11/16/17

The fear that dare not speak its name:

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How language plays a role in the assisted dying debate

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Arguments in the “euthanasia debate” (as it is colloquially referred to in Australia) hinge in part on the language used to describe “death”.

The inevitability and permanence of death make it a taboo fraught with fears (such as fear of losing loved ones, fear of the afterlife, fear of what happens to the body after death).

When it comes to fear, politicians are slick verbal smugglers, sneaking messages under our noses. Conservative pollsters found “global warming” was scary so they gave us “climate change”. Richard Nixon knew white voters afraid of minorities would respond well to “law and order”.

Those involved in the “euthanasia debate” draw on similar tactics. Are we talking about “assisted dying” – as the name of the bill suggests – or are we talking about “assisted suicide”? Does it even matter?

Debating a ‘good death’ in the Victorian parliament

Three terms loomed large a few weeks ago in the debate in parliament: “euthanasia”, “assisted dying” and “assisted suicide”.

Those who supported the Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Bill tended to use the phrase “assisted dying” throughout the debate. A preliminary token count (factoring out references to the name of the bill) shows 678 references to “assisted dying” from October 17-19. The lion’s share of these were made by the bill’s proponents.

Conversely, those who opposed the bill favoured the terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide”. There were 264 references to “euthanasia” and 205 to “assisted suicide” across the three days. These terms were most often used by the bill’s opponents.

In fact, the bill’s opponents took issue with its euphemistic tone. Deputy Premier James Merlino argued in the debate that “language is important” and pointed out the reticence of the bill’s proponents to use “confronting words” like “euthanasia” or “suicide”.

Also during the debate, opponents made multiple references to comedian/actor Liz Carr and her show Assisted Suicide: The Musical.

Liberal MP Robert Clark highlighted one particular scene in Carr’s play in which societies engaging in euthanasia seek the most “palatable term” for what they do. These societies acknowledge, in Clark’s words, “to call it by its true name would be a big setback for their cause”.

Why do these words matter to politicians? Should they matter to us?

To name the tiger or to not name the tiger?

Cultures avoid naming the things they fear the most.

The Batek, a nomadic group inhabiting peninsular Malaysia’s tropical forests, fear and revere tigers. Consequently, hunters often use avoidance terms like “animal of the forest” or the mocking “smelly paws” to discuss them.

Modern English speakers linguistically dance around the concept of death with the same care and mocking humour as the Batek do the tiger. Among other things, we frame death in terms of “rest” (“rest in peace”), “loss” (for example, “my condolences on your loss”) and “a journey” for “the departed” (“pass away” originally referred to the soul’s “departure” from the body for the “journey” to heaven or hell).

We can also, with an irreverent nod to dark humour and idiomatic expression, “buy the farm”, “push up daisies” or “kick the bucket”. These seemingly frivolous statements can often have dark origins. For instance, “kick the bucket” is likely either a reference to suicide by hanging or an old way of killing of pigs (in both cases, the living thing is tied to a beam, and a bucket kicked from under them).

Such dark humour perhaps enables us to cope with death by downgrading its significance.

Returning to the current debate, opponents of Victoria’s VAD bill most commonly use the terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide”. They are sometimes used interchangeably, but also separately, as they have differing meanings (the former entails more direct involvement of a doctor or another person).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the earliest uses of “euthanasia” to the mid-17th century, deriving from the Greek eu- “good or well” and thanatos “death”. It is worth noting in light of the current debate that this eu- also appears in “euphemism” – loosely, “good speaking”.

Euthanasia originally had this general sense of “good death” until the 18th and 19th centuries when it came to signify the “means” or “actions” to bring on a good death.

Words associated with taboo topics often taken on negative connotations, and euthanasia is no exception. We see similar processes at work with “coffin”, which once meant a “small basket” in French, and was originally a reference to the container in which we place our dead.

Opponents of the VAD bill also draw on the negative connotations of “assisted suicide”. Suicides are, of course, highly stigmatised. Moreover, the use of “suicide” conjures up a series of other negative words containing the element –cide (from the Latin “slayer of”), including “homicide” and “fratricide”.

Many of these –cide words are first noted in English in the 15th century but “suicide” (from the Latin suī “of oneself”) did not appear until the 18th century. Before this, the act was known, among other things, as “self-destruction”, “self-homicide”, “self-murder” and “self-slaughter”. The OED notes the first appearance of “assisted suicide” in 1976.

Proponents of the VAD bill favour “assisted dying”, which, of course, is in the name of the bill itself. The OED shows the first appearance of “assisted dying” in 1988 in the British magazine The Contemporary Review. It appears in an article referencing Sigmund Freud’s request that his life end early rather than suffer unduly from his inoperable cancer.

The term “dying” is arguably the more neutral of the two terms (though how accurately it represents the act will relate to one’s philosophical or religious viewpoint).

While we are squeamish about the concept of death, we may be coming to terms with the use of the word “death” itself. Linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge studied obituaries and “In Memoriam” notices in the early 2000s, and found only a single of these contained the verb “die” or the noun “death”.

However, last year PhD scholar Pawel Migut studied online obituaries and found “died” to be the most common reference to the process in 12 US states (“passed away” seemingly remains the most common euphemism across the US on the whole).

Naming the tiger or slick political strategy?

Politicians’ choices to use “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” or “assisted dying” have demonstrable political impact, as evidenced by a 2013 Gallup poll.

This poll found that 70% of Americans supported ending “a patient’s life by some painless means” when they were suffering from an incurable disease. However, support dropped to 51% when Americans were asked whether they supported a request to “assist the patient to commit suicide.”

So then, it is worth noting that the selection of “assisted dying” or “assisted suicide” might reflect our pollies’ attitudes. But it just as equally may be an effective political act, playing to our fears of death, and those words we use to name, or either to not name, our cultural tiger.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/15/17

What It’s Like to Learn You’re Going to Die

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Palliative-care doctors explain the “existential slap” that many people face at the end.

By Jennie Dear

Nessa Coyle calls it “the existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.”

I don’t know exactly when my mother, who eventually died of metastatic breast cancer, encountered her existential crisis. But I have a guess: My parents waited a day after her initial diagnosis before calling my brother, my sister, and me. They reached me first. My father is not a terribly calm man, but he said, very calmly, something to this effect: “Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.”

There was a pause, and then a noise I can best describe as not quite a sob or a yell, but feral. It was so uncharacteristic that I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know, whether the sound came from my father or my mother.

For many patients with terminal diseases, Coyle has observed, this awareness precipitates a personal crisis. Researchers have given it other names: the crisis of knowledge of death; an existential turning point, or existential plight; ego chill. It usually happens as it did with my mother, close to when doctors break the news. Doctors focus on events in the body: You have an incurable disease; your heart has weakened; your lungs are giving out. But the immediate effect is psychological. Gary Rodin, a palliative-care specialist who was trained in both internal medicine and psychiatry, calls this the “first trauma”: the emotional and social effects of the disease.

The roots of this trauma may be, in part, cultural. Most people recognize at an intellectual level that death is inevitable, says Virginia Lee, a nurse who works with cancer patients. But “at least in Western culture, we think we’re going to live forever.” Lee’s advanced-cancer patients often tell her they had thought of death as something that happened to other people—until they received their diagnosis. “I’ve heard from cancer patients that your life changes instantly, the moment the doctor or the oncologist says it’s confirmed that it is cancer,” she says.

The shock of confronting your own mortality need not happen at that instant, Coyle notes. Maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and suddenly realize how skinny you are, or notice your clothes no longer fit well. “It’s not necessarily verbal; it’s not necessarily what other people are telling you,” Coyle says. “Your soul may be telling you, or other people’s eyes may be telling you.”

E. Mansell Pattison, one of the early psychiatrists to write about the emotions and reactions of dying people, explains in The Experience of Dying why this realization marks a radical change in how people think about themselves: “All of us live with the potential for death at any moment. All of us project ahead a trajectory of our life. That is, we anticipate a certain life span within which we arrange our activities and plan our lives. And then abruptly we may be confronted with a crisisWhether by illness or accident, our potential trajectory is suddenly changed.”

In this crisis, some people feel depression or despair or anger, or all three. They grieve. They grapple with a loss of meaning. A person’s whole belief system may be called into question because “virtually every aspect of their life will be threatened by changes imposed by the [disease] and its management,” Lee has written. In a small 2011 Danish study, patients with an incurable esophageal cancer reported that after their diagnosis, their lives seemed to spin out of control. Some wondered why they had received a fatal diagnosis, and fell into despair and hopelessness. “I didn’t care about anything,” one patient said. “I had just about given up.”

In the 1970s, two Harvard researchers, Avery Weisman and J. William Worden, did a foundational study on this existential plight. Newly diagnosed cancer patients who had a prognosis of at least three months were interviewed at several different points. At first, for almost all the patients in the study, existential concerns were more important than dealing with the physical impacts of disease. The researchers found that the reckoning was jarring, but still relatively brief and uncomplicated, lasting about two to three months. For a few patients, the crisis triggered or created lasting psychological problems. A few others seemed to face the crisis, then return to a state of denial, and then double back to the crisis—perhaps more than once. In the study, the researchers describe a patient who was told her diagnosis, only to report to interviewers that she didn’t know what it was—and then make it clear she wasn’t interested in receiving a diagnosis in the near future.

Palliative-care doctors used to think that a patient was either in a state of denial or a state of acceptance, period, Rodin says. But now he and his colleagues believe people are more likely to move back and forth. “You have to live with awareness of dying, and at the same time balance it against staying engaged in life,” he says. “It’s being able to hold that duality—which we call double awareness—that we think is a fundamental task.”

Whether or not people are able to find that balance, the existential crisis doesn’t last; patients can’t remain long in a state of acute anxiety. Coyle has found in her work that later peaks of distress are not usually as severe as that first wave. “Once you’ve faced [death] like that once, it’s not new knowledge in your consciousness anymore,” she says.

The existential slap doesn’t always entail mental suffering, and medical professionals who work with the dying say there are rare cases in which patients seem to skip this phase altogether, or at least experience it in a much less painful way. “People can gradually come to the realization,” Coyle says. “No one has to go through the sudden shock of awareness.”

But for most, figuring out how to adapt to living with a life-threatening disease is a difficult but necessary cognitive process, according to Lee. When patients do emerge on the other side of the existential crisis, she finds that many are better off because of it. These patients are more likely to have a deeper compassion for others and a greater appreciation for the life that remains.

To arrive there, they have to squarely face the fact that they’re going to die. “If you’re an avoidant person, and you don’t like to think about these things, that works better when life is going well,” Rodin says. “It just doesn’t work well in this situation because reality doesn’t allow it. It’s like trying to pretend you don’t need an umbrella or something, or it’s not raining, when it’s pouring. You can do that when it’s drizzling, but eventually, you have to live with the rain.”

Complete Article HERE!

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11/13/17

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

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What makes a person believe that he visited heaven? Is there a way for science to get at what’s really going on? In the April 2015 issue of the Atlantic, Gideon Lichfield mounts an empirical investigation of near-death experiences, concluding that more rigorous research must be pursued to understand what happens in the minds of “experiencers,” as they call themselves. One thing is abundantly clear, though. Near-death experiences are pivotal events in people’s lives. “It’s a catalyst for growth on many different levels—psychologically, emotionally, maybe even physiologically,” says Mitch Liester, a psychiatrist.


 
Complete Article HERE!

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11/11/17

Toronto vet helps pets to pass in comforts of home

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Home is a pet’s safe space and favourite place. This is where they lived and this is where they should be allowed to die, writes in-hospice veterinarian Faith Banks.

At first, they open the door to their home and greet me with “you have the worst job in the world”, followed by “how do you do this?”

They are pet owners and they are referring to the fact I am a hospice veterinarian. I am at their home because I am a mobile hospice veterinarian. I am at their home to help them say goodbye to their most loved companion, their family dog or cat.

When I enter their home, people often apologize for the dirty dishes still in the sink or the mess on the floor. I am blind to their clutter and I never judge them on the cleanliness of their home. What I do notice are the blankets and pillow on the couch.

You see, when an older pet is no longer able to make it upstairs to the owner’s bed, the owner’s bed gets moved to the family room couch. These are some of the final precious moments owners have with their pet and they don’t want to miss out on any of it by sleeping apart for their last few weeks or days together. It is a slumber of true love.

Goodbye at home is a gift

Being able to say goodbye at home is a gift people can provide to their beloved aging pets. Veterinary Aid in Dying, euthanasia or putting a pet to sleep are all terms for the final act of love pet parents are often called on to do for a pet that is suffering. This suffering may be physical and/or emotional and can deeply affect the owner as well.

From the Greek translation, euthanasia literally means “good death”. Our pets are most deserving of a good death, especially after the unconditional love and dedication they showered upon us during our memorable lives together.

When I began my in-home hospice and palliative care service, my goal was to ensure everyone had the opportunity to allow their pet to pass with dignity and love.

Comfort and privacy

Today, along with three other compassionate veterinarians, we are able to provide this service to pets and their owners in the comfort and privacy of their homes. Being able to provide this personal and meaningful service is an honour and responsibility I don’t take lightly.

Home is where the heart is and home is where the dog is. This is their safe space, their favourite place. This is where they lived and this is where they should be allowed to die.

Euthanasia at home, performed by a skilled veterinarian, ensures our pets are not stressed, are not in pain and have a peaceful, love-filled passing. Something they no doubt deserve, and something we all hope for ourselves.

So now, by the time I leave, “you have the worst job in the world” changes to “what an emotionally rewarding job you have” and “how do you do this?” changes to “thank you for doing this”.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/9/17

What ancient cultures teach us about grief, mourning and continuity of life

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At this time of the year, Mexican and Mexican-American communities observe “Día de los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead), a three-day celebration that welcomes the dead temporarily back into families.

Festivities begin on the evening of Oct. 31 and culminate on Nov. 2. Spirits of the departed are believed to be able to reenter the world of the living for a few brief moments during these days. Altars are created in homes, where photographs

Altar to the dead in Yucatán, Mexico

and other personal items evocative of the dead are placed. Offerings to the deceased include flowers, incense, images of saints, crucifixes and favorite foods. Family members gather in cemeteries to dine not just among the dead but with them. Similar traditions exist in different cultures with different origins.

As scholars of death and mourning rituals, we believe that Día de los Muertos traditions are most likely connected to feasts observed by the ancient Aztecs. Today, they honor the memory of the dead and celebrate the continuity of generations through loving reunion with those who came before.

As Western societies, particularly the United States, move away from the direct experience of a mourner, the rites and customs of other cultures offer valuable lessons.

Loss of rituals

Funerals were handled in the home well into the 20th century in the U.S. and throughout Europe. Sometimes, stylized and elaborate public deathbed rituals were organized by the dying person in advance of the death event itself. As French historian Philippe Ariès writes, throughout much of the Western world, such death rituals declined during the 18th and 19th centuries.

What emerged instead was a greater fear of death and the dead body. Medical advances extended control over death as the funeral industry took over management of the dead. Increasingly, death became hidden from public view. No longer familiar, death became threatening and horrific.

Today, as various scholars and morticians have observed, many in American culture lack the explicit mourning rituals that help people deal with loss.

Traditions in ancient cultures

In contrast, the mourning traditions of earlier cultures prescribed precise patterns of behavior that facilitated the public expression of grief and provided support for the bereaved. In addition, they emphasized continued maintenance of personal bonds with the dead.

As Ariès explains, during the Middle Ages in Europe, the death event was a public ritual. It involved specific preparations, the presence of family, friends and neighbors, as well as music, food, drinks and games. The social aspect of these customs kept death public and “tame” through the enactment of familiar ceremonies that comforted mourners.

Grief was expressed in an open and unrestrained way that was cathartic and communally shared, very much in contrast with the modern emphasis on controlling one’s emotions and keeping grief private.

In various cultures the outpouring of emotion was not only required but performed ceremonially, in the form of ritualized weeping accompanied by wailing and shrieking. For example, traditions of the “death wail,” which allowed people to cry their grief aloud, have been documented among the ancient Celts. They exist today among various indigenous peoples of Africa, South America, Asia and Australia.


 
In a similar way, the traditional Irish and Scottish practices of “keening,” or loudly wailing for the dead, were vocal expressions of mourning. These emotional forms of sorrow were a powerful way to give voice to the impact of individual loss on the wider community. Mourning was shared and public.

In fact, since antiquity and throughout parts of Europe until recently, professional female mourners were often hired to perform highly emotive laments at funerals.

Such customs functioned within a larger mourning tradition to separate the deceased from the world of the living and symbolize the transition to the afterlife.

Rituals of celebration

Mourning rituals also celebrated the dead through carnival-like revelry. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the deceased were honored with lavish feasts and funeral games.

Such practices continue today in many cultures. In Ethiopia, members of the Dorze ethnic community sing and dance before, during and after funerary rites in communal ceremonies meant to defeat death and avenge the deceased.


 
In not too distant Tanzania, the burial traditions of the Nyakyusa people initially focus on wailing but then include feasts. They also require that participants dance and flirt at the funeral, confronting death with an affirmation of life.

Similar assertions of life in the midst of death are expressed in the example of the traditional Irish “merry wake,” a mixture of mourning and celebration that honors the deceased. The African-American “jazz funeral” processions in New Orleans also combine sadness and festivity, as the solemn parade for the deceased transforms into dance, music and a party-like atmosphere.


 
These lively funerals are expressions of sorrow and laughter, communal catharsis and commemoration that honor the life of the departed.

A way to deal with grief

Grief and celebration seem like strange bedfellows at first glance, but both are emotions that overflow. The ritual practices that surround death and mourning as rites of passage help individuals and their communities make sense of loss through a renewed focus on continuity.

By doing things in a culturally defined way – by performing the same acts as ancestors have done – ritual participants engage in venerated traditions to connect with something enduring and eternal. Rituals make boundaries between life and death, the sacred and the profane, memory and experience, permeable. The dead seem less far away and less forgotten. Death itself becomes more natural and familiar.

Funerary festivities such as Day of the Dead create space for this type of contemplation. As we reminisce over our own losses, that is something we could consider.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/7/17

How to Help Your Kids Cope With the Loss of the Family Pet

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Pets are part of the family, so it makes sense that losing one is tough on everyone, including our children. A pet’s death may be the first time they’ve ever experienced a real loss, and as a parent, it can be difficult to know how to start a conversation about life, death, and grieving in a way they can understand, but that won’t heighten their sadness.

Last week, we put our 12-year-old dog to sleep five weeks after he was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was a brief but rapidly debilitating illness, and I wondered if my kids would understand that a dog who was quite healthy only two months ago was now gone. Surprisingly, they took it much better than I did. My 3-year-old gave me a hug, then told me, “I don’t know why you’re crying, Mom. Gus was sick, and now he’s in heaven with grandma’s dog. He’s not sad he died. He’s still happy.”

After briefly wondering if my child was a pet psychic, I realized that his logic was pretty sound. While my son would miss our dog, he knew our pup had been suffering, and he was prepared for the death. He had processed the loss faster and more easily than I did precisely because he was a kid. If you’re dealing with the loss of a family pet, here’s how to help your children process their feelings.

  1. Make sure your child understands what death means. Gently make sure that your child understands that their pet’s death means the animal will never be physically present again. Don’t be alarmed if it takes awhile — even years depending on their age — for your child to understand that means that your pet can no longer breathe, feel, or ever be alive again. If the death was sudden or unexpected, explaining why or how your pet died might be important to help your child understand the permanence of the loss. Of course, consider your child’s age and ability to understand and only give them developmentally appropriate information.
  2. Be honest. Telling your child about the death openly and truthfully lets your child know that it’s not bad to talk about death or sad feelings, an important lesson as they will have to process many other losses throughout their lives.
  3. Follow your child’s lead. Sometimes children are better than adults at accepting loss, especially when they’ve known for some time that their pet had a limited life span or was ill. Don’t attempt to make your child’s grief mirror your own, but do validate any emotions that come up as your child goes through the mourning process, and be ready to talk when they have questions. Age-appropriate books like Sally Goes to Heaven and I’ll Always Love You can also help with communication.
  4. Don’t be surprised if your child grieves in doses. Children often spend a little time grieving, then return to playing or another distraction. This normal, necessary behavior prevents them from becoming overwhelmed and makes the early days of grief more bearable for them.
  5. Say a formal goodbye. Consider having a small memorial service where you can all say goodbye, discuss favorite memories, and thank your pet for being part of the family, even if the service is just in your backyard or around the kitchen table.
  6. Find a way to memorialize your pet appropriately. We often don’t realize how constant our pets were in our lives until they’re gone. By making a photo album, turning a collar into a Christmas ornament, or commissioning personalized art work through Etsy, your whole family will have a positive remembrance of your beloved pet for a lifetime.

Complete Article HERE!

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