We hear the term a "good death" frequently but how is that achieved? How do we help other people achieve a good death?
First, what is a good death? We think that someone has had a good death when they are at peace with dying, they have released regrets and made peace with the life they have lived. I have talked in more detail in my post titled 'What is a Good Death?'
As a hospice volunteer as well as someone who has experienced loss in my own life I have witnessed people pulling away from the dying person, mostly out of self preservation. What does this mean for the person who is dying? Usually depression.
I have had multiple conversations with healthy people who think it will depress the dying person to see their abundant life, how much their lives have. The kids are crazy and work is busy etc., in my experience people want to hear about your everyday lives. They want to know that just because they are dying, it doesn't mean that life everywhere is ending. They want to hear your future plans about vacation and what the kids are doing.
Taking away all the life from a dying person doesn't keep them from thinking about their own death, it just alienates them from yours. When an illness is long the tendency is to treat the dying person so very carefully to the point of removing yourself in case you could hurt or upset them. Talking about that big project at work or the kids soccer game on Saturday helps remind them that there is a world outside of doctors visits, oxygen tanks and sterile gloves.
Life is messy, and as we approach death medicine starts to take over with schedules and pills, tests and procedures. The harried life that we led before illness is replaced with boredom and loneliness, once we can't keep up with the physical demands of the craziness of life, it leaves us behind. Helping your loved ones feel like they are still a part of your life, your families life, is crucial in keeping depression from taking over. Taking the time to answer the phone, text, and most importantly stop in and visit will mean everything to someone at the end.
Don't be afraid (after you have asked permission) to hold their hand or stroke their hair. Physical touch diminishes as we age, elderly people are seen as fragile and the hugs are brief and stilted in order to keep them from being hurt. The chemicals released in the brain when we are touched are critical for mental health. Often, when you don't know what to say, you can just sit and hold their hand. A simple gesture that lets your loved one know that you are there, you care, and you will be there.
What is a vigil plan? It is a detailed plan for what your last hours to days will look like. I go into detail about a vigil here plan http://foldingpapercranes.com/vigil-plans.html .
Sitting down to think about what you want your end of days to look like may seem macabre on the surface, but it really does help you to live a more fulfilled life.
Being a healthy young person and contemplating your death is seen as potential suicidal behavior. In most people though, giving yourself the perspective of your life as finite, gives you the benefit of focusing your goals.
There are the obvious benefits of having a plan in place in case you receive a terminal diagnosis or some other event happens in which you have hours or days in which you are in active dying. There are the emotional benefits of having the plan in place, creating a plan helps you to recognize what you find most important in your life.
For some people that are dying, creating a plan for what their last few days will look like is too hard to create when it is so near. A vigil plan will provide comfort not only to you at the end as well as your loved ones as you are dying and as they reflect upon your death.
Spending time with your mortality can help you recognize what is most important to you and what you don't have tolerance for anymore. If you think about the limited time you have on Earth, you know what is most important to you and what you will tolerate as well as what you won't. It might mean you decide to start taking classes for something you want to learn or remove yourself from a situation you realize you don't want to spend time with anymore.
After you have created a vigil you may experience a peace you didn't know you wanted. Thinking about your death, and everyone's, is something we naturally turn away from. It is the proverbial elephant in the room, knowing without a doubt that your life will end one day but that you won't know when or how and trying to not acknowledge it. Creating a beautiful plan, knowing that you might not ever use it, can ease anxiety about your eventual death while also giving you the clarity of what you want.
We hear time and time again that people who have a near life experience have a new lease on life, creating a vigil plan can help give you this perspective without risking your life. A vigil plan for a young healthy person is helpful for making a plan for the rest of your life as well as for your death.
If you are interested in creating a vigil plan you can click the vigil plan tab at the top and create an appointment with me.
Have you ever known someone who is dying? Not has died, but that spent a period of time that there was nothing more to be done, possibly with hospice care.
You probably don't know what you are supposed to do, you don't know how to be there for them, maybe sending a card is best. You spend some time looking through the card aisle in the store, to find that 'Get Well Soon' seems to be your only option. This person is never getting better and the best sentiment you can manage is something like "I hope you die with as little suffering as possible". Not exactly a Hallmark moment.
Avoid the 'Get Well Soon' card, they are not getting better, ever. I knew a woman who was released from the hospital in hospice so she could die at home. She was unconscious and had been for days, she was never recovering. I saw a person comment on Facebook that she was going to rally. I still wince thinking about it, this was not the message her family needed as they were coming to terms with letting, this woman who was only in her 40's, go. A message like this is only painful for the family.
So what do you do? Go to the blank card section of the card aisle, grab one you think this person will like. Sit down and write about what they meant to you, how they changed your life, how you are a better person because of them. If this feels overly sappy, remember that you don't have much time to convey these messages. This is a situation that you need to think about if you will regret not doing it.
Writing a card with a memory or a testimony of what an impact they had on your life is part of a legacy project, even if their planned legacy project is vastly different. You are giving them something tangible to review in the hours of downtime. Reviewing the good things that have happened in their lives and reflecting on the impact they have made on the world is going to be the best gift you can give as they die, as well as their family after that person has died.
Can you imagine a greeting card for someone in hospice?
What is death positive? If you have stumbled upon this website you have probably heard the term before. You might think of it as a bunch of people dressed in all black with very dark eye makeup and pale skin sitting around a bookstore or coffee shop (or graveyard) talking about death and dying. Or maybe some very depressed and possibly suicidal person longing for their untimely end. Death positive is none of these things.
Being death positive is about loving life, and wanting to get every last drop of it from your days. Acknowledging that you are mortal, that your time is limited, is empowering and motivating. Really sitting with the idea that you will run out of tomorrows one day will empower you to get everything out of your todays.
When we are very young we never think that we may cease to live one day, life is limitless and parents try to shield their children from the realities of death to a degree. Children may first have to face the idea of death with a pet or a grandparent, still this doesn't really translate to their own mortality. There are infinite tomorrows to look forward to there is no end and therefore no rush, as it should be in youth.
As we age we start to realize that if we are lucky we get 100 years and we have already spent more than a decade of it. Still, its natural to turn away from this information and not think of the limitations time is allowing. Unless there is some event to bring our own mortality into focus, there is no reason to think about it. There are so many years to look forward to and accomplish goals and dreams.
Being death positive means you have made the time to sit and think about the idea that you will not live forever, that life really is short, that one day you will run out of tomorrows, thinking about what that means for your todays. You only have a limited amount of time, and the clock started ticking long before you realized that one day it will stop. Everyday suddenly becomes precious, you can focus on your life's work with more vigor.
Being death positive goes beyond the self realization too, one day your parents are going to die. Really thinking that one day your parents won't be here can give you more patience and understanding with the things that drive you crazy, and the gift of appreciating them while they are here. You may be more interested in having them impart a skill or story, getting down the memories and not losing the legacy. Ensuring your children have ample time to appreciate them and get to know them, knowing that they have already realized how short life is and want to spend time with you while they are able.
Focusing on your mortality might seem morbid, but it leads to the best life you can live. Getting the most out of your today and all the tomorrows you will have. So how do you really think about your mortality in a way that can make you really appreciate the life you have and make the most of the time you have? Consider more than reading an article about being death positive, create a vigil plan, write your eulogy or obituary, or plan your funeral. Making real plans, really talking it out with someone is going to have a much longer lasting effect than reading an article and forgetting it the moment you close it.
You can't take your life by the horns and live the best life possible until you recognize life really is short, and should not to be taken for granted.
How old were you when you realized you were not going to live forever?
You can't take it with you, or at least that is the saying.
We often use this saying when referring to money, the rich person who is stingy with money, or when we feel like treating ourselves to something. You can't take it with you!
Yet, even the earliest human graves have things that the living person used and loved buried with them. Tools they used from even primitive cultures where a similar tool would be difficult to create and a real loss to bury it with the dead person.
Ancient Egyptians to Vikings were buried with their most loved and used possessions, or things they expect to need in the afterlife. Pharaohs were entombed with statues of slaves to serve them in the afterlife, as well as expensive goods to be used. Their bodies carefully preserved to have use of when they returned to it.
We think of this practice as something ancient peoples did but not modern people. Yet, it is not uncommon for someone to be buried with a loved token, or even a large item. I have friends who were buried with paper cranes from our mutual friends memorial service.
As human beings we love things, we collect and covet things, we love them so deeply that for some of us, they are things we are simply not willing to let go, even after we die. There is of course certain things we need for survival, and things we collect to make life easier, tools we use for our life's work, and sentimental objects, all things that we care for as if they have their own sentience. These are, in modern times, the things most often taken with us as we are lowered in the Earth.
Why do we do this? I'm not trained (or conceited) enough to pretend I have all the answers to that. Perhaps, its a hope that the loved one can enjoy these things, or that the physical thing was so important to them that you simply can't separate the person from the thing. Maybe there is a deep feeling that the spirit of the person is somehow attached to the object, and in order for them to be whole in whatever happens after this life, they need it with their corporeal body.
The clothes worn by the body are chosen with equal care, so the corpse will be comfortable or look presentable or reflect their personality. I have been to a funeral that the deceased was buried in their motorcycle leathers and one in pajamas, plus one elderly woman who declared a week before her death she wanted to be buried in a blue dress.
Most modern religions don't believe that the physical body will go on after death like the Ancient Egyptians did, however the care of presentation is still agonized over. Will my friend be riding many motorcycles after his death that he needed to be buried in his leathers? Is the comfort of the corpse so important that their favorite pajama pants be worn? Are there many formal dances that body is going to that they are dressed in formal attire for the occasion? Does it matter? If the funeral is open casket then, yes, potentially the person wants to be presented they way they lived, or have their families see them a certain way for the last time.
In the end, as much as we like to separate ourselves from ancient and primitive cultures and ideas, we have a lot in common too.
Do you have something you want to be buried with? Is there an outfit you want to be buried in? Does your family know?
My name is Abby, my life has been touched many times by loss and grief. This life has led me to helping others navigate their own grief. I have become a INELDA trained End Of Life Doula and a hospice volunteer. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and all advice given should be treated as advice from a friend.