience had followed the more urban tradition of an evening removal from hospital or funeral home to a church, followed by a formal service the following morning. But in the rural area we live in, the practice of watching over the recently deceased from the time of death to burial is still followed. I have come to appreciate how a wake is an important part of the grieving process.

Thankfully, the more raucous alcohol-fuelled wakes of Irish folklore are no longer with us.

Marie was brought home to us by the Burke family, our local undertakers. She had been embalmed and looked great when the coffin was opened in her living room. Thus began a two-day wake. At no time was she left alone, with family and friends taking it in turn to sit with her throughout the nights – an important part of the waking tradition.

Unbidden, neighbours appeared with chairs, flowers, sandwiches, soup tureens, cooked chickens and salmon. Cyclical pots of tea and coffee emerged from the kitchen. There was no fuss and soon we felt shrouded in a welcome, slow-moving blanket of grief.

At one point I jumped up, concerned about traffic building up on our country road. I needn’t have worried – some neighbours were already directing traffic around our house as those paying their respects came to visit.
No one is invited

No one is invited to a wake.

If you knew the deceased or know any member of the deceased’s family, you should consider attending. The atmosphere is unique. Memories of Marie triggered both crying and laughing as people paid their respects. Groups formed around us and beyond us. Prayers were said. Some people stayed 10 minutes. Others were with us for hours.

There is no formula for a wake.

Things happen spontaneously, but slowly. And this, I think, is key: rather than rushing through your grief you are transported with it at a natural pace. It is hugely comforting as the deceased’s life is remembered and treasured.

Another advantage to having a wake is it allows relatives who live far away time to get home. My son travelled from western Canada; he appreciated being able to spend an entire night sitting with his granny before her burial.

Wakes may not suit every person and every family circumstance. Private, low-key funerals have their place, too. But waking someone close to you – literally staying “awake” to watch over them – seems to set up a soothing of the grief to follow.

Along with fantastic friends and neighbours we gave “Nan” a great send-off.

Thank you everyone.

Complete Article HERE!


How the world of death and funerals has become fashionable through digital culture


‘Tearleading’ – the process of publicly sharing condolences after someone famous has died – has become an internet phenomenon. It’s made grief trendy and has digitised the only one true certainty in life: death

Public mourning: Céline Dion pauses at the casket of her late husband René Angélil – his funeral was livestreamed

By Oliver Bennett

It’s one of the more blood-curdling things about Facebook – the social media death notice. You know the score: the recently deceased star of Top of the Pops, sitcom or stage is commemorated by way of a YouTube video and a deluge of weepy RIPs and “part of my life” eulogies, a phenomenon derided as “tearleading”. The high-water mark for this was who “taught us how to live, then taught us how to die” two years ago. 

Of course, entrepreneurs have noticed this spectacle, which writer and psychologist Elaine Kasket brackets as “the data of the dead”. It’s part of a digital-led revolution in dying and death and it’s changing the way we see people pass into the ineffable digital afterlife. “We’re developing an entirely new mentality about death and dying,” she says. 

​Kasket (yes, she knows) is the author of an upcoming book about digital death called All the Ghosts in the Machine, and has observed a huge rise of interest. “I was at a recent SXSW festival and was introduced to someone who put on a super-serious voice and told me: ‘I’m in the death-tech space’.” As a subject, dying has become fashionable, with investors pouring money into startups, bolstering thought leadership and inspirational TED Talks on “new ways to think about death”. 

There are so many new death-tech sites that they break up into different types. There’s the price disruptors like Harbour Funerals, Beyond.life, and Funeral Zone, which offer price comparisons and sometimes, TripAdvisor-type reviews. Derrick Grant set up Willow when a close friend couldn’t afford his funeral expenses and found one-sixth of Britons struggle to pay for a funeral – the average cost of dying is £8,905. He now offers an against-deadline price check to help those who “couldn’t afford to die”: the ultimate poverty. “I found the industry hadn’t changed for 100 years,” says Grant. “People thought you had to pay a lot to do right.” Now it’s becoming more transparent, more open, and partly as a result, says Grant, “funerals have become less funereal”.

Starman: tributes at a Bowie mural in Brixton the day after the announcement of his death

Then there are the planning sites, which include Cake, a US company that has developed an app for end-of-life planning, and the UK’s DeadSocial.org which explains how to prepare your digital estate from the scattered confetti of Instagram, Facebook, Gmail et al. On SafeBeyond, users can create an online cache – including video and audio messages – to be shared posthumously with loved ones which founder and chief executive Moran Zur has called “digital relics” and “emotional life insurance”. My Last Soundtrack will develop your end-of-life Spotify playlist. More than half a million people die every year in the UK, and market analyst IBISWorld says the UK funeral sector is worth £1.7bn. No wonder there’s been significant funding from angel investors in that “death-tech space”.

This stuff enthuses Peter Billingham, a celebrant and “digital death adviser” who founded the website Death Goes Digital. “The world of death and funerals has really been disrupted by digital culture,” he says. “What was stable for hundreds of years has changed enormously in the last five years. We’re more open about death than ever before and technology is helping to reframe what death means.”

Baby boomers, now moving into the death demographic, are leading the way. Milestones include the 2016 livestreaming of funerals, including those of Lemmy Kilmister and Céline Dion’s husband René Angélil; and of course Bowie, who as ever in the avant-garde, favoured a direct cremation, where the body is cremated before the funeral. There’s a growing inventiveness in eco-death options too: recomposition, where the body becomes compost, and aquamation, a kind of a water cremation – even a “mushroom burial suit”. There are death celebrities, notably Caitlin Doughty, a “mortician and activist” who founded “death acceptance” collective The Order of the Good Death, spearheading the “death positive” movement.

But it is the tech spiritualism that is perhaps the most fascinating part of the digital death otherworld. Many readers will recognise the curious and unsettling scenario whereby a dead friend or relative pops up zombie-like on Facebook, perhaps in a prompt to recognise a birthday.

Modern trend: Dave Grohl delivers a speech at Lemmy Kilmister’s televised funeral

This has led to a huge leap in the way we approach the afterlife. In the past, says Elaine Kasket, attitudes to the dead divided into two main global tendencies: cultures of memory, and cultures of care, roughly zoned into west and east: in China, for example, there’s a tradition of believing that one’s ancestors remain active, while here we honour their memory with photographs and grave visits.

“Now, with digital culture the dead are becoming more vocal and socially influential and the West is moving towards a care culture,” adds Kasket. “They are increasingly in the places of the living.” Digital representations of dead persons won’t be confined to cemeteries. They will haunt different spaces: perhaps even become a rights lobby: the “transdimensional”, perhaps. They will be what Kasket calls the “active dead”, and what Billingham calls “present not absent”. Many people have online conversations with the dead on Facebook, which introduced a legacy contact option in 2015, and Billingham says that we’re already seeing the emergence of a new kind of professional: the “posthumous legacy curator”.

There are far reaches of death-tech that encroach upon sci-fi. Eternime, founded by MIT fellow Marius Ursache, is about creating an eternal posthumous avatar: animated by your digital footprint and given life by artificial intelligence, and is building a database of like-minded people who gain the chance for grandchildren to interact with their unmet great-grandparents. Also in the US, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, a computer scientist and specialist in personality emulation, is engaged in a project to create simulations of the dead people so as to keep our loved ones “alive”. These avatars will start on the screen, move into virtual reality and augmented reality, then potentially become life-size simulations. Ahmad, who was inspired to work in the area when his father died, sees it becoming reality between 2030 to 2050. “It’s not if, it’s when,” he says. And to those who say it sounds like Black Mirror: well, go back and have a look at the “Be Right Back” episode. 

Open-ended: a woman in ‘Black Mirror’ gets an AI version of her husband after he died

Ahmad thinks that cultures like Japan, with its animist traditions and a neophilic acceptance of robots, will be the early adopters. But he doesn’t see why (bar a few surmountable religious barriers) it shouldn’t take hold everywhere as we become used to it. “It means my daughter will have the chance to interact with my father,” he says. “It will deepen our relationships with our dead loved ones and offer a living memorial that can bring ‘emotional enrichment’.” We’ll be less likely to visit graves, perhaps, and more likely to summon Gran like a digital Doris Stokes.

Of course Ahmad has critics. “People bring up the idea that we need ‘closure’,” he says. “But it goes towards solving the ‘if only I’d said this or that’ problem to an extent.” Still, he concedes there are plenty of legal and ethical issues. What if the simulation were sanitised, with difficult opinions edited out? How should their ageing be represented? Does their voice sound right? Ahmad thinks that the development of digital trusts will emerge, and with artificial voice synthesis, the latter will get better. “But these are uncharted territories. It will affect the way we see identity. Adding emotions may be a challenge.” Will Death 2.0 bring on unintended consequences? It’s a dead cert.

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Grieving Santa Rosa family reclaims old ways, brings son’s body home to say good-bye



When Carl Hamilton got the news that every parent dreads, his fatherly instinct kicked in. His son Chris was lying alone at the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office, the victim of a middle-of-the-night car crash. Against all modern convention, Hamilton decided he would not send his firstborn to a mortuary. Instead, he claimed the young man’s body and drove him home.

For three days and two nights Chris Hamilton lay in a simple hand-assembled wooden box in his parents’ Santa Rosa living room. Friends and family gathered beside him, experiencing their grief within the same modest tract house where Chris, a Giants and Green Bay Packers fan and Le Cordon Bleau-trained cook, had grown up.

They talked, shared stories, brought mementos and totems and shed tears. Carl Hamilton and other family members slept in the living room to be near their Chris, named for the storybook character Christopher Robin. In his 35 years, he had grown into a burly man of 6-foot 2 with a big smile, a wicked sense of humor and a compassionate heart.

The Hamiltons opted for an old-fashioned wake or home viewing, where a family spends intimate mourning time with their loved one. These kinds of funerals were once a common practice in American homes, often with women in the community assisting in “laying out the dead.” But with the increasing popularity of embalming and the professionalization of the funeral industry, family death rituals began to change.

At a time when most people “make arrangements” with a mortuary to deal with remains, the Hamiltons dialed back to the old ways in caring for Chris themselves. They oversaw every step, from making his box in the family garage and adorning it with art and messages, to transporting him to the crematorium where they sang songs and held their own service before bidding him good-bye and pushing his box into the flames. Virtually the entire family — three generations — participated.

“I wanted to slow things down. I hate funerals, the ones I’ve been to. I wanted my son home,” said Hamilton, a longtime director in community theater and currently a drama teacher at Cardinal Newman High School.

Soothe broken heart

It was, he reflected, like another production but one that, in its way, helped soothe his broken heart.

Just as women began reclaiming childbirth from strictly clinical hospital settings to home births, natural childbirth and birthing centers, an increasing number of people like the Hamiltons are reclaiming death rituals in ways that are more personal. It’s spawning a niche of services and products for home funerals and green burials, from shrouds to body oils to biodegradable boxes and urns. Increasing numbers of people are craving more control of the mourning experience, and see it a more normal way of dealing with the remains of a loved one, and a healthier way of experiencing their grief.

“I think we’re still just at the tip of the wave,” said Jerrigrace Lyons, who in the 1990s founded a group called now called Final Passages, to educate people about how to do their own home funeral and to provide support. The Sebastopol advocate is now a part of a larger organization, the National Home Funeral Alliance, which has grown to include members throughout the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain.

“Death is a very emotional experience, a very powerful rite of passage and people want support at that time, and they should have it,” said Lyons, who sees her role as akin to the doulas who provide lay support during childbirth.

Most people who opt for a home funeral have had time to think about and take conscious steps as they or a loved one is dying. But for the Hamiltons, there was no time to weigh the pros and cons, come up with a plan or poll everyone in the family.

A missed plane

Fate in the form of a missed plane flight put Chris Hamilton on the road that led to his death.

The week he died he was supposed to be in Italy on vacation with his mother, Frances Hamilton, and his sister, Isla. But at the airport he walked away from the gate and didn’t make it back in time to get on the plane. That was Monday. He was hoping to catch another flight as early as Wednesday. But in the wee hours of the morning that day, Oct. 25, he was driving north on Highway 101 near the Highway 12 exit in his VW Golf when he slammed at 50 miles per hour into a tractor trailer that had been abandoned in the roadway. There were no skid marks, so investigators believe he must not have even seen it ahead. He died instantly; his small dog Davy survived.

“They found his phone in his back pocket so they didn’t find any distracted driving. No drugs or alcohol was suspected,” the father said.

Hamilton, 62, had actually driven past the accident on his way to work, not knowing it was his son. But he felt uneasy since Chris, who had been living with him and his wife Jamie Smith for the last couple of years, hadn’t come home that night or responded to a text. He even drove to his ex-wife’s home hoping Chris would be there. No one answered the door.

Jamie, who had helped raise Chris since he was four years old, was notified after daybreak by coroner’s officers who came to the door and left her with a list of mortuaries and directions to pick one. They said they would deal with everything else. Jamie was unable to reach her husband by phone in the chaos amid the Tubbs fire that was still smoldering. He had just been relocated to a temporary campus site after parts of the Newman campus burned. Deputies left a message with the school to notify Hamilton that he needed to go home for an unspecified emergency.

Jamie had “that awful conversation” with her husband as he pulled into the garage shouting “What’s wrong?!”

The couple wanted to see their son immediately, but were told he was not viewable. Hamilton spent hours contemplating what to do. He had read stories about people who had home funerals. By early afternoon he announced he wanted to bring Chris home.

Jamie said her sister tried hard to persuade her “that it would be a mistake we would regret, but Carl was steadfast.”

Jamie had her own reservations. Would people think they were weird?

Son Dylan Hamilton, 22, a filmmaker in Santa Fe, assured her that the Hamiltons, a theatrical family, are a little weird.

“This is who we are,” he said. “We do things a little differently. We’re a little off kilter and it’s important we keep doing things that way. This was the perfect thing.”

To his grandmother Pat Hamilton, 87, a home viewing was perfectly normal. She remembers when she was 16 and her grandma was laid out in the living room.

“We were close to her. We could see her. She wasn’t alive anymore but she was grandma.”

Jamie immediately got online and found Grace, a pioneer in the revival of home funerals, who helped them through the process.

Help with paperwork

Home funerals are legal in all 50 states. Grace navigated them through getting a death certificate, the application process and permit for the disposition of human remains that is required to transport a body.

The coroner took a week to release the body pending an autopsy. In that time the Hamilton’s put together their plan.

The decided they wanted an old-fashioned wooden box that they could decorate themselves, and then use to cremate Chris.

“A coffin connotes to me, this big, shiny massive thing with rails. It just seems so impersonal to me and not at all like who Chris was or what we are as a family, Jamie said. “We’re way more down-to-earth than that. I couldn’t imagine putting my kid in some weird steel container and giving him to somebody.”

She found a company online that sold simple Wisconsin pine boxes with rope handles, something meaningful to Chris who enjoyed visiting his grandparents in Wisconsin. Other natural caskets are available in materials like willow, seagrass and bamboo.

She paid almost $800 for the box and almost as much to have the 100-pound package rush shipped. It arrived in a kit on Monday. Family and friends were invited to come over and help with the assembly and decoration. Chris’s younger brother Darius Hamilton-Smith, 27, a lighting and set designer in Los Angeles, headed up the effort.

It was a sunny day and a buddleia in the yard was filled with butterflies, something that almost never happens. The family reached for humor in their sadness.

The Hamiltons shared a love for the quirky movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” in which a dysfunctional family steals the body of their dead grandfather from a hospital and drives off with him in their VW van so they won’t miss a beauty pageant. Jamie mod-podged a picture of the scene onto the coffin and wrote, “We didn’t leave you behind.”

Darius bought a “blank” from a local shop that makes custom baseball bats and turned it himself, giving the bat a trial run with a few hits before placing it with his baseball-loving brother in the box.

The elder Hamilton said he felt it was an important part of the ritual that he pick up his son himself, and he still feels the weight of his 250-pound body as it was lifted into the box. The coroner was adamant that the body was not in a condition for viewing. But Carl wanted to touch his son. Grace peeked in the bag and found a hand that was unharmed and that became something for people to touch during the wake.

Grace offered up her Toyota van to drive Chris home for the last time. He was laid out on the kitchen table, his blue body bag covered in a beautiful piece of fabric the Hamiltons had saved from a Shakespeare Festival.

“It felt really good,” said Jamie, “just holding his hand.” Grace showed them how to pack the unembalmed remains in dry ice. The room was adorned with photos and mementos, from t-shirts to Chris’s favorite Gummy candy to a logo plate from the old BMW his grandfather had given him and that he adored.

Many farewells

Some 50 friends and family members came by over a three-day period to draw or write on the box or leave a gift. Someone brought a hummingbird, a Native American symbol of peace, love and happiness. His sister, Isla Hamilton, wrote him a letter, sealed it and placed it in the box. Jamie’s sister sewed a pocket from lavish fabric and tucked a letter inside. Another sister made a “flower arrangement” out of wooden cooking utensils in salute to his work as a cook. Carl added a knife that a Navy SEAL friend had presented to him years before in recognition of his courage, and that he had given Chris when he left home to move to Colorado.

For those days, time was suspended and their home became a safe and intimate container for their grief.

”We agreed we would just let each other do what we needed to do and we ended up crying and bawling and hugging each other,” Jamie said. “Sometimes we just found ourselves standing and holding his hand for a half hour.”

The family stayed together throughout each step in the ritual. They took him together to the crematory at Santa Rosa Memorial Park and held their own little service.

“This wonderful friend of ours brought this beautiful glass mason jar. In it was dirt, leaves, rocks and all kinds of things. Then she wrote out this piece of what everything meant,” Jamie said. “It seemed so perfect. As we stood in front of the big shiny oven with his casket, Carl read it and I handed each piece to Frances, (Chris’s biological mother,) who put each piece in the box. It was beautiful.”

They sang songs — “The House at Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins and “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty.

“We all said something,” Carl said. “We put the lid back on the box and we all pushed him in.”

Chose an urn

While they waited for his cremains they played catch outside with an antique glove that Carl had given his son one Christmas. Then they drove to Funeria, an art gallery in Graton that features unusual and handmade urns. They picked a piece by Seattle sculptor Tony Hopping, a primitive human-like form made from wood salvaged from the Russian River. It spins on a potter’s wheel.

“The moment I saw it, the joy and energy of Chris jumped at me. Each morning I will spin his ashes to get the day started with a smile,” Carl wrote on his Facebook page, where he continues to pour his feelings, his grief and his memories of his son, with art, photos and poetry.

At the crematory they stood vigil as a kind man with flames tattooed on his arms, carefully removed the ashes, sifted them and handed them back to the family. They held a joyous celebration of Chris’s life at the Bennett Valley Grange a week later.

As hard as it was, the Hamiltons nearly five months later remain united in their belief that mourning at home with Chris was the best choice for them.

“Going through all those steps ourselves was therapeutic, and very helpful in the grieving process,” Chris’s brother Darius said. “It wasn’t like Chris was out of sight and out of mind. And instead of just sitting around and doing nothing, there was always something to do.”

Carl said he took comfort in reclaiming the old ritual of spending time at home with a lost loved one, as well as inventing new rituals that felt right for his family.

“There were lessons learned by going through those rituals,” he said. “In taking time and talking with people and really listening, you get to the bare guts.”

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