Let’s Talk about Death

~Maya Angelou
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” 

In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.

 I was at the bank earlier this week and while waiting in line for a teller I noticed there was a picture frame standing on the counter by the first teller. I thought that a little odd. It appeared to be an old fashioned frame and there was a black and white posed photo of a young girl around 10 and it looked to be from the late 19th century.
I thought that maybe it had something to do with the Founders day weekend that had just passed. But as I approached the teller I saw that the picture was a trick one-the kind that changes when you move one way or the other. The picture of the innocent looking young girl morphed into this ghoulish, zombie-esque little girl with a very sinister grin. Obviously now dead she had become a “creature” –evil and sinister. Then I remembered Halloween was just weeks away. And this got me thinking about death(never too far from my thoughts considering the work I do as I try to help people let go of fear).

I was struck with the things we begin to learn at very young ages about dying and what this has done to us as a culture.

Our entertainment is strewn with all sorts of death-murders and mayhem. According to the University of Michigan Health System
An average American child will see 
200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18 

Yet when it comes to really talking about death and dying in relation to ones own self or a loved one most people would rather do practically anything else! People don’t even use the word when someone dies!

We say things like, “they’ve passed away”(or simply “they passed” as if finishing their final exam) or they’re no longer with us-made their transition- anything but the “D” word.
So this morning I wanted to bring it out of the closet. Lets talk about Death.

And I will be inviting questions.

Jon Underwood, a British Web designer launched “Death Café” based in the European tradition of people gathering over tea and cakes to discuss things.

The objective is 'to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives'
At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. There is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session.  Our Death Cafes are always offered:  - On a not for profit basis  - In an accessible, respectful and confidential space  - With no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action.

Here are some of the questions suggested to help begin the conversation:
Where would you like to be when you die?
What things make for a good death?
How would you like to be remembered?
What song would you like at your funeral?
Describe what a “peaceful” death would be for you.
Do you plan cremation or burial or donation or some other option?
If cremation, what are your plans for the ashes?

Do you believe in something after death?

Recognizing dying and death will happen to you, what does it mean to live your life every day?
If you had a choice, how would you choose to die?

What would be a perfect phrase on your tombstone?
What do you want to be remembered for?

What will you be remembered for?
How do you prepare for death and dying?
How would you be of support to a dying friend?
What rites, ceremonies, music, food, or program do you want at your memorial service?

What do you say to a friend who is facing death? What do you do?
What is a “dignified” death? What is an “undignified” death?
What would be your final request(s)? Of whom?
Have you ever seen a person take their last breath? How did that impact you?
What is “dying”? What is death?
What is the number one item on your bucket list?
What do we learn from death?
What will you miss most in dying?

After 10 years working in Hospice Chaplaincy I feel comforted by what I have seen and what people have shared with me. Death is not this dreaded failure by medical science as it attempts to keep us all alive. And it is not – or rather, does not have to be, a fearful and awful experience.

But it must be brought “out of the closet”-when we are able to speak of it, think about it, ask about it, we begin a process of “de-mystifying” it.

Most people will admit that they usually would learn about a career before selecting it, or find out what they could about a city or country before planning a visit. It is considered common sense to learn as much as you can beforehand when facing any decision or something that will inevitably happen to you, don’t you think?
Yet when it comes to death…?

So here are some of the things I’ve noticed as well as what patients and families have shared in the journey towards death.

Months before: A person may have a sense that something is different or changing (may be within them or just a general sense of something different “out there”, changes in sleep patterns, dreams, emotional swings-anger, sadness, urge to connect with old friends, finish up projects, tie up loose ends.

Weeks before: Loss of interest in things that used to engage them-may include favorite foods, or places, TV shows, current affairs etc., this is an “Un-plugging” from the things of the world and normal life…..emotional surges-anger/sadness/joy/gratitude/acceptance, dreams that are vivid/strange, old memories bubble up of things people have not thought of or had forgotten, return; changes in perception( seeing light/colors/waves of energy), seeing deceased loved ones/pets

Days/hours before: A surge in energy-it may appear as if the person is actually getting better, A sense within the person that they need to be somewhere or go somewhere-sometimes seen as “terminal restlessness”-people trying to get out of bed, etc.(generally does not last too long), People may say things like “I need to get home(even though they may be in their home), or “I’ll miss the train(flight, bus)”, They may have conversation with unseen others, They may report seeing people/friends/family who are deceased, Very vivid dreams, easing of anxiousness and often a profound peace

In conclusion let me suggest this to you. Each of us has had to experience change all through our life. When you were ten in order to become 11 you had to let go of the ten year old you, yet that 10 year old was still a part of you. The same is true as you became a teenager and then an adult. As a matter of fact there is not a single cell that was in your body back when you were a kid-every single one has died and then been replaced. And this has been happening constantly - and in fact, in the course of a seven year period every single cell in your body is replaced-nothing remains of the "you" that was here in this world a mere 7 years ago. Yet if I asked you whether you were still you, what would you answer?

As Maya Angelou reminds us: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” 

Let's remember that when the caterpillar is hanging there in the cocoon it does't just "poof" become a butterfly. That caterpillar body starts to literally dissolve into a jelly like, goopy mess. And then at just the right time, the cells begin to reassemble one by one, and from this emerges the butterfly. No longer bound to the earth as it was when a caterpillar.

It would seem we humans have something very similar happen to us. What has been - our physical self -is transformed into what "is"-our eternal self.

Let me end with a quote from Richard Rohr. Here is what he wrote in "
Dying -The Supreme Sunday School"

“We must learn how to walk through the stages of dying. We have to grieve over lost friends, relatives, and loves. Death cannot be dealt with through quick answers, religious platitudes, or a stiff upper lip. Dying must be allowed to happen over time, in predictable and necessary stages, both in those who die graciously and in those who love them.”
(Adapted from Near Occasions of Grace)

Let the conversations begin!

Here is a link to a TED talk
about NDE and the dying experience