I Am Dying From Terminal Cancer.


Here’s What It’s Taught Me About Living.

Susan, with her hair mostly out from chemo, and her sons Oliver (left) and Nathan (right) at Nathan’s graduation from the National Circus School (background).

By Susan Briscoe

Sparkling bright and eight months pregnant, my French-speaking surgeon in Montreal, Quebec, was perhaps more direct than she would have been in her native language. She’d just removed my uterus and everything else that I could spare from my abdomen, but she was reporting on what she hadn’t been able to remove of the sarcoma that had, in just the weeks waiting for surgery, spread beyond hope in my belly.

“You will die of this,” she told me matter-of-factly.

Chemotherapy, she said, might give me a few more months if it worked, but those chances were small. So, I consider myself pretty fortunate to still be here a year later.

Pre-diagnosis, I had just turned 50 and was extremely fit, healthy and happy. Nobody could keep up with me! I was excited about life. It had occurred to me that, with my family’s excellent longevity genes — and some good luck — I might very well live another 50 years. I was enthused about the 30 years’ worth of creative activities and research projects that I had ambitiously sketched out for myself. Both my sons, also healthy, happy and on-track, had moved out on their own; and after more than 20 years of solo parenting, I was ready for a little more fun. Deeply aware of and grateful for all the privileges that made my wonderfully full life possible, I figured I had had more joy in life than most would ever have.

But I didn’t get the good luck part, so now I am going to die.

And that is okay.

That was the first thing I told my loved ones. My boyfriend. My parents. My two boys. “I have a very bad cancer. I’m not going to be around much longer. It’s okay.”

They looked so hard into my eyes, gripping my hands, tears streaming down their faces, as I told them this. When I got to the “okay” part, they nodded. They knew I meant it. I was okay. It was okay. They were going to be okay.

Susan getting chemo.

These conversations, especially the one with my boys, were the hardest I’ve ever had. The image of my sons sitting at my hospital bedside and simultaneously dropping to their knees in grief is seared into my mind. Yet these conversations were also the most beautiful I’ve ever had. Though it was terrible to bring them so much pain, I have never felt anything like the outpouring of love we shared in those moments. And it wasn’t long ― that same visit, in fact ― before we were also laughing.

So, one of the first things my diagnosis taught me was that, as much as my dying meant tremendous loss, it also meant receiving gifts of unimagined beauty and joy and love, not just for me, but for my loved ones too.

Many people I meet have imagined me in a state of pure devastation and distress at my diagnosis. Loss brings grief; and because grief is painful, like everyone else, I try to avoid it. But the flip side of grief is gratitude for having had whatever is lost to begin with. I have learned that, to a surprising degree, I have a choice about which side to focus on. I could be sad about all I won’t experience in life ― becoming a grandmother is one of the hardest for me ― or I can be grateful for all the gifts, like my wonderful boys, that I was given and fully appreciated. Choosing a state of gratitude has allowed me to remain happy and even joyous in this time. Yes, there is still grief, but the tears are fleeting, and lately rare.

The Death Project is a blog where I journal about my life with terminal cancer. I wanted people to know that dying doesn’t have to be as bad as we fear.

Talking and writing openly about it has enabled my loved ones and I to feel okay. (My son and a dear friend have contributed to my blog, while my boyfriend has a companion blog and has also written about our relationship for HuffPost.)

It is my hope that our writing will help others face death with less fear and anguish. I always want to say, “it’s not the end of the world!” — though, of course, it sort of is.

Humor has also been a huge help. “I can’t lose my mom and the X-Files in the same year!” my son said in mock despair after he was nearing the final episode of his favorite series on Netflix. His girlfriend was aghast, saying “Too soon!” But it wasn’t too soon for the rest of us.

Allowing ourselves to embrace and even delight in the absurdities of life that can bring anything at any moment has lightened our sadness. It’s also a way into difficult conversations. It’s been hard for my boyfriend to talk about his future without me, so I joke about him bringing a date to my funeral. We agree that he should not be swiping through Tinder during the service ― though it would be fun to compare results before and after his eulogy.

Being so open about my terminal diagnosis was easy for me partly because I was able to accept it immediately. And acceptance was possible because all my life I have been thinking about death and making peace with it instead of fearing it. Having to die when I am still full of vitality has never felt unfair to me. Nor is it a surprise. Death was always part of the deal. And I wanted to be ready whenever it came.

The essayist Michel de Montaigne tells of the skeleton guest at celebrations in ancient Egypt, reminding revelers that there is never a time when death cannot visit, invited or not. And I have heard of another people who keep their own caskets by the front door as a reminder of their own mortality. I like the idea of such memento mori, like a discarded tombstone I once brought home during my youth after visiting a graveyard. I can see now how coming to terms with mortality has been worthwhile not just for the chance moment of a dreaded diagnosis: death has also taught me important lessons about how to live.

Death has shown me that when I am living the life I am meant to live, I am giving. When I discovered I would die sooner rather than later, my most urgent concern was that I didn’t have long to give all I had to the world. On a practical level, this meant getting my affairs in order: a lot of work since my will needed updating. Amid that long and tedious process, I wondered how people managed to die suddenly. There was so much to do!

But giving is much more than a list of bequests. I have also given to society through my teaching job, volunteer work and charity. But most importantly, I continue to give of myself. In my personal relationships, this means my affection, my compassion, my friendship and my love. I’ve had to remind my boyfriend that just because I’m the one who’s sick doesn’t mean I can’t still take care of him at times. Since he is jealous of our cat, I try to favor him with the head rubs. I love to give a smile to strangers, knowing many will pass it on. I try not to give unwanted advice to my sons, but I keep failing. And they still won’t dress warmly! There are so many ways to give: a word of encouragement; a compliment; any act of kindness, however small or brief. I want to give as much as possible, and not just to my dear ones but to everyone, to the whole dear world that I have loved so much.

But giving sometimes triggers grief when I know these opportunities are coming to an end. Like the 4:30 a.m. ride to the airport that I offered my younger son when he was nervous about missing his flight for his first professional tour as a circus performer ― the last ride I figured I would ever be able to offer him. Turns out, he slept through the doorbell, through my texts and phone calls, and through his circus partner’s texts and calls. I ended up pounding on his door until I finally managed to rouse a roommate who let me in to find him still soundly sleeping. We both knew it was the last time I would be able to rescue him. Losing his mother means growing up faster than he might have otherwise (though we also both know that in less practical terms I will always be there for him). He’s going to be okay.

I am aware too that my giving will have to switch to receiving as my disease progresses. Learning to ask for and accept help has been the hardest challenge for me, accustomed to being the competent, independent caregiver myself. Trusting others to load the dishwasher properly is still a struggle! But I remind myself that giving others the opportunity to give is also a gift.

I know there can be no regret in a life lived giving in this way. Though I’m not particularly concerned about immortality, I can also see how it resides in this giving: much of what I have given will still be there in the world when I go. That is what lives on. And the most powerful of those gifts, the one that surely never dies, is love.

So how do I live while dying? Ideally, the same way I have lived my life.

Susan on her 50th birthday

Complete Article HERE!


Living like I’m dying


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


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

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

I feel like Scrooge seeing his own gravestone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurie Brown lives in Toronto.

Complete Article HERE!


Sitting With Silence in End-of-Life Cancer Care


Sometimes compassionate silence can be more effective than action when caring for a terminally ill person.


The capacity to bear witness and respond empathically to a dying person’s suffering is inherent in end-of-life care. Holistic, relationship-centered, compassionate care is the hallmark of palliative end-of-life care.1 Yet, simultaneously, researchers have found medical training sometimes ill-equipped in preparing clinicians for the range of concerns and emotions expressed by dying patients and their families. Healthcare professionals report lacking skills in psychosocial and spiritual care of dying people, resulting in high levels of moral distress, grief, and burnout.1 Similarly, Tornoe and colleagues found “western society’s fast-paced healthcare environment conditions us to view death as a physiological event and a failure rather than a natural part of the human lifecycle and a second passage of a life.”

Modern medicine with its emphasis on cure frequently discovers itself struggling with an array of challenges in end-of-life care. Studies on the influence of compassionate silence in end-of-life care have indicated that clinicians’ focus solely on “doing” may actually be inappropriate at times and inhibit their ability to effectively address and meet the needs of the person who is terminally ill. A prominent theme was that the “do, fix, and hopefully cure” mandate in modern medicine may not be appropriate at the end of life and, in fact, may need to be balanced with the quality of being present with those who are suffering.1 Being “present” to patients who are nearing death therefore entails that clinicians possess a certain comfort level in terms of “sitting with the silence” and offering the “gift of presence.”

The Landscape of Silences

The research of Back and colleagues outlined 3 types of silences that can manifest between patients and clinicians in the clinical encounter: awkward, invitational, and compassionate. In regard to awkward silences, they write, “silence most often feels like it is dragging on too long when a well-meaning clinician thinks he should be ‘using silence.’ While we recognize that new skills have a learning curve before they can be performed smoothly, we also think that the problem with a directive to stop doing something is unlikely to produce the quality of silence that is actually therapeutic.”

Invitational silences are often intentional and used to evoke certain thoughts or feelings from the patient in an attempt to engender further dialogue and reflection. “The clinician deliberately creates a silence meant to convey empathy, allow a patient time to think or feel, or to invite the patient into the conversation in some way. While we recognize that these silences are tremendously valuable, we also note that these silences are often described as a kind of holding, which has a stage-setting, expectant quality,” explained Back. Invitational silence mentored by mindfulness can be effective in heightening patients’ awareness of the moment and help them observe their feelings and thoughts in noncritical or nonjudgmental ways. Conversely, mindfulness and the clinician’s ability to “quiet the mind” may also help to free one from distractions that might preclude attentiveness to the present moment. The clinician has to shift his or her thought from a narrative mode to one a patient perceives as more empathic or compassionate.

Although minor attention has been given to compassionate silences, researchers recently have taken note and underscored its significance in end-of-life care. Rooted in contemplative practices, compassionate silences encompass a way of being in the world and with the dying that cannot be contrived nor forced by clinicians. “Compassion in contemplative traditions is transmitted through a quality of mind … and is not a tool to be used with a specific set of indications and meanings,” Back explains. In another study conducted with hospice nurses and pertinent to the practice of consoling presence, Tornoe and colleagues found that embracing the silence demanded a mental shift from a focus on doing something for the patient to being with the patient. Compassionate silences, therefore, should never be understood as a means or device in which to create therapeutic relationships. The clinician’s ability to empathize and “join with” the suffering of the dying fosters rapport. Being present in the moment elicits openness in allowing our humanity to speak. Compassion for the other emerges naturally and freely from within. The ability to abide compassionately, amidst silence in end-of-life care and simply be provides depth and soul to the patient-clinician encounter. Clinicians who developed the ability to maintain stable attention and emotional balance, and are naturally comfortable expressing empathy and compassion can spontaneously achieve compassionate silences.


Mindfulness meditation, contemplative practices, and centering prayer are proven to help clinicians cultivate empathy and develop “consoling presence.” Although further research is needed, studies have clearly demonstrated the positive influence of these techniques in promoting a way of being and quality of mind that is crucial to end-of-life care. Whether meditative practices enhance empathic behavior is not known; however, evidence suggests that meditation has a positive effect on factors known to influence empathic mental processes.

Complete Article HERE!


What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party


After years of living with stage IV cancer, I have some suggestions.


EVERY 90 days I lie in a whirling CT machine, dye coursing through my veins, and the doctors look to see whether the tumors in my liver are growing. If they are not, the doctors smile and schedule another scan. The rhythm has been the same since my doctors told me I had stage IV colon cancer two and a half years ago. I live for three months, take a deep breath and hope to start over again. I will probably do this for the rest of my life. Whatever that means.

When my scan is over, I need to make clear to my friends and my family that though I pray to be declared cured, I must be grateful. I have three more months of life. Hallelujah.

So I try to put the news in a little Facebook post, that mix of sun and cloud. I am trying to clear the linguistic hurdles that show up on my chart. Noncurative. Stage IV. I want to communicate that I am hoping for a continued “durable remission” in the face of no perfect cure, but the comments section is a blurry mess of “You kicked cancer’s butt!” and “God bless you in your preparations.”

It feels impossible to transmit the kernel of truth. I am not dying. I am not terminal. I am keeping vigil in the place of almost death. I stand in the in-between where everyone must pass, but so few can remain.

I was recently at a party in a head-to-toe Tonya Harding costume, my blond wig in a perfect French braid, and a woman I know spotted me from across the dance floor.

“I guess you’re not dying!” she yelled over the music, and everyone stopped to stare at me.

“I’m working on it!” I yelled back, after briefly reconsidering my commitment to pacifism.

We all harbor the knowledge, however covertly, that we’re going to die, but when it comes to small talk, I am the angel of death. I have seen people try to swallow their own tongue after uttering the simple words “How are you?” I watch loved ones devolve into stammering good wishes and then devastating looks of pity. I can see how easily a well-meaning but ill-placed suggestion makes them want to throw themselves into oncoming traffic.

A friend came back from Australia with a year’s worth of adventures to tell and ended with a breathless “You have to go there sometime!” He lapsed into silence, seeming to remember at that very moment that I was in the hospital. And I didn’t know how to say that the future was like a language I didn’t speak anymore.

Most people I talk with succumb immediately to a swift death by free association. I remind them of something horrible and suddenly they are using words like “pustules” at my child’s fourth-birthday party. They might be reminded of an aunt, a neighbor or a cousin’s friend. No matter how distant the connection, all the excruciating particularities of this person’s misfortune will be excavated.

This is not comforting. But I remind myself to pay attention because some people give you their heartbreak like a gift. It was a month or so into my grueling chemotherapy regimen when my favorite nurse sat down next to me at the cancer clinic and said softly: “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I lost a baby.”

The way she said “baby,” with the lightest touch, made me understand. She had nurtured a spark of life in her body and held that child in her arms, and somewhere along the way she had been forced to bury that piece of herself in the ground. I might have known by the way she smoothed all my frayed emotions and never pried for details about my illness. She knew what it was like to keep marching long after the world had ended.

What does the suffering person really want? How can you navigate the waters left churning in the wake of tragedy? I find that the people least likely to know the answer to these questions can be lumped into three categories: minimizers, teachers and solvers.

The minimizers are those who think I shouldn’t be so upset because the significance of my illness is relative. These people are very easy to spot because most of their sentences begin with “Well, at least ….” Minimizers often want to make sure that suffering people are truly deserving before doling out compassion.

My sister was on a plane from Toronto to visit me in the hospital and told her seatmate why she was traveling. Then, as she wondered when she had signed up to be a contestant in the calamity Olympics, the stranger explained that my cancer was vastly preferable to life during the Iranian revolution.

Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?

Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God, that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.

The second exhausting type of response comes from the teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body and spirit. “I hope you have a ‘Job’ experience,” one man said bluntly. I can’t think of anything worse to wish on someone. God allowed Satan to rob Job of everything, including his children’s lives. Do I need to lose something more to learn God’s character? Sometimes I want every know-it-all to send me a note when they face the grisly specter of death, and I’ll send them a poster of a koala that says, “Hang in there!”

The hardest lessons come from the solutions people, who are already a little disappointed that I am not saving myself. There is always a nutritional supplement, Bible verse or mental process I have not adequately tried. “Keep smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!” said a stranger named Jane in an email, having heard my news somewhere, and I was immediately worn out by the tyranny of prescriptive joy.

There is a trite cruelty in the logic of the perfectly certain. Those people are not simply trying to give me something. They are tallying up the sum of my life — looking for clues, sometimes for answers — for the purpose of pronouncing a verdict. But I am not on trial. To so many people, I am no longer just myself. I am a reminder of a thought that is difficult for the rational brain to accept: that the elements that constitute our bodies might fail at any moment. When I originally got my diagnosis at age 35, all I could think to say was, “But I have a son.” It was the best argument I had. I can’t end. This world can’t end. It had just begun.

A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better. Few people will let you admit that out loud. Sometimes those who love you best will skip that first horrible step of saying: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Hope may prevent them from acknowledging how much has already been lost. But acknowledgment is also a mercy. It can be a smile or a simple “Oh, hon, what a year you’ve had.” It does not ask anything from me but makes a little space for me to stand there in that moment. Without it, I often feel like I am starring in a reality program about a woman who gets cancer and is very cheerful about it.

After acknowledgment must come love. This part is tricky because when friends and acquaintances begin pouring out praise, it can sound a little too much like a eulogy. I’ve had more than one kindly letter written about me in the past tense, when I need to be told who I might yet become.

But the impulse to offer encouragement is a perfect one. There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true anymore. I am a professor, but will I ever teach again? I’m a mom, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future. They say to me, like my sister Maria did on one very bad day: “Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here.”

Complete Article HERE!


Better Angels


Death with dignity advocate Bruce Wilson, facing his end, wants you to know he’s grateful

Pulmonologist Glenn Ragalie (right) says goodbye to former colleague and cardiologist turned hospice physician Bruce Wilson (foreground) after visiting Tuesday, January 16, 2018 at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa, Wis. Wilson has end stage pancreatic cancer.


Not long after he wrote that, Bruce became a hospice care physician. He has dedicated himself to nudging, sometimes dragging, his medical colleagues in particular and the public in general to stop, take a deep breath and talk about how we would like to handle our inevitable demise.

Last February, Bruce was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In the months that followed, the disease proved to be indifferent to chemotherapy and beyond surgical intervention.

Bruce, 66, is home with Barb, his wife of almost 34 years. If all goes as hoped, that is where he will die.

“People say to me, ‘This must be so surreal,’” he said during a recent week of in-patient treatment at Froedtert Hospital.

(Bruce is not opposed to end-of-life medical intervention. Doctors, he says, have a very important part to play in improving the quality of their patients’ final days. What he is opposed to are ill-informed medical decisions based on fear and desperation that too often merely extend a dying person’s misery.)

“And you know, it is sort of odd. I’m sitting in the front row watching myself. It’s afforded me the opportunity to be right square in the middle of it and say, ‘OK. How am I going to react to this reality?’ ”

Bruce, in these final days, has plenty to say about death and dying, but here’s the main thing he wants people to know:

“I am so grateful.”

He’s grateful that he has had time to love, to admire, to grieve, to celebrate, to forgive and to be forgiven by the people he cares about most.

“You can’t have that when you have the symptoms of a very aggressive cancer, and you are being eaten alive from the inside and you’re in horrible pain all the time and you develop delirium.

“That opportunity is lost.”

To make the most of the opportunity you are given, Bruce said, you need to prepare.

An advance directive needs to be in place so that your doctors and family don’t have to guess at what you wish will happen as you die.

“So you can mourn together, share the loss together, but also be grateful together for your presence in each other’s life.”

Barb, who was sitting near Bruce’s hospital bed, said, “The thing you need to understand to really see what this gratitude thing does is — there is a kind of ripple effect.”

Sharing gratitude, Barb said, “is such a gift.”

“I don’t have to mourn that he was so miserable, he was so afraid, he didn’t get what he needed, he was so unhappy, he was suffering or in pain.”

It’s the difference between grief and regret.

But here is the hard part, Barb said. Here is what you must do before the time comes, as surely it will, that you can no longer deny that you will die.

You have to live.

“You die how you live,” Barb said.

“And if you have purpose and gratitude and all those things, then that is how you are going to die.”

Complete Article HERE!


Five ways to die with more than just ‘dignity’


By Pieta Woolley

As Canada’s largest generation ages, more and more of us are dying each year. Ever since 1992, when ALS sufferer Sue Rodriguez brought medically assisted dying to the Supreme Court, most of the conversation about how to have a good death has been about how to actually die.

Now, Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID) is legal and available. So, there’s a new surge of interest in making death not only less painful but good.

In this month’s Observer, I wrote about the recent death of Don Grayston (my former professor), who was an Anglican priest who prepared for his death for 40 years. He and others, including the Vancouver-based death planning agency Willow, have pushed the “good death” conversation way beyond MAID and into the realm of spirituality, relationships, values and ritual.

It’s needed. As a funeral director I spoke to last year said, “People don’t want anything to do with their dead anymore. They treat me like I’m the garbage man, just taking out the trash.”  

No one wants that to be their final story.

So, here are five ways to die — with more than just dignity.

1. Die consciously, with care

Who does it? Death doulas, who are trained to advocate for the dying, increasing their physical comfort and helping them talk about death while acting as spiritual guides. Douglas College in British Columbia offers a straight-forward, college-certified death doula program, but others, such as the Conscious Dying Institute, are less constrained and more spiritually oriented.

Why? “I see the transition out of life as having the potential to be just as celebratory as the transition into this world,” Toronto death doula Susan Dawson told Global TV in June 2016.

2. Die in charge

Who does it? Willow, through its workshop “Departure Directions.” Participants learn how their bodies can be cared for after death and receive help making a plan for rituals and practicalities. It helps to bring peace of mind to the dying, along with their friends and family, especially in the absence of a clear, religious tradition.

Why? “Maybe you’ve experienced the overwhelming frustration of arranging a good-bye ritual for someone who didn’t leave any directions. You’ve struggled with trying to honour what you think are their wishes and meet the needs of those left behind, including you.”

3. Die with fulfilled relationships

Who does it? In 2017, the 20th anniversary of the seminal book Dying Well: The Prospect for Growth at the end of Life was celebrated. Palliative care physician and author Ira Byock advised that the dying — and living — need to hear four things: “Thank you,” “I love you,” “I forgive you” and “Please forgive me.”

Why? “I was death-naive before I read Dr. Ira Byock’s book Dying Well when my father was in his early 80s and in his final, painful decline,” writes Katy Butler, the author of the 2018 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door and A Good End of Life. “It introduced me to the possibility that with appropriate support, dying did not have to be a chaotic, fear-ridden and painful experience. In fact, families could be well-supported and death could even be meaningful.”

4. Die broke

Who does it?
 Some philanthropists and foundations choose to give away their money while they’re still living so that they can celebrate it being used. Some individuals choose to give inheritances to their heirs while they’re still living so that they can offer guidance.

Why? “Benefactors who choose to ‘give while living’ discover that it gives them an opportunity to share their long-term vision with heirs and to witness how their heirs handle the assets,” the Royal Bank of Canada advises. “Beneficiaries, meanwhile, can learn to manage the wealth and become comfortable with an inheritance while consulting with their benefactors, putting everyone in a better position to preserve family wealth for the future.” There are also tax advantages to giving while living, the bank notes.

5. Start dying early

Who does it? Anglican priest Don Grayston started thinking about his own death back while in his 30s. That is, he learned about dying from his aging congregants, figured out that it was going to happen to him and started living in ways that would help him become the old, wise man he wanted to be: in community with friends. In a congregation, this is a no-brainer, as all generations from infants to the elderly sit together each week. But outside of church, tight, multigenerational communities are rare.

Why? Obviously, to prepare yourself for your inevitable death, as Willow’s guides might say. But also, The Guardian tells us that death is cool. Everyone is doing it. Even hipsters. So get with it. 

Complete Article HERE!


Death: The Greatest Teacher


The Buddha said the greatest of all teachings is impermanence. Its final expression is death. Buddhist teacher Judy Lief explains why our awareness of death is the secret of life. It’s the ultimate twist.

“Laughing in the Face of Stupidity,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”


Whether we fight it, deny it, or accept it, we all have a relationship with death. Some people have few encounters with death as they are growing up, and it becomes personal for them only as they age and funerals begin to outnumber weddings. Others grow up in violent surroundings where sudden death is common, or see a family member die of a fatal illness. Many of us have never seen a person die, while people who work in hospitals and hospices see the realities of death and dying every day. But whether death is something distant for us or we are in the thick of it, it haunts and challenges us.

Death is a strong message, a demanding teacher. In response to death’s message, we could shut down and become more hardened. Or we could open up, and become more free and loving. We could try to avoid its message altogether, but that would take a lot of effort, because death is a persistent teacher.

Teacher death met up with us the minute we were born, and is by our side every moment of our life. What death has to teach us is direct and to the point. It is profound but intimate. Death is a full stop. It interrupts the delusions and habits of thought that entrap us in small-mindedness. It is an affront to ego.

Death is a fact. Our challenge is to figure out how to deal with it, because it is never a good plan to struggle against or deny reality. The more we struggle against death, the more resentment we have and the more we suffer. We take a painful situation and through our struggles add a whole new layer of pain to it.

We cannot avoid death, but we can change how we relate to it. We can take death as a teacher and see what we can learn from it.

“Laughing in the Face of Pride,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

Facts are facts: everyone is going to die sooner or later. No magic trick or spiritual gimmick will make it go away. Distancing ourselves from death or putting off thinking about it does not work.

I have noticed that the more distant we are from death, the more fear arises. Death becomes alien, other, scary, mysterious. People who work regularly with the dying, who are closer to death, seem to have less fear.

We each have our own unique relationship with death, our own particular history and circumstances, but one way or another we all relate to death. The question is: how do we relate with this reality and how does this color our lives? It is possible to come to terms with the fact of death in a way that enriches our lives, but to learn from death we must be willing to take a dispassionate look at our experiences and preconceptions.

Reflecting on our own mortality and the reality of death is practiced in many contemplative traditions. In the Buddhist tradition, the contemplation of death is said to be the “supreme contemplation.” It encompasses reflecting not only on physical mortality, but on impermanence in all its dimensions.

By means of meditation and by developing an ongoing awareness of death, we can change our relationship with death and thereby change our relationship with life. We can see that death is not just something that pops up at the end of life, but is inseparably linked with our life moment to moment, from the beginning to the end.  We can see that death is not just a final teacher. It is available to teach us here and now.

When we contemplate in this way, our many schemes for getting around the reality of death, such as coming up with interpretations to make it more palatable, are exposed one by one and demolished. Death is the great interrupter, unreasonable and nonnegotiable. No amount of cleverness will make it otherwise.

Contemplating death is not an easy practice. It is not merely conceptual. It stirs things up. It evokes emotions of love, sorrow, fear, and longing. It brings up anger, disappointment, regret, and groundlessness. How tender it is to reflect on the many losses we have experienced and will experience in the future. How poignant it is to reflect on life’s fleeting quality.

How we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.

In this practice, we deliberately bring our attention back again and again to our relationship with death. We examine what we mean by death and what it brings up for us. We reflect on our experiences and reactions to it.

It is a bit like going for marriage counseling. “When did you two first meet? Tell me a little about your history. Do you spend much time together? What is it about him or her that has offended you? How do you see your relationship moving forward?” You could say that death is your most intimate partner. It is with you all the time, completely interwoven into your daily activities. Since that is the case, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to make a relationship with it?

But our relationship with death is not that simple. In order to understand it, we need to slow down and systematically examine our ideas about it, what it brings up for us, and what it means to us. Death stirs up all kinds of thoughts. And hidden within those clouds of thoughts is a small, unspoken, deep-rooted, yet persistent notion—that we will come through it intact, as though we could come to our own funeral.

The more closely you look into all these ideas, the more you see how inadequate the conceptual mind is in the face of death. Nonetheless, how we think about death matters. It affects how we live our life and how we relate to one another.

Contemplative practice challenges us to look deeply into our thoughts and beliefs, our fantasies and presumptions, and our hopes and fears. It challenges us to separate what we have been told from what we ourselves think and experience. We have all kinds of thoughts about what happens when we die and how we and others should relate with death, but through meditation we learn to recognize thoughts as thoughts. We learn not to mistake these thoughts and ideas about death for direct knowledge or experience. We learn not to believe everything we think or everything we have been told.

“Laughing in the Face of Attachment,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

We are in a dance with death at all levels, and each level influences and is influenced by the others. We are influenced by what we have been told about death and dying, by our personal history, by our cultural biases, and by what we have observed. We are also influenced by inner habits of thought and conditioned responses. Our most subtle views and reactions to impermanence may be quite hidden, but they touch on our view of life altogether, and on our personal identity.

If we want to understand our relationship with death, we need to explore its broader as well as its more subtle dimensions. If we are willing to take an honest look at how we personally deal with this reality, we can develop a deeper understanding of impermanence and even befriend it.

One way to begin is by reflecting on your personal history with death. What have you been told about death? What are some of your earliest experiences of it?

In my case, when I was about five, I was told my babysitter had died, and that was it. For me, she just disappeared, and children did not go to funerals. A bit later, when my aunt died, I was told that she would go to heaven, a very beautiful place. But I didn’t think people really believed that, because all I saw were people upset and crying. When pets died, I was told they “went to sleep.” It didn’t look like sleep to me.

As a child, I observed that dead animals did not breathe or move about like live ones. I saw that they shriveled up and began to smell funny, or were squashed beyond recognition. I saw that dogs hit by cars screamed in pain and that animals looked sick before they died. I saw that people became old and frail. I saw that when you killed a bug, you could not make it come back to life, even if you felt sorry. My friends and I thought it was funny to sing ditties, like “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…”  Death was not that real to us; we made it into a joke.

I observed many such things on an outer level, but on an inner level, I did not have a clue as to what death was about or what it all meant. I did not know how to make sense of it, or to link it to other experiences in my life.

Death is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.

In our encounter with mortality, it is this inner dimension, the relationship dimension, that we need to explore. It becomes obvious that to get to a more uncluttered relationship with death, we first need to plow through a surprising number of ideas, presumptions, and speculations, some of which are very deep-rooted. Through this process, we can become aware of the many concepts that are floating around in us, and try to figure out where they come from and what effect they have on us.

When we look into where all this comes from, we encounter a paradox. We usually consider death to be the end, but it begins to seem that death is in fact the beginning. It is the texture out of which we grow our identity, the stage on which we enact our story.

We can begin our exploration right where we are. We have already been born, we are alive, and we have not yet died. Now what? We might connect to our life in terms of a story or a history. For instance, we were born in such and such a time and place, we did this and that, and we have a particular label and identity. But that story is always changing and in process; it is not all that reliable. However, when our story is combined with a physical body, we seem to have something more solid, a complete package. We have something to hang onto and defend. We have something that can be taken away.

But what do we have to hang onto, really? Our story is not that solid. It is always being revised and rewritten. Likewise, our body is not one solid continuous thing. It too is always changing. If you look for the one body that is you, you cannot find it.

The closer you look, the less solid this whole thing seems. When we investigate our actual experience, here and now, moment by moment, we see how fleeting and dynamic it is. As soon as we notice a thought, feeling, or sensation, it has already happened. Poof! It is the same with the act of noticing. Poof! Gone! And the noticer, the one who is noticing, is nowhere to be found. Poof! When we contemplate in this way, we begin to suspect that this life is not all that solid—that we are not all that solid.

This may seem like bad news, but in fact this discovery is of supreme importance. As we begin to see through our mythical solidity, we also begin to notice all sorts of little gaps in our conceptual schemes. We notice little tastes of freedom and ease in which our struggle to be someone dissolves, and we just are. In such moments, at least briefly, we are not being propelled by either hope or fear. We see that continually holding onto life and warding off death as a future threat is not our only option. There is an alternative to our tight-jawed habit of holding on and defending.

After each little insight or pause, there is a regrouping, and we find ourselves reconstructing our world. Each time we put it back together, we are also putting together the threat that it cannot be maintained. We do this over and over again. We are repetitively and continuously fueling the pretense of solidity and the fear of death that comes with it.

To undo this harmful habit, we need to see it more clearly. We need to recognize that we ourselves are responsible for perpetuating it, and therefore we have the power to stop.

“Laughing in the Face of Jealousy,” painting by Tasha Mannox from the series “Laughing in the Face of Death: To live and die without regrets.”

In looking at the seeds of our relationship to life  and death at a subtle inner level, we uncover how we set  ourselves up for a struggle with death from the beginning—at the very personal level of identity and self-definition.

The more solidly we construct ourselves, and the more rigidly we identify with this construct, the more we have to defend and the more we have to fear. Looking at death in terms of such subtle underlying patterns may seem inconsequential, but it is not.

When we drop the battlefield approach—that life and death are enemies—we become open to an entirely new way of viewing things. Instead of this vs. that, us vs. them, something much more inspiring can take place. Experiences can arise freshly because they are immediately let go. Because they are dropped as soon as they arise, there is nothing to hold onto and nothing to lose.  There is no battlefield, no winner and loser, no good guy and bad guy.

Simple formless meditation is a very powerful tool for relaxing this pattern of holding and defending. Working with death through our awareness of momentary arisings and dissolvings is a profound practice. It shows us that the life–death boundary is an ongoing and quite ordinary experience, and that this unsettling meeting point colors all that we do. If we can become more grounded at this level, we can become more open to what death has to teach us altogether.

Although death is an ongoing reality, there are times when it hits us particularly hard. It may be when we have a health scare or a near accident. At such times, we really wake up to the presence of death, and its teachings come through loud and clear. The heart pounds, the senses are heightened, and we feel extra alive. There is a stillness, as though time had stopped.

When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.

Times like this are so simple and straightforward, so immediate. “This is it,” we think. “It’s actually happening.” In such moments, the heightening of our awareness of death simultaneously heightens our feeling of being alive.

In fact, in the face of death, we feel more fully alive than ever. We are shocked into thinking more seriously about what to do with the time that we have. Usually, though, we don’t maintain that awareness, and the feeling of heightened aliveness fades away. We revert to the default pattern of avoiding death, and, along with that, our dulled down approach to life.

Maintaining an awareness of death makes life more vivid. In the light of death, petty concerns fall away and our usual preoccupations become meaningless. It is as though clouds of dust that have covered over something shiny and vivid have been blown away, and we are left with something raw, immediate, and beautiful. We have insight into what matters and what does not.

Awareness of death—hearing its teaching—cuts through the subtle clinging at the core of our experience. It cuts through our self-clinging and our clinging to others. This may sound harsh, but all that clinging has not really helped us or anyone else. Our clinging to others may have the appearance of real caring, but it is based on fear and an attempt to freeze and control life. It is a way of tuning out death and pulling back from the intensity of life. But if we develop more ease with our own impermanence and struggles with death, we can be more understanding of others and their struggles. We can connect with one another with greater genuineness and warmth.

Death turns out to be the teacher who releases us from fear. It’s the teacher that opens our hearts to a more free-flowing love and appreciation for life and one another. When we get stuck in self-importance and earnestness, death steps in. When we get caught in self-pity, death steps in. When we become complacent and take things for granted, death steps in.

Death spurs us forward with a sense of urgency and puts our preoccupations in perspective. Death lightens our clinging and mocks our pretensions. Death wakes us up. It is our most reliable teacher and most constant companion.

Complete Article HERE!