How Preparing for Death Makes Life More Meaningful

by Tom Rapsas

Is there ever an appropriate time to contemplate your own death? Like grief, death is a topic most of us prefer not to talk about or even think about. Most of us assume our own deaths will happen at some point in the distant future. Yet, as Wayne Dyer once said, the future is promised to no one.

Most of us will wait until we are at the brink of death’s door to contemplate death. It might happen after a terminal medical diagnosis, a sudden heart attack or illness, or an automobile accident. Or you might live in a warzone, where the specter of death visits you on a daily basis.

But the fact is, no matter your station in life, death is a constant presence. We are nearer to death this year than last year, closer to death today than we were yesterday. During our whole lives we are moving inextricably closer to death. We are not allowed to stop the clock or to go more slowly. Old and young, rich and poor, all are propelled toward death with equal speed.

There are some who regularly practice for their own death.

They are not suicidal—in fact, just the opposite. They contemplate death so that they can better appreciate life. It’s part of an ancient Christian tradition called memento mori (translation: “remember your death”). It has received renewed attention thanks to Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of Saint Paul, a Catholic religious order.

Noble has written a book titled Remember Your Death, where she asks us to become aware of our impending death so that we can become better focused on what is real and important in our lives. In her words, the practice “is more about living than it is about dying.” It’s about living each moment not knowing if it’s our last.

Sister Theresa believes that the practice of memento mori is essential because “only God knows when each person will die.” That does not mean going about your day thinking you will die, but recognizing “the possibility that this could come to pass. One day will be our last, and the great majority of us do not know when.” She continues:

No matter how many surgeries we undergo, how much we exercise, or how many vitamins we take, our bodies will break down slowly over time. Indeed, no matter what we do, our bodies will succumb to old age and die.

Spring is an appropriate time to remember our death.

Noble calls out the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday. It kicks off the 40-day season of Lent which ends three days before Easter Sunday. During Ash Wednesday, a priest or pastor dips their finger into a tray of ashes and spreads it on a congregants’ forehead in the shape of a cross. While doing this, they quote the Bible, saying “from dust you came and from dust you will return.” Dust is a metaphor for death.

Sister Thersa tells us that “as Christians, when we contemplate our own death, we also enter into the death of Jesus Christ. We remember death not from our own perspective, but from Christ’s perspective.” And from that perspective, death has been conquered. With the resurrection of Jesus, he has shown us that we all have the ability “to rise with him” and in essence, survive our own death.

You don’t need to be a Christian, for this work for you. Noble informs us that “even if one does not believe in the Christian message of salvation, the rich ancient tradition of remembering death can bring joy, focus, and fruitfulness to anyone’s life.” What follows are three compelling notions pulled from Remember Your Death.

3 Reasons to Prepare for Your Own Death

  1. It can cleanse your soul. When we remember death “it can motivate us to clear grudges, anger, and a desire for retaliation for our souls.” When we are able to forgive others, it can “heal relationships but most importantly, our souls. Forgiveness clears away what stands in the way of our union with God.”
  2. It can lead to greater humility. When we remember our death, we “truthfully admit we need God’s help,” and are more apt to accept God’s grace. By contrast, when we puff ourselves up with pride, we push away this grace. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” ~Bible, Genesis 3:19
  3. It can give you greater focus. Through the knowledge that the gift of life can be taken from us at any time, we gain a greater appreciation for our lives. As Sam Harris reminds us in a podcast titled The Lessons of Death, no one knows how much time they have left. “We’re all going to lose everything we have—and we don’t know when.” Since we don’t know how many moments we have left, it makes sense to be mindful of the limited amount of time we do have—and treat these moments like the treasures they are.

Complete Article HERE!

On Death, Dying, and Disbelief


by Nicole Carr

As humans, most of us—especially after the last couple of pandemic years—have experienced the loss of a loved one. As humanists, we know how difficult it can be to grieve as a nontheist in a world that is designed for the religious. Many of the rituals our society uses to mark the end of life are built around belief in the afterlife, and that can leave nontheists feeling stranded and alone at a time when they especially need support. Candace R. M. Gorham offers that support with her book On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, published last year by Pitchstone Publishing.

When my mother died (much too young), I was still a believer. I had already stopped regularly going to church, but I believed in god and the sentiments that the people around me uttered were actually comforting: “She’s in a better place,” “You’ll be together again someday,” “She’s looking down on you.” I knew the rituals and they worked for me.

Twenty-five years later, when my husband died (again, much too young), I hadn’t found humanism yet, but I definitely considered myself a nontheist. Grieving was different this time, and I needed to find new ways to mark his death and find a way to live without him. I wish I’d had this book then.

As a licensed mental health counselor and a former ordained minister turned atheist activist, Gorham is uniquely suited to write this book. She also draws on her personal experience with grief. As she writes in the book’s introduction,

The ten tips I offer in this book were selected based on common questions and conversations I have had with nontheists and are things that have helped me personally. In this regard, I combine my personal awareness of issues unique to nontheists with my professional expertise in mental health counseling, and I try to address this deeply personal subject with the tenderness of one who can fully commiserate with the target audience.

And she succeeds. The book is deeply personal and yet still applicable to the reader’s own situation and experience. The chapters are organized as ten tips, and each one begins with a poem written by the author when she was coping with her own grief.

On my own journey from religion to nontheism, the idea I found hardest to let go was that loved ones who had died were in some other—better—place, where they were somehow watching over me. I held on to that idea tightly after all my other religious beliefs had fallen away. In fact, I held on to it for quite a while after I called myself non-religious. Gorham’s first chapter deals with just that concept, and how to reconcile a sometimes deep desire to believe that a loved one is still with us with our understanding that there is no heaven.

There’s a lot of important advice included about taking care of yourself physically, psychologically, and emotionally. There are the basic things, of course: eating, drinking, sleep, exercise. But there are also tips about things you might not think about in the midst of grief, like the importance of establishing new routines to help you move forward.

Gorham also includes information about when to seek out a therapist, the beneficial possibilities of medication, how to identify when grief has passed into a danger zone of potential self-harm or pathology, and the healing qualities of nature to help create a “restorative environment.”

And there’s a whole chapter on the need to “Cry. Cry. And then cry some more” which the author describes as “the most cathartic activity I have ever done.” Since humanists tend to like science and evidence, Gorham details, for instance, studies that point to the beneficial hormones and proteins that crying produces, along with the stress-relief and cathartic effect of the physical act.

In the same chapter, however, she reminds readers to “embrace the times when they are not crying” and find moments of enjoyment in the midst of grief. After all,

As a nontheist, you very likely do not believe that your loved one is watching you from the great beyond. So, it is not like they are there judging the extent of your grieving. And you are not competing with friends and family to see who can grieve the hardest and longest.

One powerful chapter is Tip #8: Do something in their honor. Gorham sets out several options for rituals that one can create to remember and memorialize a deceased loved one. In some humanist circles, “ritual” can be a bad word, but many people do feel a need to mark an important loss. As Gorham writes,

As nontheists, we might not like the word “ritual” because of its close ties with religion. However…synonyms include custom, fashion, habit, pattern, practice, and second nature. As you can see, a ritual is certainly more than just a religious activity. Rituals are extremely powerful tools that, when controlled and properly applied—as opposed to letting them control us—can provide the most healing of all of the activities, tips, actions, and recommendations I discuss in this book.

Her suggestions range from “Visit the Gravesite” to “Complete a Project.”

This is a compact book at just 152 pages, and its structure is perfectly suited to dipping in to find just the right tip for where you are in the process of grieving. With a final chapter devoted to advice for people who want to support those who are grieving, the book covers a lot of ground.

Everyone will find sections of the book useful to them. For instance, Gorham stresses the restorative power of nature, but not being an “outdoorsy” person, that advice doesn’t really speak to me. Instead, the sections that resonated most with me were Tip 8 (on ritual) and Tip 9 (on crying), described above. For others, it might be the opposite.

For me, the best passages are the ones that remind the reader that, though we must grieve, grief is not all there is:

You are alive and you must keep living. If you wake up crying, cry while you are getting dressed, cry while driving, cry when music is playing, cry anytime you are alone, cry in the shower, cry in bed, cry at meal time. If you cannot help yourself, then cry, cry, cry. However, it is also absolutely critical that you let yourself experience joy whenever possible….When you are able to break free from its hold and peek your head above water for even ten minutes to breathe the pure air of laughter and smiles, you must take it in as fully as you can.

Most importantly, Gorham stresses that each journey is unique and each person grieving is on a different timeline. The most repeated advice in the book is to be patient with one another—and yourself.

Complete Article HERE!

What “Shared Death Experiences” Are

& Why We Need To Discuss Them

By William Peters, MFT

As an end-of-life therapist and researcher, I have long known that American culture has an uneasy relationship with death. We have been taught to “fear” death and dying. Fitness regimens, diets, and cosmetic procedures tout themselves as being able to “turn back the clock.” Medicine is even more uncomfortable with life’s end: Beating death is often presented as the ultimate goal. Aggressive measures to prolong life are viewed as a testament to our love for another person.

This relentless effort to fend off death is confounding when one considers that opinion polls consistently find that the majority of Americans believe in a benevolent afterlife. It would appear that the public interest in the mysteries that surround life’s end is far more extensive than our institutions would suggest.

Why we don’t feel comfortable discussing shared death experiences.

Much of my work centers on the transition from life to death, specifically “shared death experiences” where the living report a connection with the deceased around the time of their death. I’ve overwhelmingly found that this connection involves a clear sense that their loved one has moved on to a better place. In more than 50% of the cases that I have studied, experiencers even report accompanying their friend or loved one part way on their journey out of earthly life.

Knowledge of this transition space is an open secret in palliative and hospice care. We know that many terminally ill patients also report being aware of or seeing deceased family members, friends, and even pets, in the room with them, coming to help usher them out of this world. Some shared death experiencers also see or sense these figures as well.

Yet, again and again, shared death experiencers tell me that they feel uneasy discussing this subject with their health care and spiritual care providers. Their concern is valid, as one study found that 80% of patients who had sensed the presence of a deceased and shared it with their therapist felt dissatisfied with their counselors’ responses. They either did not feel understood, or they felt dismissed.

It wasn’t always this way.

One of the earliest written works on end-of-life care is the medieval text Ars Moriendi or “Art of Dying,” which was utilized in Catholic monasteries in Europe. Not only does it contain information on prayers, music, and pain remedies, as well as guidance on managing mental and emotional distress among the dying, but it is surprisingly ecumenical, drawing guidance from Catholic, Celtic, Jewish, and even Islamic traditions. Its underlying message is that dying is a spiritual experience and that it is possible to die well and be comforted. However, in our own era, there has been a strong reluctance to discuss what makes a good death or to openly explore what happens to us when we die.

In our own era, there has been a strong reluctance to discuss what makes a good death.

Speaking of her own shared death experience, Stephanie, a woman in Washington, D.C., whose husband died of aggressive cancer, recalled traveling with him into an incredibly bright, white light. She said, “There was no pain, no hurt. It was peaceful,” adding, “It felt as if I were going back to something I already knew.” But her own clergy shut down any conversation, and “that deflated me terribly,” she said. Finally, an oncologist told her that he’d had a similar experience. He told her this, however, after closing the office door and stating he would never share his experience with anyone else.

I believe that these hushed discussions could be the very things we need to help both the dying and the bereaved. Listening to and examining stories of individuals who have had shared death experiences can offer us another framework in which to process and accept death.

Consider the story of Carl, a California man whose father died of heart failure in Massachusetts. He experienced an overpowering sensation of being next to his father, saying “I could feel it in my bones and my cells that my dad was there with me.” While the experience did not end his grief, it changed his perspective. “I miss my dad,” he told me, adding, “and I wish I could call him up and be with him and spend time with him. I grieved and was sad, but it doesn’t feel like a tragedy. It feels like he is in the place he needs to be.”

Indeed, of the nearly 1,000 cases I have studied, 87% of the people interviewed report that their experience has convinced them that there is a benevolent afterlife. Nearly 70% said their shared death experience has positively affected their grief, and more than 50% said that it has removed their own fears around death and dying.

The takeaway.

In the last two years, the pandemic has resulted in a wave of death among people we know and love. Perhaps now, together, we can start a new conversation—one that is willing to include the voices of shared death experiencers. With their heartwarming stories, we may be able to transform our relationship with death from one of resistance and fear to that of acceptance, ease, and wonder of this great mystery that we will all one day embark on.

Complete Article HERE!

With a Simple Funeral, South Africa Bids Farewell to Desmond Tutu

The archbishop and Nobel laureate left plans for an unostentatious ceremony, which were stripped back further under Covid restrictions.

By Lynsey Chutel

In an almost empty cathedral, with an unvarnished, rope-handled coffin placed before the altar, South Africa said farewell on Saturday to Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu with the simplicity that he had planned.

Archbishop Tutu’s death last Sunday at age 90 was followed by a week of mourning, as the world remembered his powerful role both in opposing apartheid and in promoting unity and reconciliation after its defeat.

But his funeral in a rain-soaked Cape Town, where pandemic regulations limited attendance to 100 and discouraged crowds outside, was far more subdued than the packed stadiums and parade of dignitaries that mourned South Africa’s other Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Nelson Mandela. It was exactly what the archbishop had wanted.

A hymn sung in his mother tongue, Setswana; Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum”; and a sermon delivered by an old friend were all part of what Archbishop Tutu designed for his requiem Mass, celebrated at St. George’s Cathedral. There would be no official speeches beyond the eulogy, and the only military presence allowed at the funeral of a man who once said, “I am a man of peace, but not a pacifist,” came when an officer brought South Africa’s national flag to be handed to his widow, Nomalizo Leah Tutu.

The coronavirus pandemic further scaled down proceedings. With a limited guest list, the only international heads of state in attendance had a close relationship with the archbishop, like King Letsie III of Lesotho, who spent time with the Tutu family as a child at a boarding school in England. A former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, read one of the prayers during the requiem Mass. With singing discouraged in closed spaces to reduce the spread of the virus, the choir performed in an adjacent hall.

“Desmond was not on some crusade of personal aggrandizement or egotism,” said the friend who delivered the sermon, Michael Nuttall, who as bishop of Natal in the 1980s and 1990s became known as “Tutu’s No. 2.” He described their relationship, as the first Black archbishop of Cape Town and his white deputy, as a precursor “of what could be in our wayward, divided nation.”

Archbishop Tutu “loved to be loved,” though, recalled Bishop Nuttall, and this was the enduring image of the diminutive man in flowing clerical robes: a dynamic leader who joked and scolded with equal gusto.

The activist archbishop was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid. Outside South Africa, he campaigned for international sanctions as he preached about the injustices that Black South Africans suffered under the segregationist regime. At home, he presided over dozens of funerals of young activists killed as the country’s townships resembled a war zone in the final years of apartheid.

After the country’s first democratic election in 1994, he led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and christened the “new” South Africa the “rainbow nation” as he tried to shepherd its citizens toward national healing. In the nearly three decades since the end of apartheid, he continued to speak out against the corruption and inequality that sullied that ideal.

“When he first spoke about us as a ‘rainbow nation,’ South Africa was a different place and were going through a very difficult time,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his eulogy. “He has left us at another difficult time in the life of our nation.”

In the week leading up to the funeral, those who were close with Archbishop Tutu said that as he became increasingly frail, they saw a man distressed by South Africa’s enduring social and economic inequality. In the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns have further exacerbated poverty, bringing unemployment to record levels.

Under Covid-19 restrictions, at a public viewing site erected in the Grand Parade, Cape Town’s main public square, barely 100 people gathered to watch the service on a big screen. Those who braved the rain said they wanted to say goodbye to a “great man,” like Laurence and Joslyn Vlotman, who brought an umbrella and small camp stool. But many, like Meg Jordi, sat on the ground.

Michael Jatto, a British national on vacation in South Africa from England, took his two daughters to the square to learn about the archbishop — “for us as Africans, for our children to see a great man being shown in a positive light.”

For many South Africans who attended Christian and interfaith services in the days leading up to the funeral, there was a collective sense that South Africa had lost its moral compass. Some, though, found hope in the renewed focus on Archbishop Tutu’s life and legacy.

“I feel we’ve gained in the way that the country, the government, the church has magnified him and held him up,” said Nikki Lomba, who watched from behind a barrier with her mother, Brita Lomba, as the archbishop’s coffin was driven away in a hearse. “I feel we’ve gained more hope, and at a very pivotal moment learned a lot in his passing.”

Complete Article HERE!

Grieving For Papa, Grieving With Others: My Día De Muertos Diary

When the author’s father died suddenly two years ago in Colombia, the Catholic Church mourning rituals offered little comfort. Two weeks ago, by chance in Mexico City for the annual Día De Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, she finally discovered how these ancient celebratory rituals for the departed can help face the pain, and find true peace.

Mexico’s Día de Muertos, a “magical celebration of death”

By Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

In my native country of Colombia, when someone dies, the process of mourning is almost always turned over to the Catholic Church. It starts with the wake, set in aseptic shiny salons, surrounded by dozens of other identical rooms, each family has to welcome people who come to give their respects for days, amid religious symbols and white flower crowns. The lonely rituals are interrupted only by the occasional unrequested words of advice from friends or clergy about the right way to mourn.

For my first 22 years, I’d observed all of this with mild irritation from a distance at the few wakes and funerals I’d attended. Then, one Easter week, the family crying desperately in the center of the cold room was my own.

I lost my dad, who was a perfectly healthy recently retired physical education teacher, to a cardiorespiratory stroke while he was sleeping. He was just 65.

Overshadowed by religious rituals

My foggy memory from those horrid days included comments from supposed well-wishers like “Stop crying, God knows what he’s doing,” “It was God’s will” or “maybe God is trying to teach you something.” The misplaced advice made me feel isolated and lost. Since I was young, I had no longer considered myself a Catholic; but even more so I wanted desperately for my dad to be the center of his own funeral, and did what I could by placing photos over the cold brown coffin, playing his favorite songs while he was lowered in his grave, and sharing a song my brother and I wrote on his online memorial.

I never imagined grief could feel so lonely when you are a non-religious person in a Catholic country like Colombia. Even the flower crowns and visits from friends were overshadowed by the religious emphasis and obligations, such as praying nine nights in a row and repeatedly being encouraged to cross myself. They were demands of a religion I didn’t want to be part of, with the unspoken message that this was the only possible guidance on how to grieve for my dad.

Altars in Mexico City on Día de Muertos

A shot of memory, breaking grief taboo

Fast forward two and a half years to the final week of October 2021. I’d arrived in Mexico City for a Latin American journalism conference, and after landing realized my visit happened to coincide with Día de Muertos. These “Day of the Dead” festivities are celebrated between October 30 and November 2, in which Mexicans welcome with an altar their deceased loved ones whom they believe come to visit the living on these dates each year. In this festivity of Aztec origins, Catholic rituals of popular tradition intertwine, a smooth syncretizing of cultures and faiths.

Candles smoothly twinkled over a small table while yellow petals framed the photographs of loved ones.

I’d heard of Día de Muertos, and from a distance, it had seemed colorful and attractive, and the movie Coco had given a fascinating glimpse of how its fantastic visuals and music could create a magical celebration of death. Still, this was the first time I’d experienced it myself, and still facing the unresolved grieving for my father.

I arrived for the first Halloween parties, just a few days before Día de Muertos. Between Tamarindo Smirnoff’s sweetly-spicy burning flavor, young Mexicans started telling the stories of their deceased in front of the host’s altar. Candles smoothly twinkled over a small table while yellow petals framed the photographs of loved ones. A small cross above and a tequila bottle, of the favorite brand of the deceased, lay on the table. One by one, the friends each shared memories of a relative they’d lost including a high school friend that had died in a car accident.

The combination of joy and death had always seemed so alien to me, yet at that party I felt it for the very first time. Mexican journalist and friend Paul Antoine Matos gave me his first book, Embellecedores de Huesos (“Beautifiers of Bones”) in which he narrates the unique custom of Pomuch town citizens of cleaning their deceased bones year by year to somehow bring them back. One of the locals of Pomuch said to him “The environment during these days is festive and joyful, because you feel that your family is by your side.” I felt the warm and slightly overwhelming reality of being part of a huge group of people all grieving someone at the same time. It is an intense throat-tightening cocktail of emotions that I can only describe as a national hug.

It was so far from the awkward silences I knew back at home when someone asked about my parents, and I had to answer that my papa passed away. Far from the heavy religious judgment when people assumed I was angry at God because my dad had died. Here I was listening to people my age remembering and honoring the memory of those they lost while having some shots to definitively break the taboos I’d been surrounded by since losing my father.

A city of grief, joy, memory and resistance

The tall buildings and old houses of the busy metropolis of Mexico City during this time of the year are colored yellow and lilac. The orange-toned flower represents life and the sun, and the purple refers to loss and mourning. Both are Cempasúchil, the flower of the dead according to the Aztecs, as it’s thought that its petals are able to keep the heat of the sun and shelter the dead while their aroma guides their soul’s return.

The altars are everywhere, from museums to bars. One of the first ones I saw was in The Museum of Memory and Tolerance, where the message “phobias that kill, the colors of grief” was displayed by the Pride flag. Then I visited the massive altar in the center of Coyoacán in which, under the big bell of the central plaza, candles, skulls, flowers and photographs shared the space with messages for femicide victims “not even one more killed,” for migrants “for all those that died trying to cross our borders” and for journalists “for the journalists that have died reporting.”

My mind was transported to my homeland, 1,900 miles to the south. I cried, sheltered by the loud masses and the dim lights of the altar. Colombia, a country where defending human rights represents a mortal danger and more than 1,200 social activists have been killed after believing in a badly implemented peace treaty in 2016. Mexico has its own plagues, like currently being the country where more journalists are killed in the world. Though not for a direct loved one, my grief was irrepressible.

Catrinas” participate in a silent procession in memory of the victims of femicide, on the Día de Muertos in Saltillo, Mexico. 02 November 2021.

Mexico and Colombia, a shared history

Mexico and Colombia share a history of colonization, massacres and social mobilization. Two countries that lead the rates of environmental and human rights defenders killings. Two countries where gender-based violence is a pandemic. In Colombia, in 2019, every day 95 girls denounced sexual violence. In Mexico from January to May 2021, there have been 423 femicides. I cried for them, I cried from a deeply engrained grief I knew I had but never before came pouring out. A peacefulness and solemnity I didn’t know could come with grief.

I was transported to 2016 when I marched for peace in Colombia with my dad. We all had so much hope in the treaties that were being negotiated. We all deserved a different country. My dad taught me to doubt politicians, to truly care about the well-being of others, to give generously, and listen patiently, even if the world is not always kind in return. I remember the Club Colombia beer he drink with lunch and the way he silently cried sometimes when music invaded him, regardless of the genre. He was a sensitive and curious soul. In love with this world and always teaching me about it. I wish we had walked between the trees of Mexico City together. I wish I didn’t have to write this piece.

I dried my tears and kept exploring the packed streets of Frida Kahlo’s neighborhood, slightly terrified by the people with Pennywise and Chucky costumes. It was fascinating to see Mexicans and tourists of all ages impersonating superheroes, witches and catrinas. The omnipresent skeleton representation of a woman is the death that comes to visit. It is a symbol with origins in a reinterpretation of the Aztecs Goddess of death by José Guadalupe Posada, who wanted to communicate with the satirical attire that no matter how rich or poor you are, we will all end up as skeletons.

Gratitude and sharing

Ecuadorian, Guatemalan and Colombian journalists, as well as other Latinxs, we all felt so lucky to have experienced a conference in Mexico city on these particular dates. We even participated in the rituals that showcased the exceptional relationship that Mexicans have with death. On our last day together, one of the Mexican delegates at the conference offered to share his altar with those of us who had lost someone.

During the conference, we got the news a dear journalist for all of us had suddenly lost her boyfriend. She was not able to travel to Mexico, but we all felt her close to our hearts. Even if she was back in Venezuela, we put her boyfriend’s photo on the altar. It shared the place of honor with a picture of my dad, who died two-and-a-half years ago; with the photo of my Ecuadorian friend’s mama, who left nine years ago, with the drawings of my Colombian friend’s papa and best friend, each departed just a few months ago.

In the land of death and the Día de Muertos celebration, there is no place for hierarchies or differences in the right to grieve depending on how old or recent your loss is. In Colombia, the masses to commemorate my papa’s death become less frequent with time, and the only thing mentioned now is his name.

The possibility to return to the world of the living, to reunite with our people, to resurrect…

That 30th of October on a white Altar with a few candles, our missed ones shared a mezcal bottle and the Yucatan region Pibipollo, tamale-like chicken pastry, cooked in a hole under the earth, “a metaphor of burial” as my friend Matos described it. Mexico was hosting our Latin American ancestors for a feast on a celebration where the bridge stands between life and death, a bridge called remembrance, as the song in Coco successfully imprinted on us.

Hugging, and letting out tears of happy nostalgia, we remembered their favorite songs, their happiest moments, their favorite outfits and even their very human defects. We felt embraced both by them and by each other. Mexico was giving me a sense of collective grief and accompaniment I never imagined possible. Mexico was healing a part of my heart that was angry at the world for not listening to my desperate scream for community and empathy. Grief acquired a surprising new taste of gratitude.

“It is a beautiful gesture of gratitude that the Mexicans have towards those who have gone before us. From them, we inherit the land, culture, education and life” fellow Colombian Julián de Zubiría Samper wrote in a recent article in El Espectador about Día de Muertos. “What this millenary custom shows us is that we have to thank those who gave us life and speak again with those who left sooner than expected.”

Connection beyond religion

I remember one of my worst memories of grieving back at home when a priest gave a eulogy centered on my father’s duty to repent and accompany a God he didn’t really adore. Now, instead, this ancient Mexican rite was giving my dad a singular place of importance, not that of a priest’s pawn or a subject of God.

“The Day of the Dead is the possibility that we all have to return to the world of the living, to reunite with our people, to resurrect,” Matos wrote in his recent book. Despite being a Catholic country as well, the eclecticism of its beautiful syncretic traditions rooted in precolonial cosmovisions was allowing my dad to come back for something like a real-life chat with me as we shared a few Mezcales and a shot of tequila (though I know he’d prefer a beer!).

I don’t know if something inside has healed permanently or if it was more like a breath of fresh air before going back to feeling the same isolation when I return to Bogotà. What I do have now is a place where I can sit once a year and feel closer to the signs Papa keeps sending me. I’m not sure in which city, but from now on my dad will always have an altar he can come to visit. Who knows, we might get to share his favorite Colombian beer next time.

Complete Article HERE!

Book Excerpt: On Death, Dying, and Disbelief

by Candace R. M. Gorham, LCHMCS

Attending the Women of Color Beyond Belief conference for the first time, I did not know what to expect. New to the secular community, I appreciated having a space to draw on my experiences as a secular woman of color. By far the most meaningful event I attended was Candace Gorham’s event, “On Death, Dying, and Disbelief,” based on her new novel. I had never considered how as a secular person, my grief process might be different than what is conventionally taught within our society. Like many things in the United States, the grief process is extremely enmeshed with Christian beliefs of heaven and god. I had often neglected my own grief processes, unable to understand how our belief or non-belief had a direct influence on it.

Coming from an extremely Catholic background, things like “they may have passed, but take solace that they are in heaven” or “they are in a better place” were commonly interlaced in my family conversations about grief. Through this conference event, I learned the importance of learning and practicing secular grief and coping skills as they aligned with my everyday beliefs. This book, written by mental health counselor Candace Gorham draws on her expertise as well as her secular beliefs on how to cope with grief. This is a must-read for any atheist processing grief in a religious world.

—Margie Delao, AHA Policy and Social Justice Coordinator

This excerpt comes from “Tip 1” of On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, available for purchase now:

At times I’ve heard a grieving nontheist say, “I still hear their voice” or “I see them,” and they wonder if they are having a spiritual experience. I think it is a sign that the person is in unimaginable pain. Even those who grew up without religion have been exposed to ideas about an afterlife and other spiritual concepts such as demons, angels, apparitions, and more. It is not uncommon for people who believe in an afterlife to also believe that their loved ones can come back and communicate with them. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that you, having encountered that way of thinking much of your life, might manifest those same internalized concepts during your time of extreme vulnerability.

It is okay that you might wish there is an afterlife when you are grieving. You do not need to feel ashamed or silly about having such thoughts either. During this time, you are desperate for any connection to your loved one, and, unfortunately for those nontheists who generally want nothing to do with spirituality, those spiritual concepts seem to be our only possible way to connect with our loved one. Therefore, it makes sense that you wish they were still living somewhere in an afterlife, watching over or even visiting you.

I have a friend who is currently grieving the death of a lover and she and I talk regularly due to our shared understanding of this unique pain. She asked me about my thoughts on the afterlife and whether I wished Tim was in one. I explained that, yes, there had been times I wished he were in a heaven, but I do not dwell on those thoughts because I do not believe in heaven. For me, the thought of an afterlife does not serve a purpose or bring me comfort. It does not make me uncomfortable either. However, for her, it brought her moments of comfort. So, I supported her in her ability and need to simultaneously carry those contradictory beliefs so that she could experience occasional relief, even though she articulated her full belief that there is no heaven. I think she found comfort in knowing that I had had the same experience, which helped normalize her own thoughts, and that I was proof that such a feeling was temporary.

It is also okay for you to “talk to” your loved one, knowing full well that they are not there. If it will make you feel better, tell yourself that doing so is no different than journaling, except you are saying the words out loud. As with journaling, “talking” to a person who is not really there can be a very cleansing experience….

It can also be helpful to verbalize all of the things you wish you had said or could say to your loved one. You most likely carry a ton of regrets, and there are probably a million things you wish you had or had not said. Although your loved one is gone, there is something healing about getting those words out of your brain and out of your heart….

Have you ever had an argument with someone, then later thought of all kinds of comebacks, points, and counterpoints you wish you had unleashed? How did you handle that? Most likely you replayed an alternate version of the conversation over and over in your head a hundred times or called a friend and told them all the things you wish you had said. Then what did you probably say after you vented like that? Whew! I feel better now. That’s because saying things out loud, even when we cannot say them directly to the target, feels good….

You will experience every emotion on the spectrum. You will go through all the stages. You will contemplate and ruminate. You will fantasize and romanticize. And having grown up in a society that places high value on supernatural experiences and entities, the afterlife, and spiritual exploration, it is reasonable that you will find yourself thinking about these things as well. Your friends and family may try to convince you that such thoughts are proof that god is trying to reveal himself to you and you may even wonder about this yourself from time to time. However, whether you are a lifelong nontheist or came to your nontheism after years of study and struggle, you may be uncomfortable with having supernatural thoughts or “experiences” during the grieving process. In those moments, it’s important to recognize that such unwanted thoughts are often simply an expression of the grieving process.

Complete Article HERE!

She’s 51, a mother and a devout Catholic. She plans to die by euthanasia on Sunday.

Martha Sepúlveda is pictured with her son, Federico Redondo Sepúlveda. The mother, now 51, plans to end her life by euthanasia on Sunday.

By Samantha Schmidt and Diana Durán

It began with a strange feeling in her hand, a weakness in the thumb that made it difficult to hold a pen or grip a computer mouse.

In November 2018, a doctor gave Martha Sepúlveda her diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the progressive neurological disease known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the months that followed, the Colombian woman lost control of the muscles in her legs — and she knew it would only get worse.

She would cry at night, overwhelmed by the thought. “What happens once I can no longer get into bed or use the bathroom without help?” she would ask her son. “How far am I going to go?”

Sepúlveda started reading about an option that could relieve her fear of what was to come: Euthanasia. Colombia, she learned, is the only country in Latin America — and one of only a few worldwide — that permits patients to end their lives.

Until this year, the option has been available legally only to those who are expected to live for six months or less. On Sunday, Sepúlveda, who considers herself a devout Catholic, plans to become the first person in Colombia without a terminal prognosis to die by legally authorized euthanasia.

Colombia’s constitutional court ruled in July that the right to euthanasia — recognized here in 1997 — applies not only to terminal patients, but also to those with “intense physical or mental suffering from bodily injury or serious and incurable disease.”

The ruling has divided the faithful in this majority-Catholic country. Church officials have described euthanasia as a “serious offense” to the dignity of human life; a member of the national bishops’ conference urged Sepúlveda to “calmly reflect” on her decision and invited all Catholics to pray that God will grant her mercy.

But Sepúlveda, 51, has been resolute in her response to those who question her plan — or her faith.

“I know that God is the owner of life,” she told Colombia’s Caracol News. “But God doesn’t want to see me suffer.”

This South American nation is an unlikely pioneer in euthanasia. An estimated 73 percent of the population is Catholic. Eleven Catholic feast days are national holidays. Access to abortion is sharply limited.

And yet Colombia was one of the first countries in the world to decriminalize euthanasia, and one of only a small number — alongside Belgium and the Netherlands — to extend the right to non-terminal patients. No U.S. state permits euthanasia; 10 states and the District of Columbia allow medically assisted suicide for terminally ill, mentally capable adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live.

Now, advocates here are hoping their movement will spread across Latin America, according to Camila Jaramillo, a lawyer representing Sepúlveda with the Laboratory of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (DescLAB). Campaigns are underway in Uruguay and Chile. In Peru this year, Lima’s superior court ruled that a woman with polymyositis should be permitted to die by euthanasia when she decides she is ready.

How did a country of Catholics, often led by center-right politicians, become a leader in euthanasia rights?

Eduardo Díaz Amado, director of the Bioethics Institute at Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá, traces the development to the country’s long civil war and the violence wrought by drug lord Pablo Escobar. In 1991, in response to the country’s instability, Colombia rewrote its constitution. Unlike its “paternalistic” predecessor, Díaz said, the new constitution expanded individual rights, emphasized “the respect of human dignity” and underscored the separation of church and state.

The document also established a constitutional court to help define these newly recognized rights. Within six years, the new court, now with several progressive judges, took up a case from a plaintiff who argued that “mercy killings” should carry the same penalty as any other homicide.

The court disagreed. Instead of increasing the penalty, it moved to decriminalize euthanasia — becoming the only country to do so on the basis of constitutional arguments, Díaz said.

But it took more than 15 years for authorities to apply the ruling. As political leaders sought to avoid the subject, doctors such as Gustavo Quintana met growing demand for the practice. Known as the “doctor of death,” Quintana is said to have provided euthanasia to close to 400 patients before his recent death.

In 2014, the court ordered the government to issue guidelines so that hospitals, insurers and health professionals would know how to proceed with euthanasia requests.

The movement for euthanasia rights has drawn unexpected allies: Catholic priests. Alberto Múnera, a theology professor and Jesuit priest at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá, lectures his students on the “exceptions” to the “absolute value of human life” in church teaching. When Catholics follow their own consciences, even when that means choosing to end their own lives, he argues, they will “behave well” in the eyes of God.

Since the government began regulating the practice in 2015, 157 people have died by euthanasia in Colombia, according to official data. One hundred and forty-one had some type of cancer. But many others, including Sepúlveda initially, were denied requests because their illnesses were not deemed terminal in the short term. Last year, a team of lawyers filed a lawsuit asking the constitutional court to extend the right to patients with non-terminal diagnoses.

The court went further, recognizing a right to euthanasia for those with “intense physical and mental suffering.” That was a surprise even for the lawyers, who did not mention mental illness in their complaint. And it drew immediate rebuke from church leaders and conservative politicians.

“It opens up the possibility for people who are depressed or simply don’t want to live anymore,” said Sen. María del Rosario Guerra, a member of the Democratic Center party of President Iván Duque. “We are promoting a culture of death

Bishop Francisco Ceballos, a leader within the national bishops’ conference, has criticized news outlets here for depicting Sepúlveda “heading toward death with so much joy.” He has emphasized the church’s support for palliative care as an alternative to euthanasia. “We believe that death cannot be the solution to suffering and pain,” he said.

The court’s ruling in July came less than a month after the death of Yolanda Chaparro, a 71-year-old Colombian woman with ALS who had requested euthanasia a year earlier but was rejected because her prognosis was not deemed terminal. She continued to deteriorate until she could no longer breathe without oxygen, struggled to move on her own, and lived with a fear that she could drown in her own saliva, according to her daughter. She was granted her wish to end her life in June.

Shortly before her death, Chaparro sat down with her relatives to explain her decision. “For me, to live is to fly,” she said, in an interview recorded by relatives. “To live is to walk, to create. To live is to commit to dreams you’ve formed your whole life. So seeing that each day everything is more difficult … all of that is over.”

When Federico Redondo Sepúlveda learned of the court ruling, he broke down in tears. The 22-year-old law student, Martha’s only child, had spent months helping his mother file a request for euthanasia.

“I didn’t think it would happen so soon,” he said. He had tried to find the strength to support his mother in what for him has been an excruciating choice.

“She kept saying the same thing, that if I loved her then I would support her,” he said.

They have spent his mother’s final days mostly watching Netflix — a joy she discovered during the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve watched and re-watched “The Pianist,” “Forrest Gump,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” movies that remind them of years past.

The family doesn’t have special plans for his mother’s final night Saturday. She hopes to spend it as she always does, by going to bed early. She plans to end her life at 7 a.m. on Sunday, when she would normally be heading to church. Her son will be the only person in the room with her, he said.

Her body is to be cremated immediately. Federico plans to spread her ashes in the Caribbean Sea, off Colombia’s northern coast. But first, he will join with their family, her remains beside him, and take the Eucharist

Complete Article HERE!