Dying well… one of the most important things you can do

This is a general summary of a talk I did at First Congregational Church in Oshkosh, WI on November 27th, 2016. It is part of a three part series on End of Life, Dying, and living into the seasons of Life.

We are going to be talking about dying and end of life. Please sit with that for a moment. What does it do to you? What feelings rise up in you as you consider the end of your life or the idea and reality of death?

There are a few things I do not know, a few things I do know, and a few things I have seen enough that I am very convinced of. What I do not know is what will happen after I die. I mean, really, how can I know this for certain?!? Yes, I guess there are stories of those who have died and come back. You can believe what you want to about them, but I’m not certain. What I do know is that death happens only once and it is as much a part of life as being born. It is literally woven into the fabric of the Earth. I also know that life itself is dependent on death. The very soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals and so on is made up of dead material. This gives me, as a Nature guy, significant meaning. My body is going to become compost one day and is going to give life to other living beings! This may not work for you. That’s ok. We each have our ways of making meaning of this experience, and that is what we are talking about.

The thing I am thoroughly convinced of is this: Over the course of our lives, we are putting together a story of what it is going to be like when it is our time. Both positive AND negative. Every experience we have affects how we will feel about our own death. So if we have loved ones who have died with pain and suffering or afraid and resentful, this is going into our consideration that this is what death will be like. If we have people we know who have died with grace, peace, and surrounded by those who they love, this will be added to our story. THIS is why how we go about our dying is perhaps THE most important thing in our entire lifespan that we can offer to those who come after us. This affects our community, our family, generations to come. Stories (the stories that future dying ones tell themselves) are told about us!

Stephen Jenkinson says that dying is never an individual event. Every death is a community event and it has ripples that extend farther than we can fathom. For generations to come and, depending on what you believe, from ancestors before. We get one chance to do it right… or I would say, well enough.

If you could put your experience into five words, how would you do that?

You’ll have to bear with me as I try to put these things in linear form. I am used to talking about these things with one person or a family and they come in response to their own story. Each idea comes with 45 minutes of dialog and our time is so limited here. So I am offering a few ideas and hoping some of them are helpful.

It used to be that people would die in the upstairs bedroom with family all around. It was more of a natural thing. But now it happens behind closed doors and the doctor comes out and tells the family that grandma has passed. So a lot of people don’t know what to expect and what might happen. The perspective you’ll get from a chaplain is much different perhaps than one you’d get from a doctor. I think we have to remember, and I tell patients this all the time, doctors are trained to heal. It is their mission to fix. I have seen there really is as much variety of feelings about end of life, and levels of comfortability, in doctors as there are in patients and families. You’d think that if a doctor is around death so often, they’d be more comfortable with it but this is not always true. But dying is not something to be fixed. I hear from medical staff, “So and so is depressed. She wants to die. Call the chaplain and get her some antidepressants.” But so often this is someone who is 95 years old and is all alone! I tell her she has every good reason to want to die. This is ok. Sometimes our spirits and our minds are ready to go but the body is hanging on.

Some people say we should live until we are dead. They don’t want to know about their dying. So they want to go out in their sleep or end their life prematurely. Stephen Jenkinson says it’s not the being dead they are afraid of but the dying. “How connected is someone to their life when they have to be told they are dying,” he says. I have said it before and will say it many times, dying happens to all health, mature, and connected to the Earth beings. It is a physical AND a spiritual experience and the more connected we are to the NATURAL way of things, the more we will be prepared for our own death. But that is the topic for the next talk.

When things seem to unravel

The feeling I get when I listen to the news, talk to the person on the street, sit with the patient in the hospital, or scan my Facebook feed is that the world (and especially) our country is unraveling. Things seem to be falling apart. The innocent are being abused or killed, the rich are gaining power, politicians are lying, bullying, and acting like adolescents. I hear people angry, afraid, confused as to what can even be done, and lines being drawn that divide and finger-point. Injustice! Outrage! How dare they! Look at what they’ve done now! Unbelievable! Give them a voice! Don’t stand for this! Encapsulated in a meme, an Instagram photo, or a short (or long…) Facebook post people express their immediate emotions and offer seeming solutions to the “twitter-sphere.”

But what good does it do? What last difference will be made? How does this make us better people or better communities or a more conscious humanity?

51rxdhdejtlSomewhat sychronistically, I started a book by Michael Meade this weekend, The World Behind the World: Living at the Ends of Time, in which he writes of a more soulful and lasting vision for change and becoming in the midst of what seems like the ends of time. The book feels almost like scripture for our current time of turmoil, perhaps even more relevant now than when he wrote it in 2008.

Meade notes that when things get crazy and it seems the world is coming down around us, rather than getting linear, logical, uproarious, and panicked, we ought to slow down. It does us well to connect to the Old Soul and the Eternal Child within ourselves, finding groundedness, connecting to the vision and creativity that is as ancient as the world upon which we live. In the truthfulness of the old stories, we develop a character that is “mythological, psychological, and ultimately cosmological.” (Meade, 12)

I believe wholeheartedly that this is the way forward. The earth has always been ending… and beginning… and ending and beginning.“Create, maintain, and destroy goes the song of life as it takes three to do the tango of existence. Nature and culture both dance to those steps and share in those eternal motions.” (Meade, 22) For me, it is not all the internal emotional and psychological energy devoted to reading, posting, reposting, and rebuking each other in the news or on Facebook all day that is going to make a difference in the world. The things that are lasting are the ancient ways of the earth: connecting to the life around us (both human and more-than-human), mentoring and eldering the younger generations, living our purpose and calling fully, and re-imagining the present and empathic art of face-to-face conversation. All of Life is spirituality. We exist in the present within the arc of the past and the future, and it is only as we see our work and our connections in the midst of this “great cloud” that is generations before and generations afterwards, that we will live into and create a more conscious and evolved society.

So get to work, people. Find younger generations beyond your own children and join with their parents to teach them about the earth and about value, about life and death, about intention and purpose. Show them lives lived fulfilling calling. Enough wasting time griping, blaming, and fearing. These things are not new. Nothing is new and neither will be the solution.

How we are meant to see

My eyes need softening, my gaze the balm of what they were made to behold. We were not made to stare into that blue light of our screens. The computer, the television, the phone. None of these are part of our natural way of being. It is truest for us to see in the light of the sun and the moon, fire maybe too. It is good for us to take in the hues, the full spectrum of the natural world, the constant movement, rustling, shifting, drifting, and setting of nature around us.

I know this is true because I feel part of my consciousness cloud over after long periods of time in front of a screen. I wonder how many feel this and ignore it or consider it normal. I feel my eyes burning. I feel the longing to gaze upon the natural-scape. It is there that I learn to soften my gaze. It is there that I learn how to see another human being with compassion, empathy, and love on my face. If not for a softer gaze grown and birthed from time spent seeing what my body was meant to see, I would stare at others as simply sources of information, getting only a part of my attentions, easily losing interest, there to either satisfy my personal needs or nothing at all.

Give me trees, give me grass, give me a blue sky or rain drops, let the wind bring tears to my eyes. Let me find the bird in the branches, the deer among the trunks, the fish raising the surface of the water slightly as it swims by, the snaking of the centipede under the rotten log. These will train me to see as I was meant to see. These will unify my soul with windows to it and connect my body to how it was meant to be.

You don’t “deserve” anything

Writing about what we do or don’t deserve is a tough one as there is this pretty intense paradox around this concept. What we deserve, though, makes sense within the context of spiritual growth and maturity.

On one hand, in the world of self help, self care, and self honoring, I hear often, “Do this for yourself. You deserve it!” From taking a hot bath, to getting desert, to getting a pedicure, to taking a nap… there is an underlying sense that treating myself to something nurturing is good in a life where I may not do enough to look after my own needs. It is very good to take care of our own needs, but thinking of it in terms of “deserving” may not be the most helpful, especially when considering the other side of the spectrum.

Our  Western society has an entitlement sickness. Most people can list off plenty of “rights” that affirm that the world is treating them fairly. I hear things like, “I worked hard for my money. I deserve to spend it where I please.” Or, “I deserve to know the truth about what is wrong with my loved one.” Or, “I’ve been working hard, I deserve some peace and quiet.” People have the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to have religious freedom, the right to pursue happiness, the right to equality, the right to justice, the right to use the land for their own purposes, and on and on. Inherent in being human means we have certain “unalienable” rights.

entitlement3So some of our rights, some of the things we “deserve,” are good and some are not. Where I think the maturity, or lack thereof, shows itself is in the claiming of what we deserve. There is a time and a place on the spiritual journey where we feel the need to claim our rights and we need to claim the things we deserve. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we have a sense that there are others who would claim rights, freedoms, and things they deserve that would take away from our own. If this is the case, then there is inherently a problem… because the things that are rights should not take away from the rights of others. The whole paradigm is inherently limited and dualistic.

As we mature on the spiritual journey, we come to find that claim what we deserve and what rights we have is a useless, and probably detrimental, pursuit. At some point, we realize that more than anything, we are actually in a significant debt to the world herself and to others. What living being consumes so many natural resources to live without giving back to the natural order of things? Even in our deaths, we burn our bodies, embalm our bodies, or bury them in caskets which keep us from giving more life to the land! How many living things have to die in order for us to live, even for one month, let alone for 80 years? The earth doesn’t need us as humans to continue to thrive. We, in our living, carry with us a significant debt to the greater Life we are a part of. At some point on the spiritual life, we begin to recognize our place in the order of things. We begin to realize it consciously and then we begin to live it.

With a sense of our debt to Life, we begin to live differently. Things like the equality of all humans is a given, so we don’t have to claim our right to racial equality or economic equality. It becomes more than this though. Where does humanity land in its equality withentitlement all of creation? When we begin asking these questions the “rights” and “freedoms” and thingS we think we “deserve” seem to be such a useless hill to die on. So small, so temporary. Again, there is a place on the journey for making these claims but at some point they simply become unimportant.

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Why is it so difficult to die?

I wish this were an easy answer, but unfortunately there are countless reasons why people have so much trouble dying. There are a few things that I am fairly certain about and that I have found that resonate with patients and family members. More often than not I find that people really DO have a difficulty with dying. Whether it be fear, denial, anxiety, or just avoidance, there is an underlying difficulty with dying.

Many people aren’t so much afraid of being dead, as they are of dying. I say this with intention, and I offer this to patients, in order to make a distinction. I have read in numerous places that it is best to think of living until we are dead. If we don’t then we could get depressed or think that our life is over as soon as we admit to dying. Think about it this way. “Dying,” an active tense word, is very different from the words like “dead” (adjective) and “be killed” (passive tense). There is no passive tense of “dying.” It is active, and so there for something we DO. It is something we live in, participate in, and include others in. So how do people want to go about their dying time? This is a good question to ask of people and to reflect on ourselves. We don’t just live until we are dead. These are the people who want to go out in their sleep or want to end their lives prematurely. There is no active participation in their dying there.

For many, unlike our ancestors, being around death and dying can be a very foreign experience. It used to be that loved ones would die at home attended to by family members in the upstairs bedroom. Now it is so often in a hospital or nursing home behind closed doors. The announcement comes from the RN or the doctor and the family comes in after a person has died. So many are not familiar with the signs of dying. They think a dying person may be on the road to improvement when they wake from days of sleeping and not eating and want to tell stories. These moments of clarity are often part of the dying process. Dying also is a very personal experience, different for each person, and something that each person can only go through once. If a dying person doesn’t share what it is like with their loved ones, they offer little of help to the next generation when it is their turn. But people are afraid of causing too much hardship to their loved ones by talking about it too much.

Dying in the hospital is very difficult because health care professionals are trained to cure, to heal, and to “fix.” In and of itself, this is not a bad thing at all. But when it comes to dying, there is no “fixing.” I have heard doctors say that having a palliative care team meet with a family is “giving up too early.” I have seen many many times doctors and nurses shy away from using the “D word” with families when the writing was clearly on the wall. Many will say a person who is accepting their dying is “giving up” or someone who is feeling sad about saying good bye is “depressed.” Too, too often do doctors trying treatment after treatment until a patient, who wants to die at home ends up unconscious while still hoping along with their family that they are going to “pull through.” Or a patient holds off  going home on hospice because a doctor or social worker feels trying out rehab first might be good, only to die the next day at the nursing home. I tell patients if they want to be an active participant in their dying experience, join hospice while they still have the capacity to choose for themselves.

If we can just begin to see how much death is a part of life. Dying is not a “bad” thing. It is a beautiful, sacred, natural thing. Not to say it is a “good” thing either. It just is. It is part of what happens to all healthy, mature, and connected to the earth beings. Going from living to dead is going around this natural process. As Stephen Jenkinson wonders, “How connected is someone to their life when they have to be told they are dying?”

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Spiritual Direction and reflections on Spirituality

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