Sunday, October 18, 2015

Talking about Death

We live in a culture where the mere mention of death is taboo. Unless it's in a movie. Or The Walking Dead. Or the Grateful Dead.

Full-blown discussions are totally out of the question. Spending my entire day yesterday with 500 other people immersed in activities, discussions and presentations focused on every aspect of death was awesome.

It began with two keynote speakers. The first was Barbara Roberts, the former Governor of Oregon and advocate of Death with Dignity. She spoke briefly and passionately about her experiences as her husband Frank was dying of lung cancer. Her book Death without Denial, Grief without Apology: a Guide for Facing Death and Loss chronicles her experiences of grieving.

The second keynote was longer, given by Stephen Jenkinson, founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching and learning house in eastern Canada. As a storyteller, he related stories from his two decades of work with people dying and grieving that were chronicled in his recently published book, Die Wise: a Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. His presentation overflowed with his compassion, dedication, humor and hard truth. He expressed his views and experiences reverently and irreverently and all who listened, all 500 of us, hung on his every word.

I attended sessions for three of the four breakout times:

  • the shamanic practice of meeting the soul friend who will accompany me through my death passage; 
  • writing my own obituary;
  • practicing mindful photography for intimate care-providers as a loved one is dying.

Friends who were there attended other breakout sessions. I didn't see any of them in mine. We met up at lunch and shared our feelings and our session titles. Everything else was too new or too tender or too long a tale.

What I recognize within my own heart and soul is that I struggle with reclaiming the D words: Death, Dying, Dead. I've spent years giving them up for the more politically correct passed over, departed this reality, is no longer with us. All of these terms prevent me from facing that the person who has died will not be returning. I will no longer see her face, hear his voice, feel her hand in mine. If I continue to think in terms that are less than final, do I allow myself to fully grieve? to embrace the memories? What also came to me through every session and encounter during the day was the tip of another iceberg: If I deny the word and the depth of its meaning, will I miss the fullness of life? Will I put off embraces, passions, experiences thinking that not only they but also those who might share them with me will always be around? How do I balance the sense of finality with the expression of joy? So much to ponder!

How do you talk about death? What's been your most recent experience? Is it different now than when you were younger? How do you feel when you hear the D words? Why? How do you respond?

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