Image

Why is Death so hard to say?:  Reflecting on Life’s strongest medicine

By Jeanne Denney

This column is a rewrite of a blog I did years ago at the beginning of the Kairos Network Blog.  It seemed a good time to reflect and reform the issue in the wake of current events and 10 years of learning as an educator.  

I started to offer Death Education programs in public about 10 years ago. My years of Hospice work taught me that preparing for death took a lifetime.  It had to start long before the final weeks.  I called my first program “Planning on Dying”.  I hoped to help people contemplate mortality and claim a role in their own dying process.   I called another program for somatic practitioners “The Core of Dying”, and later taught college Death and Dying classes.  These classes were different, but each were strong medicine that changed lives before my eyes.  Eventually, as my work took me deeper, I facilitated programs on Life exploration in a program called “The Art of Dying” and “Integrative Thanatology” and presented at conferences and training institutes.  

Over the years, as I have asked for friends, family and enlightened souls for feedback on what I am doing, I will often hear responses like these.  ”Do you have to use the words ‘death’ or ‘dying’ in your title?  Can’t you just say ‘end of life’, ‘passing on’, ‘crossing over’?”  ”Can’t you talk about life, not death?” ”Can’t you somehow be more reassuring in your title?”  “Can you bring in sex?”  “Can you make it entertaining?”   I hear that there is something off-putting about the ‘D’ words that will instantly drive people away in droves if I use them, much like a leaf-blower on an autumn driveway. Death doesn’t sell.  Every marketer knows this.

I have been stunned at the consistency of these remarks over the years, the creativity of the euphemisms for death, and the truth of the resistance the ‘D’ words bring about.  Obviously I didn’t take this advice.  I say it.  And then I wrestle with the question:   Why is Death so hard to say?  Or perhaps more accurately, so hard to hear? 

Of course now I have many more answers to that question than I did in my first years of Death Ed.  I know that we Americans deny the facts and the processes in our life and culture and this denial is a silent and solemn pact between us.  As a result, when death comes, is most often experienced as a foreign and traumatic event.  It is rarely a simple and beautiful processes to be supported, celebrated and enjoyed, no less than a first birthday or a graduation.  The ICU and organ harvesting has not made this process any friendlier. 

I now know the psychological research which shows how existentially anxious we are as a species in our time, and how this unconscious fear animates much human behavior.   I know that this fact has been linked to racial and religious hatred and human violence.  Death, in other words, is the big elephant in the room of our human psyche.  I know we protect our psyches from things that seem too large. 

I also see that we generally make two faulty correlations:

1)  Death, pain and trauma are the same thing.  This is probably because death CAN include trauma and pain, because there has been a lot of traumatic death in history and perhaps because Hollywood and the internet makes a lot of money obsessively re-creating these now fairly atypical deaths.

2)  Life and death are opposites.  This pervasive assumption is seen in the way that these two words are commonly paired as opposites: “Life and Death”, “Life OR Death”,  ”End of life” (for death), etc.  We sometimes correct ourselves at bedsides or wakes by remembering a deeper truth:  “Death is part of life”.  Indeed. But we might ask how death can be a part of life and also its opposite.

But here is the most important thing I have learned about teaching death in these years.  Even though speaking directly of death can evoke fear, denial, resistance and hostility,  learning about death heals the very wounds our fear emanate from.  Time and again, class after class I have seen that real death education opens hearts, fosters unusually deep bonds between unlikely friends and offers relief for existential distress.  What is most feared seems to be the deepest, and safest, medicine on the planet, especially in a time of epidemic loneliness and existential anxiety.  And so I teach using the “D” word, challenging folks to come forward for a much needed renewal of life.  Because death is not, after all, the opposite of life any more than rain is the opposite of water.  It is one of life’s most essential healing processes.  Life, as far as I can see, is a constantly pulsing, expanding and contracting energy which has no opposite. 

Maybe Death does not sell.  That is…. until its teachings are so necessary that we can’t look away.  In this moment of our great, collective, existential spasm, I offer this column so that our relationship with death may be healed and its teachings received.  I bring up the ‘D’ words so that they can be restored to a place of dignity, and associated with words like lightness, ease, delight, and joy.  Pain may be involved with death, but also even ecstasy and transformation. I write and teach that we can see death in its true and necessary place in the dance of life, and how deeply we each need its teaching.  Now.  More than ever.  

May our study begin.

Advertisements

Viewing my country, “America” from Across the Pond

Dawn.  Looking out over red tile roofs at the rolling hills and fields of southern Czecholslovakia from a solid table in a simple spacious room that has, of course, been here for several hundred years.  This house sits in a tiny village.  I mean tiny:  a church, a school and about 6 houses. The view is breathtaking as the fall colors begin.   The view here is different in more ways than one, and I woke thinking about my country, “America”.  Believe me, I have been more than glad to have a break from being in it and hearing the daily tidings of outrage, feeling the constant anxiety.   I haven’t had so many conversations here.  But when I have, I have occasionally said things like:  “We are having a hard time in America” or “It is difficult there now.  My country is really struggling.”  The response from people in these much older countries has been interesting.   Largely a shrug.  A relative indifference.  “Ah well, things come and go. The next thing will happen.”  “It won’t be forever.”  A woman from India said “It had to fall. How could it go on like that?”

Your own country gets different when you travel:  smaller, and more unified in some way, more laughable.  Sometimes more noble.  Or not.  Its easier to see larger themes, maybe something like an Near Death Experience. You review it all from a distance, knowing you have to return.  This is incredibly useful. This morning, sun rising through the clouds and over the misty hills of the Czech Republic, I see that we Americans are first of all are more similar than different.  That is important to remember.  Second, that what is uniting us now is that we are suffering from the same disease, left/right, coastal/interior, north/south.   The disease is Hysteria.   There is a general call to arms, a certainty that the sky is falling.  An unquestioned conclusion that we know who the enemy is and an agreement that we must fight that enemy to the death.   We differ on what can’t be allowed to fall:  family values, corporate profits, school lunches, employment figures, taxes, core curriculums, the presidential code of conduct, environmental standards, Obamacare, our standard of living, our whiteness, our nation itself.  What unites us is a general sense that things we have decided are good must not change, end or die.

I am not saying that a lot of those things I just listed aren’t pretty damned important (Environmental standards tops my personal list).  I am not saying not to care about what we find important.  This morning I am just noticing that care and hysteria are different.  Care is sober and grounded.    A caring person can flex to hear what someone else is caring about, laugh at himself and come up with a third, and better idea.  A hysterical person can only hear the voice of their own fear.   From here it looks like our responses are just shaking the acorn tree.  Doesn’t Hysteria generally make things worse?  God only knows, we might bring out the military next (and again) to defend our broken hearts instead of grieving what is being lost, caring more deeply.

Frankly, from here it is clear that the Europeans are collectively more maturity than we are.   This seems to be precisely because they have swallowed more than one spoonful of suffering.  They have had things taken away, lived with less, seen what was precious be destroyed.  And rebuilt.  Three times.  Five times.  They have kept the old in front of them, haven’t swept it away.  It seems to be a reminder of how to withstand, that they are durable, and that things do endure.    Here in eastern Europe there are also stern, daily reminders of what hysteria can do.  Their collective memory holds holocausts, famines, brutal leaders, communism, Nazism and wars.  Lots of people also sit in rooms like the one I am sitting in, rooms that have seen many births and deaths.   They have earned their calm. Maybe we can learn something from that.  This week, as I approach a weekend of teaching about Life and Death in the Netherlands, I am very grateful for these reminders to stay calm and also to care.  May I take them home for when the hurricane season is over.

22195690_10210200463073117_9189940020726061805_n

 

Does Life have an Opposite?: Moving With and Beyond Kairos

 

All things, if they are alive, transform.  Meaning, there appear to be beginnings and endings in them.  The Pendulum Blog is no exception.  It has a parent:  The Kairos Network Blog, where I, and others, wrote about End of Life Care experiences.   But there has been a yearning to develop larger ideas about life, illness, birth and death further and more generally, so there is this new blog child.  Don’t all healthy children go way beyond the limits of a parent?  Here are some of my musings about how this new blog came into being as I wholeheartedly invite you into it.  

The Pendulum’s work is to teach about regulation, about moving with order, grace and conherence through the larger arcs of the bigger life I call LIFE (not just “life” in a body).  We could even say it will teach that thing called Wisdom which puts forth clearly that what is new is not the opposite of what came before, but of one piece.  These days it is almost all I teach, and I will be teaching it here.  Stay tuned.

by Jeanne Denney

______________

A few falls ago a friend of mine was teaching a class in a local college called “Sociology of Aging”.  Typical class of about 25 suburban 20-something year olds.  It was the first time that she had ever taught this class, and she was finding the class kind of shut down.   Part of the class requirements were to interview an older adult, but after a few discussions Sue realized that they were actually afraid of old people, looking at them, seeing them, being seen by them, talking to them.  “Jeanne, come talk to them…  I think that they are afraid of death.”

What were they afraid of?  I wondered.  Old people aren’t usually powerful enough to be threatening or aggressive.  They are largely ignored.  They are generally very happy for attention and companionship.  They like to talk if they still have the capacity.  They like to be listened to. They usually like to be touched.  What was it that they were afraid of?  Toothlessness?  Crooked joints?  The smell of canned gravy and urine?  It was a puzzle.

I can’t remember what I presented.  I think I talked about how there is a life principle of pulsation that distinguishes all life forms, but that it is also present in all forms of nature.  I talked about the complimentary principles of contraction and expansion, about their balance in coherent states.   I talked about how most everything in our minds and bodies works on this principle.  I had everyone breathe three times in and out to experience it.  Then, after having them hold the different points in the in and out cycle of their breath, I had them experience the discomfort of resisting the movement of pulsation. I made the point that if we are going to be alive, death (exhale) has to be a part of the equation.  Then I talked about how marketing and media that is so much of our culture generally celebrates only the expansive principle.  The rest is considered trauma.    I asked them questions like these:

  • “Have you ever had an experience with someone aging or dying?”.
  • “How does the fact that we only celebrate expansion (such as the stage of life you are in) impact people who are facing aging or dying in this culture?”  Did they think that the aged were their opposites, or something in aging was going to consume them?
  • I asked “What are the gifts of aging?”

Moving Against the Tide of Marketing

I listened to them shyly talk about their encounters with people who were sick or who had died, grandparents mainly, some aunts and uncles, some friends.  It seemed clear that when they had heart connections with real old people in their lives they were enriched by contact, but somehow in the abstract, it seemed that the very idea of the pull into elderhood seemed a threat, as if they were going to lose their tenuous hold on the adulthood they thought they were trying to birth by being in touch with it.  They were afraid to touch the tide moving in another direction or at a different frequency.  Perhaps they did not feel strong enough.

At one point in the conversation about pulsation I remember turning to a young man and saying:  “What I am trying to say is that Death is not the opposite of Life!”.  He was silent for a moment, and finally responded.  “Well, if Death is not the opposite of Life….what IS the opposite of Life?

That was one of those rare and beautiful moments in teaching when teacher and student are one.  I responded from some place in the black box of my being, a place unreachable by will, intention or the human ego, unreachable without the students question.  After the long moment I returned:  “Why does life have to have an opposite?”

The words fell like a thick stone into a still pool.  We both fell still, knowing we had been given a large thing to chew on.And chew I have, for several years now.

In that question and response was nested my work most likely for the rest of my life.  Not that it had not already started, but it began to gain a clarity.   Teaching the unity of death and birth, meaning the nature of life itself as pulsation and energy, not just bodily identity,  is my work.   Of course this has been done for gillions of years in wisdom cultures, but it is clear that we need a new lens, a new language uniting scientific and poetic languages with experience, a new way to discover it and permission for the same.  And so I am showing up to speak and write and teach about all of this in a new form, perhaps making a fool of myself, perhaps not being understood.  All ok.

To me it is clear that wrongheaded conceptions and definitions of life and death are at the core of most human ills, and that right and even more scientifically accurate viewing of both are at the core of (yes I will be grandiose), saving the planet  ; – )  and….even having a good and happy life.   This is all a long way of saying that I am starting this new blog where I can support myself in this task.

Does Kairos End?

I started Kairos Network blog deeply in love with this word Kairos.  It is a greek and means non-linear time, perhaps even magical, serrendipitous time,  the place in the heart where all things start, perhaps that still point between the beats.   A non-dual place of true opportunity, creation and blessedness.  The Bardo, perhaps, in every moment.

For the past few years I have offered  posts in the Kairos Network Blog, and hosted wonderful writers in the hopes of just advancing dialogue on end of life, a kind of sandbox play for end of life (hate that idiom) caregivers.  I am so grateful to those of you who have read, shared, commented, supported, contributed.   It didn’t need to be a success in the ordinary way (you know the marketing, branding way).  Indeed wouldn’t that take away from it?  I don’t know how to do that kind of success anyway.  I never intended for it to feature just my experiences (unfortunately it hasn’t quite worked out that way…yet). My blog production fell off in part because I was doing less active end of life care and, well there is so much more I really want to write about, as important as this is.  I need to write here.

But the Kairos Network Blog will definately continue, even if it is slow, and I emphatically rejoice to accept guest blogs from caregivers ready to write and reflect coherently about their aging parents, their own illnesses and family members.   I may change its appearance, and I will occasionally post there about end of life care issues myself, but mainly I am refocusing my writing energy to  The Pendulum and will make a regular committment to write about the really big picture (see upcoming workshop) and how it manifests in our daily lives at any age.  Through working birth and death and everything in between, I have come to see that the life force itself is a moving, breathing entity we can directly perceive at work in self and others. How are birth and death related in these waves?  If LIFE is movement more than anything else, how does it move?  How we can see it at work? What have things as diverse as electromagnetism and trees taught us about it?   How do we learn to take care of and sustain it? You can find it here.  Seem vague or boring?  It won’t be.

Come to think about it, of course this is a death/rebirth project.  The Kairos Network Blog is not ending, but it is transforming and connecting to its new offspring.  The Pendulum will keep time in a different way, hopefully keeping the mystery of the movement of time and the beat of a heart alive within it (as all good children do).

I hope if you will consider hitting the Follow button (upper left).  I will welcome you as in moments of transformation all things need their nurturance.

Yours is so welcome.

With peace and good heart and thanks.

Your friend in the love of elders.  And for that matter, all living things.

Jeanne

Jeanne Denney is a therapist, hospice worker and death educator in the Greater New York area. Her website is http://www.jeannedenney.com and email is jeannedenney@gmail.com.  Friend me on facebook!