“Everyone knows loss in one way or another. This song is about that,” Marcus Mumford says of Delta track
A young boy watches over his dying mother and fantasizes about better times with her in the video for Mumford and Sons’ new Delta single “Beloved.” The son and mother, who’s still wearing a hospital gown, run around, go shoplifting and ride horses on a beach. “Before you leave, you must know you are beloved,” Marcus Mumford sings against a serene backdrop of synths and guitars, “and before you leave, remember I was with you.” It all builds to an emotional finale.
“Everyone knows loss in one way or another,” Marcus Mumford said in a statement. “This song is about that. I’d never sat with anyone as they died before, and it had an effect on me. As it does everyone I know who has experienced it. But there’s wildness and beauty in it as well, and a deep honoring, that became the beginnings of this song that we worked up called ‘Beloved.’ I feel determined for people to take whatever they want from it, and not to be emotionally prescriptive.”
Nearly 14 years ago, my daughter and I were grieving the death of my mother, and it seemed nothing could lift our spirits. Then we got Fluffy, a bouncing bundle of gray and white puppy, and everything changed.
Fluffy kept us busy with pee pads and squeaky toys. She made us laugh in spite of our sadness, and the gray clouds of grief began to recede.
Over the years, our 10-pound fluff ball was a constant in our lives. We dressed her up in holiday sweaters, celebrated her birthdays and scolded her for sneaking food from the cat’s dish. But in recent weeks, as our walks slowed down and her naps grew longer, it became clear that our time together was limited. I hoped that in the end, Fluffy would have a natural death, drifting off to sleep for good on her favorite soft pillow.
A natural death is what many of us hope for with our pets. They are members of our family, deeply enmeshed in our lives, and for many of us, thoughts of euthanasia seem unfathomable, so we cling to the notion that a natural death is desirable.
But my veterinarian advised me that my end-of-life scenario for my dog wasn’t realistic. In most cases, a natural death, she told me, means prolonged suffering that we don’t always see, because dogs and cats are far more stoic than humans when it comes to pain.
Dr. Alice Villalobos, a nationally recognized oncology veterinarian based in Hermosa Beach, Calif., said that many pet owners idealize a natural death without thinking about what a “natural” death really means. A frail animal, she noted, doesn’t linger very long in nature.
“When animals were domesticated they gave up that freedom to go under a bush and wait to die,” said Dr. Villalobos. “They become very quickly part of mother nature’s plan due to predators or the elements. And yet in our homes we protect them from everything so they can live a long time — and sometimes too long.”
Dr. Villalobos has dedicated her career to helping pet owners navigate end-of-life issues. She created an animal hospice program she calls “pawspice.” She coined the name because she doesn’t want to confuse end-of-life care for animals with the choices we make for human hospice.
Her program is focused on extending a pet’s quality of life. That might mean treating a cancer “in kind and gentle ways,” she said. It can mean supportive care like giving fluids, oxygen or pain medication. In some cases, it might mean hand-feeding for frail pets or carrying an animal to a water dish or litter box. And finally, she said, it means a “well death.”
Dr. Villalobos has advocated what she calls “bond-centered euthanasia,” which allows the pet owner to be present and play a comforting role during the procedure. She has also championed sedation-first euthanasia, putting the animal into a gentle sleep before administering a lethal drug.
To help pet owners make decisions about end-of-life care, Dr. Villalobos developed a decision tool based on seven indicators. The scale is often called the HHHHHMM scale, based on the first letter of each indicator. On a scale of zero to 10, with zero being very poor and 10 being best, a pet owner is asked to rate the following:
Hurt: Is the pet’s pain successfully managed? Is it breathing with ease or distress?
Hunger: Is the pet eating enough? Does hand-feeding help?
Hydration: Is the patient dehydrated?
Hygiene: Is the pet able to stay clean? Is it suffering from bed sores?
Happiness: Does the pet express joy and interest?
Mobility: Can the patient get up without assistance? Is it stumbling?
More: Does your pet have more good days than bad? Is a healthy human-animal bond still possible?
Dr. Villalobos says pet owners should talk to their vet about the ways they can improve a pet’s life in each category. When pet owners approach end of life this way, they often are surprised at how much they can do to improve a pet’s quality of life, she said.
By revisiting the scale frequently, pet owners can better assess the quality of the pet’s hospice care and gauge an animal’s decline. The goal should be to keep the total at 35 or higher. And as the numbers begin to decline below 35, the scale can be used to help a pet owner make a final decision about euthanasia.
“Natural death, as much as many people wish it would happen, may not be kind and may not be easy and may not be peaceful,” Dr. Villalobos said. “Most people would prefer to assure a peaceful passing. You’re just helping the pet separate from the pack just as he would have done in nature.”
I discovered Dr. Villalobos’s scale as I was searching for answers for Fluffy in her final weeks. When she did get up, she often stumbled and seemed confused. Sometimes at night, I heard her whimper.
I had reached out to two at-home vet services, VettedPetCare.com and Instavet.com, that both offered compassionate guidance and confirmed my fears that no treatments were available to improve her condition. Fluffy was a very old dog, and they suspected her decline was a result of some combination of kidney and liver failure, but discouraged extensive testing since the physical symptoms were obvious. One visiting vet gave Fluffy subcutaneous fluids to help with dehydration and make her more comfortable and advised me to spend a final happy day with my dog before calling her for a final visit to end her suffering.
I trusted her judgment, but my tears and the fact that Fluffy still ate a little and wagged her tail when I stroked her clouded my thinking. I turned to the end-of-life scale and was able to see how poorly she was doing, despite the tail wag. I took my vet’s advice and spent a quiet day with Fluffy, giving her the cat food treats she so loved, without any scolding. I revisited the scale several times, just to remind myself that I was doing the right thing. The scale allowed me to make a more detached assessment of Fluffy, and it was a tremendous source of comfort during a very difficult time.
It wasn’t an easy decision or a pleasant one. But it was the right decision. And in the end Fluffy did drift away on her favorite soft pillow, just as I had hoped.
Death is, at once, the simplest and most complicated thing in the world. It’s a tough subject even for adults to fully wrap their heads around, so how are children expected to comprehend it?
A survey of 1,000 UK parents by Legal and General found the most common questions three to nine-year-olds ask when confronted with the loss of a loved one are ‘how did they die?’ (55%) and ‘where did they go?’ (38%).
There’s something starkly direct in those questions, a directness we lose (or learn to contain) as we grow up. Tellingly, among the 10 to 16-year-olds surveyed, just 8% asked where the dead person had gone. But how do you begin to answer younger children’s questions around death?
“Recently my daughter asked me why I didn’t tell her mummy was going to die,” says Elliot Choueka, whose wife Rosie died of secondary breast cancer when his children were four and seven. “I didn’t really have a good answer for that other than that I didn’t want to upset her.”
Choueka says that the last time he told his kids to say goodbye to his wife, he perhaps should have made it clearer they were saying goodbye for the last time. “But it felt too hard on everyone, on the children and on Rosie,” he tells me. “If I were in the same situation again, would I do anything differently? I don’t know.”
We all know death should be talked about in an age-appropriate manner, but how do we answer the questions our kids have – and should we sugarcoat the truth?
Be Honest And Direct
“There’s a question I remember my daughter asking,” says Choueka, who set up the secondary breast cancer charity Secondary1st after his wife’s death. “One of her friends had said to her that people with cancer could die. She asked me if that was true and I said yes.
“She asked me if mummy was going to die and I said I didn’t know, which was the truth at the time. My point of view has always been that an honest, direct answer is better than trying to obfuscate the truth.”
Experts tend to agree. Avoidance of euphemism and platitudes is widely advised – saying “grandma died” rather than going for something that feels more palatable in the moment, but is potentially confusing. Saying you’ve “lost” someone, or they’re “gone”, or they’ve “slipped away”, all make sense to adult ears but are perplexing to younger ones. You don’t want to inadvertently scare your child into thinking when they go to sleep they might not wake up.
Explain The Eventuality Of Death
Being direct doesn’t mean being unkind or uncaring. The Bereavement Advice Centre says when answering questions such as ‘Why can’t doctors stop people dying?’ and ‘Will I die?’, you shouldn’t hide the truth, but also it’s important to show humanity. One such answer could be: “No one knows what happens when you die. All we know for sure is that it will happen one day – to all of us. Don’t worry or think about it for very long, as there are a lot more interesting and wonderful experiences to look forward to.”
Parenting website Babycentre suggests a similar tone, as well as giving reasons (“Grandpa was very, very old and his body couldn’t work anymore”). There’s a tightrope, they explain, where you want to explain that death happens to everyone, but don’t want your child to think they might just drop dead at any second – and that usually something (age, disease, an accident) is to blame.
Agree That Life Can Be Unfair
The irreversible nature of death can take some digesting. Psychiatrist Bruce Perry, founder of the Child Trauma Academy, remembers a five-year-old asking him “When is my mummy coming home from heaven? I’ve been waiting and waiting.”
There’s no way around it – life is unfair. The Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group suggests a blameless but no-nonsense discussion about the topic: “Sometimes life is just not fair. It was nothing you or anyone else did or did not do.”
Use TV And Film
One way of demystifying death is to expose your children to it in entertainment. A 2017 study from the Omega Journal of Death and Dying concluded that Disney and Pixar films which dealt with grief such as Up, Big Hero 6, Inside Out and The Lion King not only act as a useful springboard to discuss death, but also an impetus to do it before it becomes directly relevant.
The authors believe discussing death in the context of child-friendly films leads to a more positive experience when bereavement occurs.
Discuss What People Can Learn From Death
It’s important to consider what children might need in this situation. Budding researcher Paul O’Brien was just 12 when, in 2005, he surveyed 160 children in his school and did in-depth interviews with eight, discussing what their experiences with death had been.
The things that confused them – how a seemingly healthy person could suddenly die – are all things bereaved adults ask themselves all the time. Several of the children involved came to ultimately positive conclusions, reporting that their experiences of death had taught them to live life to the full and appreciate the people around them who wouldn’t always be there.
Citing his own experience, O’Brien concluded: “It changed me in a way that I wanted to be kinder to the people I love.”
There will always be questions. Some will have satisfying answers, some will have upsetting ones, and some might be unanswerable, but doing our best to have these conversations is, in the face of the only truly inevitable force in life, all we have.
It’s hard to know what to do or say when someone you know loses a person who was close to them. Grief is a scary and amorphous thing, and if you haven’t experienced it, reaching out can feel like overstepping a boundary or reminding someone of something they’re trying to forget.
But grief is as isolating as it is painful, and it is important to let bereaved friends and acquaintances know you are thinking of them and their loved one, no matter how awkward it feels. This is true if you knew the person they’ve lost; this is also true if you didn’t.
“Most grieving people, whether they’re aware of it or not, one of their biggest fears is that the person who has been lost will be forgotten,” Jennifer Soos, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Antonio, Texas, says. “Anytime someone remembers them, acknowledges them, speaks about them, conjures them in any way, it’s like a balm to that fear.”
So, though it might seem like ignoring a loss makes it easier for the person in mourning to move on, it’s actually the worst thing you can do. And though it may seem trite to tell someone, “I’m sorry for your loss,” at the very least, acknowledging both that the lost person existed and that now they do not will make your grieving friend feel heard and validated. “I don’t think it can happen too often,” Soos says.
Here’s how to do it.
Send a card—or any kind of message
Or an email, or a text message, depending on what generation the person in mourning belongs to, and how well you know them. “If you are a millennial and it’s a peer, a text message is fine,” Soos says. “An email is better than a text message, because you had to actually sit at a computer to do it. I’m firmly and squarely in Generation X, so I prefer a handwritten note, but I recognize that is a generational preference.”
Basically, doing something is better than doing nothing, but everyone likes a card. (It’s also noteworthy that a text can get lost in the post-death deluge, which is something to keep in mind.)
It’s okay not to know what to say (but here are a few things you might want to)
No one really knows what to say to someone in mourning, particularly if the death of their loved one was unexpected. It’s perfectly fine to admit that in your letter. “The ‘right’ thing to say, in my opinion, is just the truth,” Soos says. “That is what we hear over and over and over again from bereaved people in therapy and support groups and in research. What they say is, ‘I wish people would just say, ‘I don’t know what to say but I’m sorry.’ ‘I don’t know what to say but I’m sad for you.’ ‘I don’t know what to say, but I care for you.’”
You want to let the person know that you’re thinking of them, and you’re there for them, and you’re available to listen. You are not expected to make them feel better, because when you are grieving, nothing will make you feel better. But you do not want to feel ignored or alone. “It seems very vulnerable to say, ‘I don’t know what to say,’” Soos says. “We worry it will be awkward or offensive or upsetting to a person. But the truthful thing is, we don’t know what to say. There are no words that are going to make it better, unless you have a magical spell to bring the dead back to life.”
So, feel free to stick to platitudes, as long as they’re truthful. “One of the things people can say is, ‘I don’t know what to say, but I love you and I’m here for you,’” Dr. Marilyn Mendoza, a psychologist in New Orleans, says. “Or, ‘I’m thinking about you and sending you love.’ Or, ‘No words can describe how sorry I am for your loss. My heart goes out to you.’”
As Soos puts it, “What you are really trying to communicate is, ‘I am here for you. I witness what you are going through, I acknowledge it, I’m not ignoring it, I do not need to have perfect words to help you. You are seen and you’re heard and I’m sharing in the burden of this pain with you just simply by acknowledging it.”
Don’t talk about yourself
This should be obvious, but a condolence note is not the time to broadcast your own life updates. “The note should be for the bereaved,” Mendoza says. “Don’t include stuff about yourself, like I just got a new job or here’s my new address.” Similarly…
Don’t say, ‘I know how you feel’
It’s tempting to empathize with someone in mourning, especially if you’ve experienced loss yourself. But grief manifests differently for everyone, and it can be invalidating to have someone claim to know your specific feelings when they do not. “Don’t say, ‘I know how you feel,’ because even if you’ve lost your mother, you don’t really know how that other person feels. You know how you felt about it,” Mendoza says.
It’s also not helpful to offer advice. “Nobody really wants advice,” Soos says. “It makes some subtle judgment that there’s a right or wrong way to grieve.”
And if you were thinking of using the words “at least” at any point, don’t. “I always tell people, if you’re going to say the words ‘at least,’ you should stop,” Soos says. “You’re about to justify why it shouldn’t be painful, which is invalidating.”
Don’t presume to know the relationship between the person in mourning and the person they lost
It’s common to include a message in a condolence card commenting on how special the deceased was to the bereaved. But if you didn’t know the person who died or much about their relationship with the person you’re writing to, you might want to avoid making any assumptions.
“If you don’t know the person, commenting about them might not be the best thing,” Mendoza says. “Sometimes it’s not a very special relationship.” Of course, if you did know for a fact that this person was very close to your friend, feel free to say so. You also might want to include the deceased’s name. “When you’re the bereaved, people often won’t use the person’s name, but it means a lot to them,” Mendoza says. “So you can say something like, ‘I know David was a special person for you.’”
Offer concrete help, if any
A thing people often say in times of strife is, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” It’s not that this is necessarily a bad thing to say, but someone in mourning isn’t going to do the work to take you up on it. Instead of offering vague assistance, “Offer them something specific, and let them tell you whether it will be helpful or not,” Soos says. Ask them if you can bring them dinner, or feed their cat, or babysit their kids, or take them for a drink and lend an ear.
And if you know them well enough (and know that it wouldn’t be an intrusion), feel free to do something without being asked. “I have a really good friend and one of her closest friends died recently,” Soos said. “I didn’t ask, I just showed up at her house and brought dinner.”
Reach out a second time after the immediate mourning period has ended
Most people reach out to the bereaved right upon hearing the news, which is certainly the right thing to do. But immediately after someone dies, everything feels like a blur, and while it’s very nice to be flooded with texts and emails and lovely cards, it’s hard to appreciate the heartfelt messages in the moment. Soos recommends reaching out to those in grieving a second time, after the initial mourning period has ostensibly ended.
“The truth of the matter is that people in those first days or weeks [after a death], they don’t really remember much, quite frankly,” Soos says. “When you hear the news, do an initial reach out, but then immediately mark on your calendar, 4-16 weeks out. That’s the time that most people need more support and encouragement.”
Soos says that after a few months, most people who weren’t close to the deceased move on, but for those who are grieving, the pain hasn’t subsided. “The horrible thing about timing and grief is that the period where the shock starts wearing off coincides with the time everyone else is moving on. And that’s when you’re really settling into, ‘Oh my goodness, this is my real life and this sucks,’” Soos says. “Those messages and notes and texts that come at the 3-month, 4-month mark and on can be more meaningful than the initial reach out.”
So, after a few months, send a text, take your friend to dinner, go to their house with a bottle of wine and a good movie, and let them tell you about the person they loved. Don’t feel like you’re forcing someone to rehash unpleasantness, or reminding them of something they want to forget. What they really want, is not to be forgotten.
My wife’s brother Rich died the last week in February. They were very close. Shortly after he passed, in the emergency room of a hospital in Washington state, his body came home. There it was wrapped in a Stewart tartan blanket (his family name) and placed on a table in a window alcove facing Mount Baker. He remained there for the next three days clad in a favorite red plaid Pendleton shirt, jeans, moccasins and a much-worn woolen cap, On the second day, his wife, Sharon, put binoculars around his neck, a reminder of his many hours watching the snow geese, hawks, trumpeter swans and bald eagles surrounding his beloved farm.
Sharon was connecting to a movement that had arisen in the 1990s for families to take back responsibility from hired professionals for the caring and mourning of loved ones in the privacy of their homes. It turns out to be an old American tradition.
Before the Civil War, funerals were a family affair. With help from their church and community, family members would wash, display the body and dig the grave for their dead. But, as Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her book “This Republic of Suffering,” the huge numbers of young men dying in the war far from home overwhelmed the personal home funeral. Instead, there was embalming, mass-marketed coffins and transporting bodies long distances. President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, followed by the public display of his embalmed body, became a major moment in the national marketing of this new death trade.
By the 20th century, undertakers were elevated to a professional class of funeral directors, bodies were seen as a risk to public health and the false narrative spread that families no longer had the right to care for their own. The practice of dying at home and family caring for the dead remained common only in rural areas.
Like most of us, Rich and Sharon hadn’t planned their funeral. Unlike us, they had talked and read about death, and attended a class on alternatives to standard funerals. These included arrangements for green burials, where bodies in the ground decompose in compostable caskets. Sharon also had talked with a friend who, with the help of a local home funeral group, had kept her husband’s body at home for three days for visits and prayers.
Rich’s death had been unexpected. A retired ophthalmologist, he had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had his first chemotherapy treatment the week before. He developed sepsis, which can happen after chemo, and died the following day. He was 77.
At the hospital’s ER, Sharon explained to two chaplains who sat with her that she wanted to bring Rich home. They put her in touch with A Sacred Moment, a local funeral home that is part of a national network reviving and supporting family-managed funerals.
A “very kind” man, as Sharon put it, from the group took the body to the house in a van. He gave Sharon information on keeping it cold with packs of dry ice and instructions to replace them every 12 to 18 hours. Sharon and her daughter washed and clothed the body.
Rich had passed away at 11 a.m. and by 1 p.m. his body was home.
For the next three days family and friends came by to see Rich. Some talked to him; one shared the beat of an ancient drum; some read poems. Sharon thought that many friends wouldn’t have attended a funeral parlor for a restrained viewing in a limited time. Here they could arrive individually or as family, whenever they wanted, stay as long or little as they could, bring photos or food or prayers or babies or guitars.
Our son Daniel arrived in the middle of the night to sit alone with the uncle who helped raise him.
Sharon found it all incredibly comforting. Rich’s men’s support group of 30 years gathered for a morning of stories of kayaking in Alaska and tales of salmon fishing, hiking and climbing in the North Cascades. The second morning the couple’s Buddhist Sangha meditation group chanted, prayed together and held Sharon as they wept.
Many of the visitors seemed shocked that this was possible, that a body could be brought home for people to mourn however they wanted.
For family, it provided a last chance to talk with Rich, to be with him in a place he loved. Sharon remarked that so many people worried that they “never had a chance to say goodbye.” Now they could, and they didn’t have to look back and regret not saying the right thing.
In their own unplanned way, people could grieve.
At times there was a crowd, at others a solitary friend. A family member lit a vaporizer full of essential oils. Others placed flowers on his body. A table nearby had his notes written when he couldn’t talk because of mouth sores from the chemo and a guest book that soon filled with photos and letters and mementos.
Not everyone showed up — there were no solemn strangers in dark suits timing the starched formalities of yet another ceremony. Rich’s death was wrapped in the life that continued around it. Often there were kids playing, dogs wrestling, women cooking.
At 2 p.m. of the third day, the kindly man from A Sacred Moment returned to take the body. As they carried it out, Sharon played on the piano “It Had To Be You,” which she and Rich had often sung together. This time, she sang it with her daughter, Jo.
Washington state does not allow bodies to be buried outside a cemetery, so he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in his garden. A memorial service will be held when the tulips bloom in early spring.
From joining coffin clubs to downloading apps like WeCroak, here’s how a growing number of people are living their best life by embracing death.
by Stephanie Booth
Taking a dirt nap. Biting the big one. Gone — forever.
Given the gloom and painful finality with which we speak about death, it’s no wonder that 56.4 percent of Americans are “afraid” or “very afraid” of the people they love dying, according to a Chapman University study.
The cultural mindset is that it’s something terrible to be avoided — even though it happens to all of us.
But in recent years, people from all walks of life have begun to publicly push back against that oxymoronic idea.
It’s called the death positive movement, and the goal isn’t to make death obsolete. This way of thinking simply argues that “cultural censorship” of death isn’t doing us any favors. In fact, it’s cutting into the valuable time we have while we’re still alive.
What does that look like, exactly?
This rebranding of death includes end-of-life doulas, death cafes (casual get-togethers where people chat about dying), funeral homes that let you dress your loved one’s body for their cremation or be present for it.
There’s even the WeCroak app, which delivers five death-relevant quotes to your phone each day. (“Don’t forget,” a screen reminder will gently nudge, “you’re going to die.”)
Yet despite its name, the death positive movement isn’t a yellow smiley face–substitute for grief.
Instead, “it’s a way of moving toward neutral acceptance of death and embracing values which make us more conscious of our day-to-day living,” explained Robert Neimeyer, PhD, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, which offers training and certification in grief therapy.
Death as a positive mindset
Although it’s hard to imagine, what with our 24-hour news cycle that feeds on fatalities, death hasn’t always been such a terrifying prospect.
Well, at least early death was more commonplace.
Back in 1880, the average American was only expected to live to see their 39th birthday. But “as medicine has advanced, so has death become more remote,” explained Ralph White.
White is the co-founder of the the New York Open Center, an inspired learning center that launched the Art of Dying Institute. This is an initiative with a mission to reshape the understanding of death.
Studies show that 80 percent of Americans would prefer to take their last breath at home, yet only 20 percent do. Sixty percent die in hospitals, while 20 percent live their last days in nursing homes.
“Doctors are trained to experience the death of their patients as failure, so everything is done to prolong life,” White said. “Many people use up their life savings in the last six months of their lives on ultimately futile medical interventions.”
When the institute was founded four years ago, attendees often had a professional motivation. They were hospice nurses, for instance, or cancer doctors, social workers, or chaplains. Today, participants are often just curious individuals.
“We consider this a reflection of American culture’s growing openness to addressing death and dying more candidly,” White said.
“The common thread is that they’re all willing to engage with the profound questions around dying: How do we best prepare? How can we make the experience less frightening to ourselves and others? What might we expect if consciousness continues after death? What are the most effective and compassionate ways of working with the dying and their families?”
“The death of another can often crack us open and reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t always want to see, acknowledge, or feel,” added Tisha Ford, manager of institutes and long-term trainings for the NY Open Center.
“The more we deny death’s existence, the easier it is to keep those parts of ourselves neatly tucked away.”
Death as a community builder
In 2010, Katie Williams, a former palliative care nurse, was attending a meeting for lifelong learners in her hometown of Rotorua, New Zealand, when the leader asked if anyone had new ideas for clubs. Williams did. She suggested she could build her own coffin.
“It was a shot from somewhere and totally not a considered idea,” said Williams, now 80. “There was no forward planning and little skill background.”
Williams called up friends between the ages of 70 and 90 with carpentry or design skills she thought could be useful. With the help of a local funeral director, they began building and decorating coffins in William’s garage.
“Most found the idea appealing and the creativity exciting,” said Williams. “It was an incredible social time, and many found the friendships they made very valuable.”
Nine years later, although they’ve since moved to a larger facility, Williams and her Coffin Club members still meet every Wednesday afternoon.
Children and grandchildren often come too.
“We think it’s important that the young family members come [to] help them to normalize the fact that people die,” explained Williams. “There’s been so much ‘head in the sand’ thinking involved with death and dying.”
Younger adults have shown up to make coffins for terminally ill parents or grandparents. So have families or close friends experiencing a death.
“There’s lots of crying, laughing, love and sadness, but it has been very therapeutic as all ages are involved,” said Williams.
There are now multiple Coffin Clubs across New Zealand, as well as other parts of the world, including the United States. But it’s less about the final product and more about the company, Williams pointed out.
“It gives [people] the opportunity to voice concerns, get advice, tell stories and mingle in a free, open way,” said Williams. “To many who come, it’s an outing each week that they cherish.”
Death as a life changer
Janie Rakow, an end-of-life doula, hasn’t just changed her life because of death. She helps others do the same.
A corporate accountant for 20 years, Rakow still vividly remembers being mid-workout at a gym when planes struck the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Life can change in one second,’” said the Paramus, New Jersey, resident. “That day, I wanted to change my life.”
Rakow quit her job and started volunteering at a local hospice, offering emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families. The experience profoundly changed her.
“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, it must be so depressing,’ but it’s just the opposite,” Rakow said.
During a person’s last days of life, end-of-life doulas fill a gap that hospice workers simply don’t have the time for. Besides assisting with physical needs, doulas help clients explore meaning in their life and create a lasting legacy. That can mean compiling favorite recipes into a book for family members, writing letters to an unborn grandchild, or helping to clear the air with a loved one.
Sometimes, it’s simply sitting down and asking, “So, what was your life like?”
“We’ve all touched other people’s lives,” said Rakow. “Just by talking to someone, we can uncover the little threads that run through and connect.”
Doulas can also help create a “vigil plan” — a blueprint of what the dying person would like their death to look like, whether at home or in hospice. It can include what music to play, readings to be shared aloud, even what a dying space may look like.
End-of-life doulas explain signs of the dying process to family and friends, and afterward the doulas stick around to help them process the range of emotions they’re feeling.
If you’re thinking it’s not so far removed from what a birth doula does, you’d be correct.
“It’s a big misconception that death is so scary,” said Rakow. “99 percent of the deaths I’ve witnessed are calm and peaceful. It can be a beautiful experience. People need to be open to that.”
Thich Nhat Hanh has done more than perhaps any Buddhist alive today to articulate and disseminate the core Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to a broad global audience. The Vietnamese monk, who has written more than 100 books, is second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence.
Nhat Hanh made his name doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, which led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Prize.
In 2014, Nhat Hanh, who is now 92 years old, had a stroke at Plum Village, the monastery and retreat center in southwest France he founded in 1982 that was also his home base. Though he was unable to speak after the stroke, he continued to lead the community, using his left arm and facial expressions to communicate.
In October 2018, Nhat Hanh stunned his disciples by informing them that he would like to return home to Vietnam to pass his final days at the Tu Hieu root temple in Hue, where he became a monk in 1942 at age 16.
As Time’s Liam Fitzpatrick wrote, Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam for his antiwar activism from 1966 until he was finally invited back in 2005. But his return to his homeland is less about political reconciliation than something much deeper. And it contains lessons for all of us about how to die peacefully and how to let go of the people we love.
When I heard that Nhat Hanh had returned to Vietnam, I wanted to learn more about the decision. So I called up Brother Phap Dung, a senior disciple and monk who is helping to run Plum Village in Nhat Hanh’s absence. (I spoke to Phap Dung in 2016 right after Donald Trump won the presidential election, about how we can use mindfulness in times of conflict.)
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your teacher’s decision to go to Vietnam and how you interpret the meaning of it.
He’s definitely coming back to his roots.
He has come back to the place where he grew up as a monk. The message is to remember we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. We have ancestors. We are part of a lineage or stream.
It’s a beautiful message, to see ourselves as a stream, as a lineage, and it is the deepest teaching in Buddhism: non-self. We are empty of a separate self, and yet at the same time, we are full of our ancestors.
He has emphasized this Vietnamese tradition of ancestral worship as a practice in our community. Worship here means to remember. For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream that runs way back to the time of the Buddha in India, beyond even Vietnam and China.
So he is reconnecting to the stream that came before him. And that suggests the larger community he has built is connected to that stream too. The stream will continue flowing after him.
It’s like the circle that he often draws with the calligraphy brush. He’s returned to Vietnam after 50 years of being in the West. When he first left to call for peace during the Vietnam War was the start of the circle; slowly, he traveled to other countries to do the teaching, making the rounds. And then slowly he returned to Asia, to Indonesia, Hong Kong, China. Eventually, Vietnam opened up to allow him to return three other times. This return now is kind of like a closing of the circle.
It’s also like the light of the candle being transferred, to the next candle, to many other candles, for us to continue to live and practice and to continue his work. For me, it feels like that, like the light is lit in each one of us.
And as one of his senior monks, do you feel like you are passing the candle too?
Before I met Thay in 1992, I was not aware, I was running busy and doing my architectural, ambitious things in the US. But he taught me to really enjoy living in the present moment, that it is something that we can train in.
Now as I practice, I am keeping the candlelight illuminated, and I can also share the practice with others. Now I’m teaching and caring for the monks, nuns, and lay friends who come to our community just as our teacher did.
So he is 92 and his health is fragile, but he is not bedridden. What is he up to in Vietnam?
The first thing he did when he got there was to go to the stupa [shrine], light a candle, and touch the earth. Paying respect like that — it’s like plugging in. You can get so much energy when you can remember your teacher.
He’s not sitting around waiting. He is doing his best to enjoy the rest of his life. He is eating regularly. He even can now drink tea and invite his students to enjoy a cup with him. And his actions are very deliberate.
Once, the attendants took him out to visit before the lunar new year to enjoy the flower market. On their way back, he directed the entourage to change course and to go to a few particular temples. At first, everyone was confused, until they found out that these temples had an affiliation to our community. He remembered the exact location of these temples and the direction to get there. The attendants realized that he wanted to visit the temple of a monk who had lived a long time in Plum Village, France; and another one where he studied as a young monk. It’s very clear that although he’s physically limited, and in a wheelchair, he is still living his life, doing what his body and health allows.
Anytime he’s healthy enough, he shows up for sangha gatherings and community gatherings. Even though he doesn’t have to do anything. For him, there is no such thing as retirement.
But you are also in this process of letting him go, right?
Of course, letting go is one of our main practices. It goes along with recognizing the impermanent nature of things, of the world, and of our loved ones.
This transition period is his last and deepest teaching to our community. He is showing us how to make the transition gracefully, even after the stroke and being limited physically. He still enjoys his day every chance he gets.
My practice is not to wait for the moment when he takes his last breath. Each day I practice to let him go, by letting him be with me, within me, and with each of my conscious breaths. He is alive in my breath, in my awareness.
Breathing in, I breathe with my teacher within me; breathing out, I see him smiling with me. When we make a step with gentleness, we let him walk with us, and we allow him to continue within our steps. Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you, and to see that he is more than just a physical body now in Vietnam.
What have you learned about dying from your teacher?
There is dying in the sense of letting this body go, letting go of feelings, emotions, these things we call our identity, and practicing to let those go.
The trouble is, we don’t let ourselves die day by day. Instead, we carry ideas about each other and ourselves. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s detrimental to our growth. We brand ourselves and imprison ourselves to an idea.
Letting go is a practice not only when you reach 90. It’s one of the highest practices. This can move you toward equanimity, a state of freedom, a form of peace. Waking up each day as a rebirth, now that is a practice.
In the historical dimension, we practice to accept that we will get to a point where the body will be limited and we will be sick. There is birth, old age, sickness, and death. How will we deal with it?
What are some of the most important teachings from Buddhism about dying?
We are aware that one day we are all going to deteriorate and die — our neurons, our arms, our flesh and bones. But if our practice and our awareness is strong enough, we can see beyond the dying body and pay attention also to the spiritual body. We continue through the spirit of our speech, our thinking, and our actions. These three aspects of body, speech, and mind continues.
In Buddhism, we call this the nature of no birth and no death. It is the other dimension of the ultimate. It’s not something idealized, or clean. The body has to do what it does, and the mind as well.
But in the ultimate dimension, there is continuation. We can cultivate this awareness of this nature of no birth and no death, this way of living in the ultimate dimension; then slowly our fear of death will lessen.
This awareness also helps us be more mindful in our daily life, to cherish every moment and everyone in our life.
One of the most powerful teachings that he shared with us before he got sick was about not building a stupa [shrine for his remains] for him and putting his ashes in an urn for us to pray to. He strongly commanded us not to do this. I will paraphrase his message:
“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside, and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”