Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

Archive for the ‘Grief’ Category

Better-Late-Than-Never Rituals

Posted by

I was talking to a friend whose husband died unexpectedly last year from a heart attack. No warning. He died in his sleep. Because of the pandemic they had no wake, no visitation, no funeral, no public events. She told me, “It’s like he just vanished.”

My own mother-in-law, Sue, also died last year amidst Covid. We were fortunate to be able to have a church funeral at the time, although it was only for immediate family. We sat spread out in family “pods.” The priest said all the familiar words that get said at these things. He knew her well, so, it was very personal too.

Family and friends gather to say “good-bye” in Covid-delayed ritual

As meaningful as that service was, there remained a huge hole missing. In normal times, there would have been scores, if not hundreds, who would have come from near and far to be with us. Family and friends would have filled the church, hugged our necks, and told us meaningful and funny stories about Sue. It didn’t happen.

Fast forward to last week. We finally buried Sue’s ashes in a public ritual. Those friends and family members did indeed come from near and far — from Dallas, Seattle, New York, Arizona, Chicago, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Cleveland and from just a few blocks away. Necks got hugged and stories got told. You never get over grieving, but these public rituals can be an important part of the process.

Rituals denied by choice of the dead

As I sit here writing this, I think back to my own brother’s death four years ago and what we missed. My sister, brother-in-law and I traveled from Colorado and Virginia to visit Dennis barely two weeks before he died. I cherish the photo taken during that visit. The three of us stood outside his “cracker house” home on farmland north of Tallahassee. We will not see him again.

Hank and his sister Janice with their brother Dennis two weeks before he died

Dennis was a very private person. As he knew his own death approached, he told his wife he did not want any services to remember him. Our only ritual was the dreaded phone call from my sister, “He’s gone!” It was my birthday and my now widowed sister-in-law suggested that my sister not call me until a day later. You know — “don’t ruin his birthday.”

So, my sister and I cried together over the phone. That was that. We are now the last two of the six in our family of origin.

It is curious that we give the deceased such control over the survivors’ grief rituals. How did my now dead brother get the right to deny me gathering with family and friends to remember him? He won’t even be there. It would have been about us and not him — our needs not his.

“Thanks for all the laughs.”

So, last week, we gathered at the columbarium of St. Paul’s on the Lake Catholic Church, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Sue’s 88-year-old, life-long best friend, going back to their childhood days, reached into the niche, touched the urn and said, “Thanks for all the laughs.”

These rituals are so important. It really is “better late than never.”

The Collapse of Hope

Posted by

Here we are again. This time a beachside condo building near Miami has collapsed. Distraught families are praying for a miracle — praying that someone they love will be found alive. Others are only hoping for the recovery of a body so that they can say properly their goodbyes.

I write this five days after the tragic event. Much can change by the time you read this.

This tragedy feels familiar. Mass casualties in a seemingly random occurrence, like 9/11, mass shootings, or airplane crashes.

I remember writing a piece around September 11, 2002, a year after the terrorist attacks killed over 3,000 people. While I acknowledged that those deaths had huge implications for national security and our nation’s foreign policy, I disagreed with those who believed there to be some special meaning to the individual deaths. Those 3,000+ deaths were not unlike other random, sudden deaths I had seen countless times in my years in the ministry.

I admit, when things like this happen, I look for reasons why I am exempt from such randomness. I don’t own a condo on the beach in Miami. I don’t fly on airplanes in Africa. I don’t go to gay night clubs in Orlando. No wonder I am still living, and those unfortunate souls are not.

This doesn’t happen here

Even the mayor of the town where the condo high-rise is located sought refuge in the “this-doesn’t-happen-here” mentality.

“‘It would be like a lightning strike happening,’ said Charles W. Burkett, the mayor of Surfside, Fla., where the collapse occurred. ‘It’s not at all a common occurrence to have a building fall down in America,’ he said. ‘There was something very, very wrong with this situation.’” (New York Times, June 27)

Mr. Mayor, it does happen here. It DID happen here. And in your town, on your watch. (By the way, on average, 26 people die in the U.S. of lightning strikes each year.)

No trite platitudes for these stunned families

If I were called on to offer pastoral care for these worried families, I would try to meet them, and be with them, where they are in the process. If they were still praying for that most unlikely miracle that someone they love is alive — I can pray with them for that. If they had moved to mourning without a recovered body — I can be with them, too.

What I would NOT do is try to offer “solace” with such platitudes like, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” or “With God, there are no accidents,” or the absolute WORST, “Everything happens for a reason.”

So, once again, we all stand vigil. Indeed, most of us truly empathize with these poor families. We will watch with interest how they get through these coming days. Most will move into a normal, sad grieving process. An added pressure on these families, that most of us will never experience, is that many of them will mourn on national television. God help them.

 

 

There’s No Crying in Golf!

Posted by

I never thought I would tear up watching a golf tournament on TV. But I did.

I’m not a golfer, but I AM a sports fan. I was drawn to the possibility that a major golf tournament was about to be won by an almost 51-year-old Phil Mickelson. Such a feat would make him the oldest player ever to win one of the “Majors.” To put this in perspective, the ages of the last four winners of this event were 23, 29, 28, and 24.

So, I turned on the PGA Championship being played on The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, SC. He was doing it.

Sensing something historic was about to happen, the gallery was getting raucous. As Mickelson walked up the 18th fairway, his brother as his caddy with him, victory now seemed likely. Yes, he still could have blown it. But he didn’t. His second shot, from just off the fairway, made it to the green.

The crowd could be held back no more. The huge throng pressed around him, covered the fairway and threatened to engulf the players and caddies. Security personnel barely regained control.

Seeing that press of humanity brought tears to my eyes.

But golf is so trivial

A golf tournament is so trivial in the grand scheme of things — even one of historical significance.

The days following the PGA Championship marked the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death and the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, where hundreds of Black folks were killed by White mobs. These are tragedies that should bring tears to all our eyes.

Yet, sports provide a welcome distraction from the harsher aspects of life, such as what are (hopefully) the last days of this pandemic. For some, it is hockey playoffs or the NBA playoffs, both currently on TV. For me, those last few holes of golf provided some introspection as I thought about where my tears were coming from.

Was it grief?

Grief has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. My thoughts did go to my wife’s mother, Sue, who died last year. She loved, loved, loved watching golf on TV. If we called while a tournament was on, she would pick up the phone and say, “I’m watching golf. Call me back later.” *Click*

She would have been glued to the TV watching Mickelson’s unbelievable win. But it was not primarily thoughts of Sue that brought a tear to my eye.

Look at the joy

My tears were also not so much about an older guy becoming an unlikely winner. It was the crowd. “Look at the joy,” I thought.

We have spent more than a year watching sporting events, concerts, church services, holiday events, and other celebrations with no crowds. Kiawah Island was the ideal venue for such a large gathering at the tail end of the pandemic — outdoors with 22-mile-an-hour winds. Widely available vaccinations couldn’t hurt, either.

If you asked those closing in on Mickelson on that 18th fairway why they broke the lines, they might say they wanted to be a part of golf history. But I think after a year of being held back from experiencing the pure joy of such events they just couldn’t hold back any longer.

The joy. That is what my tears were about.

Looking for a Sign… Calming Amidst Grief

Posted by

I had NEVER seen a street sign like it – “TRAFFIC CALMING AHEAD” – and I collect photos of unique street signs.

Like the one we saw driving home from the Memphis airport the other night: “THIS IS YOUR SIGN TO BUCKLE UP.” (The folks at the Department of Transportation do try to make us smile.)

Or the one I saw years ago when I was speaking in Boulder, Colorado. It was February. I went out one morning for a walk on a pedestrian path. I approached an underpass and could see some patches of ice in the shadows of the bridge.

Not to worry! This progressive, free-thinking university city put up a sign to warn me: “ICE MAY EXIST,” it read. I thought, “This is SO Boulder!”

The sign begged more questions. Ice may or may not exist, correct? Do I exist? If I do exist, how did I come into being? What is the nature of existence? What is the nature of non-being?? Goodness! I was just going out for a walk.

Obvious signs

It’s not just in Boulder that I pondered the meaning of life upon seeing a road sign. While driving home from church in Northern Virginia, I saw a sign that read, “ROUGH ROAD AHEAD.” Ya think? Here I imagined Buddhists writing the road signs with their idea that “life is suffering.”

Then there are the obvious signs. I saw a “WARNING — ALLIGATORS” sign as I put my kayak in the Hillsborough River outside Tampa. The authorities-that-be felt the need to put another sign right below: “NO SWIMMING.” Really? Who was thinking of swimming with the alligators? The people in Florida really are crazy.

 

I was a chaplain for a hospice in Ft. Pierce, Florida, which had a hospice house for patients to spend their last days. There were tables and benches on the grounds for patients, their families, and staff to take a break outdoors. Beside a nearby pond, there was a sign, “WARNING BEWARE OF VENOMOUS SNAKES.” Good Lord, these dying folks have enough to worry about.

Family calming ahead

The “TRAFFIC CALMING AHEAD” sign was on a quiet, tree-lined suburban street in Alexandria, Virginia. This sign was followed by one that said, “SPEED CUSHIONS AHEAD.” I’ve heard them called “speed bumps” or even “speed tables” but “cushions”?

My wife, Sally, and I were in town to attend a funeral for a friend who died after living with ALS for years. Sally had known his wife since before they were married. Over the weekend we twice visited the widow’s home — once the night before the funeral and then for a gathering afterward – and saw the signs.

As we drove to her home, the words on the sign morphed in my head to “FAMILY CALMING AHEAD.” Indeed, it was. The widow and her two college-age children welcomed mostly family into their home the night before the funeral. There was lots of hugging and laughter. The scene was repeated after the service with a larger gathering of friends, business colleagues, and more family.

The grief process can be a rough road for many, but these calming events in the first days are a good place to start the journey.

Randomness, Death, and Mystery… It’s Okay

Posted by

Do you ever do this while reading random obituaries?

I see some person, about my age, who died of cancer. I read on and see it was lung cancer. I’m relieved. Obviously, they smoked. I don’t smoke. I won’t die.

Then, I read, a healthy person about my age dies suddenly from an undiagnosed brain aneurysm. No warning. They just drop dead. A random chance occurrence like a victim of a mass shooting at a grocery store.

We humans look for patterns — for reasons “why.” Some find comfort in the idea (*SPOILER ALERT* — not me) that God is in control of everything and sends some people a quick, unexplained death.

There are no accidents… or not?

I conducted a graveside funeral service years ago as a hospice chaplain. A woman came up to me after the service and told me her story. “A couple of years ago, my eight-year-old son was playing on the swing set in our backyard,” she started. “He jumped off the swing, fell on his head, broke his neck and died instantly. In my grief someone sent me a card that said, ‘With God there are no accidents.’”

I thought (but didn’t say), What a horrible thing to tell a grieving mother. God killed your son. Before I responded, I studied her face to see if I could catch some glimpse of how she received this message. I didn’t have to guess. She told me, “Those words have been so helpful to me.”

I was almost speechless. This woman is a complete stranger and I have no pastoral relationship with her. I would never want to take away a word that was helpful to her. I must have said something like, “I am so thankful that was helpful to you. It must have been a horrible time.”

What do I know? The card may be right.

Everything happens for a reason?

Contrast this with best-selling author Kate Bowler and her book Everything Happens for A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. The book jacket describes her situation:

“At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward ‘blessing.’ She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.”

Bowler is an academic who has studied the “prosperity gospel.” That would be the megachurch televangelists who teach that if you just believe hard enough (and make a contribution) only good things will come your way. In her research, she saw the downside of this belief is that when you’re thrown life’s random tragedies you are left feeling like a loser.

Do yourself a favor and watch her TED talk on YouTube. Over six million people have viewed this 15-minutes of wisdom. She has learned to live with mystery… with randomness… with not having a “reason.” And it is okay.

Remembering COVID-19 While in the Midst

Posted by

me·mo·ri·al| məˈmôrēəl | noun 1 something, especially a structure, established to remind people of a person or event.

A memorial to COVID-19 surprised me at first. Is it too soon?

We usually think of memorials being erected long after the fact. World War II ended in 1945 and its memorial on The Mall in D.C. opened in 2004. At the other end of the reflecting pool stands the 1922 Lincoln Memorial honoring a president who died in 1865.

Also nearby is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in 1982 for the war that ended in 1975. This memorial is a particularly moving display of 58,320 names of the war dead. Initially, the design of two granite walls sunken into the ground was highly criticized with one official calling it “a black gash of shame.” It has become a pilgrimage site for families and brothers-in-arms to touch the names of those they have loved and lost. Here, grown men weep at the sight of the name of a fallen comrade.

On a recent walk I was surprised to see a metal engraved marker remembering those who died of COVID-19 and honoring the heroes. It stands in a small park in Leesburg, Virginia, right next to the rails-to-trail bike path. A local Girl Scout troop planted a tree and set the marker at the end of December. The marker reads: “This tree was planted in memory of those we lost during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and in gratitude for the heroes who emerged.”

 

COVID-19 memorial in Georgetown Park, tree and plaque installed by Girl Scout Troop #2718

My surprise stemmed from the fact that this pandemic is far from over. People are still dying in great numbers. We are still wearing masks as a daily reminder to be vigilant. We have been warned deaths could spike again. How can we gain the benefit of a “remembrance” when this event is still unfolding?

Do we need to be reminded?

Hospital staff take a moment of silence to commemorate the year anniversary of the start of the pandemic in Fort Worth

Of course, there have been temporary memorials like the candles at the White House the evening we passed 500,000 deaths. A story and photos appeared in my Facebook newsfeed with medical staff kneeling in prayer next to white flags at the Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth hospital. I am sure they would like to put this all behind them, but they had to go back inside and care for more COVID patients.

Do we need to be reminded about the pandemic? No, but I think we want families of the dead to know that we noticed. What must it be like to have lost someone to a plague that the country is so ready to forget ever happened? Or, at least, we want things to “get back to normal.” The bereaved will never get back to pre-pandemic normal.

Perhaps the Girl Scouts are too young to realize that this pandemic is a once-in-a-century event (hopefully). Do any of us know the long-term effects of months of isolation and remote learning? Does this memorial remember children’s grief over the lost memories of events (like a prom) that could have been but never were?

What about the effect on the elderly isolated in nursing homes who, we know from research, are being prescribed increasing amounts of psychotropic drugs? How do we mark the loss of the mental health of those elders who have just months to a few years to live?

My guess is it will take a generation to memorialize this time. My hope is that we, as a people, will be better because we allowed ourselves to grieve…and to remember.

Holding the Space for Grief

Posted by

Caitlin Doughty has done it again! She produced another knock out book that I took way too long to read.

I blogged about her first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, confessing my narrow range of interest (mostly death and dying and spirituality stuff) and my slow reading. Her “new” book came out in 2017 and I just finished it yesterday. No matter…if you haven’t read it yet, it is new to you.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death is a travelogue about ways people around the world honor the dead and help the bereaved carry their grief. As with her first book, this one comes with a WARNING: there are graphic descriptions of dead bodies and of what happens to these bodies after death. I personally was not offended by this and do feel the descriptions are an essential part of her narrative.

Doughty is a mortician, owner of a nonprofit funeral home, Undertaking L.A., and a leader in the Death Positive movement. The movement seeks to change the way we do death and dying in Western culture. We tend to hide death, remove it from view, and make it unnatural. Our hospitals and funeral homes can be the greatest obstacles to a more positive view of death.

There is no shame in a public expression of grief

One of the common characteristics of all the unusual death and funeral practices described in the book is the openness of grief—there is no shame in a public expression of grief for years after a death. Families in Indonesia may keep the mummified body of a relative in their homes for months or years. In Bolivia, human skulls are decorated and given a prominent place in dwellings. In Colorado, a whole community turns out to witness the open-air cremation of one of their own.

In the West we want people to “get over their grieving,” “to find closure,” to “move on.” The truth is, we never stop grieving. Other cultures have established rituals around death that bring grief into the light.

Hold the space is to create a ring of safety

Doughty ends her book, “No matter what it takes, the hard work begins for the West to haul our fear, shame, and grief surrounding death out into the disinfecting light of the sun.” What is needed is “holding the space” for the dying person and their family. “To hold the space is to create a ring of safety around the family and friends of the dead, providing a place where they can grieve openly and honestly, without fear of being judged.”

Photo by Kent Pilcher on Unsplash

 

Books ONLY from My Brother

Posted by

I do not like people giving me books

I do not like people giving me books to read that I have not requested. I have like 100 books on my wish list and when family members ask me what they can give me for a gift I go to the list and send several suggestions. I think of myself as a slow reader with a somewhat narrow range of interests and don’t want people cluttering up my reading pile with books I previously had no interest in.

So I drove from Virginia to Florida for Christmas with a stop at my brother’s rural home near Tallahassee. He handed me a gift. You guessed it. A book. A book I had not requested. But he was generous and I do not give my do-not-give-me-a-book speech right after the kindness of a gift.

I just finished reading all 241 pages. That comes out to about 4 pages a day since I accepted the book. See…slow.

Turns out it has become one of my all time favorite books. Of course it is in the death and dying genre. Right in my narrow range of interest.

NOTE to family and friends: Only my brother Dennis can give me books I have not asked for.

A memoir of a young mortician

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory is a memoir of a young mortician, Caitlin Doughty. Oh goodness, where do I start.

A full disclosure WARNING about the book. It contains very graphic detail about the condition of bodies of the deceased, their preparation, and what cremation actually looks like. This book is not for everyone. That said, I still would recommend it for everyone. Push through it and you find a wonderful story of a young woman finding a calling to help us all in the end.

Do yourself a favor and visit Doughty’s Web site “The Order of the Good Death” at http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/. She has some great videos called, “Ask A Mortician.” She has a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/OrderoftheGoodDeath. A Twitter feed @TheGoodDeath (https://twitter.com/TheGoodDeath) with 16,000 followers. And lots of photos on Instagram, thegooddeath (http://instagram.com/thegooddeath).

This is not your old chaplain’s verses about “letting be.” She recently posted a photo of a greeting card, “If I had a choice to have sex with any celebrity, living or dead, I would probably choose living.”

She is irreverent but dead serious. Get it?

There is a small but growing army of folks like Caitlin Doughty out there who want to bring death into our everyday lives. She advocates for families preparing bodies for burial or cremation. She is a leader in the “Death Salon” movement holding public forums to talk about death and dying. She is not religious but encourages rituals to help families and friends of the newly dead grieve and cope in healthy ways.

Yesterday, I sent her copies of my books (unsolicited of course). I started the cover letter, “I am sorry I arrived so late to your party. Only now have I found out about all the fun you are having.”

Can I “Like” a Death Announcement on Facebook?

Posted by

Great article recently in the New York Times about “Millennials” (those in their teens and twenties) and grief. Grief in the age of Facebook, texting, Instagram, and selfies. “An Online Generation Redefines Mourning,” by Hannah Seligson appeared in the March 20th edition of the Times.

Is there anything creepier

“My God, is there anything creepier than a post announcing someone lost a loved one and seeing ‘136 people like this’ underneath?” Ms. [Rebecca] Soffer said [in the article].

“The social norms for loss and the Internet are clearly still evolving. But Gen Y-ers and millennials have begun projecting their own sensibilities onto rituals and discussions surrounding death. As befits the first generation of digital natives, they are starting blogs, YouTube series and Instagram feeds about grief, loss and even the macabre, bringing the conversation about bereavement and the deceased into a very public forum, sometimes with jarring results.”

Here are some links I found through the article.

Modern Loss is a repository of essays, resources and advice that the founders try to edit so that it doesn’t sound glib, overly religious or trite. For instance, you’ll never hear, “At least they are in a better place.” (“Our least favorite line ever,” Ms. Soffer said.)

The Order of the Good Death is a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.  It was founded in January 2011 by Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and writer in Los Angeles, CA.

OMG . . . “Selfies at Funerals”

Hank

Quality of Life Publishing Logo

Quality of Life Publishing Co. is the proud publisher of Hank’s books, as well as other branded educational materials for health care & end-of-life care.

www.QOLpublishing.com

Copyright 2021, Hank Dunn. All rights reserved. Website design by Brian Joseph Studios

Volume Discounts for Branded Book Orders

Minimum quantity for branded books is 100. English and Spanish branded books are sold separately. Click here for more information or contact us with questions.

Black

  • 100 to 249 copies: $4.00 each
  • 250 to 499 copies: $2.84 each
  • 500 to 999 copies: $2.24 each
  • 1000 to 1499 copies: $1.69 each
  • 1500 to 1999 copies: $1.43 each
  • 2000 to 3999 copies: $1.30 each
  • 4000+ copies: $1.11 each

Color

  • 100 to 249 copies: $6.65 each
  • 250 to 499 copies: $3.95 each
  • 500 to 999 copies: $2.79 each
  • 1000 to 1499 copies: $1.96 each
  • 1500 to 1999 copies: $1.61 each
  • 2000 to 3999 copies: $1.44 each
  • 4000+ copies: $1.17 each

Volume Discounts for Unbranded Book Orders

Discounts apply to the total books ordered of all titles. Mix and match to get quantity discounts on unbranded books.

  • 1 to 9 copies: $7.35 each
  • 10 to 24 copies: $5.13 each
  • 25 to 49 copies: $4.24 each
  • 50 to 99 copies: $3.75 each
  • 100 to 249 copies: $2.87 each
  • 250 to 499 copies: $2.37 each
  • 500 to 999 copies: $1.98 each
  • 1000 to 1499 copies: $1.54 each
  • 1500 to 1999 copies: $1.32 each
  • 2000 to 3999 copies: $1.21 each
  • 4000+ copies: $1.05 each
There are no products