None of Us Get Out of Here Alive

Another wonderful review of The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life has appeared. This time the review comes from my colleague, the very talented author, Mikaya Heart. Her review appears on the Blogging Authors website.


Click on the Blogging Authors’ banner above for the full review.

In our society, death is a taboo subject, and many people won’t talk about it at all. I’ve always been fascinated with the process of dying, and how someone’s energy remains after they die, often affecting us on a deep level. I recently read a great book on the subject by Richard Wagner. A gay man, an ex-Catholic priest, and a psychotherapist, Richard was first exposed to the process of dying during the AIDS epidemic in the early eighties when his friends were dying in droves. I won’t say any more about his own journey since it’s all in the book, but rest assured—he knows what he’s talking about. As he says, none of us will get out of here alive—so let’s talk about how to make that process of transition easier.

Richard started a group called Paradigm specifically designed to help sick, elder and dying people and their friends and families avoid the kind of nightmares that he had seen repeated again and again, based on society’s phobia about death. Perceiving that basic information is being withheld from dying people, he ran countless groups on death and dying in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has helped thousands of individuals over the years. He took groups of ten people for ten weeks, inviting various experts to come and give presentations on different aspects of what is involved in dying: legalities such as wills and executors; talking to one’s family and friends; assisted dying; what to expect of your body as it gives up; spiritual aspects of dying, and other topics.

The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying is an in-depth account of one of these courses, profiling the ten people who attended it, each chapter covering a different week. Those ten fictional characters are, Richard says, “composites” of some of the real people who took his course over the years that he ran it. The reader gets to know the individuals very well (sometimes painfully well) throughout the course of the book, as they reveal their deepest inner fears in the safety of the group. They all become more familiar with the concept of death and how to deal with it. Some of them, interestingly, move further away from it, while some go the other way. They all become more empowered. This book is written from a personal perspective, which is essential for any good writing on such a personal subject. Richard deserves congratulations for being brave enough to deal with such a difficult topic in a very open, accepting and compassionate manner.

My only complaint is that I wanted more. Since this book is quite long enough as is, I hope that Richard and others will consider writing more books. Because, as a society, we have failed miserably in talking about the realities of death and dying, there is a great deal still to be discussed. How can relatives and friends help a person who is dying? Do dying people benefit from getting permission to die from those they are close to? How can we change our desperate need to hold on to what we call the state of living even when it is clearly time to let go? How can we learn to relate to the positive aspects of death? How does the energy of an individual affect us when they are no longer present in a body? Richard’s book touches on some of these very profound questions, but they (and many others) need to be addressed in greater depth.

Mikaya Heart is an award-winning author who writes on subjects as varied as orgasm, shamanism, sports, lesbianism, politics and travel. Her memoir, My Sweet Wild Dance, which won a Golden Crown Literary Award, was described as “soul-refreshment of the highest order.” Mikaya uses shamanic methods to teach people how to operate from a place of trust instead of fear.

The GroundSwell Project Review

More marvelous news! The second amazing review of The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life has appeared in as many days.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying
Review by Emilie Collyer

‘None of the hard times I’ve seen, and I’ve seen plenty, lasted forever. Even this dying business will be over one day. I’ll just wake up dead one morning and that will that. What can I tell you?’

So says Max, an 86 year old man dying from stomach cancer. He’s one of ten group members you’ll meet and get to know when reading The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying.

The book is written by Richard Wagner who runs a non profit organisation called PARADIGM Programs Inc whose mission is ‘enhancing the end of life’. One of the main initiatives of the organisation is a ten week structured support program that focuses on death and dying. It is primarily targeted at people diagnosed with a terminal illness, but anyone can do the course.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying is a ‘workbook’ that takes the reader through the course. There are ten chapters that cover a wide range of territory. It is presented as a combination of group sessions, homework tasks and reflection exercises. There is a detailed blurb about each person and from then on we ‘hear’ from them in the first person, as if they are speaking directly to us in a group situation. They are fictional creations, but based on amalgams of real people. Wagner evokes their personalities well. I felt like I was hearing from ten distinct voices.

The content is comprehensive. We start with a discussion about perceptions of death, including why it still seems to be a taboo subject for so many people. Raul, 18, has polycystic kidney disease. He says how sick he is of ‘fightin’ something I can’t win.’ He hasn’t told his parents about attending the group because he knows how scared they are to accept the fact that he won’t live a long life: ‘They want me to keep praying to all these saints for some kinda stupid miracle. There are so many saints I can’t even remember all their names.’

From there, chapters move through many subjects and tasks including: writing your own obituary, legal, medical and financial matters, sexuality and body image for people who are dying, spirituality and belief, what happens to the body when we die, and the question of assisted, or pro-active dying.

The book is not always an easy read. It opens up questions about our own lives, including regrets and lost chances: ‘I haven’t done anything extraordinary, never won an award, never had my picture in the paper, never went to college, never even had a real job. I’m just an old woman who hasn’t anything to show for her life. And that makes me sad,’ says Janice, 62.

Reading such personal and intense stories has a significant emotional impact. I had to read slowly and take time out on occasion. And of course each story, task and provocation is designed to bring to the surface our own fears, hopes and regrets about death. This is a stated goal of the book and Wagner’s work in general. He is seeking a radical shift in how we perceive dying, specifically in terms of integrating it more consciously into every day life.

It’s not just about increasing awareness. Wagner believes we can live more full lives by embracing death. One of his motivations for creating the program and the book was because: ‘… the wisdom people come to during the dying process often died with them. There simply wasn’t a medium for collecting this abundant wisdom and thus it was frequently lost.’

There is a satisfying narrative arc to the book. Each of the participants comes to a sense of peace and acceptance about their situation. Many have renewed hope and vigour. ‘I feel like I’ve been able to look death in the face these past ten weeks and I didn’t flinch. So maybe, just maybe, death is not so foreboding after all,’ says Kevin, 39.

Some of the final statements in the evaluation section are a little pat. The book allows a neatness and sense of conclusion that is generally lacking in life with all its messiness. This is a minor point though, as the book’s content never shies away from the difficult and the unresolved.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying is a useful and practical tool for any person approaching their own death, or the death of a loved one and would make a valuable resource for health and community organisations working in this area.

Spending focussed time meditating on the end of life is not something we do often. It’s confronting to face our own mortality, but there’s something vital, even exhilarating about the brief moments of insight that can come. I’d recommend The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying to anyone seeking to engage with questions about death and the meaning of life.

Full Review HERE!

Some help with your death

I’d like to share with you a wonderful review of The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life posted this morning on Bill’s ‘Faith Matters’ Blog.  Thank you, Bill!

Bill Tammeus, the author of the blog, is the former Faith section columnist for The Kansas City Star. He came to The Star in 1970 as a reporter, spent nearly 27 years on the paper’s editorial page and then moved his column in March 2004 to the weekly Faith section. He took formal retirement in mid-2006 but continued as Faith section columnist on a freelance basis until mid-November 2008. In addition to this daily blog, Bill writes columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter.

In America’s death-denying culture, the reality that death awaits all of us seems to sneak up on lots of people and catch them off guard.

And yet, as I have insisted to readers over and over for decades, if you don’t understand your own death you’ll never understand your own life.

What I bring you today is some remarkable help in exactly that — understanding your own death. It’s a new book (well, workbook might be a better term) called The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life, by Richard Wagner.

Wagner. a former Catholic priest, is a psychotherapist who founded and now is executive director of PARADIGM Programs, Inc., a nonprofit that works to help people with end-of-life matters.

What Wagner does in this book is walk readers through the experience of being part of a group for 10 weeks, discussing death and dying for two hours at a time.

Now, of course, readers aren’t physically with the composite characters (meaning fictional but based on reality) of Jan, Michael, Holly, Raymond, Clare, Kevin, Max, Mia, Raul and Robin as they talk about their own situations.

But after a time readers will feel as if they know them quite well and have compassion for what each of them is going through.

Wagner also brings experts to the group meetings to deal with various subjects related to death and dying. I thought his chapter on spirituality and religion was quite helpful. The discussion was led by the Rev. David Pattee, who is not a composite character at all but a Unitarian-Universalist pastor.

As you might expect, Wagner has the composite characters in this discussion be from all over the lot when it comes to religious experience. Some are detached from any faith commitment, others are angry at God, others rely on faith to get them through each day.

Somewhere in the midst of all that readers may well find themselves and find some help in grasping how various religious traditions deal with death and dying.

Facing our own mortality can be a sobering and jarring experience, but it’s something each of us must do if we hope to bring our life to any kind of coherent conclusion.

I see Wagner’s book as an excellent tool to help people of all ages with that task. I could see this book being used in various faith communities as a study guide for small groups led by competent lay leaders or clergy.

And the time to engage in this sort of facing-death discipline is well before you think you need it.

Complete Posting HERE!

REVIEW — In Gumbo, The Grail Connection Newsletter

Marian Ronan:
The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life, by Richard Wagner, Ph.D. Las Vegas, NV: Nazca Plains, 2012. 431 pp.

Well, it’s happening. The baby-boomers are becoming senior citizens. I joined Medicare and got my half-price MTA card in April. My husband has retired and we’re planning a trip to Paris.

But getting older isn’t all sweetness and light. Even as Keith and I are packing, my best friend from college has checked into a hospice in Toronto, her metastatic breast cancer exploding throughout her body. Ten or twenty years ago I would have characterized this as a catastrophe. Increasingly, it’s the new normal.

Apparently we Americans put a lot of energy into avoiding this “darker” side of getting older. Clinical psychologist Richard Wagner (actually I’m a psychotherapist, clinical sexologist) has extensive experience helping people to come to terms with their own deaths and the deaths of those they love, so he’s written a workbook for the rest of us: The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying.

The chapters of The Amateur’s Guide are structured around ten sessions of the death and dying support groups that the author leads professionally in Northern California. Ten fictional group members, composites of actual participants, interact with one another, telling their stories, and engaging the material that Wagner and other experts present. Forms are also provided for us, the readers, to respond to the materials, provide feedback, even evaluate the contents and process of the workshop.

Among the death and dying-related subjects the book/workshop addresses are fear and avoidance of the reality of death, dealing with regrets and old wounds, end-of -life documents and preparations like advance directives, wills and trusts, who to notify, distribution of your possessions, etc., spirituality in death and dying, sexuality and intimacy in the dying process, and what someone’s last weeks and days are actually like.

Reading the responses of the various group members to the presentations and assignments helps to make this material real. But doing the assignments yourself makes death and dying all the more palpable. I was surprised at how deeply moved—and disturbed—I was as I did the various exercises, for example, writing my own obituary and describing the last weeks and days of my own life. This may not be true for everyone, but for me, engaging the prospect of my death was a sobering experience. But I feel I am better for it.

No book is perfect, of course. For the first half of the book, I found it almost impossible to keep the ten members of the group straight in my head. I finally made a crib sheet with the name, age, and a brief description of each, which I printed out and kept inside the front cover. The publisher should send out a bookmark with such information on it when someone buys a copy of The Amateur’s Guide so that readers can consult it as each group member begins to “talk.” The book is also pretty large—the cover is eight by ten inches and the book is an inch thick—which made it hard for me to take on the subway, where I do a lot of my reading.

But this is quibbling. The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying makes a valuable contribution to helping readers come to terms with an aspect of life that too many of us tend to avoid. Grail groups around the country would do well to use it to help members begin—or continue—to deal with the reality of death

Marian Ronan blog: An American Catholic on the Margins of World Christianity.