At this workshop, writing your own obit means analyzing your past — or future

By Liz Mayes

On a Monday evening in September, seven people gather at the Rhizome, a house that has been converted into a community arts space in the District’s Takoma neighborhood. They range in age from late 20s to early 70s, and come from an array of professions — nonprofits, woodworking, think tanks. They’re all here tonight for an unusual writing exercise: one where people — typically of the healthy, non-dying variety — hammer out the text for their own obituaries.

The group’s facilitator is Sarah Farr, 43, a trained death doula who provides companionship and guidance to the dying. In the spring of 2017, she formed Death Positive DC and began hosting regular events: “death cafes,” where people sit around and chat about death, often over cake; and obituary writing workshops like this one. (Death cafes are free or donation based; obituary writing workshops cost $10.) She also operates a Facebook group with about 600 members.

Farr opens the workshop by tracing the history of obituaries in American journalism and outlining their shifting cultural significance through major events such as the AIDS crisis and 9/11. She encourages the group to think about how the advent of social media and memorial websites like Legacy.com have changed the way deaths are reported. (She notes that two-thirds of people who die in America get a Legacy.com page.) She shares examples of funny, viral obituaries — one simply reads, “Doug died” — and dives into the ethics of adult children publishing unflattering obituaries of their parents.

She also brings up the role that race and gender have historically played in the obituary sections of prominent newspapers. She mentions the New York Times project Overlooked, which started in 2018 and features obituaries of women and people of color whom the newspaper neglected to write about when they died. (Entries include journalist and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells, transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson and poet Sylvia Plath.)

Then, educated about obituaries and ready to craft their own, the participants are set loose. They wander to different corners of the house or outside to the porch — and they begin to write.

Obituary writing workshops are part of an expanding suite of events and activities that fall under the umbrella of the “death positive movement.” Based on the belief that cultural avoidance of discussing death is harmful, the movement encourages people to speak more openly about dying. It had been rumbling for several years before it gained a name and solidified into an official movement. In 2011, a man named Jon Underwood — who would later die at age 44 — held his first death cafe in his basement in London. He envisioned the meetings as a refuge from what he saw as a pathologically death-averse culture.

That same year, a mortician named Caitlin Doughty started a popular YouTube channel, “Ask a Mortician,” which she used to spread information about death acceptance and to combat death anxiety. It was Doughty who, in a tweet, coined the term “death positive” as a play on the phrase “sex positive.”

After Underwood and his mother published an online guide for holding death cafes, the idea quickly spread and was enveloped into the growing death positive movement. Since then, according to Death Cafe’s official website, there have been more than 9,700 death cafes held in 66 countries. Anyone can host their own death cafe, as long as they abide by the official guidelines set out by Underwood.

The movement is growing here in Washington as well. Farr has seen attendance at her death cafes rise markedly over the years. Her first death cafe, held in November 2016, saw about 15 attendees. Recently, her meetings have topped out at 50, even in the rain and during the cold winter months. She remembers that just two years ago, there were very few death cafes in the region. Now, the Death Cafe website lists up to four or five per month in the D.C. area.

After about 20 minutes, Farr calls the group back together. Attendees take their seats and Nadia Raikin, 60, volunteers to share what she’s written. As she reads, her dry, cool humor is palpable: “Well. I am dead now. But at least I lived for a while, which is better than nothing.” She pauses to smile as a chuckle goes through the room. “But I’m happy I got to experience life and that my mom, upon blessings of my grandma, decided to keep me. I was born out of a force of nature. I guess I died when nature or God called me back.”

An older man named Chris is next. “Chris lost his life in a car accident on November 1st, 2020, nine days before his birthday. He was 75,” he says as the others listen attentively. Tall with gray hair, he speaks in a gentle, straightforward voice, sketching out the story of life, marriage and work.

“He was a humorous, easygoing man who drank a little too much but never caused any trouble when the drink got the better of him. He always felt intense empathy with the underdogs of the world, which he felt a member of. But he was happy and comfortable with this identity.” He stops reading abruptly and looks up from the page. “Anyway, blah, blah, blah. What did you all think?”

After a few more people share their obits, the group breaks for another round of writing. For the middle-aged and younger participants, writing their own obituaries can be a forward-looking exercise. Jill Eckart, 40, says, “I took it as an opportunity to create what might be possible in the next half of my life. I have about hopefully 45 to 50 more years left. With the end in mind, what do I want that space to look like?”

By now, the sun has set behind the apartment complex across the street. Seated on the old wooden porch, Carter Rawson, 50, speaks of how the impulse to document his life seems to come naturally to him. “I’m biased because I’m a historian,” Rawson says. “I like to read about a life well-lived.” He continues: “I’m not the most interesting person in my family, and I’m never going to be. But if you go to a yard sale and see disembodied old pictures, you wonder what their lives were about. I just felt I would want to do someone the favor of actually giving a narrative — being that one photo that had a story taped to the back of it.”

“I loved it,” Farr says. “I think it could be a great jumping-off place for a memoir.”

Complete Article HERE!

On the art of dying

By Gary Moore

I’m reading this excellent book by the author Katy Butler entitled “The Art Of Dying Well.”

Put down those phones, no emergency call needed! I’m not going anywhere for awhile. I just want to be prepared.

George Harrison, one of my musical idols also spoke a lot about preparing for death, so when you finally die, you can do so peacefully and transition seamlessly into the next stage of your life. In fact, he wrote a song entitled “The Art of Dying,” which appeared on his first solo album “All Things Must Pass.” In that song, he wrote:

“There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading

When things that seemed so very plain become an awful pain

Searching for the truth among the lying

And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying”

George’s wife, Olivia, said that when he passed, you didn’t need a candle to light the room. By that, I assume she meant his lighted spirit left his body. Selfishly, I wish George hadn’t left so soon, and I doubt I will encounter him if he returns (because he may not, having died peacefully). But, one never knows.

George’s wife, Olivia, said that when he passed, you didn’t need a candle to light the room. By that, I assume she meant his lighted spirit left his body. Selfishly, I wish George hadn’t left so soon, and I doubt I will encounter him if he returns (because he may not, having died peacefully). But, one never knows.

In the book, Ms. Butler outlines chapter by chapter what elders can do as they reach the end of their life cycle and how to prepare for each stage. She thoughtfully begins each chapter by stating “If you are experiencing…” and lists several conditions, going from mildly annoying to life-threatening, that people our age will experience as they reach the end. It’s done matter of factly, clinically, but with great warmth and compassion, because she then expounds in each chapter on what you should be doing at each particular stage.

One of her suggestions that I found very helpful was transitioning from a general practitioner to a doctor that specializes in elder medicine. In this kind of practice, the doctor asks “What is it that you want to do?” rather then tells you how she or he is going to save you from dying.

Let’s face it: death is a phase we all must go through. There may be a way to delay it, preventative practices you can use to slow it down, but, in the end, it’s the end.

A reader recently responded to one of my articles that discussed death with a quote from the film director and gay rights activist Derek Jarman, who is quoted to have said “I am not afraid of death, but, I am afraid of dying.”

This is because, we know death is coming, but we don’t know how or when it will come. We are unsure of the process by which we transition from life to death and what waits on “the other side.” We have books on faith and religion and spirituality to suggest, in some way, what we might expect, but we don’t know for sure and that uncertainty breeds fear.

On the other hand, another of my heroes, Mark Twain, is quoted as saying “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at anytime.”

A story told about St. Francis of Assisi has a man asking everybody in town what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow. Various people offer various versions of tying up loose ends. When the man reaches Francis, Francis is hoeing the garden of the monastery. The man asks Francis what he would do. Francis looks up and around, smiles and replies “I would keep hoeing.”

I doubt that I possess Francis’ courage, strength of faith or ease with mortality. In fact, I might add, this column seems to verify that. Dylan Thomas urges us to “rage / rage / against the dying of the light.”

Katy Butler urges us to accept it and prepare for it as best we can.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. As my younger friend expressed it “I have so much more I have to do.” I think many people in my generation feel that way. Places to go. People to visit. Grandchildren to watch grow. Alas and alack.

But, in conclusion, this quote from Lord Beaverbrook, who was a newspaper tycoon and member of Churchill’s cabinet, struck me:

“This is my final word. It is time for me to become an apprentice once more. I have not settled in which direction. But, somewhere, sometime, soon.”

The idea of becoming an apprentice, of starting over, of beginning a new, different phase of “life” appeals to me. And, maybe, that’s exactly what happens.

Or, to quote Oscar Wilde’s dying words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

He did.

Hold those grey heads up!

Complete Article HERE!

South Koreans Take Part in ‘Living Funerals’ to Improve Lives

Participants sit inside coffins during a “living funeral” event as part of a “dying well” programme, in Seoul, South Korea, October 31, 2019.

by Bryan Lynn

Thousands of South Koreans have taken part in “living funeral” services in an effort to help improve their lives.

The experience is designed to simulate death for individuals seeking to increase their knowledge about their current lives.

More than 25,000 people have completed mass “living funerals” at the Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul since it opened in 2012.

“Once you become conscious of death, and experience it, you undertake a new approach to life,” said 75-year-old Cho Jae-hee. Cho took part in a living funeral that was part of a “dying well” program offered by her local community center.

The event was attended by many people from the area, both young and old. During the program, people are asked to lie down in a closed coffin for about 10 minutes. They can also write a will and take funeral pictures.

University student Choi Jin-kyu also took part in a “dying well” event. He told Reuters news agency the experience helped him realize that, too often, he considers others as competitors.

“When I was in the coffin, I wondered what use that is,” the 28-year-old said. Choi added that he now plans to start his own business after finishing school instead of trying to enter the highly-competitive job market.

Participants get into coffins during a “living funeral” event as part of a “dying well” program in Seoul, South Korea, October 31, 2019. Picture taken on October 31, 2019.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, has rated South Korea 33 out of 40 countries on its Better Life Index. The index considers many measures of personal well-being, including housing, income, employment and health.

Many younger South Koreans have high hopes for education and employment. But such hopes can be ruined because of economic conditions.

Professor Yu Eun-sil is a doctor at Seoul’s Asan Medical Center who has written a book about death. “It is important to learn and prepare for death even at a young age,” she told Reuters.

In 2016, the World Health Organization reported South Korea’s suicide rate was 20.2 per 100,000 people. That is nearly double the worldwide average of 10.53.

Hyowon Healing Center began offering living funerals to help people see the value in their current lives. The experience can also help people seeking forgiveness and better relationships with family and friends, said Jeong Yong-mun, the head of the center.

Jeong said he is pleased when people are able to reconcile at a family member’s funeral. But he is saddened that the connection could not happen sooner.

“We don’t have forever,” he said. “That’s why I think this experience is so important – we can apologize and reconcile sooner and live the rest of our lives happily.”

Complete Article HERE!

Avoid or accept death?

Students reflect on planning own funerals

Students visit funeral homes near Chapman like the Shannon Family Mortuary on East Maple Avenue, as a part of their funeral home assignment.

by Micaela Bastianelli

Each semester, a new classroom is filled with inquisitive students intrigued to uncover the perplexities behind the taboo topic of death. Taught by Chapman sociology professor Bernard McGrane, the “Sociology of Death” course takes students on an enlightening journey to confront the reality of mortality.

It takes a conscious effort to confront the idea of your life ending, McGrane said. On some level, every human being knows that they are going to die; but some others refuse to believe that death will happen to them.

“There’s a quote by Woody Allen that says, ‘I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ That encapsulates Western attitudes toward death,” McGrane said. “Out of sight, out of mind; it’s not going to happen to me.”

McGrane’s interest in teaching “Sociology of Death” stemmed from his earliest experiences with Buddhist teachings, as death and impermanence is a component of Tibetan Buddhism.

“I had an interest in Eastern philosophy and meditative ways. I started connecting with it very early on – philosophically and personally – in terms of my own practices and spirituality,” he said. “Through readings, I discovered so many different avenues on the history of death and dying and how radically that’s changed over the years. Through all of this, it came together as a course.”

In the McGrane’s course, one specific assignment seems to stand out to students most – the task of visiting a funeral home and planning one’s own funeral. Students began to organize their own funeral in detail – from finances to whether they would prefer a coffin burial or cremation. McGrane told The Panther that this investigative experience gives students access to the funeral industry, the state laws and the practical skills of arranging a funeral.

One of the funeral homes in close proximity to Chapman that students visited for their funeral home assignment is the Shannon Family Mortuary on East Maple Avenue in Orange. The Shannon family declined to comment

“I’m not always the most outgoing. To go and talk to a stranger about death was difficult,” said Andreas Ter-Borch, a senior sociology major. “But I didn’t expect the funeral industry to be a money-making machine. Not everyone can afford to give their loved ones the funeral they think they deserve.”

Although Ter-Borch doesn’t always feel comfortable talking about death, the course has helped him recognize the significance in doing so. He didn’t expect to become so emotionally invested in the class, but McGrane’s required journal writing became therapeutic for him, helping him understand that humans can’t fully enjoy the quality of life without first accepting death.

“We strive for longevity, even if the quality of life is bad,” Ter-Borch said. “We are way too focused on avoiding death rather than improving the quality of our lives and living our lives to the fullest.”

McGrane’s first taught the course in 1980 at Colby College in Maine, when it was titled “The Sociology of Death and Medicine.” In 1983, McGrane moved to California where he began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, renaming the course “Sociology of Death,” which he eventually transferred to Chapman. “When things weren’t as legally restrictive as they are now, I would take my students to watch autopsies,” McGrane said.

“I wanted them to be exposed to dead bodies.” Lily Florczak, a senior screen acting major and current student in this course, said that if observing autopsies was a part of McGrane’s curriculum today, she would feel uncomfortable, but ready for the exposure.

“His class prepares you for something like this,” Florczak said. “But I do think it would only be a good idea if people had the choice to opt out.”

Florczak enrolled in the class because she didn’t know how to handle death well and thought it would help her own growth.

“I have learned that grief is not a handbook or a series of rules that you follow and then you’re OK,” Florczak said. “It’s different and unique and intimate for everyone. Understanding that death is a part of life is a personal process one must go through in order to heal.”

Complete Article HERE!

This Seattle writer wants to change how we talk to kids about death

Facing her own terminal diagnosis, a cookbook author pivots to recipes for coping with grief.

After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Seattle cookbook author Caroline Wright turned her attention to writing children’s books addressing grief and death.

by Tom Keogh

Seattle-based cookbook author Caroline Wright can teach you how to make a salad for four with grilled escarole, peaches, prosciutto, mozzarella and basil oil.

She can show you how a sandwich of grilled manchego cheese and sausage on peasant bread is made in the style of a master chef from Catalonia. For dessert, she’ll tempt you with a wicked coconut-caramel cake with malted chocolate frosting.

But when the leftovers are wrapped and put away, Wright can also impart some hard-won wisdom: how to talk to kids about death.

Wright, who studied cuisine at a renowned cooking school in Burgundy, France, always wanted to write as much as develop her skills in a well-appointed kitchen. At age 23, she became a food editor at Martha Stewart Living, and later brought her crisp, engaging voice to her cookbooks, Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals, Cake Magic! and Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean (co-authored with Daniel Olivella).

She hasn’t stopped writing about food. But in 2017 she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive, rapidly growing brain tumor, similar to the one that killed Sen. John McCain. With the possibility of death looming large, Wright turned her prose toward facing her own mortality — and starting the conversation with her kids.

Luminous and voluble in person, Wright is a self-described, inveterate doer. When not writing or cooking, she’s pursuing photography or quilting or knitting. She can’t stop making things happen, whether it’s tinkering with recipes for her next cookbook, or organizing a panel discussion at Town Hall (Saturday, Nov. 9) on children and grief. The event will explore how we talk to kids about death, a topic with no simple bearings.

Wright has written two recent books on the theme of child bereavement, inspired by her and her husband Garth’s agonizing challenge of communicating with their young sons about Wright’s still-uncertain prognosis.

The Caring Bridge Project (which came out in February) is a collection of Wright’s online journal entries from her year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. It’s part of Wright’s written legacy to her boys, Henry, 7, and Theodore, 4. But she intended it, too, for a broader readership: families facing similar experiences with children’s anxiety and despair over loss.

This past summer she published Lasting Love, a picture book for reading aloud to bereaved kids. The heartbreaking but emotionally affirming story, with comforting illustrations by Willow Heath, is about a dying mother returning home from the hospital with a formidable friend: a mighty, furry creature who will always remain by her child’s side, as both an avatar of her powerful love, and as a faithful companion who never judges grief in any form.

Halfway through the tale, the mother passes.

“The child would know,” says Wright of her decision to include the mother’s death. “So stepping around that seemed silly. I wanted the kid to be part of spreading her ashes.”

For Wright, there was no option but honesty. She knew her kids would watch her change, physically, during treatment, and they would find her less available. Keeping them in the dark — especially the older boy, Henry — would have been unfair. “The thing kids can’t rebound from is broken trust,” she says. “There’s no resolution for that.”

When she and Garth first talked with Henry about her cancer, and how she and her doctors were doing everything they could, but she might die anyway, there were tears. But Henry devised a helpful analogy:

“Mommy’s brain is a garden, and there’s a weed in it.”

“Henry and I have had amazing conversations, poetic and hard,” Wright says. “If I die, I want both boys to have a relationship with their memories of me. If I lied to them, it would sully that relationship.”

Thirty-two months after Wright was told she’d likely have 12 to 18 months to live, she is miraculously cancer-free, but vulnerable to a swift reemergence of the glioblastoma. If you take cancer out of the picture, she actually became healthier while fighting the disease, radically changing her diet, dropping 40 pounds and growing lean and strong through yoga, energy work and exercise.

Wright says the boys now occasionally bring up her cancer at random times. When Theodore recently saw her short hair wet and matted after a shower, he grew weepy, recalling her treatment-related baldness, and associating it with being away from him.

The profundity of loss, and the despondency of a child left without the constancy of a loved one’s care, makes Lasting Love a benevolent bridge between a parent and son or daughter going through these troubles.

“The theme of Lasting Love is, literally, love lasting forever,” Wright says. “That’s what we were telling Henry. That was the only piece of hope that we could give him: Mommy’s fighting very hard. And even if mommy dies, the connection you have with her is never going to go away. And there are many loving people surrounding you.”

Wright’s Town Hall event is part of her outreach mission to regional families and to nonprofits concerned with children and bereavement. Among them is Safe Crossings, which supports grieving kids of all ages, at little or no cost. Amy Thompson, program coordinator, will join the panel, along with therapists from other organizations.

Thompson says the field of grief counseling for early childhood through adolescence is growing because of a rise in traumatic losses: gun-related murders, opioid-overdose deaths and suicides. Grieving kids are often isolated, subject to bullying, and told to “get over it” by clueless adults.

“The message from society to grieving young people is ‘move on,’ ” Thompson says. “But if you’re intensely grieving for months or even years after a death, there’s nothing wrong with you. Loss changes over time. As children grow and reach new developmental milestones, they can better process the permanency of death, and we see them regrieve.”

The attention Wright and Lasting Love are receiving in therapy circles and in the media is helping to normalize grief in children — in everyone, really. When she learned she had beaten seemingly impossible odds and, while not out of the woods, is without cancer, Wright celebrated with her family by making a favorite cake, although with a few adjustments: it was sugar-free, gluten-free and covered in carob frosting instead of her once-beloved chocolate.

“I live with great respect for this thing that may happen to me again,” Wright says of the glioblastoma cells that might still be lurking in her brain. “But I don’t live in fear of it. There is nothing to be gained by that. I might die and I might not.”

But the bond between parent and child will last beyond death, she says. “Kids are resilient. With support, they will have full lives.”

Complete Article HERE!

What to Say When Someone Dies

By

When someone you know is grieving, it’s natural to want to reach out and help. But often, it’s difficult to know what to say when someone dies. Faced with the enormity of loss, words feel inadequate. It’s not uncommon to feel paralyzed, terrified of saying the wrong thing.

There’s no perfect combination of words that will take away a grieving person’s pain. But there are ways for you to show them that you care, from sending a card, to bringing over a home cooked meal, or just showing up in person.

From what to write in a sympathy card to when it’s appropriate to pick up the phone, we asked grief advocates, therapists, and other experts for their advice on how to support friends and loved ones when someone dies.

When in doubt, reach out

Calling, texting, or showing up face-to-face are the best gifts you can give someone who’s grieving, says Dr. Kelsey Crowe, the co-author of There’s No Good Card for This and founder of Help Each Other Out. “Sometimes it’s just letting them know, ‘I want you to know you’re in my thoughts.’”

But before you pick up the phone, it’s worth considering your relationship with the person. “If you aren’t close, definitely don’t call within days of a tragic event or difficult news,” says Emily McDowell, co-author and illustrator of There’s No Good Card for This. “Phone calls can feel intrusive and overwhelming at this time. A card, an email, or a text is better. However, if you are good friends or close family, call! The person can always choose to not pick up.”

If you do call, let your friend or loved one know that you’re there for them, and make sure they know that there’s no pressure for them to call you back. If you’re not sure what to say, something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry to hear about [the person who died],” or “I can’t imagine what this must feel like for you” are good sentiments to fall back on.

Acknowledgement can go a long way, even if you don’t know the person well. If you run into someone you know is grieving, don’t avoid them or engage in small talk like everything is normal. Megan Devine, author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand says it’s best to let the grieving person lead.

“I tend to make eye contact,” Devine says. “And maybe a little nod of the head to say I see you, and I’m going to respect your space right now, but I want you to know that I see you.”

The best way to show support for someone who’s grieving is to let them know you’re there for them — and then actually show up.

“When words are inadequate, it’s your presence that makes a difference,” says Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. If there’s a funeral or memorial service, make an effort to attend. “You’ll always remember the people that do, in fact, show up,” Wolfelt says.

If you’re unsure what to say to someone at a funeral, it’s okay just to let them know that you’re sorry for their loss. It lets the person know that you recognize their pain without making any assumptions about their grief.

Even if you’re not close to the person who’s grieving, it’s almost always a good idea to send a card. If you’re unsure what to write in a sympathy card, it’s okay to keep it short and sweet.

“All you really need to say is some variation of: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m here. I’m thinking about you, I love you,” says McDowell, who also has a line of empathy cards. “Your job here is to let the person know you care, and making the effort of sending a card is a great way to do this. Don’t be afraid to share a favorite story or memory about the person who has passed on.”

Gifts are another way to let someone know that you’re thinking of them, especially if you can’t be there in person. You can send something practical, like a book on grief or a voucher for a massage, or something sentimental. “I love to give flowers,” Crowe says, who recommends giving something that’s meaningful to you. “If you like music, make a playlist. If you’re crafty, knit a coaster.”

When someone is grieving, one of the simplest ways to show support is to offer to help with chores and other practical tasks.

Don’t wait for the person to ask for help. They might feel like they don’t want to burden anyone, or they might not even realize they need help, says Crowe. Just go ahead and offer — but be specific. While people often say “let me know if you need anything,” it’s much easier for someone to take you up on a specific offer. For example, you could offer to pick up the kids from school or day care, bring over a home-cooked meal, or help tackle a stack of paperwork.

Whatever you offer, make sure it’s something you can really follow through on. “It’s important that the offer is something you actually like to do,” says Crowe. “Don’t offer to cook if cooking is stressful for you, for example.”

“Many times, people in their anxiety will say silly, inappropriate things,” Wolfelt says. Often, people fall back on clichés and trite comments in an attempt to comfort people in grief, many of which diminish the loss, and cause unintended pain. Some phrases to avoid: everything happens for a reason; God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; at least they lived a good life.

Another phrase to avoid: “I know how you feel.” Even if you’ve experienced a similar loss, you shouldn’t assume that someone else is feeling the same way you did. “Empathy gives you insight into some of the emotions your friend might be having, but saying ‘I know how you feel’ can sound dismissive of their unique experience, and cause them to feel alienated,” says McDowell.

Often, after someone dies, whether consciously or unconsciously, people avoid saying the person’s name. But Devine says you shouldn’t be afraid: saying the person’s name won’t make someone that’s grieving more upset; instead, it will let them know that you remember the person, and you’re open to talking about them. “If you are uncomfortable or worried about upsetting somebody, and they’re saying their person’s name, and you cringe and walk away, you’re erasing their person,” Devine says. “You’re basically saying, I don’t see this, this is too hard.”

Even after everyone else goes back to their day-to-day lives, it can be helpful to keep checking in on the person in the weeks and months after their loss.

“Loss doesn’t have an expiration date,” McDowell says. “If something truly bad has happened, a person’s life has changed forever, and just because time has passed, they probably haven’t stopped thinking about their grief.”

If you want to reach out but have no idea what to say, McDowell recommends starting with a simple question,  like “how are you today?” Adding “today,” acknowledges the fact that they’re going through something painful, while also giving the person an opening to share how they’re feeling.

Reaching out to a friend who has just lost a loved one can be daunting, but it’s better to try and risk making a mistake than not try at all. When people avoid addressing a tragedy out of fear of making things worse, the person grieving can end up feeling abandoned.

“If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to say that,” McDowell says. “Our friends don’t expect us to respond perfectly and eloquently to every situation. They just want to know that we care enough to try.”

Complete Article HERE!

How Learning About Death Helped My OCD

By Marianne Eloise

Everyone is at least a bit afraid of dying. Yet that fear is the driving force behind so much of life. Anything we achieve is because we know death will come: forming relationships, writing books, having children…these are all a result of our fear of an inevitable end.

Perhaps, with infinite time on Earth we’d put far less work into living. A healthy awareness of our own mortality in our daily lives, then, can be a good motivator. But when is it too much? The answer, especially for people like me with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), is when it becomes an obsession.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered with OCD. Like many others, my intrusive thoughts revolve around death-adjacent topics. OCD presents diversely but, simply put, sufferers have intrusive thoughts that they cannot control. In an attempt to control those thoughts, they’ll perform compulsions.

My own death didn’t necessarily frighten me. For a child plagued by constant, violent images and compulsive behaviours, it seemed a bit too much like freedom to be scary. It’s no coincidence that, held prisoner by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, people with OCD are 10 times as likely to die by suicide.

Integrative psychotherapist and OCD specialist Craig Shirley of the OCD Treatment Centre tells me that my experience is common. He says that many people with OCD don’t fear death so much as they fear the uncertainty and the idea of “missing out on life”.

“People with OCD often want to be able to have complete certainty around particular things, which of course in this case they can never have,” Craig adds.

Twenty-six-year-old Zoe tells me that she developed OCD shortly after her grandpa died. “My family has always been my safety net, and my grandpa’s death woke me up to the fact that that could all slip away,” she explains. “I remember watching Mulan, the scene where the ghosts of her ancestors are fighting in the temple. I had a panic attack knowing that if my family died, they would not come back as quirky ghosts. They’d just be gone.”

Zoe adds that she became desperate for things to go back to how they were before, which led her to perform rituals to “heal” her family. “Because change, illness and death are inevitable, I became hysterical as the initial rituals became ‘less effective’. I revised them all the time, my routines becoming longer and more obvious to everyone around me. This only worsened after I saw my nana die a couple of years later.” This perceived responsibility to “help” everyone at the expense of your own mental health is common with OCD sufferers – we often believe that we’ve somehow been tasked with saving everyone through our rituals.

As a child, I would obsess over my own demise, keeping extensive diaries so that I could remember everything I’d ever done. I tried to control the inevitability of death, making promises to an imaginary OCD God to be good, to do my rituals as long as nothing harmed me or my loved ones.

While Zoe has had therapy that’s brought her rituals under control, she still obsesses over death and health. “In the last five years I’ve had two friends die and in the aftermath I went crawling back to some of the rituals I performed as a kid, like a comfort blanket. I felt responsible and tried to redeem myself,” she says.

Similarly Suzi, 32, who is Catholic, told me that while death was a constant spectre for her, the idea of heaven placated her anxieties. After getting treatment for OCD, she found that in overcoming her obsessive thoughts and OCD-related rituals, she also lost the Catholic rituals she had always fallen back on.

With that loss of faith, Suzi says she also lost the “safety net” of heaven. “My OCD has always been centred around fears for my own wellbeing, and not trusting others with it. I was terrified of suffering, pain and death. I no longer knew what happened when people died, and I struggled with the concept of people not having a soul, of my conscious mind ceasing to exist when I died.” She adds that after being diagnosed with chronic illnesses, her fear has transformed. “Where once my fear of death was about what happens after people die, it’s now about not achieving the things I want to.

A sudden death scares me less than the knowledge that my life will end and I have no control over when. As a child, I would obsess over my own demise, keeping extensive diaries so that I could remember everything I’d ever done. I tried to control the inevitability of death, making promises to an imaginary OCD God to be good, to do my rituals as long as nothing harmed me or my loved ones.

This fear hasn’t gone away. However, experiencing actual loss in my life has turned death from a haunting spectre into a very real, looming possibility. It has also made me aware of how badly I handle grief, which makes the possibility of dying scarier.

The more I enjoy something – a person’s company, a moment in time – the more aware I am that everything is temporary. We cannot control that inevitability and as an adult, I know that, so the way my obsessive thoughts manifest is different from the rituals I used to have. I try and fit as much as I can into my life, to the point of obsession. I record everything. If I have dinner with my grandad, I’ll note down the things he says afterward, unable to enjoy the present for fear of the future. Transience is scarier to me than death; the idea that anything we love can be ripped from this Earth at any moment is at once what drives and paralyses me. The rise of an insistent obsession seems gradual until the point where it takes over everything.

Despite the fact that around 1.2% of people in the UK live with OCD, it’s still one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented disorders.

The experience of having intrusive thoughts is difficult to explain to someone without OCD. Imagine you’re having a relaxing time, say a nice bath. Out of nowhere, you’re hit with a graphic image of a dead loved one. It’s upsetting, no matter how often you’ve experienced it. So to get rid of the thought, you might perform a compulsion, like counting everything you see. While my compulsions have gotten better with time, my obsessions have not. Whether it’s images or troubling thoughts, I feel like I have no control over what I think about.

Despite the fact that around 1.2% of people in the UK live with OCD, it’s still one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented disorders, which makes it difficult for sufferers to be honest. Confessing to a friend that you obsess over violent images against your will is daunting. It leaves sufferers feeling lonelier, which serves to exacerbate the disorder.

I spent the first few years of my life in the dark about my condition, thinking that I was “wrong”. In the media, OCD has typically been represented as an obsession with cleanliness. While that is sometimes the case, the ‘compulsions’ – the only visible part of OCD – are often the least harrowing. What goes on in a sufferer’s brain is for many the worst part of the disorder, and harder to represent.

OCD is a way of trying to control an uncontrollable world. Loss is the most unruly, devastating thing we can go through. Perhaps that’s why entire religions have organised around trying to make sense of it.

Of course, not everyone who’s afraid of death suffers from OCD. Craig tells me that the noticeable difference is about “how much time the OCD is taking up of someone’s life”.

He says that while many people without OCD want reassurance or ruminate over things, you know if you need to seek help when the symptoms are “getting in the way of everyday activities” or if you’re “becoming increasingly obsessed around a particular theme or worry”.

When you’re constantly assaulted by painful thoughts against your will, it might seem counterintuitive to seek them out. But with OCD, the most effective form of therapy is Exposure Response Prevention, wherein a sufferer confronts images and situations that they find uncomfortable and ignores the urge to perform compulsions.

Zoe tells me that a combination of therapy, talking to fellow sufferers and discussing death openly has made her rethink dying. This works for me, too.

The one thing that has helped me to feel more in control of my thoughts has always been learning. That can take many forms: educating myself on my disorder but also educating myself on what I fear. When I was so scared of arson that I would go home to check if my house was on fire, I taught and reminded myself of the (slim) possibility of that ever being the case.

And so, to deal with my fear of death I started to learn more about death positivity. First, I did this through Caitlin Doughty, the mortician and YouTuber. After reading Doughty’s books, I learned that she got into the death positivity movement when she developed OCD after seeing a child die aged 8. Her fear of death, and her rituals surrounding it, forced her to confront her fear head-on. Now she has three books under her belt and an impressive career tackling “death denial”.

The one thing that has helped me to feel more in control of my thoughts has always been learning.

From there, I read more and more about death, death rituals and the way other cultures embrace and accept death. I took practical steps, like thinking about what I want when I die. Sure, it’s morbid. But it makes me feel less as if I’m leaving this Earth against my will.

Now, I genuinely believe that my OCD was worsened by our culture of silence and denial around death. We often describe death in euphemistic terms – people “go to sleep”, they’re “in a better place”, etc.

Open conversation about death has been promoted by death acceptance advocates like Doughty’s collective Order of the Good Death, but the movement is still “alternative”. Being euphemistic only makes us deny death more, but it’s been proven that open, non-euphemistic conversation informs people and goes some way toward preparing them for the unimaginable. It makes us more able to handle grief.

The rise of death doulas, who coach people through dying, points to a more accepting attitude towards death. Death doula Shelby Krillin tells me that she frequently encounters people with OCD who have anxieties around death, and that it often stunts our ability to grieve. “It hinders deep conversations and connections with the ones we love who are dying, and the side effect is superficial conversations. When that happens, feelings, wishes and thoughts go unexpressed,” she tells me, adding that sitting with death is “true vulnerability.

She points to the Buddhist attitude of “embracing the groundlessness of life” as a pointer for starting to discuss death. “What we don’t know, we fear. Talking about death gives it three dimensions. You get to look at it from all angles. When people start truly grasping their own mortality, it makes our lives more vivid and wondrous

Like many anxious people, I fill in the blanks with the direst consequences imaginable, a process known as catastrophising. If my boyfriend is at the shop too long or my grandad doesn’t answer the phone, my brain tells me they’re dead. If my dog is sick, she’s dying. If I smell smoke, my house is on fire. Filling in the blanks with the truth and soothing myself with facts is reassuring.

Craig tells me that honesty is the best approach. “Accepting death isn’t necessarily about just finding a different way of looking at it, but also about accepting more deeply the things that we as human beings can and cannot control, and learning to accept that,” he reflects.

Accepting the things we cannot control is a necessary part of overcoming most manifestations of OCD. As death acceptance becomes less alternative, it’s my hope that we can all learn to talk openly about the inevitable end we all face and my belief that a culture of honesty might have helped me as an obsessive compulsive child.

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