How to sit with someone who’s dying

Don’t feel you have to hold back your emotions during this time.

By Carol Rääbus and Roisin McCann

When his grandfather died in the emergency department of a Hobart hospital, Andreas was by his side.

“I was really frightened.”

It was Andreas’s first experience of being with a dying person and it made him anxious.

“As his breathing slowed down and he was taking less and less breaths, I was worried about how I was going to feel when he didn’t take any more,” he says.

“And then he had one final really deep inhale and exhale, and it was fine.

“I wasn’t panicked at all. I thought ‘Oh, it’s not weird’.

“Death isn’t weird at all, really. It’s quite normal and kind of OK.”

The idea of sitting with someone who’s dying, particularly when they’re someone you care about, is something many of us find overwhelming.

What’s going to happen? Should you talk about the football? Ask them what they want at their funeral? How you can make granddad feel more comfortable?

We asked a range of people, who regularly spend time with those who are at the end of their lives, to share what they’ve learnt about being with someone who’s dying.

When should I visit someone in hospital or hospice?

Hospice volunteer Debra Reeves says her first bit of advice is to find out when you’re allowed to visit a hospital ward or facility.

Hospital wards often have compulsory quiet hours when no-one is allowed to visit, and those hours are often different from ward to ward in the same hospital.

Check in with a nurse, or someone who’s been there a while, to find out if the person you want to see is up for visitors. The same goes for visiting someone in their own home — always check if it’s a good time for you to be there.

Should I bring food, photos or mementos?

Again, check first. Ask what the rules are at the facility beforehand, or ask the person whose home it is.

Smells can be strongly linked to memories, so if you know your grandma, for example, always loved the smell of roses, take them in.

End of Life Doula Leigh Connell recommends not wearing strong perfumes as they can be overwhelming.

Bringing food is often one of the first things we think of as a way of comforting someone. Depending on the situation, the person might not be able to eat something you bring, but the gesture can still be appreciated.

“If you know they like the smell of mandarins, take mandarins, even if they don’t get to eat them,” Leigh says.

Meaningful photos and items can be comforting for the person, but don’t take in too many things and make clutter.

What should I say?

Spending time with a dying loved one can be scary, but worth it for them and you.

Not knowing what to say is one thing many people in this situation worry about.

Those who spend a lot of time with the dying all tend to say the same thing — you don’t need to say anything.

“Don’t say a lot. Let them talk,” Maria Pate from Hospice Volunteers says.

“Or let the silence be there.”

Launceston priest Father Mark Freeman says often simply being in the room can be enough comfort for the person.

“Often that presence is a reassurance to them that things are all OK,” he says.

If being silent and still is difficult, you could take something with you to keep yourself busy.

Leigh’s suggestion is to try something you know the person liked doing — playing cards or knitting. Even if you’re not good at the activity, it can make a connection.

Andreas’s advice is to be open and admit you’re scared.

“If you’re not comfortable talking to someone who has a terminal diagnosis, maybe just say, ‘I’m having trouble with this’,” he says.

Should I hug them if they look frail?

Giving a loved one a hug is often the quickest way to let them know you care.

But if you’ve never hugged your uncle before, don’t feel you have to.

Though it can be intimidating when someone is particularly frail, a gentle touch of the hand can bring a lot of peace.

Gentle touch, like holding a hand, can be enough to let someone know you’re there and you care.

Maria recommends a very gentle hand massage as a way of making connection and comforting someone.

Father Mark agrees.

“This lady was fairly well out of it, I went to talk to her, [took her hand] and she opened her eyes and looked at me — and had never met me before — and said, ‘Oh Father, thanks for coming’,” he says.

Again, it’s a good idea to ask for permission before touching someone. They might not be in the mood, or might be experiencing pain and not want any touch.

I think they’re dying now. What do I do?

Until you’ve gone through it, none us really know how we will react if we’re there at the time someone’s life ends.

Father Mark’s advice to families he visits is to “embrace the reality” of what’s happening and allow themselves to feel.

“They don’t have to panic [about the fact] that they just want to cry, or they’re so frustrated and they’re sad and hurt, and angry even,” he says.

“All those things can be a part of it.”

Father Mark says he encourages families to stay in the room if possible and be a part of what’s happening. Often what’s happening is not much at all.

Debra was with a family in an aged care facility when their loved one was dying.

“They went straight into storytelling,” she says.

“He was already unconscious. His fingers were already turning black.

“They held vigil, they talked around the bed. They used his name a lot and they talked to him.

“They gave him the most beautiful farewell. It was lovely.”

No-one is dying yet. But can I be prepared when it comes?

Sometimes we don’t get any opportunities to sit with someone before they die — death can sometimes come when no-one is expecting it or ready for it.

Spending time with strangers who are dying has given our interviewees a sense of wanting to make sure they and their families are as ready as possible for that moment.

Their advice is to think ahead now.

“I’m going to make that advanced care directive, I’m going to write that will,” Debra says.

“And I’m going to resolve those relationships so that when I am on my deathbed, I’m at peace. And my family can be at peace as well.”

Complete Article HERE!

Doing Death Differently

Death doulas: the end-of-life guides who are recreating the dying experience

By Isabel Bird

When Rebecca Lyons’ great aunt died, her body remained with the family.

Her aunt’s body was kept cool with the use of dry ice for four days, and the family washed and dressed her for service, held ritual, and prepared themselves for saying goodbye.

“We had candles, we burnt frankincense … it was a gentle process because there was no loss of ownership. It was about coming together and having that time, to laugh and cry, and it wasn’t all doom and gloom,” Ms Lyons said.

“You have looked after this person in life and now you are going to look after this person in death … the whole experience is precious.”

It was a personal death-care experience for Ms Lyons that was also connected to her new role as a death doula.

Doula in Ancient Greek translates to “woman of service” and is traditionally used in the birthing sector, but has been adopted by the death-care movement.

A death doula, end of life doula, deathwalker or death midwife can be hired by a dying person or their family to offer support in a multitude of ways, which can include organising alternatives to conventional funeral home offerings.

Their services ultimately depend on individual need and choice but can range from pre- and post-death planning, assistance with wills or advance care directives, bedside vigils, and the organisation of counselling, respite or other therapies.

Planning options may include dying at home, keeping the body at home for one day or more before burial or cremation, or holding family-led funerals in alternative spaces such as in the home, in the backyard, on a beach or in a forest.

Ms Lyons, a former funeral director, became a qualified death doula four months ago, offering the service as part of her death-care advocacy business You n Taboo.

She said a death doula helped people to make informed decisions, and then worked with families to help carry out those decisions.

“There is so much involved in the death and dying process, yet there is a lack of community knowledge about it,” Ms Lyons said.

“From the point of death a nurse might say ‘which funeral director should we call?’ The question should actually be ‘do you want a funeral director called?’ Right from the start, there is a lack of information given (in the institutional space),” she said.

“When someone dies the family can legally take the body home. Funeral directors are not mandatory, there doesn’t need to be embalming or temporary preservation, coffins are not necessary, and there are choices about the funeral and where it is held, or if they even have one.”

Ms Lyons said planning for death can be beneficial for families because it takes the guess work out of wondering what their loved ones want, and can be beneficial for the dying as they can focus on spending time with family.

Zenith Vorago is the founder of the Natural Death Care Centre in Byron Bay, which has offered deathwalker training for 12 years.

She started working with dying people 25 years ago after dissatisfaction with the conventional way of doing death, which generally involves hiring a funeral home director and relinquishing control of the body.

“We didn’t want to give our people to the medical system, or to funeral directors we didn’t know,” she said.

Ms Vorago explained that the funeral industry in Australia is led by one corporation that had a monopoly over various links in the chain, from funeral homes and crematoriums down to coffin makers.

“There is a lot of money to be made and in my experience people don’t mind paying for a service but they don’t want to get ripped off.”

Ms Vorago also said the health care system would soon not be able to cope with the ageing population, and more people in society would need to care for their own dying.

“What we are doing is skilling people up, so they can participate in that role with some awareness about how to do that well and how to do it with the system (such as) using community nurses,” she said.

“We are empowering people to know what their options are, to consider what is best for them and their people, to make decisions that are right for them, so people die well.”

Social worker Lynne Jarvis has completed Ms Vorago’s deathwalker training, and runs JUMAVE on the North-West Coast.

Her business adopts a holistic, social justice approach to death, offering a range of pre- and post-death services similar to that of a death doula, including funeral celebrancy and the use of cooling blankets for at-home funerals.

Ms Jarvis is also responsible for organising the Coffin Club at Ulverstone, where people can make their own coffins and have open, end-of-life conversations.

She said increased family involvement in the death care process can lead to highly meaningful experiences, and provided the example where an individual held a wake before their expected death.

“It ended up being really beautiful experience for them, it was well planned and simple. As sad and painful as it was, there was still beauty and joy in that process on reflection.”

Ms Jarvis stressed that early planning was important.

“I am focused on training the after-death care (family and friend) network to make sure they know what they need to do,” she said.

“It does take more energy and time … but there is great value and healing, and that healing is really important for the longer term bereavement of those left behind.”

Alternative options, such as taking the body home, will never alleviate grief but it can ease the process.

Ms Lyons said that when someone dies people often feel a loss of control, which is heightened when the body is taken away.

“It brings a massive, massive trauma that adds to the grief … what we are saying to people is that you don’t actually have to do that,” Ms Lyons said.

“For those who suit the conventional processes there are funeral directors out there who do an absolutely almighty job, but, it is a choice.”

She added that alternative options are actually a return to the old way of doing things.

“My grandmother would tell me stories where Mrs so-and-so from three doors down died, and everyone turned up with casseroles, and the body was in the lounge room. People gathered, they mourned and grieved together. The community used to own it. We are reclaiming this lost knowledge,” she said.

“Death has an amazing way of pulling people together, and the process that my family went through, looking after my great aunt – that was truly beautiful.”

Complete Article HERE!

What the Living Can Learn by Looking Death Straight in the Eye

By Parul Sehgal

“The road to death,” the anthropologist Nigel Barley wrote, “is paved with platitudes.”

Book reviewers, I’m afraid, have played their part.

The robust literature of death and dying is clotted with our clichés. Every book is “unflinching,” “unsparing.” Somehow they are all “essential.”

Of course, many of these books are brave, and many quite beautiful. Cory Taylor’s account of her terminal cancer, “Dying: A Memoir,” is one recent standout. But so many others are possessed of a dreadful, unremarked upon sameness, and an unremitting nobility that can leave this reader feeling a bit mutinous. It’s very well to quail in front of the indomitable human spirit and all that, but is it wrong to crave some variety? I would very much like to read about a cowardly death, or one with some panache. I accept, grudgingly, that we must die (I don’t, really) but must we all do it exactly the same way?

Enter “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them),” by the writer, palliative-care nurse and Zen Buddhist Sallie Tisdale — a wild and brilliantly deceptive book. It is a putative guide to what happens to the body as it dies and directly after — and how to care for it. How to touch someone who is dying. (“Skin can become paper-thin, and it can tear like paper. Pressure is dangerous.”) How to carry a body and wash it. How to remove its dentures.

But in its loving, fierce specificity, this book on how to die is also a blessedly saccharine-free guide for how to live. There’s a reason Buddhist monks meditate on charnel grounds, and why Cicero said the contemplation of death was the beginning of philosophy. Tisdale has written extensively about medicine, sex and faith — but spending time with the dying has been the foundation of her ethics; it is what has taught her to understand and tolerate “ambiguity, discomfort of many kinds and intimacy — which is sometimes the most uncomfortable thing of all.”

Sallie Tisdale

It should be noted that this book is not for the queasy. Frankly, neither is dying. Tisdale writes calm but explicit descriptions of “the faint leathery smell” of dead bodies and the process of decomposition. “A dead body is alive in a new way, a busy place full of activity,” she writes. She offers paeans to the insects that arrive in stately waves to consume the body — from the blowflies that appear in the first few minutes of death to the cheese skippers, the final guests, which clean the bones of the last bits of tendon and tissue.

This is death viewed with rare familiarity, even warmth: “I saw a gerontologist I know stand by the bedside of an old woman and say with a cheerleader’s enthusiasm, ‘C’mon, Margaret. You can do it!’” Tisdale writes. She walks readers through every conceivable decision they will have to make — whether to die in the hospital or at home, how to handle morphine’s side effects and how to breathe when it becomes difficult (inhale through pursed lips).

To the caretaker, she writes: “You are the defender of modesty, privacy, silence, laughter and many other things that can be lost in the daily tasks. You are the guardian of that person’s desires.”

“Advice for Future Corpses” also offers a brisk cultural history of death rituals and rites, from traditional Tibetan sky burials to our present abundance of options. You can have your ashes mixed into fireworks, loaded into shotgun shells or pressed into a diamond. You can ask to be buried at sea (but don’t — too much paperwork). You can be buried in a suit lined with micro-organisms and mushrooms to speed decomposition, or let a Swedish company cryogenically freeze your remains and turn them into crystals. If you’re in Hong Kong or Japan, you have the option of virtual graves, where flowers can be sent by emoticon.

Tisdale’s perspective is deeply influenced by her Buddhist practice, never more so than when she considers how the mind might apprehend death as it nears: “Consciousness is no longer grounded in the body; perception and sensation are unraveling. The entire braid of the self is coming unwound in a rush. One’s point of view must change dramatically.”

Tisdale does not write to allay anxieties but to acknowledge them, and she brings death so close, in such detail and with such directness, that something unusual happens, something that feels a bit taboo. She invites not just awe or dread — but our curiosity. And why not? We are, after all, just “future corpses pretending we don’t know.”

Complete Article HERE!

Die like a dog

Pet dogs often have a peaceful death that forestalls protracted suffering and pain. Why can’t we do the same for humans?

Cris Cristofaro holds his dog Dino as his beloved pet is sedated during an in-home euthanasia on 9 May 2012 in New York City.

By Joseph Pierre

[I] killed my dog last year. Mika was a shelter mutt, so she was around 10 or 12 years old; I can’t be sure. Twelve dog years would have put her at around 80 human years, which is a pretty good run. But what’s strange about having a dog is how quickly they age relative to us – they start out younger than we are, catch up for a time, and then pass us by, declining into their twilight years, all in the space of a decade or so. As witnesses to that accelerated timeline, having a pet means that we often end up experiencing their eventual demise and learning something about death in the process.

Mika was a great dog. Obviously abused before ending up at the shelter, she had scars on her head when I rescued her and, whenever I took a broom or rake in my hand, she would cower in fear. She was easily overwhelmed when other dogs came up to sniff her, and would often growl defensively. But with time she grew to be less apprehensive and almost pathologically affectionate, if there is such a thing with animals, demanding to be petted by anyone who happened to be near. She was a great companion watching TV on the couch during my single years, and she helped me win the attention of the woman, a veterinarian, who would eventually become my wife. In fact, my wife has often joked – and maybe it isn’t a joke at all – that she would never have gone out with me in the first place if I hadn’t had a dog.

For whatever reason, the way I’d always pictured the proper death of one’s dog was like a scene taken from the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller (1956): after years of steadfast companionship, when man’s best friend no longer derives joy from chasing rabbits and can barely lift his head, his owner has to muster the resolve to get out the rifle to put him out of his misery. Although an oddly bucolic fantasy for someone living in Los Angeles, at least part of it was no doubt influenced by how I’d learned to think about death as a physician.

In human medicine, we’re used to implementing any and every life-saving intervention right up to the very end. As a medical intern 20 years ago, I remember thinking about the futility of that approach with patients in pain and suffering from multisystem organ failure, sustained only by machines and a regimen of some 30 or 40 medications, and unlikely to ever make it out of the hospital. What was the point? Whatever happened to quality of life? But those reservations be damned, we never gave up, and among the interns who transferred care to each other from shift to shift, the dictum of patients ‘not dying on my watch’ was something to which we all held fast.

As long as there were no ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders in the chart asking us to withhold ‘heroic efforts’, we rarely considered doing anything less to prolong life, and financial cost was never part of the equation either. As far as hastening death, that was never even mentioned. After all, the original Hippocratic oath states: ‘I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.’

[W]hen Mika, who’d had hip dysplasia from the start, developed increasing difficulties walking and was in obvious pain much of the time, my wife and I put her on medications and even tried acupuncture, which helped for a while. But one day, at the start of our morning walk, she ambled to the end of the driveway, sat down, and refused to go on despite me pulling the leash. It was the same the next day and the next, so I stopped trying. It was at that point that my wife first brought up the possibility of putting her down, but that seemed ridiculous to me because between Old Yeller and my experiences as a human doctor, I envisioned Mika struggling through the pain, fighting for her last breath to the very end. In other words, it didn’t seem right to think about letting her go because she hadn’t yet suffered enough.

As a veterinarian, my wife viewed things altogether differently. To her, putting our dog to sleep didn’t represent throwing in the towel as it seemed to me, but a compassionate way to preempt unnecessary but inevitable pain and suffering down the line. As she saw it, we owe this option to our pets as stewards of their care, especially given that animals can’t understand pain or decide for themselves just how much suffering they are willing to tolerate.

Indeed, the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals (2013) acknowledges that ‘there is no consensus on when it is appropriate to let [a] life go’, but notes that: ‘Euthanasia may be considered to be the right course to spare [an] animal from what is to come … if medical intervention would only prolong a terminal condition, or if current health conditions cannot be successfully mitigated.’

When we were dating in the years before we got married, my wife would often come home from a long day at work and say: ‘I killed my patient today.’ This, I came to understand, was a kind of self-reproachful statement of defeat as well as a starkly factual statement that reflected how she’d actually administered the medications that ended a dog or cat’s life that day, typically with tearful owners and their bawling children huddled around.

This strange admixture of guilt from failing to save a life, along with the resolve to be the agent that takes it, comes with the territory in a veterinary clinic where euthanasia is a daily occurrence. Although euthanasia literally means ‘good death’, it was totally foreign to me in my training as a physician. Human doctors might feel guilty losing a patient in the end, but that guilt is almost always tempered by the reassurance that while we might have lost the battle to cancer, nature, God or whatever, we did everything we could in the process. Being a physician means that doctors must sometimes admit defeat, but in doing so, we don’t go on to be the hand of death.

[A]s time went on, medications and acupuncture had less of an impact on Mika, and her hind legs would often give out so that she would walk only a limited distance before collapsing. She seemed to be slipping cognitively too, and one day even fell into the swimming pool while we were away at work, requiring rescue from a neighbour. In what seemed like a short amount of time, her muzzle turned fully grey, and she would often sigh heavily with a distant look in her eye. Finally, she began to lose control of her bowels, with increasingly frequent accidents around the house.

And so, discussions about euthanasia became more about ‘when’ than ‘whether’.

The difference in attitudes towards euthanasia for animals and human beings is understandable. After all, people have been killing animals without remorse for food, to avoid becoming food ourselves, and for sport long before we began domesticating animals or keeping them for companionship. Whereas traditional Judeo-Christian and Islamic teachings include strong proscriptions against murder and suicide for humans, religious doctrine questions the animal soul. And while euthanasia is used as an ethical means to preempt suffering in veterinary medicine, it’s not unusual for some owners to simply abandon their pets by the side of the road, put puppies in garbage bags, or refuse to pay for life-saving medical procedures based on both economics and expediency. No wonder the expression ‘die like a dog’ has historically referred to the most miserable of ends.

In 2009, US legislation that would have allowed physicians to be compensated by Medicare for providing voluntary counselling to patients about options for end-of-life care was defeated due to political uproar over ‘death panels’. And yet, as I discuss in the World Journal of Psychiatry in 2015, human euthanasia is being increasingly considered and sanctioned both in the US and abroad. As life-extending medical advances over the past 50 years have fuelled growing concerns about prolongation of suffering and loss of autonomy, the euthanasia movement of the 1930s has gained momentum, evolving into the modern ‘right to die’ and ‘death with dignity’ movements that challenge us to consider what constitutes a ‘good death’. Today, some form of voluntary active euthanasia – death by administration of a lethal dose of medication to avoid pain and suffering – is legal in several states in the US, as well as in Japan and parts of Europe including Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Still, if the historical divide between our attitudes towards euthanasia for humans and for animals is narrowing, the devil in the details of cultural sanctioning involves who can actually administer, or is willing to administer, the medications that end life. With existing legislation to date, the sanctioned individual – whether a physician, family member, some neutral third party, or the person seeking to end their own life themselves – varies by jurisdiction. Although ‘death with dignity’ is increasingly supported in many parts of the world, often neither doctors nor patients seeking death want to ‘push the plunger’ and take responsibility for being the hand of death. In this sense, euthanasia remains a hot-potato issue in human medicine.

Consequently, we now find ourselves debating a range of possible end-of-life care options, including passive euthanasia (withholding life-sustaining interventions including food or water), physician-assisted suicide (providing the means for a patient to end their own life), and active voluntary euthanasia (administering a lethal medication to a patient). Palliative sedation is an increasingly popular option within medicine, which involves administering medications that are intended to relieve suffering through sedation and pain control to the point of possible unconsciousness. Although death is a potential side effect, palliative sedation avoids the moral objections of suicide and euthanasia through the ethics of the so-called ‘double effect’, which argues that death is an acceptable outcome if unintended and in the primary service of relieving suffering among the terminally ill. Pushing the envelope of what it means to die a ‘good death’ for humans even further, my colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles have been investigating the use of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin to relieve anxiety and depressive symptoms and to find meaning at life’s end.

[A]fter hemming and hawing for weeks, my wife and I finally decided to pick a date to have Mika put down. We asked a veterinarian friend to perform the euthanasia in our home. On the agreed day, it was my wife who put off making the call until I couldn’t take it any longer, and had to prod her to do so. The vet came to our house, started an intravenous line, and filled a syringe with Euthasol as we sat on the floor by Mika’s bedside, petting her with long strokes and saying our tearful goodbyes.

When we were ready, I asked if I could push the plunger, and the vet allowed me to place my hand with hers as we did it together. I was worried that Mika might show signs of discomfort, but seconds after the medication went in, she simply took a single, long, deep breath, and then let it out slowly for the last time.

‘Good dog,’ I told her. ‘Good dog.’

It was a good death. We should be so lucky.

Complete Article HERE!

When someone hovers at the edge of death, these singers step in to ease the passage

Threshold Choir members pray before visiting a patient at the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center in Arlington, Va.

by Debra Bruno

[I]t’s a quiet afternoon at the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center, a hospice, as four women huddle close, talking quietly in a tight circle before walking through the doors to sing to men and women on the threshold of death.

These women are part of the Threshold Choir, a group that brings the comfort of song to dying people.

A thin woman, who is in the last weeks of life, is the choir’s first stop. She is sitting nearly upright in a hospital bed, her daughter beside her. Leslie Kostrich, the group’s leader for this day, asks the older woman if she would like to hear a few songs. She nods; the singers set up folding stools and pull up close to her bed.

“We sing in a circle of love,” the women sing, a cappella and in three-part harmony. “In music we are joined.” As they sing, the woman gazes off with a faraway look in her eyes, as if she’s trying to remember something.

The group sings another song, and as they finish, the older woman claps softly. “Thank you,” she says. “Nice.”

It takes sensitivity, situational awareness and a dash of emotional intelligence to sing to the dying. The sound of soft harmonious voices can be very comforting as life closes down, but the songs can also bring forward the immediacy of death to family members sitting nearby. Singing in such an emotional environment takes practice and a recognition that it is less a performance than a service.

For the dying and their families, the singers are hoping to bring peace, comfort and a feeling of love. “We call it kindness made audible,” says Jan Booth, who with Kostrich is co-director of the Washington-area Threshold group.

It is also very life-affirming for those who sing in this unusual choir.

“When I tell people I’m in a choir that sings at the bedside of the dying, they’ll say, ‘Oh girl, what a good thing,’ or ‘Girl, you must have lost your mind,’ ” says Kadija Ash, 66.

But the opposite is true. “Sometimes I run” to rehearsals, she says, “because of the healing.” In the two years she has been a member of Threshold, Ash says, she has gone from having a fear of death to an ability to be more accepting of life’s ups and downs.

Kostrich, 60, who has been with the group for three years, likewise says: “This has changed my life. That’s not an exaggeration. It gave my life a spiritual dimension that I was totally unprepared to receive.”

Threshold Choir — which has more than 200 groups around the world — seems to have tapped into something both primal and much-needed: a growing desire not to recoil from death or abandon the dying but to face that ultimate truth and figure out how to help ease the isolation of those near the end.

Bedside singing is a way of “normalizing death,” says Kate Munger, 68, who founded the first group in the San Francisco area 18 years ago. Many of the choirs are started and run by baby boomers, who are comfortable shaking up the accepted way of doing things, Munger says. “We’ve done that for childbirth, for education, and now for our impending death.” She says the number of people participating in Threshold Choir has grown to about 2,000.

Similar deathbed choirs have also surged, including Hallowell Singers, based in Vermont, which recently celebrated its 15th year, says founder Kathy Leo. She estimates that Hallowell has as many as 100 spinoffs, mainly in the United States.

Although they sing some requested songs, such as “Amazing Grace,” Threshold Choir mostly uses a repertoire designed for singing around a dying person. The pieces tend to be limited to just a few words, and sung without accompaniment in three-part harmony.

The idea is to keep things simple and not tied to any spiritual tradition — for instance, “Thank you for your love” and “We are all just walking each other home.” Complicated verses could intrude on the process of dying, which often involves people retreating from the day-to-day and reviewing their lives.

During the afternoon at Halquist, the four Threshold singers — Booth, Kostrich, Ash and Margo Silberstein — move out into a hallway after their first group of songs. One hospice staffer says, “I love working on Thursdays because I love listening to this group.”

The group slips into another large room with four beds separated by curtains. A frail woman with brilliant blue eyes smiles at the group. In another bed, someone is making noises that are halfway between breathing and groaning.

The blue-eyed woman asks, “Do you know ‘A Mighty Fortress?’ ” The group knows some of the words to the hymn but ends up mostly singing “oooo” to its tune. After they finish, Kostrich offers, “We do have ‘Amazing Grace.’ ” “Oh yes,” the woman answers and quietly sings along with them. After they finish, she says: “Oh, thank you. That was just wonderful.” They go on to sing “Simple Gifts” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and then a few Threshold songs.

A TV next to a different bed blares.

After they finish, they approach a man sitting at the bedside of a woman. Can they sing?

“She’s pretty well gone out, but you can try,” he says.

As they sing “Hold this family in your heart,” the man’s eyes redden. He shifts in his seat. They sing, “Rest easy, let every trouble drift away.” His chin starts to tremble. As they begin to sing “You are not alone,” the woman begins to breathe more loudly but doesn’t move. The woman in the bed across the room, where they first sang, calls out, “Beautiful!”

An hour later, as the group gets ready to leave the hospice, Kostrich says that singing with Threshold has given her a way to process her own family’s experiences with death. When her parents were dying in the 1980s, Kostrich says, no one acknowledged they were close to death, which didn’t allow her and her family to come to terms with the losses themselves. The Threshold Choir has both helped her in a small way alleviate her own loss and help others avoid that kind of pain, she says.

There’s another thing that comes out of Threshold singing: community. And that feeling is evident when group members get together for a twice-a-month rehearsal, often in a church basement in the District. All but one singer at this rehearsal is female, but they range in age from 20-somethings to 70-somethings, African American, Chinese and white, those with tattoos and those with carefully coifed hairdos. There are a lot of hugs and laughter.

Olivia Mellon Shapiro, 71, says that group members are her “kindred spirits.” When she retired from her work as a psychotherapist, she told a friend, “Now I want to sing people out in hospices,” Shapiro says. “My father sang himself out — he died singing, and I was very moved by that.” Her friend said, “Oh, that’s the Threshold Choir.”

“Now I have a new group that feels like home to me. It really does,” she says. “I’ve also always been a little afraid of death and dying, but I’ve always loved the idea of hospices. So the idea of singing people out in hospices to get more comfortable with the idea of death and dying appealed to me.”

(The group sings several times a month at Halquist in Arlington and also at Providence Hospital in Northeast D.C. through the nonprofit hospice provider Capital Caring.)

One of the singers, Lily Chang, 28, notes that the choir is helping her confront her own fears of loss.

Chang says she’s very close to her grandmother and, given her age, worries about her. “I remember telling my mom, ‘I don’t know what I would do’ ” if she died. “Thinking about it, engaging with it in different ways makes me feel better.”

Complete Article HERE!

Dying with Dignity: A look at the life of a hospice nurse

BY ZACK WAJSGRAS

The final months of a person’s life are a confusing time for both the person and his or her family. Not only do final preparations have to be made, but the emotional stress of impending loss leaves many overwhelmed as grief makes tough decisions increasingly onerous.

Often, families seek professional help in the form of assisted living centers to alleviate the burden as their loved ones age. But once a patient receives a diagnosis that he most likely has less than six months to live, a new option becomes available: Hospice care.

Lee Read, a case manager with Hospice of the Piedmont, manages more than two dozen hospice patients at the Greenbrier and Hollymead locations of RoseWood Village Assisted Living centers, most of whom have dementia. Her organization, a community-based non-profit headquartered next to Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, focuses on end-of-life care for patients living all across Central Virginia. Read’s ultimate responsibility, and the company’s vision statement, is to make sure “nobody dies alone or in pain.”

Lee Read speaks on the phone at the RoseWood Village assisted living home on Greenbrier Drive near the nurses work station. Read’s job involves constant calls with doctors, family members of patients, insurers and other Hospice of the Piedmont staff.

In doing that, she manages the medications, equipment orders, triage care, dietary requirements and everything else her patients need to remain comfortable. She also serves as a liaison for the insurance companies, doctors and family members involved with her ever-changing caseload. While most healthcare professionals develop relationships with their clientele, hospice workers watch almost all of their patients die, making the emotional impact an additional challenge.

“I think over time you develop a thick skin,” Read said. “Otherwise, you could take on so much [emotion] that you become almost debilitated or think that you really can solve all those [health] problems, and [you] can’t.”

Dora Goldberg, 90, poses for a portrait at the RoseWood Village assisted living home on Greenbrier Drive after a game of bingo. Goldberg is one of Lee Read’s patients and suffers from dementia, like many of Read’s patients.

Read has a minimum number of required visits for each patient that is based on Medicare requirements, usually ranging from two to four times a week, during which she tracks each patient’s condition and determines what he or she needs. After six months, a patient can recertify if her condition is still declining and their diagnosis is the same, or she can “graduate” if her condition improves. She also works with a team that includes a social worker, a chaplain, certified nursing assistants and supervisors who specialize in different parts of the care process.Once a week, the team meets at the company headquarters to discuss the status of each patient and figure out what needs to be accomplished in the week ahead. Each meeting also includes a moment of silence, after which a ceremonial marble is dropped in a vase for each patient who has died since the last meeting. While it is marbles this time, each year a new symbolic object is chosen.

For Read, hospice was not her first career path. After graduating from William and Mary with a pre-med degree, she pursued a master’s in divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. She then went on to become a chaplain at the University of Virginia and Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge retirement home in Charlottesville.

But two events changed her perspective and led her back to health care. Her father received hospice care at the end of his life, and her 4-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer within a short span of time. Her son survived the disease, but the experience inspired her to go to nursing school. She also completed the majority of the requirements for a degree in social work, giving her formal education in nearly every function her team at Hospice of the Piedmont performs.

Lee Read holds a patients arm in the common room of the RoseWood Village assisted living home at Hollymead Town Center.

Her interest in helping people resulted in a career defined by “moving to different spots around the bed” of her patients, training her to fulfill both their spiritual and healthcare needs.

For Jeannie Holden, whose mother, Dora, is one of Read’s patients, hospice care came in a time of need.

“I can look back at the emotional part of that [decision] and how difficult it was. My mother was in the hospital, and she had sepsis, and we really didn’t think she was going to pull through,” Holden said. “Up until that point, I didn’t know that I really had any options.”

But after discovering Hospice of the Piedmont, that process became much easier.

“From the get-go, the care, the resources, the on call, the always being there from the social worker to their chaplain, [they] let me know they were there for me as well as my mother,” Holden said. “I always think that there’s more that I can do and I always have to be available, and they’ve helped me to realize that I am doing enough.”

For those who might be in a similar position, Holden said, it’s important to know the reality of hospice.

Lee Read (right) speaks on the phone at the foot of Juanita Burke’s, 97, bed at the RoseWood Village assisted living home at Hollymead Town Center. Burke, who had little strength left, died several days later.

“It’s not synonymous with death being imminent, [but] that it is certainly an end-of-life process,” Holden said. “Hospice can help you maneuver through and help you on the path to accepting that a loved one is at their end of life, [and] they help to make that quality of end of life good, to the best that they can.”

Even after dealing with death personally, professionally, theologically and medically, though, Read is still puzzled by life’s biggest questions.

“I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I’m not even that comfortable when I’m around people that have all the answers, whether it’s a religion or even a company. I like the questions and I like looking for the answers together,” she said. “It’s not my death; it’s not my journey. I am privileged to walk on the ground of the sacred journey of whoever is dying, but it’s their death.”

The families she works with often ask many of those same questions, to which she usually says, “I don’t know, but we’ll be here.”

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

[S]parkling 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!