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Archive for the ‘Grief’ Category

Randomness, Death, and Mystery… It’s Okay

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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