Death Doulas Give Time To Those Running Out Of It

By

Chris Bruton said his dad got sick in 2017 and just never got better.

“He had fatigue and we didn’t know what it was,” he said.

By January 2018, they had an answer.

“He actually had stage four kidney cancer,” Bruton said. “He was basically given about two to four months to live.”

When Bruton was a kid, his dad travelled a lot, so he didn’t get to know his dad that well. But after Bruton’s mom died, his dad moved from North Carolina to live with Bruton in Colorado. Bruton was in his 40s, his dad was in his 70s.

A year later, his dad got sick. Once they got the diagnosis, a woman Bruton was seeing suggested a death doula.

“And of course, I’d never heard of it. It sounded a little bit, a little bit hocus pocus-y to me,” he said. “I thought, well, I don’t think my dad would be up for anything like that.”

But then his dad started to close himself off and isolate, so Bruton agreed to meet with Cindy Kaufman, an end-of-life doula who works out of Denver. And Bruton introduced her to his dad.

He remembers chatting before Kaufman asked his dad how he was doing – how he was really doing. In an uncomfortable silence, Bruton and his aunt left to give them space.

“And as I walked out, I heard sobbing from my father that I had never heard before,” he said. “This well of stress and fear, anxiety, sadness, it all just came out.”

Kaufman came by one or two times a week, and then drove down for the end. It only took about two months. Bruton said she even helped his dad’s dog through it.

“After my dad had passed, she said, ‘Hey, let’s get Matty up here on the bed and so she can see your dad.’ And I think that even helped the dog find closure and understand what was going on,” he said.

Even though he’d never heard of a death doula before, Bruton is now a convert.

“I had no idea how much work there was to do to help someone who’s going through the dying process until I saw what Cindy did. And yeah, changed our lives,” he said. “Changed our lives and changed my dad’s life at the very end of it.”

Death doulas are also called death midwives or end-of-life doulas, but whatever you call them, their numbers have blossomed in the last decade. There’s a few in every state, but Colorado is a hotspot in the Mountain West. Beyond being a doula, Cindy Kaufman leads the Colorado End-of-Life Collaborative.

“End-of-life doulas fill what we believe is a gap,” she said.

That gap is the space between hospices, which provide necessary medical care, and what she does – help someone with the actual process of dying.

Since the hospice industry started in the ’70s and ’80s, Kaufman said, it’s become more of a business with certain hours and staff caring for multiple clients. While they started as non-profits, the majority of hospices are now for-profit institutions.

“We don’t carry those kinds of case-loads, we work for (ourselves),” she said, comparing death doulas with hospice staff. “We don’t fall under insurance, we’re private pay.”

Kaufman said death doulas can bring ritual back into dying, and make it easier to say goodbye.

They can help plan legacy projects, say late-night prayers, figure out what kind of burial or cremation someone wants. For some, they just sit with people, right up to the end.

And death doulas are incredibly diverse, not only in what they offer but with their backgrounds. There’s no licensing requirement or mandatory training. Kaufman said some people use their own culture to inform how they practice as death doulas, and they don’t want more regulations.

“They want to be honored for the fact that they were trained within their own family and community to do what they do,” she said.

Still, several training centers have cropped up in recent years. Some are in places like Australia and the UK. And there’s one in New Jersey called the International End Of Life Doula Association, or INELDA.

Henry Fersko-Weiss is a death doula who created INELDA six years ago.

He said it’s good to take other cultures into consideration, but the profession needs standardization if they want to be reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid. He said that could also improve quality of care – and help the fledgling profession evolve and gain trust.

“Anybody could call themself a doula without knowing anything, without having any training,” he said. “And I think that can do a disservice to the development of this field.”

Nancy L. Compton is an INELDA trainer based in Boise, Idaho. She’s also a certified hospice nurse assistant, palliative nurse assistant and death doula.

She’s proud death doulas can work outside normal constraints.

“Not everybody is born nor dies Monday through Friday, 8 to 5,” Compton said.

But she’s also proud of what her intimate knowledge of the dying process does for families.

“That’s where I am different and that’s where I pioneered this, especially in the Boise Valley,” she said.

Compton said a hospice paid her to practice there, and that’s unusual for a death doula. Medicare sanctions death doulas, but won’t reimburse for their care – yet. That would require a lot more standardization.

Deb Rawlings, at least, is fascinated by the diversity in this budding industry.

“It was amazing to find that there were so many differences in what the death doulas say that they do and what they offer,” she said.

Rawlings teaches palliative care at Flinders University in Australia. She’s one of the few people who’ve researched the occupation.

She found that many death doulas are former hospice workers or nurses. Some volunteer, others charge. Some help with a spiritual journey, others help with more physical tasks.

But even though they’re so different, death doulas have generally described their role to Rawlings like this: “We’ve got time. So I’ve got time to come in and sit with you. I might sit with the person who’s dying and let their family go and have a break. I might help and do the washing.”

In other words, they give time to those who are running out of it.

Complete Article HERE!

Grieving Is Hard.

Grieving During A Pandemic Is Even Harder.

Without rituals, or a communal gathering, the the loss of a loved one can be felt even more keenly

by Julia Paskin

I recently lost someone who, in a lot of ways, was like a second mother. She didn’t die from COVID-19 but pandemic regulations still stand. It’s not safe to have a memorial for her.

Grief is never easy. I’m having trouble processing her loss for a few reasons but a big one is that Mama Sue was a mother to a whole lot of people, and being unable to gather with all of them in her honor has me feeling kind of stuck in my grief.

Dr. Katherine Shear says rituals surrounding death are an important part of the health process. “Without those rituals we struggle a lot more with coming to terms with the loss, which is of course what we have to do,” said Shear. Ultimately healing requires us to “regroup and find our way forward.”

PROLONGED GRIEF

Shear teaches psychiatry at Columbia University and specializes in prolonged grief, something she’s seeing a lot more of these days. Grief is considered prolonged when the feelings disrupt everyday life beyond what’s considered a healthy degree and amount of time. Symptoms of prolonged grief, also known as complicated grief can include extreme sorrow, isolation, and an inability to feel joy long after suffering a loss.

For many, it’s not only about missing out on the ritual and sense of community. It’s also about not being with someone when they die. Shear says separation from loved ones during the dying process can also make healing more difficult.

“Those things contribute to the processing of the reality of the death,” said Shear. “That’s a part of what we have to do – accept the reality. And then we have to find a way to restore our capacity to feel well-being.”

ENORMOUS NUMBERS

Demographer Emily Smith-Greenaway teaches sociology and spatial sciences at USC and has quantified the impact of COVID-19 fatalities on its survivors. She says “each death results in about nine Americans grieving the death of a close relative.”

Based on that projection, 225,000 people in California were personally affected by the death of someone from COVID-19 in 2020 alone. “The size of the population grieving, and grieving very intimate losses, is just enormous,” said Smith-Greenaway.

Fellow USC professor Diane Blaine specializes in thanatology which is the study of death and its impact. She says there are ways to find solace in creating our own rituals to help the healing process…

“Write a letter, light a candle too, you know, I have a little altar, and to just sit and weep,” said Blaine. “We can still do those things.”

FUTURE GATHERINGS

Many are finding ways to connect with other mourners. Zoom memorial services and online religious ceremonies are being frequently held. If you’re still struggling though, Blaine recommends talking to a grief counselor or support group.

The challenge is that there are a lot of communities where mental health services are hard to access and they’re often the same communities with high COVID-19 mortality rates. An emerging idea is to train people already trusted in the community like barbers and church members to give support.

Most importantly, Blaine says to remember that grief doesn’t have a timeline.

“Even though right now there might have to be a forestalling of whatever form of grief process, it can continue and it can continue on even for years.”

Blaine says we will be able to gather in the memory of those we’ve lost again at some point. And that can be healing whenever it happens.

For what it’s worth, I think I’ll light another candle for Mama Sue tonight.

Complete Article HERE!

There Is No Vaccine for Grief

But there are ways to prepare to face it.

By A.C. Shilton

For months, I’ve felt like the emotional equivalent of a car with a cracked windshield. I’m still rolling through daily life, but one good knock is bound to shatter me. Although the number of coronavirus cases has been declining, the number of deaths has soared well above 500,000, and now we have the new variants to worry about. I know that if I have not yet lost a loved one, I’m one of the lucky ones — and no one’s luck lasts forever.

I love being proactive — I’m all about having a go bag with extra batteries, duct tape and granola bars ready for any emergency. But what, if anything, could I do to prepare myself for grief?

Anticipatory grief is a well-documented phenomenon in grief counseling, said Dr. Katherine Shear, the founder and director for the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University. But usually researchers study anticipatory grief in environments like hospices, where loss is imminent. What many of us are experiencing right now is more nebulous. Dr. Shear cautioned that spiraling into anticipatory grief for a loss that may not even happen is likely to be unhelpful.

Of course, even if you do not lose a family member or friend in the pandemic, that does not mean you will not experience grief. At its core, grief is a reaction to a change that you didn’t want or ask for, said David Kessler, a grief expert and author of many books on the subject, including his most recent, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”

Even those who have not lost family members are experiencing some level of loss in the pandemic, he said, from the disappointment of missing in-person experiences and holiday celebrations to the losses of our jobs and even our homes.

“The problem with comparisons in grief is if you win, you lose,” Mr. Kessler said, adding, “and the world is big enough for all our griefs.”

Inoculating yourself against feelings of loss may prove harder than getting a routine vaccine. “Grief is as unique as a thumbprint. What works for one person may not work for another,” said Deanna Upchurch, the director of clinical outreach services at the Providence-based hospice HopeHealth. Still, should the worst happen, knowing what tends to help others could help you gird yourself — even just a little bit. If doing something feels better to you than doing nothing, consider this your packing list for a grief go bag.

Practice Experiencing Your Emotions.

“In our culture, we tend to think painful emotions are bad,” Dr. Shear said. “But that’s really not true. It’s true that they’re painful, but we can learn from them,” she said. Next time you feel something unpleasant, take a moment to sit with it and think about why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.

Mr. Kessler suggests looking to the animal kingdom for inspiration on learning to live with uncomfortable emotions. After his 21-year-old son died suddenly in 2016, Mr. Kessler was watching a documentary on buffalos. The documentary noted that buffalos run straight into oncoming storms.

“Because they run into the storm, they minimize the time they are in the discomfort. We live in a society that minimizes grief. Unlike the buffalo, we try to stay a mile ahead of it, but it’s just always there, chasing behind us,” he said. Consider, instead, being willing to run into the rain.

Shower the People You Love With Love.

Maureen Keeley, a professor of interpersonal communication at Texas State University, has been studying the final conversations between family members for nearly 20 years. In that time, one theme has emerged over and over again: “We need to tell those we love that we love them,” she said.

This advice sounds so simple. And yet, when I tested it out by calling my best college friend to tell her how grateful I was for her friendship, the gears gummed up. (Instead, I asked about her new cat.) To which, Dr. Keeley gave me this advice: “Grow up.” Telling someone how much they mean to you may feel a bit awkward. Go on and reveal the mushy bits of your soul. Most people enjoy hearing how much they matter, and saying it now saves you from having regrets later.

Nurture Your Network.

“We are not meant to be islands of grief,” Mr. Kessler said. Everyone grieves differently, and even within your grief there may be periods when you wish to be alone and periods when you really need a friend. When the latter happens, having a sturdy network to lean on is so important. “We need to know our loved one’s life mattered, our loved one’s death mattered. It brings us meaning to see our pain witnessed in someone else’s eyes,” he said. Now is the time to make time for friends.

Some people need something to look forward to. Others find thinking about the future overwhelming, said Ms. Upchurch. If you’re currently planning what to serve at your post-vaccine dinner party, you’re likely in the first group. Knowing that can help you put things on your schedule that will bring you joy in a dark time. If, however, you’ve been getting through the past year of social distancing by not thinking too far into the future, you may be better served by just allowing yourself to stay in the moment, taking each day as it comes.

Find a Natural Space.

Even if you’re generally not the outdoorsy type, a tiny slice of nature can be helpful in navigating grief, said Sonya Jakubec, a professor in the school of nursing and midwifery at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. Dr. Jakubec studies the impact of natural spaces and parks on patients and caregivers. As she reported in a chapter she wrote on grieving in nature for the book “Health in the Anthropocene: Living Well on a Finite Planet,” she took palliative care patients and caregivers out for a walk near where they worked.

“Many of them had never considered the idea of going for a 20-minute walk break,” she said. After the field trips outdoors, 93 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed that natural spaces provide emotional comfort. Dr. Jakubec has seen similar results with grief groups that meet outside. “Parks and nature feel like a container that is large enough to hold our grief,” she said.

Thanks to vaccines and hospitals having more tools to treat critical patients, it’s possible that the bump we’re all bracing for will never arrive.

Still, it’s worth fortifying yourself now, because grief is an innate part of what it means to live a full and rich life as a human.

“Generally, grief is a lifelong experience that changes over time,” said Ms. Upchurch. Still, humans can be surprisingly resilient. That resilience will help you weather whatever else the pandemic has in store — cracks and all.

Complete Article HERE!

We all hope for a ‘good death’.

But many aged-care residents are denied proper end-of-life care

By

Death is inevitable, and in a civilised society everyone deserves a good one. It would therefore be logical to expect aged-care homes would provide superior end-of-life care. But sadly, palliative care options are often better for those living outside residential aged care than those in it.

More than a quarter of a million older Australians live in residential aged care, but few choose to be there, few consider it their “home”, and most will die there after living there for an average 2.6 years. These are vulnerable older people who have been placed in residential aged care when they can no longer be cared for at home.

The royal commission has made a forceful and sustained criticism of the quality of aged care. Its final report, released this week, and the interim report last year variously described the sector as “cruel”, “uncaring”, “harmful”, “woefully inadequate” and in need of major reform.

Quality end-of-life care, including access to specialist palliative care, is a significant part of the inadequacy highlighted by the report’s damning findings. This ranked alongside dementia, challenging behaviours and mental health as the most crucial issues facing the sector.

Longstanding problem

In truth, we have already known about the palliative care problem for years. In 2017 the Productivity Commission reported that end-of-life care in residential aged care needs to be better resourced and delivered by skilled staff, to match the quality of care available to other Australians.

This inequality and evident discrimination against aged-care residents is all the more disappointing when we consider these residents are among those Australians most likely to find themselves in need of quality end-of-life care.

The royal commission’s final report acknowledges these inadequacies and addresses them in 12 of its 148 recommendations. Among them are recommendations to:

  • enshrine the right of older people to access equitable palliative and end-of-life care
  • include palliative care as one of a range of integrated supports available to residents
  • introduce multidiscpliniary outreach services including palliative care from local hospitals
  • require specific training for all direct care staff in palliative and end-of-life care skills.

What is good palliative care?

Palliative care is provided to someone with an active, progressive, advanced disease, who has little or no prospect of cure and who is expected to die. Its primary goal is to optimise the quality of life for that person and their family.

End-of-life care is provided by palliative care services in the final few weeks of life, in which a patient with a life-limiting illness is rapidly approaching death. This also extends to bereavement care for family and loved ones.

Unlike in other sectors of Australian society, where palliative care services are growing in line with overall population ageing, palliative care services in residential aged care have been declining.

Funding restrictions in Australian aged-care homes means palliative care is typically only recommended to residents during the final few weeks or even days of their life.

Some 70% of Australians say they would prefer to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, with symptoms managed and comfort the only goal. So if residential aged care is truly a resident’s home, then extensive palliative and end-of-life care should be available, and not limited just to the very end.

Fortunately, the royal commission has heard the clarion call for attention to ensuring older Australians have as good a death as possible, as shown by the fact that a full dozen of the recommendations reflect the need for quality end-of-life care.

Moreover, the very first recommendation — which calls for a new Aged Care Act — will hopefully spur the drafting of legislation that endorses high-quality palliative care rather than maintaining the taboo around explicitly mentioning death.

Let’s talk about death

Of course, without a clear understanding of how close death is, and open conversation, planning for the final months of life cannot even begin. So providing good-quality care also means we need to get better at calculating prognosis and learn better ways to convey this information in a way that leads to being able to make a plan for comfort and support, both for the individual and their loved ones.

Advanced care planning makes a significant difference in the quality of end-of-life care by understanding and supporting individual choices through open conversation. This gives the individual the care they want, and lessens the emotional toll on family. It is simply the case that failing to plan is planning to fail.

We need to break down the discomfort around telling people they’re dying. The unpredictability of disease progression, particularly in conditions that involve frailty or dementia, makes it hard for health professionals to determine when exactly palliative care will be needed and how to talk about it with different cultural groups.

These conversations need to be held through the aged-care sector to overcome policy and regulation issues, funding shortfalls and workforce knowledge and expertise.

We need a broader vision for how we care for vulnerable Australians coming to the end of a long life. It is not just an issue for health professionals and residential care providers, but for the whole of society. Hopefully the royal commission’s recommendations will breathe life into end-of-life care into aged care in Australia.

Complete Article HERE!

Professor emeritus has last words on death and dying

Professor emeritus Ronald Bayne was one of Canada’s first geriatricians and a lifelong advocate for better care for older adults. Dr. Bayne, shown here receiving his honorary doctorate at McMaster in 2006, died on Friday after deciding to take advantage of the opportunity for medical assistance in dying.

Dr. Ronald Bayne was one of Canada’s first geriatricians and spent much of his long career as a passionate advocate for better care for the elderly, working to solve the problems in long-term care homes.

At 98, and racked with chronic pain, he turned his advocacy to another cause critical to the elderly: planning the end of life.

Bayne, who was a professor emeritus of McMaster University, died on Friday after deciding to take advantage of the opportunity for medical assistance in dying.

Before dying, he shared his story with the media and produced a compelling video urging seniors and their families to take control of the end of their lives.

The 12-minute video is a powerful demonstration of Bayne’s passion for the cause to the very end, part reflection on death and dying, part rallying cry for better health care and autonomy for the elderly.

“I’m 98 so I am near the end of my life. Fortunately, my mind is still clear though my body is exhausted,” he says in the video.

“I want the vast majority of the population, and seniors in particular, to realize that they have far more control at the end than they realize they do. Every Canadian has the right to control their own bodies. There’s no question about it. You are legally entitled, and you must insist that your voice is heard.”

In the video, Bayne is eloquent and passionate, referring to Dr. William Osler and Shakespeare and his long experience in health care.

“I had a long career as a physician and over these many years I’ve been struck by the fact that increasingly people are fearing death and dying. I think it’s become almost universal,” he says. “People themselves have become fearful about what may happen at the end of their lives, and if they’re going to be suffering great pain, if they’ll get relief.

“I want people to get over this fear of the unknown and make it known. Discuss it openly, realizing that death is inevitable.”

He says everyone has the right to end their life if it has become unbearable. “Some people say that’s promoting death. Of course it’s not promoting death. Death is inevitable, you don’t need to promote it. No, this is to reduce suffering and pain. And if you as a person are not likely to pass on soon, you should be able to control your own end of life.”

Trained at McGill University, Bayne was a professor of medicine at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine from 1970 until he retired as a professor emeritus in 1989.

He received an honorary degree from McMaster in 2006 for his advocacy and work raising awareness of the need for better care of the elderly and chronically ill people, and his initiation of programs that work to prevent the warehousing of often marginalized populations.

It is clear from the video that his passion for this work continued through the very end of his life.

“We must have our voices heard. That’s what I’m urging people to do in later life,” he says in the video. “Take that responsibility. Let us ensure that the health-care system for long-term care is properly organized and managed and supervised.

“We know, from recent experience with COVID, that these long-term institutions were very poorly managed, and in a way, the general public is justified in their fear of what will happen to seniors in those places,” Bayne says, suggesting the seniors need to realize they have more control than they think they do.

“We as seniors should be working with our families to discuss the end and how we wish it to occur and building up their [family’s] feeling of confidence that it will be peaceful for us and bearable for them. So instead of focusing on the end, build up great memories, happy memories that the family will treasure afterwards.”

Bayne had a close relationship with the university over the years, and 13 of his family members have McMaster degrees, including the honorary degree awarded his son-in-law, Michael Hayes, in 2017.

Bayne and his wife Barbara have made several donations to the university, establishing the Ronald Bayne Gerontology Award for a graduate student conducting aging research; and the Barbara and Ronald Bayne Award to provide support for senior students in the Department of Health, Aging and Society who are engaged in practical learning experience as part of their undergraduate studies.

“Dr. Bayne has been a wonderful teacher for all of us from his days at McMaster helping create geriatrics as its own discipline in Canada, to just before his death,” said Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences. “I am very grateful for all of his lifelong contributions to improving the health of Canadians.”

Parminder Raina, scientific director of the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging, added: “One of Canada’s first geriatricians and a physician at Mac, Dr. Bayne founded the Hamilton-Wentworth Group on Aging, the Gerontology Research Council of Ontario (GRCO) and led the Canadian Association on Gerontology in the ‘80s. His tireless work in the area of geriatrics and gerontology drove the infusion of a lot of provincial funding into research and training in aging at a crucial time.

“His powerful messages around death and dying are inspiring and important.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pandemic grief could become its own health crisis

By Hope Edelman

As the nation mourns more than 500,000 lives lost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, another pandemic wave is building — of grief. It poses a potential public health crisis of its own.

For the past century, Americans’ response to grief has been to minimize its impact and suppress the emotional pain. We treat grieving as an individual affair, with mourners responsible for “getting over” their losses, mostly in private. Social isolation during the pandemic has made grieving even more solitary.

But grief wasn’t always treated this way. For centuries, communities came together to mourn the passing of an individual as a loss to the polity. Victorian mourning practices were extravagant social affairs involving rituals that the bereaved and fellow citizens followed for months, sometimes years, after a death.

Then came the one-two punch of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic. With so many deaths occurring so fast, mourning rituals became prohibitively expensive and social mourning was effectively impossible to maintain. Like today, large public gatherings were prohibited and quarantines enforced. Funerals shrank in size, mourning periods contracted and families were left to grieve in isolation. By the 1920s, grief in America had largely gone underground.

A century later, grief is again a widespread issue. With each covid-19 death affecting an estimated nine survivors, more than 4.5 million Americans are grieving loved ones lost to the virus. Beyond deaths to other causes, there were additional U.S. fatalities last year: gatherings with family and friends, classroom learning, millions of jobs that won’t return. Collectively, we lost a way of life in 2020.

Yet there has been no sustained outpouring of public support for mourners, as happened after the devastation of 9/11. Instead of a broad acknowledgment of mass distress, our nation has been mute with grief. Pandemic skepticism has also disparaged the losses some have experienced.

This is a precarious state for a nation. Grief is cyclical, especially around anniversary dates. Even under optimal conditions, many mourners experience a dip in functioning at the one-year mark. We should expect this to happen, starting this month, with the one-year anniversaries of the first wave of pandemic deaths and lockdowns. One year isn’t far on the long arc of adjustment, but it’s well beyond the point that most people expect visible evidence of mourning to last. Collectively failing to grant each other permission to express distress beyond the first weeks after a loss can have profound health consequences.

In children and teens, unaddressed grief can manifest as trouble sleeping, depression, anxiety, behavior issues and lower self-esteem, a 2015 study found. Research from 2018 found it leads to aggression and academic or work struggles. In adults, unaddressed grief can manifest as depression, anger, anxiety, and substance use and abuse. Medical research has linked unaddressed and suppressed emotions to a host of physical ailments later in life, including hypertension and autoimmune disorders.

President Biden’s remarks on Monday, acknowledging not just the lives lost but also the loved ones mourning, are a good start. In addition to promoting professional help, there are steps that we citizens can take to address this siloed bereavement and help head off a looming public health crisis.

We can start by viewing grief support as part of our essential social contract. Those who are grieving need acknowledgment and understanding from family and friends. This starts with taking their losses seriously and accepting their reactions. Listening to their stories of a loved one’s life and death with compassion, instead of judgment, is key; so is confirming the coronavirus’s threat to human health if their loved one died of covid.

As in 1918, public health restrictions have affected the rituals people typically rely on for comfort and support. Funerals have again become stripped-down facsimiles, with some long-standing ethnic and religious traditions abbreviated or abandoned. Some families have postponed memorial services — and their own expressions of grief — in favor of planning to hold shows of respect when groups can again gather safely.

Today’s mourners should be helped to hold on to whatever rituals remain, even if that means attending a memorial service two years after a death. Rituals allow people to draw on the comforts of the past while projecting a loved one’s influence forward.

New rituals can be developed, too. Even repetitive, everyday acts such as drinking morning coffee from a mother’s favorite mug or touching a loved one’s framed photo when passing by can bring comfort if performed with intention. Folding the memory or values of a lost loved one into new traditions is a way to continue honoring the lives they lived.

Finally, participating in public acknowledgements of those who have died provides a larger meaning and context for the half-million deaths that otherwise risk being minimized or, worse, forgotten.

Everyone eventually loses someone dear, some of us sooner rather than later. Mourners’ unexpressed distress can manifest in them physically and in their interactions with others — in how they work, raise children and create policy. Validating and supporting the bereaved at the time of loss is not just the compassionate thing to do — it’s a necessary investment in the collective good.

Complete Article HERE!

How the world sends off its dead

And what that says about us

Tower of Silence in Yazd, Iran.

by

A great way to get under the skin of a living culture, especially a little-known one, is to learn about their thoughts, beliefs and rituals around death. Conversations about reincarnation, reunions with departed spirits, and the manner in which they send-off their loved ones might surprise you and lead to fascinating discoveries. While most rituals are rooted in ancient philosophies, modern science and technology is helping to develop sustainable options that can turn our lifeless barks into useful nuggets.

Whisperings of death are all around us. Statements of grief and love take form in flower bouquets and roadside memorials where a person might have lost their life in an instance. The names of loved ones are inscribed on park benches. They live on in academic scholarships, wings of hospitals, places of worship and most of all, in our memories. Their photographs are hung in our homes, shops and offices. While these may be familiar to us, in far-flung lands, other practices are thriving.

Wandering the lanes of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam, my friend and I came upon Hang Ma street with shops selling things made from paper. The stalls were festooned with rather unique paper replicas of houses, cars, motorcycles, washing machines, refrigerators, clothes, cell-phones, shoes, wallets, eye-glasses and wads of cash. These, it turns out, are bought by relatives of the deceased and burned on Wandering Soul’s Day. People believe that on this day the gates to the afterlife are opened for spirits to come back to the earth, and their ancestors can accept and enjoy the offerings. From their vantage point, death is by no means a final departure and the next world bears a strong resemblance to the present one.

Gifts for the departed.

Driving through the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, the captivatingly beautiful hills reared up all around me and my guide Kuban. We stopped to explore curious clusters that looked like giant birdcages. Kuban explained that these airy domes housed tombs. Influenced by Islam and nomadic traditions, the Kyrgyz have uniquely adapted their grave coverings to look like yurts, with views of the open skies that are close to their hearts. While the Soviet occupation saw many mosques razed to the ground, the graves were left alone, and they continue to tell the story of the people held deep within their wombs.

High up in the folds of the Himalayas, several Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists still opt for sky burials. In accordance with their beliefs, after a person’s passing, while the spirit is in transition, the body is a mere empty vessel to be given back to nature. In an extreme act of compassion, the naked body, often chopped into pieces, is left out in the open as food for scavenging vultures and predators. When full, they spare small creatures such as the mice, marmots, weasels and hares.

The respected priests, the Lamas, encourage people to confront death openly, and to feel the impermanence of life. Many a ritual object in the monasteries is made from human bones. The harsh, treeless landscape has also had a role to play in eliciting this practice, with the lack of wood for pyres or coffins and the earth being too hard to dig graves.

A sky burial site.

In Ladakh and the villages of the hinterland, if a baby dies before its teeth are cut, the dbon-po (astrologer) might recommend putting it in a small coffin and walling it up within the house to retain its g-yang, or good fortune and hoping its soul will re-enter the mother’s womb.

According to the ancient Zoroastrian faith, dead bodies must not defile the earth, water or air. Traditionally, they are cleansed in accordance with rituals and left in the ‘towers of silence’ to be consumed by vultures. The practice continues in a handful of places such as Yazd, Iran. In Mumbai and Hyderabad, the lack of vultures (many died from eating cow carcasses that contained the drug diclofenac) has made the community pivot to solar concentrators, where intense sunlight desiccates corpses as it passes through a fresnel lens.

In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town on the planet, it has been illegal to die since 1950. As the temperatures dip down to –43°C, there is constant permafrost in the ground. The archipelago belongs to Norwegians, who are mainly Christians, but they can’t bury their dead here, as the permafrost will preserve the bodies forever. Anyone expecting to die must fly to the mainland.

Over time, several polar explorers, whalers and scientists have lost their lives in Antarctica, where they might remain hidden forever, or make a macabre appearance as an iceberg calves and melts in the ocean. Similarly, as Everest melts, bodies of trekkers and Sherpas keep emerging from the ice.

On a trek through Mantadia Rainforest in Madagascar, as we looked out for creatures such as lemurs, indris and sifakas, our guide Eric Michel chatted with us about life on the island, describing the famadihana or ‘turning of the bones’ tradition. “We (Malagasy) believe that our dead ancestors influence our fortunes and fertility from the afterlife. Every 5-7 years, when enough money has been saved, our family plans a famadihana where the entire village comes together. Alcohol is passed around freely, food is served, and the festivities start. We make an opening in the family tomb to let out the bad smell, then begin pulling out one body after another. They’re re-wrapped in fresh fabric, even the crumbled ones. The band starts to play, people begin to dance, sing, and commune with the dead, rocking them, talking to them, filling them in on the latest news, introducing them to new family members, perhaps showing them a new bridge or house, and asking for specific blessings before placing them back. People are even more powerful once they die, so we must respect them.”

A famadihana in session.

Also believing in an afterlife, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert add bows and arrows, pots and fabrics to the graves of their dead, whose bodies are anointed in ochre and fat and buried in foetal position, facing east. The spot is topped with a stone cairn to keep it from being dug up by any animals.

Death rites are not always achingly solemn. In Barbados, a driver commemorates his grandmother, who passed four years ago, by hanging her smiling picture on a badge on his rear-view mirror. In Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley, the sudden loud gunshots turned out to be part of a funeral procession with a touch of gangsta-verve. Guns and bullets are a luxury, swapped with precious cows and goats, and so firing them is a way of lavishing honour on the departed. In Spanta, Romania, people believe that death leads to a better life, and so it must be celebrated. The notion is reflected in the Cimitriul Vesel, the ‘merry cemetery, dense with colourful paintings on tombs illustrating the dead person’s life that are often topped with light-hearted epitaphs.

Our death is our swansong, and the manner in which we go also reflects who we are. The religious rites that are handed down to us over generations have a consolatory feel, but many of these were established millennia ago, when there were far fewer humans, rivers were pure and thick forests covered our planet. These traditions now need to be revisited. Our awareness of environmental issues has been heightened. Let’s look outside our windows today and think afresh. By 2050, there will be 10 billion humans. Does cutting down trees for pyres and coffins, putting masses of carbon in the air and choking our waters with ashes sound right?

Shedding our reticence and donating our bodies to science and allowing our organs as hearts, livers, eyes to be used by others upon our passing is modern-day compassion. Preserving, not depleting our planet is the new mantra. Fresh ideas abound. The US-based company Eternal Reefs compresses human remains into a sphere that is attached to a reef in the ocean providing habitat for sea life. Resomation is a technique where alkaline hydrolysis breaks down and liquifies the body with no carbon emission. Capsula Mundi, an Italian company, makes organic pods into which bodies are placed and put in the earth. Seeds or saplings are planted just above, and they become nourishment for the growing tree. A simple version of this practice requires a spot, a sack and a sapling. If we can allocate land and turn our bodies into forests, it could be our most considerate legacy for future generations. A human and a tree growing into each other. What better consolation.

Complete Article HERE!