End-of-life doulas and ‘death cafes’ are changing the conversation around dying

End-of-life doula Nathalie Bonafé leads a death cafe on the last Tuesday of every month at Koffee? in New Haven.

By Cara McDonough

The term “death doula,” which a lot of people use when describing Nathalie Bonafé, makes her job sound edgy. But the proper name for what Bonafé and her company A Gentler Parting do is “end-of-life doula.” And while the job does involve helping individuals and their caregivers face the existential mysteries of the great unknown, end-of-life doulas spend a lot of time facilitating the practical duties that surround the event.

These doulas — who, like birth doulas, are focused on ushering individuals from one phase of life to the next — aren’t as common as the hospice and palliative care workers we associate with end-of-life care. However, they hope their work, approaching death with compassion but also a pragmatic business sensibility, will become more mainstream.

In fact, Bonafé and her colleagues refer to what they do as “a movement.” In addition to their primary responsibilities, they also conduct free workshops, seminars and discussions known as “Death Cafes” to get people talking about death more often, making it a less taboo topic.

Bonafé, previously a molecular biologist, was trained at the New York City-based International Doulagivers Institute. While end-of-life doulas do not provide medical care, she and other doulas offer a wide range of services: Bonafé can help a client do anything from write a living will to downsize his or her home. After a client has passed, she can help create “legacy projects” and facilitates grief management. Rates vary greatly from client to client, she says (most end-of-life doulas seem to average several hundred dollars for typical services).

While the actual client might be the individual facing death, an end-of-life doula can prove invaluable to that person’s family, health care team and legal counsel, too, Bonafé says. The doula serves as an unaffiliated advocate during an “emotionally charged” period, she says, providing crucial support and planning.

Ingrid Harrison of Affordable Personal Services & Pet Care is a former veterinary technician and New Haven County-based end-of-life doula who specializes in keeping clients with their pets.

“I have seen firsthand with my clients, family members and friends that if there is no plan when you become debilitated or pass away, it can have a disastrous outcome,” she says. “Having an end-of-life doula makes for the peaceful passing that everyone deserves.”

As for the Death Cafes? Again, sounds edgy, although the concept is anything but. Bonafé holds them on the last Tuesday of every month at New Haven-based coffee shop Koffee?, describing the gathering in flyers as “a safe, respectful space where we can share our beliefs, curiosity, fears, and stories — and maybe gain a little insight into our mortality.”


End-of-life doula Nathalie Bonafe helps families and individuals deal with the death process, from grief management and emotional support to document organization.

There are usually about 10 participants at each meeting, of different ages and from diverse cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and religious beliefs, she says. One young man joined a recent group after he’d finished a date at the coffee shop because he had recently attended his first funeral and wanted to share thoughts.

People hear about the events through word of mouth, social media or the official Death Cafe website deathcafe.com, which includes events all over the world; there are over 8,800 Death Cafes held in 65 countries, according to the site.

“People leave the meetings with big smiles and a heart full of joy to have been able to share their stories,” Bonafé says. “As the moderator, I ensure that the space is a place of respect and lack of judgment.”

Dawn Whelan operates My Last Gift in Staffordville. Her services, in addition to many like those provided by fellow end-of-life doulas, also include destroying paperwork “not intended for public view” after a client has died.

She says that death is the “one thing we all have in common” and is honored to serve her clients and the community through her work and the free monthly webinar she’s created — DASH — allowing individuals to discuss death openly on a regular basis.

Whether at “cafes” or online, discussing death can help dissuade fearfulness, says Sharon McCullough, an end-of-life doula based in Southington. Her company, Sharon Cares, also offers free discussions on death at a local wellness center.

“People live as if they will recover from all diseases and incidents and are angered by anyone who even starts to talk about the idea that treatment is not curative. This leaves many families stricken with anger when a loved one dies,” she says. “As a doula, I am able to be a witness and support through the struggles of this very natural part of life.”

Dr. Kathleen Leinhardt, a physician who treated one of Bonafé’s clients, saw firsthand how the emotional and logistical support offered — providing food, music and companionship, while also helping organizing home health care and hospice services — changed her patient’s experience. “Nathalie truly took on the role of a surrogate daughter,” she says. “End-of-life doulas can be an invaluable help to those who lack family or whose family lives far away. More than that, though, they can serve as a guide to both patient and family through the emotional and logistical process of dying.”


Nathalie Bonafé shares what she’s learned as an end-of-life doula.

Everyone has a story.
When I spend time with people toward the end of their lives, I am always amazed by the stories they share with me: what/who really mattered to them, where they grew up, their relationships, places they called home, visited, loved, their daily activities, their passions, their beliefs. I find that many express their grace and humanity alongside their vulnerability.

Everyone wants validation.
People want to be seen, heard and understood. No matter what religion, beliefs, education, socio-economic status, mental or physical abilities people have, everyone I encounter is receptive to a smile, compliments or being listened to. People at the end of life want to be witnessed and remembered as the young and strong and able people they used to be. They also want to be remembered as loved, decent, loving human beings, without judgment.

People tend to die the same way they chose to live.
People have a lot more control over the way they die than one can imagine. For instance, a very private person will prefer to spend the very last instants alone or in the arms of a very trusted person; a person who was a natural caregiver will die making sure that the most sensitive/fragile people in their lives are sheltered from shock and pain. Likewise, those who understand the benefits of planning a little, and learn the notion of “letting go” during their lives, tend to find acceptance and inner peace more easily than most.

Listening is more powerful than speaking.
Compassion, understanding, forgiveness and love can be expressed very simply. Similar to the way a frightened child will find incredible comfort and reassurance in your open arms, people in grief, whether facing their own mortality or that of a loved one, want a safe, intimate space to shroud their pain and fears. Learning to build and offer such a space to others in need of such reassurance has been one of the most sacred, humbling and profound discoveries of my life.

It’s worth living to learn.
Life is hard. Every day, we get disappointed, we either feel hurt, or we hurt, we misunderstand, we get angry, we win sometimes, yet we fail a lot more often than we win. Still, we learn throughout it all. Think about it this way: since it is scientifically proven that novel experiences give us a rush of dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, we can turn the pain and changes in life into growth and love and more rushes of dopamine. Intense moments of joy and excitement are rare. Pay attention and enjoy them; they are precious.

Complete Article HERE!

We’re looking at death all wrong. Here’s why.

Can a shift in the way we treat death and dying improve our lives while we’re still here?

A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death

  • These days, for the most part, the concept of death is consumed by health care and medicine.
  • However, as humans we need to view death as more than just a medical event. It takes into account our psychology, spirituality, philosophy, social worlds, and personal lives.
  • This reconsideration should also apply to the way we treat people who are dying. Life is in the senses, not just our physical capabilities.

BJ Miller: Health care, medicine in our country is a giant, colossal thing. And it’s got a ton of momentum. And medicine has become– the domain of death is more or less ruled these days by health care. In times past, it’s been the church, or the family was the sort of center of all this.

These days, it’s mostly medicine. But what’s really important in all this is that we people, we humans, we patients, loved ones, we need to kind of take back the subject on some level– that dying is not just a medical event. It’s way bigger than that. It is all-encompassing. It’s where everything comes to account– our psychology, our philosophy, our spirituality, our social world, our intrapersonal lives– all of it. The medical piece is a little itty bitty piece. It just gets too much attention.

So I’ll just think about the emotions for a second. For one thing, to remind ourselves– for me, the difference between emotion and a thought is you can control your thoughts. You can’t really control your emotions. Emotions are much more slippery. They’re going to have their way with you. So you ignore them at your own peril.

That’s one thing to get across. But I also say that to let us off the hook. The way you’re feeling, on some level, isn’t your fault. And one of the things I see that happens a lot around this subject– again, we’ve talked about how one can be made to feel ashamed to be sick, ashamed to be dying, like we’re failing, somehow.

I want to make sure that we all understand, there are certain things that are way beyond our control. And that means– that may be hard to swallow, but it also means we’re off the hook. It’s not my fault, the way I feel. I shouldn’t have to hate myself or be embarrassed about it. So let’s set some ground rules.

And there’s this other layer that is particularly vexing, which is how others start treating you. And it’s very common, under the banner of sanctity or wanting to protect someone, to– I watch people, they stop telling jokes. Maybe they think it’s sort of sacrilegious to try to be funny around someone who’s sick. Or maybe they don’t talk about their own joys that they happen to have in their day while their colleague is meanwhile miserable with a fever or something. They don’t feel like they should talk about their own joys. Or I don’t know, whatever it is– pick anything.

But one of the things that ends up happening is we end up accidentally making life even harder for each other by keeping the truth of the situation at bay. All right? So these are the ways we die before we have to die. We die before we have to die because no one tells jokes to us anymore because they don’t think we’re going to want to laugh, or that sounds perverse.

Or maybe our partner stops the intimacy. Physical intimacy might dry up, or sexuality. The idea that a disabled person can be sexual, that’s still a novel concept. Just look at most exam rooms in a doctor’s office or in a hospital. Most of them are not even wheelchair-accessible.

My mother uses a wheelchair. They used to just assume she wasn’t having sex, so they wouldn’t offer her a pap smear.
And so one of the things you want to avoid if you plan for your death is you want to– ideally, we come to our death without piles and piles of regret. So when I’m working with patients, especially upstream of their death, I’m always encouraging them to feel things, enjoy the body they have while they have it, appreciate their body while they have it, because it’s someday going to go, and you’re going to miss it.

So touch is just profound. It’s elemental. It is, even if you think about, I think, the scourge of dementia, for example– and a lot of us are terrified of this eventuality. We’re going to lose our minds. Yeah. And it’s hard. And that is a very difficult prospect. And I’m also pretty convinced that there’s a life on the far side of our intellect.

And for me, that life is in the senses. As long as I can feel something, I’m interested in being alive. I’m even more interested in that than a thought.

Complete Article HERE!

At 94, she was ready to die by fasting. Her daughter filmed it.

Mary Beth Bowen holds a portrait of her mother, Rosemary Bowen, who died last year at 94. Mary Beth started filming her mother’s last days as she stopped eating and her body shut down.

By Tara Bahrampour

When Rosemary Bowen hurt her back last fall, she was diagnosed with a spinal compression fracture, a common injury for people with osteoporosis. At 94, the retired school reading specialist was active and socially engaged in her Friendship Heights neighborhood, swimming each day, cooking and cleaning for herself, and participating in walking groups, a book club and a poetry cafe. Doctors assured her that with physical therapy and a back brace, she would probably recover in about three months.

Instead, she announced to her family and friends that she had decided to terminate her life by fasting. After saying her goodbyes, she stopped eating, and in the early morning of the eighth day of her fast, she died in her sleep.

But first, Rosemary asked her daughter, Mary Beth Bowen, to film her fast. The final week of her life is now documented, day by day, in a 16-minute film, which was shown publicly for the first time Saturday at the End of Life Expo hosted by Iona Senior Services in Tenleytown.

It may sound macabre to hold a camera up to a dying woman. But Mary Beth said her mother wanted to spread the word that there was a legal, relatively pain-free way to end one’s life. “She thought that more people should take advantage of it,” she said. “She wanted to show people that it could be peaceful and even joyful.”

Rosemary’s plan didn’t completely surprise her family. She had lived through the Depression, when her father lost his job and moved the family to their grandmother’s farmhouse in Magnolia, Wis. Perhaps because of that experience, she was horrified by the idea of imposing on others, even temporarily, to the point where she would stay in a hotel rather than with family. “For all my life, she used to say, ‘People should row their own boats,’ ” Mary Beth said.

Rosemary had seen friends in their 90s who had slowly declined, and as far back as 1979 she wrote about her aversion to an old age with loved ones “shuffling in and out of rest homes visiting me.” When a friend ended her life by fasting, Rosemary decided someday she would do the same.

“At every family reunion she would talk about it — ‘When I get to the point where I can’t care for myself, then I’m going to hasten my death through fasting,’ ” Mary Beth said. “… She said, ‘Old Eskimos, they would just go off and die,’ and she thought that made so much sense.”

After her injury she spent two weeks at a rehab facility, and her daughters talked her into trying out an assisted-living facility. But she hated that she needed help with basic tasks such as cleaning herself, and after two days there she decided to go through with the fast.

Family members begged her to reconsider. Didn’t she want to see her great-grandchildren start to grow up, Mary Beth asked. One of Rosemary’s daughters said she was hurt that Rosemary would not stick around to see her granddaughter graduate.

But Rosemary was adamant. “She said, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to do what’s right for me,’ ” Mary Beth said.

A ‘good death’?

Rosemary would have preferred to take a pill to quickly end her life, but only a handful of states have aid-in-dying laws, and Maryland is not one of them, though it came close to passing such a bill earlier this year. Fasting, or Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED), is not prohibited by any state.

There is no count of how many people choose this route, but it is gradually entering the public conversation. Radio host Diane Rehm revealed on a 2014 segment that her husband, who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease, had brought about his own death by fasting.

Depending on the person’s health and other circumstances, it can take from a few days to a few weeks before death occurs, according to published studies on the method. Refraining from drinking liquids can significantly hasten the process, as a person can survive for a long time by fasting alone. Proper mouth care is essential for a comfortable death, including keeping the person’s lips moist. Aggressive treatment for pain should also be available.

In a 2015 study, 80 percent of family physicians in the Netherlands who had treated VSED cases said the process had unfolded as the patients wanted; only 2 percent said it hadn’t. The median time until death was seven days. Doctors reported that 14 percent of their patients suffered pain in their final three days, and smaller percentages experienced fatigue, impaired cognitive functioning, delirium, and thirst or dry throat.

The results were similar to that of a 2003 study in which hospice nurses in Oregon were asked if they had treated patients who chose to stop eating and drinking. Eighty-five percent of those patients died within 15 days, and the nurses’ median score for the quality of their deaths, on a scale from 0 (a very bad death) to 9 (a very good death), was 8.

Even so, many advocates for aid-in-dying laws argue that people should not have to draw out their own deaths in such a way. Rehm made that argument vociferously after the death of John Rehm, who chose VSED after his doctor said he couldn’t give him drugs to end his life.

David L. Bowen and his wife Rosemary Bowen.
Rosemary Bowen’s beloved sewing machine

The next step after Rosemary decided she wanted to end her life was getting into a hospice program so she could receive aggressive pain medication and other support during the fast. Although she did not technically qualify for hospice since she didn’t have a terminal illness, an Iona staff member helped find one willing to accept her.

In the days leading up to her fast, Rosemary said goodbye to close friends and family members, and started eating half-size meals. Her last meal, for dinner on Dec. 5, was crab cakes. The next day, she stopped eating — and her daughter started filming.

The first scene shows Rosemary smiling, propped up against a blue satin pillow, her short gray hair framing her face. “I am leaving life with great joy,” she says. “I cannot tell you how content I am and I recommend it highly to do it this way. Be in control. Don’t let people decide anything about you and keep you doing a lot of procedures that are not going to benefit your health at all. Just get on with it and go.”

On Day 3 Rosemary says she feels “Okay. Good. Happy. Relieved.” On Day 4, her voice is still strong, and she has returned from walking down the hall with her walker.

Around then, Rosemary became impatient. She felt fine — too fine — and wondered why death was taking so long. Her daughter pointed out that she was still having small sips of water each day with a pill. So she stopped that, instead relying on tiny wet sponges to hydrate her mouth.

By Day 5, her voice cracks as she reports feeling “weaker, and I’m delighted.”

On Day 6, Mary Beth breaks from her neutral observer role and asks if her mother has any regrets about what she’s doing.

“Absolutely none,” Rosemary says.

“But you know that I would much rather have you live for another year or two,” Mary Beth says.

“Oh God,” her mother says with a grimace.

Mixed reactions

The film does not skip over difficult parts, including the last day Rosemary is conscious, when her mind starts to wander as her organs shut down, and she slips into a deep sleep.

In the audience at Iona, the film elicited mixed reactions.

Gerry Rebach, a former hospice nurse whose mother hastened her death with a fast that took 21 days, said, “It’s not easy, and this movie made it seem easy. I would hate for it to give false impressions.”

Rebach said she cannot imagine herself following her mother’s example. “I think it takes an incredible act of will to be sentient and be able to do that.”

Jean McNelis, a Friendship Heights resident who was friends with Rosemary for 20 years and watched the film Saturday, said she is in the process of figuring out details of her living will, will, and power of attorney. “I don’t have any opinion formed yet about what I want,” she said. “She gave me things to think about.”

Carol Morgan, 78, of Columbia Heights, was upset by the film. Her mother had also fasted to hasten her death in 2006. “It broke my heart,” Morgan said. “I couldn’t bear to see it. … There’s something in me that rebels against it.”

For Mary Beth, the filming was excruciating. She would mostly hold her tears back when she was with her mother, then burst into sobs in the parking garage.

But she saw how happy Rosemary was with her decision. “I felt so gratified that I was helping her on this journey that she was on,” she said. “We were in it together. We’ve always been close, but we became even closer. We’ve never been closer than that last week.”

In the end, helping her mother end her life felt like a sacrament. And filming it felt empowering. Since Rosemary’s death, several of her mother’s friends have told her they are considering following her example, she said.

When Esther Delaplaine, 95, a friend and neighbor, visited Rosemary during her fast, she said, “I had a chance to tell her … how her manner of going was a guide to me in some future that I would be facing.”

That was what Rosemary was hoping for. In the final scene of the film, she can be heard saying, “I feel so privileged to be exiting life like this, and think of all those people who are wringing their hands and saying ‘If only God would take me,’ and all they need to do is give God a little help by holding back on eating and drinking.”

By then, the bed is empty, the blue satin pillow still on it.

Complete Article HERE!

Musicians must prepare estate plans for their musical works

Chris Osgood of Suicide Commandos performing at the Turf Club

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Whether or not we want to plan for it, we all inevitably die. A hard subject for some to grasp, death can bring forth a variety of emotions, conflict, or even chaos, depending on whether or not the deceased had a pre-established estate plan.

To some extent, everyone has assets, but what happens when music is one of those assets—specifically song lyrics and the recording of those songs? We often think about the physical attributes of an estate plan after someone dies—like jewelry, amplifiers, and guitars—but how does a musician plan their legacy that will proceed their death?

Some Minnesota musicians and artists have developed assets over time and have developed their own plans for their music as part of their estate planning process.

Musician Chris Osgood, one-third of the punk-rock trio The Suicide Commandos, has spent time organizing his own musical assets with his fellow bandmates, and for himself, as he continues his own estate-planning process.

“People like myself have a tendency to forget non-physical property is still an asset,” Osgood says over the phone. “When you are doing your death planning, the first thing you think about is, who gets which guitar and objects? The last thing you think about is intellectual property, like your songs, that hopefully will continue.”

Working with musicians, artists, and other talent, attorney Ken Abdo has helped create estate plans that include music assets and legacy planning.

“An artist’s music assets, in the context of estate planning, are really just one of many assets that an artist has,” Abdo says. “The estate planning does not limit itself just to the music aspect. They may have a house, debts, other property, other children. It is part of the whole estate of an individual.”

When you are a musician, prominently known or not, you may have the additional, non-physical assets of copyright, trademark, and even name and likeness potentially included in estate planning. All of these assets together are better known in estate planning as intellectual property.

“When we are talking about music assets, we are really talking about the greater world of intellectual property,” says Abdo. “Copyright is one of those parts. There are two different copyrights involved in the recording of music: there is the underlying composition or songwriting part of it, and then there is the recorded version of that song.”

Protected under United States copyright law, a musician’s compositions and recordings are preserved for 70 years past their death. Musical assets can continue making money well past the death of the musician—an estate plan can determine who benefits from or administers these royalties. Once the copyright period expires, the music enters into the public domain, which helps explain the popularity and exorbitant recordings of songs like “Silent Night,” or other classical hits—because the originator is no longer protected, anyone can write and record the song without the penalty of payment.

Osgood and the other members of The Suicide Commandos have a musical history that spans back to 1975. Planning everything from songwriting credits to publishing rights to trademark, Osgood and his fellow bandmates recently meticulously combed through their catalog and assigned the appropriate credits for their music to each band member.

“When we put out the last record “Time Bomb,” we got a publishing deal from a company called Words and Music down in Nashville,” says Osgood. “It was mandatory when we accepted that contract, to go through each song of our entire catalog and figure out who wrote what and make sure that all parties were content with the fractions. It was easy for us to agree. Songwriting credits are pretty easy to divvy up. Song lyrics hold equal weight to the music.”

A newer technology is helping to preserve intellectual property: holograms. Holographic tours have grown in popularity amongst some musicians, and although the process to create a holographic tour is complicated, it can help protect an artist’s name and likeness, trademark rights, copyright rights, and enable an income source for heirs.

As for reputation and how musicians want people to see their image after death, they can include that in their estate planning under the right of publicity, also known as “personality rights,” which applies to 23 states and controls the commercial use of their identity.

“When you die, that is an asset, where you can bequeath the rights to your name and likeness to another person,” says Abdo. “If you died and were famous and branded, you would want to make sure that your name and likeness fall into the right hands. You would designate that person for trustee, or someone who could shepherd your legacy by making good and correct use with guidance, to keep your legacy going—it survives your death. [For] most people, when you die, you’re dead. But when you are a famous person, you have a name and likeness that has value after your death.”

Although most people do not start their estate planning process until their 50s according to a national survey, Osgood believes being pragmatic is important when dealing with assets- especially when creative assets such as music, are a part of the process.

“It’s still mailbox money and money that can go to someone who is handling my estate,” says Osgood. “I think a lot of people overlook that and don’t think a lot about it. For most of us this side of Steely Dan, it’s not that big of a deal one way or another. It could be, and it often is, if someone’s song gets picked up for a movie or an ad posthumously.”

The Suicide Commandos performing for the Current’s 10th Anniversary Celebrations at the Turf Club

For anyone that has music as an asset, Osgood believes that musicians should include their work in their planning, even if they do not work full-time in the industry.

“For any creative person, don’t sell yourself short or think that because you are not making a complete living from your art, whatever it happens to be, that it isn’t important or that it wouldn’t be important for future generations,” says Osgood.

Reflecting on artists like Aretha Franklin, who recently made headlines for not having a formal estate plan, Osgood believes that musicians and others who have assets can learn from those public eye experiences.

“It’s a cautionary tale for anyone,” says Osgood. “You are taken aback that somebody of that stature hasn’t given that some thought. Maybe they didn’t because they were afraid of death, or something spooked them. It doesn’t spook me. It’s the last part of life. You have to prepare for it the same way you fill up your car before you take it on a trip.”

Complete Article HERE!

Resting in Peace…

Death doula Jane Whitlock on end-of-life care, grief, and the importance of telling our death stories

Jane Whitlock

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When her husband got sick with kidney cancer and died four months later, Jane Whitlock, having had no experience with death or grief, found that the guidance and spiritual care provided by hospice just wasn’t enough. Resolving to find her own purpose while answering for the gaps she saw in end-of-life care, she followed her intuition and became a death doula.

A death doula, or end-of-life doula, is someone trained to provide holistic care to a dying individual. There is no nationally standardized certification program, which means there are multiple training options—a process that involves a set of training classes and documented hours of direct client support, plus whatever specific assessments a particular certification program requires. Death doulas represent a growing movement toward redefining our typical approaches to death.   

A death doula’s role is as nuanced as each individual who occupies that role, and Jane Whitlock sees herself first as a companion. She provides comfort and support to the dying individual and their “tribe”—as she often refers to the circle of family and friends—through a time for which most people may not be spiritually prepared. Through intentional connection, she deciphers how she and the tribe can best serve the dying person. She abides by the slogan, “Death: it’s a collaborative event!”

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

The Growler: Why do you believe death doulas are important?

Jane Whitlock: A doula helps ask the big questions so this process is as spiritually comforting as it can be. Think of your deathbed and how you want to feel—at peace, right? So, how do you get there?

A doula also gives you some sense of what’s coming and can support you through these tough situations that you may not be prepared for. You haven’t been here before and often don’t have any bank of knowledge to draw from.

Cultures have evolved to include how we care for people who are dying and have died, and while some intact cultures can trace their beliefs back very far (to the Buddha, for example), Americans don’t have those deep ties.

Since the Civil War, the standardization of funeral homes, embalming, and the medicalization of end-of-life have removed death from the home. We no longer know how to care for people who are dying, how to have home vigils, how to mark significant transition points (leaving a body for the last time, a body leaving the house).

How can our modern standardized systems shift to accommodate what death doulas have to offer?

It would be amazing if hospitals employed doulas! Wouldn’t it be great if you could transfer someone who has died to a room to clean them up, bring the family in, and have someone guide them through rituals of saying goodbye and nurturing the body?

I think a lot of times this seems like a white lady movement—like, we want to cover everything in crystals and candles and aromatherapy or whatever. I push pack against that because there are so many other ways of experiencing death. This movement needs to be more inclusive, to change a whole bunch; being a death doula is a teeny, tiny door, and there is a lot of growth ahead.

What characteristics make an effective death doula?

You have to be able to empty yourself out, to be hollow and free of judgment, of any preconceived ideas about what should be happening. You have to listen without thinking and really be with someone when they’re suffering without trying to fix it. An effective death doula is someone who is calm, quiet, and vulnerable. It’s really so much about vulnerability.

I volunteer at a hospice and often have to practice that whole “soft belly” thing, to stop before every room and become wide open. Even when someone doesn’t want to see you, you have to think, “It’s not about me.” You just kind of clear your energy, go into the next door. You have to fight being defensive in order to just be vulnerable.

 

What are some ways to go about changing our death culture?

It really starts with your stories. We don’t tell our death stories; we tell our birth stories and our family stories, but we don’t tell our death stories. It would be great to just listen to a bunch of stories about how it happens, maybe know just some weird and messy stuff, too. What was it like? What would you have done differently? What went well? What surprised you?

There’s this guy, Dr. Allan Kellehear, who says our inability to talk about death is a public health epidemic. He refers to the AIDS epidemic and how you couldn’t shut a bathroom stall without a poster on the back teaching about prevention and safety. Wouldn’t it be great if we took that type of vast approach to shifting death culture?

Another maverick in the field, Suzanne O’Brien of Doulagivers, says there should be someone on every block who knows the end-of-life basics so that when somebody in your community is dying, they are supported.

Who do you think is the best at approaching death?

Well, the Buddhists, hands down. They’ve got the saying: “We are of the nature to get old; we are of the nature to suffer; we are of the nature to die.” Imagine if that’s how we started every morning—we wouldn’t be so shocked by death! There are people who think that aging is some kind of radical punishment or who feel entitled to live in a full healthy body forever. That’s just not our nature.

I would say that to prepare for death, you have to get your spiritual house in order, whatever that means to you. Life is finite, super fragile, and you are not entitled to anything! So, spend your time wisely and be grateful.

Complete Article HERE!

Toronto death doula helps take the fear out of dying

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“Everyone dies and that is OK.”

Those six words are something of a mantra for Kayla Moryoussef, a Toronto “death worker” who has spent the last six years immersed in death and dying. As the program manager of the Toronto Home Hospice Association’s “Death Café” initiative, she holds sessions for people to talk about death (more about that later) and, in addition, works to help people experience a “good death.”

What might make a death good? That probably depends on the person, but one of the main things Moryoussef works to get people to let go of is fear.

And she’s not alone. While it’s still a relatively niche corner of the death care industry in Canada, there are an increasing number of people with “death doula” or “end-of-life-worker” practices and, like Moryoussef, most are participants in the “death-positivity” movement.

“It’s not that we should celebrate the fact that people died,” says Moryoussef, who works with Toronto’s Home Hospice Association and has a practice called Good Death (www.gooddeath.ca) through which she runs “Death Café” sessions in Toronto. “But we should accept the fact that people die and, even though it’s not a good thing, it’s an OK thing that’s a part of life. As soon as we recognize that, it becomes less scary.”

In a nutshell, the theory is that we’ve lost touch with death, which used to be more a part of life than it is now. Prior to, say, 100 years ago, people often died at home and, if they lived in small communities, neighbours and family dealt with a lot of pre- and post-mortem issues. As it became more “hands off,” it also became distant, invisible and shrouded in mystery. As a result, we’ve become more afraid of it. Some people use euphemisms, like “passed,” others speak in hushed tones, as though something shameful has happened. At death cafés, people learn to talk about it more openly, in hopes of getting past the fear and awkwardness.

“People get together to talk about dying and death,” says Moryoussef. “They’re not support groups, they’re not grief and bereavement groups, they’re literally just open forum events, although, since we realize that certain populations have different needs, we started to make some population-specific, so we have LGBTQ cafés and, in November, we’re having our first death café for people with chronic illness and chronic pain.”

Death cafés (or “death salons,” as they’re sometimes called) are one of the most successful components of the death positivity movement, says Dr. Katherine Arnup, retired professor at Carleton University and author of “Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada,” a report published by the Vanier Institute of the Family.

“I just looked at the most recent stats, and there have been 9,261 death cafés in 65 countries,” says Arnup, pointing out that this is pretty good given that they only started eight years ago. “I’ve been to a few and it can actually be kind of fun, with a lot of laughter surprisingly. I mean, 65 countries is pretty impressive and there are other ones like “Death over Dinner” and “Death at a Bar,” you know, those kinds of things.”

There’s obviously a demand for a different conversation about death and dying than the one most of us have been having, but public and private sessions aren’t all that death workers offer. Moryoussef has been called upon to join families sitting in vigil and help dying people settle on a “legacy” — usually letters, gifts or memoirs that are to be given to loved ones, post-mortem. This, along with dying at home (when possible), is all part and parcel of the philosophy of the good death. Some death workers even help families who want a home funeral clean and preserve the body.

There are some parallels between this and the big midwifery resurgence (circa 1960-1990s) that saw feminists objecting to a medical system that tended to keep women in the dark and gave them few choices. The modern midwifery movement worked to rectify that by giving women information, encouraging them to be active in making a birth plan and, in some cases, even empowering themselves to choose to deliver at home, instead of the hospital.

So, since birth and death — the only two inevitabilities of life — arguably faced many of the same problems, why didn’t we notice that the death care industry needed some changes, too?

Dr. Arnup says demographics played a big part in the shift in attitudes toward death.

“I don’t like the stuff around the Baby Boomers so much, how you see claims that Boomers changed everything, from the way we eat to the way we die,” says Arnup. “But I think there’s something to be said for the fact that, just because there are so many of us, some have a sense that we can do anything and control things. Certainly some Boomers pushed for medical assistance in dying, which is now the law of the land, and they’re also the people who are supporting hospice.”

Boomers aren’t alone in wanting to avoid the indignities of, say, a protracted death in a hospital, but the sheer number of people in that demographic who hope for pain-free deaths, surrounded by friends and family and, ideally, in their own home, is starting to reshape the industry by supporting alternatives like Moryoussef’s.

And, as she says. It’s still sad — for everyone. It’s not a celebratory moment. But since letting go is a natural part of life, it’s also OK.

Complete Article HERE!

Why people choose medically assisted death revealed through conversations with nurses

Without an understanding of the complexities of medically assisted dying, it’s difficult for patients and families to make good decisions.

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Since Canada legalized Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) in 2016, as of Oct. 31, 2018, more than 6,700 Canadians have chosen medications to end their life.

Canadians who meet eligibility requirements can opt to self-administer or have a clinician administer these medications; the vast majority of people choosing MAiD have had their medications delivered by physicians or nurse practitioners. Canada is the first country to permit nurse practitioners to assess for medically assisted dying eligibility and to provide it.

The precise meaning and implications of MAiD — in particular, who can request medical assistance in dying in Canada — is still evolving through court rulings. Québec’s Supreme Court recently struck down the reasonably foreseeable death requirement under the Criminal Code and the end-of-life requirement under Québec’s Act Respecting End-of-Life Care.

Without the requirement of a reasonably foreseeable death, it is likely that other legal challenges will occur to extend assisted dying to other groups such as those whose sole underlying condition is severe mental illness.

Involvement of nurses

Our research has explored how the nursing profession is regulating the new area of responsibility towards medically assisted dying and how nursing ethics might guide policy and practical implications of nurses’ experiences.

Current legislation guards the right of health-care providers to conscientiously object to participation in MAiD. Nurses who do conscientiously object have a professional obligation to inform their employers of that objection, to report requests for MAiD, and to not abandon their clients. They also must ensure that their choices are based on “informed, reflective choice and are not based on prejudice, fear or convenience.”

The nurses who surround the process of medically assisted dying are an important source of insight into the complex and nuanced conversations our society needs to have about what it is like to choose, or be involved with, this new option at the end of life, and to be involved in supporting patients and their families toward death with compassion.

Researchers are following how the nursing profession is regulating nurses’ involvement in medically assisted dying.

Impoverished stereotypes

Our most recent research involved interviews with 59 nurse practitioners or registered nurses across Canada who accompanied patients and families along the journey of medically assisted dying or who had chosen to conscientiously object. Nurses worked across the spectrum of care in acute, residential and home-care settings.

During our research, and as we followed media stories, we became aware that as with other morally contentious issues, involvement in MAiD has often been discussed in one-dimensional ways: We noted stereotypes of health-care providers and patients who heroically conquer suffering, death and the system by taking control of what might otherwise have been a difficult and prolonged dying. We also observed caricatures of oppositional or religious right-wing persons and institutions who stand in the way of compassion and dignity.

Neither of these perspectives do justice to the complexities of MAiD as it is enacted. Without an understanding of those complexities, it is difficult for patients and families to make good decisions.

Nurses accounts of MAiD

Nurses told us that medically assisted dying is about so much more than the act itself. Medically assisted dying is a conversational journey with patients that lasts weeks or even months.

These discussions patients have over time with skilled and compassionate health-care professionals help to determine whether this is what they really want, or whether there are other options that might relieve their suffering.

Conversations between patients and their families are essential to negotiating a common understanding and moving forward together.

Indeed, evidence has suggested that these conversations, when experienced as meaningful by patients, may help to alleviate the suffering that leads to the request for a medically assisted death. This is particularly true if the suffering has arisen from the sense of isolation.

If and when patients decide to proceed with MAiD, then conversations are required to ensure that all of the organizational details (what, where, when, how) are patient-centred choices and that those who are involved know the part they are to play. After the act of medically assisted dying, it is compassionate conversations that support families in navigating an uncharted bereavement process.

So yes, medically assisted dying is about supporting autonomy, but it is also about understanding that autonomy exists within, and is shaped by, our constellation of relationships. We need to be talking more about the essential nature of what it means to have a good death.

Complex reasons to choose death

MAiD is often spoken of as the definitive intervention that ensures control over the alleviation of suffering. But, we have learned that MAiD can also be chosen as the antidote to a system that fails in compassion or equitable palliative care access.

It may seem the perfect solution for rural and remote patients who want a home death but are unable to find sufficient palliative care in their context.

It may seem the best option for patients who do not want to enter what they perceive to be the dehumanizing environments of residential care.

We heard a story of one man who had overstayed the time allowed on a palliative care unit. His doctor was a conscientious objector to medically assisted dying so each time health professionals planned to transfer him to residential care, the man asked for a medically assisted death. In doing so his stay in palliative care was assured.

We need to ensure that inequitable access or lack of caregiving networks do not become the default reasons for requesting a medically assisted death.

We heard other stories of patients who were not willing to tax their caregivers any longer, particularly if those caregivers sent cues that they were exhausted.

So, while medically assisted dying does promise control over people’s suffering, it can also be used as a form of resistance to a challenging system or depleted support.

We need to plan ways to ensure that inequitable access or lack of caregiving networks do not become the default reasons for requesting a medically assisted death.

Deeply impactful

Nurses emphasized how important it is to have preparatory conversations repeatedly. Organizing an assisted death is labour-intensive for all involved; it requires thoughtful and detailed planning within the care system and among families and support networks.

Often the first time that patients and families hear a detailed explanation of the process is when the nurse or the physician first assesses eligibility. Nurses said it is not uncommon for patients to experience uncertainty, to vacillate in their decision around an assisted death, or to experience fear at the moment of death.

It is tough to talk about your uncertainty when so many have invested time and energy into planning your death. At the time of assisted death, nurses and physicians go to extraordinary lengths to ensure a “good death” by normalizing the process, fulfilling patient wishes and providing exemplary clinical care.

Despite all of this, the death is often deeply impactful because it is so different than the death we have known where people gradually fade away. Persons receiving medically assisted death are fully there one minute, and gone the next.

Within minutes they go from talking, to unconscious, to a grey pallour that signifies death, and this “greying” affects even seasoned health-care providers. The death can provoke an array of overwhelming emotions in health-care providers and families alike, both positive and negative.

With the changing landscape of medically assisted dying in Canada, the need for reflective conversations becomes ever more urgent. We need to better understand how medically assisted dying changes the nature of death to which we have become accustomed and how those changes impact all those involved.

Complete Article HERE!