When Beth Wood’s cancer returned in 2014 after 20 years of remission, she made an instant choice: no chemotherapy, radiation, or other life-altering treatments that could only stave off the inevitable.She told her husband so much in the same breath as informing him the cancer was back, after what was supposed to be a routine visit to the doctor.
“She made a decision to say, ‘I’m not going back through that again. I want quality of life, not quantity,’ ” says her husband, David Wood, of Tennessee. “And we were given almost 3 more years.”
They traveled the country, spent a final Christmas with the children and grandchildren, and when she died at the age of 65 on Dec. 29, 2016, it was peaceful, at home, with Beth secure in her faith she was going to a better place. It was, says her widower, a “good death.”
“I thought a lot about those two words. I think to understand death, you have to understand the life of the person. For her, she was not scared of death,” he says.
It’s a concept more Americans, from the elderly to the terminally ill to the doctors who care for them, are embracing. Eight states have passed laws allowing doctor-assisted suicide, although a judge recently overturned California’s 3-year-old law. Conversations about death, once taboo, are now held around the world at so-called Death Cafes. Before former first lady Barbara Bush died in April, she received support on social media when she decided to forgo further medical treatments.
After all, at no point in history have people lived as well as Americans today. So, more people are asking: Why shouldn’t we focus on the quality of our death as well?
By the end, Kathy Myers couldn’t even get out of bed on her own. A lifelong smoker in Aurora, CO, she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
There were no more bike rides with her husband, no more trips to the mountains, no more working in her garden, no more doing anything without an oxygen tank. So when Colorado voters approved doctor-assisted suicide in 2016, she was determined to use it. But because of misunderstandings or a reluctance to act under the new law, they had a hard time finding a doctor willing to act on it.
“What I came up against was a lot of ignorance. Our family doctor said it was going to take court orders and years before we could opt for that,” says her husband, Herb Myers.
After the couple pleaded for help through local media, a doctor got in touch and made a house call, agreeing that Kathy met the criteria under the new law: a prognosis of less than 6 months to live and sound mental capacity. A second doctor confirmed, as required by the law, and on March 12, 2017, Herb emptied 100 capsules of Seconal into a glass of Gatorade.
They held hands as she drifted into unconsciousness. A short time later, a hospice nurse confirmed she had no vital signs. It was, Herb said, “very gentle and very quick.” She would’ve been 63 the next day.
In the first year of Colorado’s law, 69 people were prescribed aid-in-dying drugs by 37 different doctors, and 78% of them were able to die at home, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Nationwide, the movement has come a long way since Jack Kevorkian was sent to prison in 1999 for assisting in patient suicides. Oregon in 1994 became the first state to pass an aid-in-dying law, which has been used more than 1,000 times. In that state, Catholic groups and other conservatives remain opposed, although they are not actively fighting the law.
Sam DeWitt is the Colorado access campaign member for Compassion and Choices, a Denver-based nonprofit that advocates for such legislation around the country. The organization and its staff and volunteers have worked to educate doctors about the new law. They find the most opposition in rural areas and at medical facilities with religious affiliations or out-of-state ownership. Medical facilities can opt out of the law, prohibiting their pharmacies from filling such prescriptions or such deaths occurring on the premises, but they can’t forbid doctors from taking part.
“It really is a two-pronged approach to getting acceptance. We need the patients to know their rights and to be willing to have a hard conversation with their doctor, but we also need to educate the doctors … so the patients feel comfortable discussing it and the doctors feel comfortable prescribing or referring them to someone who will prescribe it,” DeWitt says.
After Kathy Myers’ story made headlines, Herb Myers’ phone rang constantly with people asking for help finding a doctor. Those calls don’t come anymore as the process in Colorado has gained more acceptance. And while he misses his wife of 38 years, he has no regrets.
“Anything else we did would have just prolonged her life and her suffering. I think it was the right thing to do,” he says. “I think everybody should have the right to go the way they want.”
Talking About Death
Sarah Farr is an end-of-life doula in the Washington, D.C., area. While doulas are better known for providing help for births, Farr hosts regular meetings known as “Death Cafes” for people to discuss this once taboo topic. Other end-of-life doulas work one-on-one with people who are dying, helping them memorialize their lives and plan their deaths.
“I think in America, we live in a very youth-centered culture, a very kind of anti-aging culture. There’s a lot of denial of death. We don’t usually see people die in our homes anymore,” Farr says. Becoming and end-of-life doula has become popular, with 18 training sessions being held around the country in 2018 alone, according to the International End of Life Doula Association.
“A lot of people want to maybe share stories of a death they witnessed. People say, ‘If I could have a say in it, this is how I’d want to die,’ ” she says.
“Choosing [the] day and time of our deaths; it’s just something we don’t have control over. But that doesn’t mean we can’t plan for it if it was to happen, in terms of using hospice care, dying in a hospital versus dying at home, exploring different things you can do with your body after you die, discussing home funerals.”
Of course, a “good death” could be something different for each person. Emily Meier, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UC San Diego Health, recently studied research from around the world on death and identified 11 core themes for a good death. Among these were a lack of pain, religious and emotional well-being, a feeling of life completion, dignity, closeness of family, and quality of life. Being able to die at home is also a strong desire.
Meier said a “good death” is different for each person, but talking about it in advance is the best way to make it happen. No matter the age, she encourages people to prepare advance directives, wills, and other end-of-life documents and share their wishes with loved ones.
“If the conversations are ongoing, and even when you’re healthy, if you have conversations about, ‘What’s most important to me at this point in my life?’ a lot of those things are going to stay the same at the end of life,” Meier says. “The more we talk about it earlier, the less scary it becomes because it’s very challenging to have those conversations in the last moments and trying to scramble together to make sure people are having, so to speak, a good death.”
The Hospice Alternative
Most people think of hospice as a place people go to die. At Alive Hospice in Nashville, it’s where they go to live as well as possible until they die.
Chief medical officer Robert Berkompas, MD, said the nonprofit hospice has only 55 beds but treats 4,000 patients a year with a prognosis of 6 months or less to live. Most of the care is done at home by a team of nurses, doctors, counselors, and others who work in a variety of health care fields.
“We actually ask them: What are their expectations? What are their desires? It’s fairly common they don’t want to suffer physically, with pain and nausea and swelling, so we address all that,” Berkompas says.
But what if they only want to stay alive long enough for an upcoming wedding? What if their treatment plan has side effects that make their final days unbearable?
“We let the patient direct as much of their perception of what a good death would be and work with that,” he says. “If we can give them a great deal of control within the hospice environment, I hope we’re giving them the best of both worlds.”
As a doctor trained to always fight illness, it required a change of philosophy. Berkompas works with other doctors to help them get away from the treat-at-all-costs approach.
“When we say, ‘I really don’t have any more treatment for that illness that is effective or promising,’ I can say, ‘But I still have a treatment for you.’ It’s going to be helping you through this process of dying, and hopefully it will be a good death and not spending your final days in an ICU or a hospital.”
For David Wood, whose wife declined aggressive treatment for her terminal cancer, Alive Hospice made all the difference in making her final months bearable. Nurses visited the home every other week, giving her medication to deal with the pain. And when she couldn’t get out of bed on her own, a nurse came. If he had questions at 2 a.m., he called and someone from the hospice answered. It gave him the confidence to keep her in the house and be her caregiver until the end.
It was the most intimate time in their 43 years of marriage.
“She wanted me to live again, to love again, to play again,” said David, who has since remarried.
“She was comfortable. She told me, ‘David, I am not scared about where I’m going because I know who I’m going to.’ ”
“Hospice just gave me and her the confidence to have a good death. To me, it’s to make the transition from this world to the next.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking (VSED)
To voluntarily stop eating and drinking means to refuse all food and liquids, including those taken through a feeding tube, with the understanding that doing so will hasten death. This is an option for people with terminal or life-limiting diseases who feel that with VSED their dying will not be prolonged. One of the advantages of this decision is that you may change your mind at any time and resume eating and drinking.
The US Supreme Court has affirmed the right of a competent individual to refuse medical therapies and this includes food and fluids. This choice is also commonly accepted in the medical community.
Before You Start
You must prepare to voluntarily stop eating and drinking. It’s not something that can or should be started the day it is first discussed.
- Talk with your physician to let them know of your plans. Talk with your physician about all your medications, and ask if a sedative or pain medication will be available to keep you comfortable.
- Complete an Advance Directive stating in writing that voluntarily stopping eating and drinking is your wish. Have your physician sign orders to withhold life-sustaining therapies and all resuscitation efforts.
- Talk with friends and family members who might care for you during this process early about your wishes and why you may want to take this course. Their support is crucial. However, beware that for many people families are often opposed to VSED and can pose a barrier.
- Finalize your business and financial affairs, make funeral and memorial plans, and gather your family members to share memories and say your good-byes.
- If you reside in a care facility, discuss your wishes with the staff and nursing director. You will need the staff to provide support and assistance.
- If you are already receiving hospice care, your team can help you prepare. If you are not on hospice, ask your physician for a referral to a local hospice provider. Usually hospice will provide supportive care once you start the process.
- If your illness is not one that is likely to cause death within six months, arrange for a psychological evaluation for depression and decision-making capacity by a mental health provider. This will reassure family, physicians, and others that your mental status is sound and this decision well considered.
You can live for a long time without eating, but dehydration (lack of fluids) speeds up the dying process. Dying from dehydration is generally not uncomfortable once the initial feelings of thirst subside. If you stop eating and drinking, death can occur as early as a few days, though for most people, approximately ten days is the norm. In rare instances, the process can take as long as several weeks. It depends on your age, illness, and nutritional status.
At first, you will feel the same as you did before starting VSED. After a few days your energy levels will decrease and you will become less mentally alert and more sleepy. Most people begin to go in and out of consciousness by the third day and later become unarousable. Hunger pangs and thirst may occur the first day, but these sensations are usually tolerable; discomfort can be alleviated with mild sedatives or other techniques such as mouth swabs, lip balm and cool water rinses.
Since dehydration will most likely be the cause of death, it is important not to drink anything once you start. Even sips of water may prolong the dying process.
I wish I could say [my father] died a gentle death. But I’m not so sure. I wish doctor-assisted death had been available to my father. I believe it is what he would have wanted.
We recommend that all medications be stopped except for those for pain or other discomfort. Stopping medications for heart problems or diabetes, for example, may speed up the process.
Finally, one of the advantages of VSED is that you may change your mind at any time and resume eating and drinking.
People who begin this process often express a sense of peace that they can finally “stop fighting.” Some people describe a sense of euphoria or pleasant lightheadedness. There is an analgesic effect caused by dehydration that may explain this response. With dehydration, people often need less pain medication, urinate less, have less vomiting, and breathe more easily due to decreased congestion.
- Read this story, in which Christopher Stookey recounts his father’s death by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking.
- Browse peer-reviewed, academic-journal articles on the subject.
- Watch this video, in which Phyllis Shacter describes her husband’s dying after he decided to voluntarily stop eating and drinking:
Note: With the exception of quotes, information in the following sections has been adopted from End of Life Washington.
For some terminally ill people, aggressive medical treatment may not be helpful and may prolong the dying process without improving quality of life. Under certain circumstances, treatments can increase suffering, ruin the remaining quality of life, or even shorten life.
Stopping treatment can result in a peaceful death but it may also result in increased discomfort. Consult with your physician and arrange for optimal palliative (comfort) care before stopping treatment.
Stopping treatment can be combined with hospice and palliative care or voluntary stopping eating and drinking to shorten the dying process and reduce suffering.
For dying people experiencing so much pain or unmanageable symptoms that they cannot get relief from medications unless the dose is high enough to make them unconscious, palliative sedation provides enough medication to keep them continuously unconscious and thereby free of pain and symptoms. All nutrition and hydration is stopped, and they usually die within a few days.
People using palliative sedation should be monitored around the clock to be sure the sedation is adequate. While this intensive monitoring can sometimes be provided in the home, it is usually provided in a skilled nursing or inpatient hospice facility.
Many [people] claim that palliative sedation effectively eases the suffering of patients when other means fail to do so. However, it is an unacceptable option for most terminally ill adults whose primary concerns are losing autonomy, quality of life and their dignity.
While palliative sedation is an ethical and legal end-of-life option, it is not necessarily a right. While you can request palliative sedation, it is up to the medical provider to determine if it is appropriate. Some physicians and hospices are reluctant or unwilling to authorize palliative sedation. If having the option of palliative sedation is important to you, discuss it with your hospice or other medical provider well before it becomes necessary.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
A Way to Speed Up Dying, Without Asking Permission
By Paula Span
Del Greenfield had endured repeated bouts of cancer over four decades, yet kept working as a peace activist in Portland, Ore., into her 80s. “She was a powerful force,” said her daughter, Bonnie Reagan.
But in 2007, Ms. Greenfield was struggling. She had been her husband’s caregiver until he died that year at 97, never telling her family she was feeling miserable herself. She’d lost much of her hearing. She required supplemental oxygen.
When she fell and broke an arm, “that was the final straw,” her daughter said. “She was a real doer, and she couldn’t function the way she wanted to. Life wasn’t joyful anymore.”
At 91, Ms. Greenfield told her family she was ready to die. She wanted a prescription for lethal drugs, and because she had active cancer, she might have obtained one under Oregon’s Death with Dignity statute for people with terminal illnesses.
Then her son-in-law, a family physician who had written such prescriptions for other patients, explained the somewhat involved process: oral and written requests, a waiting period, two physicians’ assent.
“I don’t have time for that,” Ms. Greenfield objected. “I’m just going to stop eating and drinking.”
n end-of-life circles, this option is called VSED (usually pronounced VEEsed), for voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. It causes death by dehydration, usually within seven to 14 days. To people with serious illnesses who want to hasten their deaths, a small but determined group, VSED can sound like a reasonable exit strategy.
Unlike aid with dying, now legal in five states, it doesn’t require governmental action or physicians’ authorization. Patients don’t need a terminal diagnosis, and they don’t have to prove mental capacity. They do need resolve.
“It’s for strong-willed, independent people with very supportive families,” said Dr. Timothy Quill, a veteran palliative care physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
He was speaking at a conference on VSED, billed as the nation’s first, at Seattle University School of Law this month. It drew about 220 participants — physicians and nurses, lawyers, bioethicists, academics of various stripes, theologians, hospice staff. (Disclosure: I was also a speaker, and received an honorarium and some travel costs.)
What the gathering made clear was that much about VSED remains unclear.
Is it legal?
For a mentally competent patient, able to grasp and communicate decisions, probably so, said Thaddeus Pope, director of the Health Law Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. His research has found no laws expressly prohibiting competent people from VSED, and the right to refuse medical and health care intervention is well established.
Still, he pointed out, “absence of prohibition is not the same as permission.” Health care professionals can be reluctant to become involved, because “they want a green light, and there isn’t one of those for VSED,” he added.
The question grows much murkier for patients with dementia or mental illness who have specified VSED under certain circumstances through advance directives. Several states, including Wisconsin and New York, forbid health care surrogates to stop food and fluids. (Oregon legislators, on the other hand, are considering drafting a bill to allow surrogates to withhold nutrition.)
The question intrigues bioethicists. Can your current competent self cut off nutrition and hydration for your future demented self? In a handful of court decisions, judges have declined to enforce such directives.
Can VSED be comfortable and provide a peaceful death?
“The start of it is generally quite comfortable,” Dr. Quill said he had found, having cared for such patients. The not-eating part comes fairly easily, health professionals say; the seriously ill often lose their appetites anyway.
Coping with thirst can be much more difficult. Yet even sips of water prolong the dying process.
“You want a medical partner to manage your symptoms,” Dr. Quill said. “It’s harder than you think.”
Keeping patients’ mouths moistened and having aggressive pain medication available make a big difference, health professionals say.
At the conference, the Dutch researcher Dr. Eva Bolt presented results from a survey of family physicians in the Netherlands, describing 99 cases of VSED. Their patients (median age: 83) had serious diseases and depended on others for everyday care; three-quarters had life expectancies of less than a year.
In their final three days, their doctors reported, 14 percent suffered pain, and smaller percentages experienced fatigue, impaired cognition, thirst or delirium.
Still, 80 percent of the physicians said the process had unfolded as the patients wanted; only 2 percent said it hadn’t. The median time from the start of their fasts until death was seven days.
Those results mirror a 2003 study of hospice nurses in Oregon who had cared for VSED patients. Rating their deaths on a scale from 0 to 9 (a very good death), the nurses assigned a median score of 8. Nearly all of the patients died within 15 days.
The slower pace of death from fasting, compared with ingesting barbiturates, gives people time to say goodbye and, for the first few days, to change their minds. Several conference speakers described patients who had fasted and stopped a few times before continuing until death.
That’s hard on families and caregivers, though. And slowness won’t benefit people who are dying with severe shortness of breath or pain. “Two weeks is a lifetime in that situation,” Dr. Quill said.
Other obstacles could restrict VSED. A quiet choice in a private home, it could be derailed in nursing homes and assisted living facilities where administrators fear lawsuits or regulatory sanctions. Physicians might decline to participate; home care aides might quit.
Moreover, major religious groups have yet to declare whether they consider VSED an acceptable act of self-determination or a suicide, anathema in most faiths.
Phyllis Shacter and her husband, Alan Alberts, a computer scientist who received a Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis in 2011, had few doubts, however. VSED allowed him to escape the disease that had slowly killed his mother.
No state allows a person with dementia to use a “death with dignity” law, but with support from his wife, doctor and two caregivers, Mr. Alberts, 76, died peacefully at home in 2013 after a nine-day fast.
“I’m glad my husband fulfilled his desire not to live into the final stages of Alzheimer’s,” Ms. Shacter said.
On the other hand, Judith Schwarz, clinical coordinator of End of Life Choices New York, told of an 81-year-old attempting VSED with inadequate pain medication, crying out to his wife at night, “I’m dying of thirst.”
“And of course, he was, but slowly,” Dr. Schwarz said. “This was a horror show.”
Del Greenfield fared better. “She didn’t use any medicines, just some oxygen,” her daughter said. Ms. Greenfield’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to see her, and “she was completely peaceful, chatting and joking and telling people she loved them.”
She announced that she had one regret. “We all leaned in,” Bonnie Reagan said. “And she said, ‘I wish I’d seen the Rolling Stones the last time they came to Portland.’”
On the fifth day of fasting, “she just fell asleep,” and died about 36 hours later.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
[I]n the past two decades there has been a dramatic increase in political lobbying to legalise euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide (E-PAS). Yet even when E-PAS is legalised, many people who have been campaigning for the right to end their lives often remain unable to do so as they do not meet the strict eligibility criteria outlined in law (such as having a terminal illness, and having less than 6 to 12 months to live).
In light of this, and other factors, the notion of Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED) has gained increased attention in policy discussions. VSED — whereby patients refuse food and hydration and indicate that when incompetent they do not wish to receive it — has been described by bioethicists as a mode of ending one’s life that is legal, in line with medical ethics and a moral prerogative of any patient.
Now it seems that VSED is gaining traction in a clinical context. A new article published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine outlines how long term care facilities such as nursing homes and skilled nurse facilities can facilitate VSED while still respecting “resident safety” and “moral objections to hastened death”. University of Washington palliative care doctor David A. Gruenewald describes how facilities that he has been involved in have managed patient requests for VSED. He argues that VSED may be, where the patient’s wish to end their life is persistent, in accord with “resident-centred care”. Gruenewald calls on long term care facilities to develop evidence based guidelines and guidelines for best practice for dealing with requests for VSED.
In another article in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Bioethics, lawyer Jocelyn Downie explores the legal status of VSED in Nova Scotia, Canada, arguing that it is a legal alternative for patients who are ineligible for MAiD (such as early stage Alzheimer’s patients, stroke victims, patients with mental illness and patients with debilitating pain but not terminal illness) who nevertheless wish to end their lives.
Last month BioEdge reported on the case of a 65 year old transgender person from Denver, Colorado, who ended his life by VSED after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
[F]or many modern Pagans, there is a somewhat different philosophy on death and dying than what is seen in the non-Pagan community. While our non-Pagans see death as an ending, some Pagans view it as a beginning of the next phase of our existence. Perhaps it is because we view the cycle of birth and life and death and rebirth as something magical and spiritual, a never-ending, ever turning wheel. Rather than being disconnected from death and dying, we tend to acknowledge it as part of a sacred evolution.
In The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, author Starhawk says, “Imagine if we truly understood that decay is the matrix of fertility… we might view our own aging with less fear and distaste, and greet death with sadness, certainly, but without terror.”
As the Pagan population ages – and certainly, we are doing so – it’s becoming more and more likely that at some point each of us will have to bid farewell to a fellow Pagan, Heathen, Druid, or other member of our community. When that happens, what is the appropriate response? What can be done to honor the person’s beliefs and send them on their way in a way that they themselves would have valued, while still managing to maintain sensitivity in dealing with their non-Pagan family members and friends?
Views of the Afterlife
Many Pagans believe that there is some sort of afterlife, although that tends to take varying forms, depending on the individual belief system. Some followers of NeoWiccan paths accept the afterlife as the Summerland, which Wiccan author Scott Cunningham described as a place where the soul goes on to live forever. In Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, he says, “This realm is neither in heaven nor the underworld. It simply is — a non-physical reality much less dense than ours. Some Wiccan traditions describe it as a land of eternal summer, with grassy fields and sweet flowing rivers, perhaps the Earth before the advent of humans. Others see it vaguely as a realm without forms, where energy swirls coexist with the greatest energies – the Goddess and God in their celestial identities.”
Members of non-Wiccan groups, particularly those who follow a more Reconstructionist slant, may see the afterlife as Valhalla or Fólkvangr, for those who adhere to a Norse belief system, or Tir na nOg, for individuals who participate in a Celtic path. Hellenic Pagans may see the afterlife as Hades.
For those Pagans who don’t have a defined name or description of the afterlife, there is still typically a notion that the spirit and the soul live on somewhere, even if we don’t know where it is or what to call it.
Tawsha is a Pagan in Indiana who follows an eclectic path. She says, “I don’t know what happens to us when we die, but I like the idea of the Summerland. It seems peaceful, a place where our souls can regenerate before they reincarnate into a new body. But my husband is a Druid, and his beliefs are different and focus more on the Celtic view of the afterlife, which seems a little more ethereal to me. I think it’s really all just different interpretations of the same place.”
Deities of Death and the Afterlife
Cultures have, since the beginning of time, honored deities associated with the process of dying, the act itself, and the journey of the spirit or soul into the afterlife. Although many of them are celebrated during the harvest season, around Samhain, when the earth itself is slowly dying, it is not uncommon to see them called upon as someone is approaching their last days, or has recently crossed over.
If you follow an Egyptian, or Kemetic, path, you may choose to honor Anubis, the jackal headed god of death. Anubis’ job is to determine whether the deceased is worthy of entering the underworld, by taking the individual’s measure. To help ease their passing, you may choose to sing or chant to Anubis about the dying or dead person’s accomplishments.
For Pagans who follow an Asatru or Heathen belief system, prayers and chants to Odin or to the goddesses Hel and Freya might be appropriate. Half of the warriors who die in battle go to spend the afterlife with Freya in her hall, Folkvangr, and the others go to Valhalla with Odin. Hel takes charge of those who have died from old age or sickness, and accompanies them to her hall, Éljúðnir.
A Maryland Heathen who asked to be identified as Wolfen says when his brother died, “We had this huge ceremony with a big bonfire, lots of drinking and toasts, and song. My brother had already been cremated, but we added his ashes to the fire, and we sang a song honoring him and his accomplishments, and introducing him to Odin and Valhalla, and then we continued it by calling upon our ancestors, going back about eight generations. It was what he wanted, and probably the closest thing to a Viking funeral that you can get in suburban America.”
Other deities you may wish to call upon as someone is dying, or has crossed over, include the Greek Demeter, Hecate, and Hades, or the Chinese Meng Po. Be sure to read more about: Deities of Death and the Afterlife.
In many countries in the modern world, the practice of burying the dead is common. However, it’s a relatively new concept by some standards, and in some places, it’s almost a novelty. In fact, many of today’s contemporary funeral practices might be considered a bit strange by our ancestors.
In other societies, it is not uncommon to see the dead interred in trees, placed on giant funeral pyres, closed up in a ceremonial tomb, or even left out for the elements to consume.
One trend that is increasing in popularity in the Western world is that of “green burial,” in which the body is not embalmed, and is simply buried in the soil with no coffin, or with a biodegradable container. While not all areas permit this, it is something worth looking into for someone who truly wishes to be returned to earth as part of the cycle of life and death.
Memorial and Ritual
Many people – Pagans and otherwise – believe that one of the best ways to keep someone’s memory alive is to do something in their honor, something that keeps them alive in your heart long after theirs has stopped beating. There are a number of things you can do to honor the dead.
Rituals: Hold a memorial ritual in the individual’s honor. This can be as simple as lighting a candle in his or her name, or as complex as inviting the entire community together to hold a vigil and offer blessings for the person’s spirit as they cross over into the afterlife.
Causes: Did the deceased person have a favorite cause or charity that they worked hard to support? A great way to memorialize them is to do something for that cause that meant so much to them. Your friend who adopted all of those shelter kittens would probably love it if you made a donation to the shelter in her name. How about the gentleman who gave so much time to cleaning up local parks? What about planting a tree in his honor?
Jewelry: A popular trend during the Victorian era was to wear jewelry in the deceased’s honor. This might include a brooch holding their ashes, or a bracelet woven from their hair. While this may sound a bit morbid to some folks, bereavement jewelry is making quite a comeback. There are a number of jewelers who offer memorial jewelry, which is typically a small pendant with a hole in the back. Ashes are poured into the pendant, the hole is sealed with a screw, and then the friends and family of the dead can keep them nearby any time they like.
Be sure to read the following articles on death, dying and the afterlife:
- Caring for Our Dead: Every society, throughout history, has found some way to attend to the proper care of their dead. Let’s look at some of the different methods in which various cultures have said farewell to their loved ones.
- Ray Buckland on Death and Dying: Wiccan author Ray Buckland recently did a presentation on a Pagan view of death and dying. He has graciously allowed us permission to share that presentation here on the Pagan/Wiccan website.
- What Happens to Your Magical Items After You Die? Since so many members of the Pagan community work as solitaries, and may never come into contact with other Pagans during their lifetime, one issue that comes up as our population ages is that of what to do with magical tools and other items after death.
- A Pagan Blessing for the Dead: This simple memorial ceremony can be performed for a deceased loved one. It invokes the powers of the earth, air, fire and water to send the departed off to their next destination.
- Prayer for the Dying: This prayer is one which may be said by or on behalf of a dying person, and addresses the need we have to feel at home in the last moments of life.
- Prayer to Hel: In Norse mythology, Hel features as a goddess of the underworld. She was sent by Odin to Helheim/Niflheim to preside over the spirits of the dead, except for those who were killed in battle and went to Valhalla. It was her job to determine the fate of the souls who entered her realm.
- Prayer to Anubis: This prayer honors the Egyptian god of the underworld, Anubis. He is honored as the god who takes our measure when we cross from this life into the next.
- Prayer to the Gods of Death: At Samhain, the earth is growing cold and dark. It is a time of death, of endings and beginnings. This prayer honors some of the deities associated with death and the underworld.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
By Sarah Simons
[S]hould doctors do everything they can to preserve life, or should some medical techniques, such as cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), be a matter of patient choice? Doctor Sarah Simons wades into the debate and argues that ‘do not resuscitate’ decisions are all about patients’ human rights.
Of all our human rights, the right to life is the one most often held up as the flagship, fundamental right: after all, without life, how can one learn, love, communicate, play or have a family?
The right to life is closely linked to the right to health. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UK has signed and ratified, states are required to “recognise the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.
Protecting patients’ rights to life and health involves providing necessary life-saving treatment (known as resuscitation) if their life is threatened by serious illness or injury. It also involves enabling patients to live as well as possible for as long as possible: for example, by treating preventable diseases and encouraging people to adopt a healthy lifestyle. However, although many aspects of medicine and health are unpredictable, death is the one certainty for all of us.
Is There a Right to a Good Death?
In recent years, there has been much debate surrounding how healthcare practitioners should approach end-of-life issues with patients. A ‘good, natural death’ is increasingly recognised as a part of someone’s human right to life.
When healthcare professionals acknowledge that someone is approaching the final stages of their life, and no longer responding to life-saving treatment, treatment is not withdrawn, but instead, the goal is changed to treatment focussed on preserving the patient’s quality of life and managing their symptoms in accordance with their wishes. It’s important to draw a distinction between this and the ethical debate on euthanasia, which is altogether different from end-of-life care and natural death.
A ‘good, natural death’ is increasingly recognised as a part of someone’s human right to life.
This change of focus often includes completing a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ (DNR) order, instructing healthcare teams not to carry out cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) when the patients’ heart and lungs cease to work. This decision is usually made on the grounds of pre-existing medical conditions and poor physiological reserve and frailty, which mean that CPR will not be successful. A DNR should always take into account the patient’s informed opinion on the matter, or at least their next of kin’s.
A DNR decision only refers to CPR. The patient can still receive treatment for related issues, such as antibiotics for an infection, and all other life-preserving or life-saving treatments can be given until the patient’s heart and lungs stop working. A DNR decision never means that life-saving treatment is not given – the purpose of a DNR is to allow the patient to pass away naturally and peacefully, with dignity and without traumatic medical intervention.
What Exactly is CPR?
Understanding the reality of CPR is vital to understanding why it is a human rights issue. CPR is used when someone has a cardiac arrest, which means they have suddenly stopped breathing and their heart has stopped beating.
CPR specifically refers to the chest compressions, electric shocks and artificial breathing technique used to stimulate and replicate the beating of the heart to pump blood around the body and the breaths taken to inflate the lungs with oxygen. This is effective when a sudden cardiac arrest occurs and someone’s organs stop unexpectedly, but the underlying mechanism of a cardiac arrest is very different from when the heart stops beating as part of the body’s natural decline at the end of life.
CPR is traumatic, undignified and usually unsuccessful in patients of all ages.
Sadly, despite Hollywood’s optimistic depictions of resuscitation, the reality is that CPR is often traumatic, undignified and usually unsuccessful in patients of all ages. CPR will not reverse years of gradually shrinking muscle mass, rejuvenate brains worn down by the steady decline of dementia, remove cancerous tumours or clear obstructed lungs weathered by years of COPD, which are often the underlying causes when someone’s heart and lungs have stopped.
CPR will cause bruising, vomiting, bleeding and broken ribs. CPR will render someone’s dying moments traumatic and undignified, and it will leave their friends and families with lasting memories of a failed, brutal resuscitation rather than a mental image of their loved one peacefully slipping away pain-free and asleep.
What Do Experts Have to Say About This?
Guidance published by the General Medical Council (GMC) in 2016 emphasised the importance of recognising patients’ human rights in relation to decisions about CPR and end-of-life care. The guidance recognised that “provisions particularly relevant to decisions about attempting CPR include the right to life (Article 2) [and] the right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3)”.
Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention specifically refers to the right to protection from inhuman or degrading treatment, and understanding the brutal, traumatic reality of CPR is a crucial consideration when thinking about DNR decisions. The GMC goes on to reference “the right to respect for privacy and family life (Article 8), the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to hold opinions and to receive information (Article 10) and the right to be free from discrimination in respect of these rights (Article 14).”
The GMC guidance also highlights that the Human Rights Act, (which incorporates the Human Rights Convention into UK law), “aims to promote human dignity and transparent decision-making”, which should also be key concerns for doctors making decisions across all aspects of medicine.
Making the Right Choice For The Patient
Having open, frank discussions about CPR, and end-of-life decisions in general, enables healthcare professionals and patients to make informed decisions together. Doing so empowers patients to ask questions and insist that their rights are respected. It gives patients time to talk to their loved ones about what’s important to them, including any religious considerations, before their health deteriorates to a point where these conversations may not be possible.
Having open, frank discussions about CPR … enables healthcare professionals and patients to make informed decisions together.
Avoiding these conversations, while perhaps understandable given that no-one likes to think of their loved ones dying, means that important questions may not get asked and the patient’s wishes may go unheard. Making decisions on CPR and other practical matters is important, but so is acknowledging that someone wants to spend their last days eating mint chocolate chip ice cream at home listening to a specific Eva Cassidy album whilst surrounded by their pets and children.
As the NHS turns 70 later this year, and continues to navigate the challenges of an ageing population, conversations about end-of-life care are more important than ever before. Grief and bereavement are difficult, emotionally charged topics of conversation, but death is a normal human process. Taking the opportunity to talk about what we want at the end of our lives empowers us to make informed decisions and ultimately help all of us to die well one day.
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“It wasn’t loss that triggered this, it was curiosity,” says filmmaker Cathy Zheutlin of her new documentary, “Living While Dying,” a short film whose subtitle reads: “A story of life. A story of death. Finding joy in the journey.” Zheutlin, who stumbled upon the good fortune of having two parents alive in their 90s, became fascinated with the idea of mortality, an inevitability we all face, despite it being hidden from view — and polite conversation, for that matter. Her exploration of the topic extends an invitation to viewers, one that hinges on conversation as the most necessary component surrounding mortality and the end-of-life choices that arise as a result. After having made its debut in Ashland and Portland, Oregon, where the filmmaker and her mother reside, Zheutlin’s film is making the rounds in the northeast; it will be screened Wednesday, June 6, at 7:30 p.m. at Kimball Farms Life Care in Lenox.
The inspiration for Zheutlin’s film came when her mother’s partner, Clair, learned he had terminal cancer. “We had a dying man in the living room,” she recalls in the film’s trailer. “I am a filmmaker so I asked Clair if I could film him; he said ‘yes,’” continues Zheutlin. This impetus, coupled with what she calls a desire to push the envelope of consciousness, led Zheutlin and her husband, Edis Jurcys, a brilliant photographer, to embark on the telling of these stories. Their exploration took them to Australia where they met a death walker, and to Bali where they saw a mass cremation. When the pair learned that dear friend Don was dying back at home, Zheutlin took “a deep dive into reflecting on death and grappling with the meaning of life.” The result is “Living While Dying.”
“This is territory that we cannot avoid,” said Zheutlin, whose work stemmed from a simple observation on her part: “So many people have so much to say [and yet] the conversation is mostly not happening.” The documentary project, a full five years in the making, catapulted her back into the world of professional filmmaking after a 32-year hiatus. She decided to pick up her camera and film four friends with terminal illnesses who chose to live out their days in hospice care at home. What ensues is a bold discussion of the inevitable, and one filmmaker’s attempt to remove the pall from a subject that, if considered from a different perspective, is but the final developmental stage in life — one to be revered and celebrated in much the same way as all those that precede it.
“You can’t destroy energy, that became really clear to me,” recalls Jonnie Zheutlin of her own experience walking through end of life with her partner of 12 years, Clair. “I don’t actually fear dying,” is the elder Zheutlin’s stance on the subject. Jonnie took an OLLI class in Oregon called “Talking About Dying as If It Could Happen to You,” which she found to be both fascinating and on target — not to mention independent of her daughter’s project. This, coupled with Clair’s death, urged her on to further explore the subject. She recounts the first time Clair showed up, shortly after he died; she was looking out the window and, from the trees, this tape kept coming out. At first Jonnie thinks it’s a kite; she wonders what’s going on and then she has a realization: “The way it moved, it moved the way Clair danced — it was so clear, but I was frantic, I wanted someone to validate it,” she explains. From these experiences, a conversation between the mother-daughter pair has ensued.
“The advantage of having conversations when we are healthy is that, when we are in crisis, it’s not the time to begin thinking about all the various choices. And there are a zillion choices,” says Zheutlin. It’s the pre-thinking to support us along the way that Zheutlin hopes will inspire others to embark on a dialogue that, for many, is not welcome. In the documentary, Jonnie and her daughter model a conversation (Zheutlin is the film’s narrator) while Jonnie sits in a coffin. Zheutlin was conscious of her choice to model the conversation with her mother — who is very comfortable talking about her own EOL choices — in the presence of an image that was not terribly stereotypical. She felt the iconic images of individuals contemplating death while meandering through a cemetery to be too cliché. “That step of taking something scary and foreign and only associated with grief” proved liberating in her portrayal. She goes on to clarify: “I don’t think we should ever disassociate grief and death — it’s just that it’s not the only part [to be emphasized] because it’s natural. We somehow need to integrate it,” Zheutlin explains.
The film arises out of a grassroots movement — with titles running the gamut — that revolves around reclaiming death in much the same way baby boomers reclaimed birth. “They said, ‘let’s have our babies at home, [as] birth is not a medical event.’” Well, death isn’t necessarily a medical event, either. “Death is a natural thing that happens at the end of every single life. It’s 100 percent going to happen,” Zheutlin reminds her audience. But we don’t get to see the images of nonmedicalized death; this is where Zheutlin comes in. “Living While Dying” offers viewers a glimpse of what death looks like when one goes the nonmedical route and chooses hospice at home. “My experience is not prescriptive or comprehensive; everybody’s experience is going to be unique and important and worthy of being uplifted,” Zheutlin said. “I’m not promoting an ideology, I’m promoting a conversation,” she says of her intensely personal approach. One thing is certain: Death is somehow less scary after viewing this film. “It’s not articulated, but it’s felt,” Zheutlin explains. As for Jonnie Zheutlin’s last word on the topic? “I used to have cement in my mouth,” she says, borrowing a term she once heard a child use in her days as a therapist. “I am learning to verbalize; it’s taken me almost 90 years to learn to use my voice,” she jokes, adding “Thank God I’ve lived long enough to do that!”
Zheutlin’s film has been hailed as a brave and honest immersion in a difficult topic. In her director’s statement, she cuts straight to the chase: “Death is a teacher. Many of us are scared of death. We feel unprepared both for our own deaths and the deaths of people (and animals!) we love. Our associations with death are morbid, dark, cold, depressing, and laden with grief and pain. So we do not talk much about death. In modern times, we have medicalized the end of life, and disconnected it from nature. In trying to prolong life by any means necessary, we only succeed in keeping death shrouded in darkness. By keeping our distance from death, cloaking it, hiding our eyes from it, we actually lose touch with a sacred phase of life. Because, as we all know, death is a part of life — for all of us.”
Director-producer Zheutlin has been principal cinematographer on award-winning PBS documentaries including “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter,” “The Other Philadelphia Story” and the 1982 Academy Award nominee “See What I Say.” Her 1986 documentary “Just One Step: The Great Peace March” led to a co-production with Soviet TV about the first Soviet-American peace walk. In short, she has spent her career making films that explore consciousness and encourage progressive change. Her documentary “Living While Dying” was an official selection for the THIRD ACTion Film Festival, which celebrates aging and older adults while helping to create an age-positive culture shift. For more information, visit www.livingwhiledying.org.
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