Embracing Life at Death Cafe

Talking about death is awkward for most of us.  It’s not an easy cocktail or happy hour topic.  But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to encourage this very subject. 

So I searched the web for tips. 

When I came across a Meetup group called Death Café, I was intrigued.  While intrigue was high, I was too busy to go.  And, if truth be told, it seemed rather odd.  Would it be filled with Goths or artists focused on El dia de los Muertos?  Was it for folks who were dying, had recently lost someone, or some other reason?  The post for the Meetup simply spoke to talking about death in a comfortable setting, and the mention of cake.

About four months later, at a networking meeting, someone mentioned wanting to go to a Death Café.  Bingo.  I was again intrigued.  I found the time and place and plugged it into my calendar. 

I arrived a bit after 1 pm at a lovely home in a Sacramento neighborhood.  I was probably 5 minutes late.  The conversation had already started.  The phrase, “death waits for no one” immediately popped into my head, but I held my tongue.  Is humor okay?  Should we joke about death?

The phrase, “death waits for no one” immediately popped into my head, but I held my tongue. 

As I settled in, I heard people introduce themselves and what brought them to Death Café that sunny afternoon.  People were there for a variety of reasons.  Some were facing a terminal illness or lifelong, threatening health condition. Some were grieving a family member.  One was grieving a pet, which hit him with such force that he felt compelled to explore his fear of death.  Some worked with people who were facing the end of life.  Some were just searching or curious about death.  I mentioned that I wanted to learn how to talk to people about dying – how could I encourage people to talk about end-of-life wishes and consider this a gift to those they left behind rather than a morbid task that would evoke fear and guilt and sadness?

The facilitator, a lovely woman who lost her first husband years ago and has since found a calling for assisting dying people at the end of their lives, shared that Death Café was founded by Jon Underwood who had envisioned a place where people could meet to talk through their fear, curiosity and any other feeling about death, consider how to live in the present and share tea and cake.

Jon Underwood had simple guidelines for Death Café.  It must be a safe place with confidentiality, it must be free of charge and no one should be there to sell a service or materials, and there should be tea and cake.  The tea and cake – or other refreshments – are a means of nourishment and sustaining life.  When we share food with each other, he believed, it is an act of the living, and while talking about death we can be more fully present to the gift of life in the moment.

The tea and cake – or other refreshments – are a means of nourishment and sustaining life. 

What I found at Death Café were people who sincerely wanted to talk openly about their struggles, their fears, their questions and their experiences without fear of judgment. No one was forced to share. Some shared a lot.  Some shared a bit.  Everyone listened. There was humor as well.  One gentleman inserted several puns or wry comments.  I suppose my “death waits for no one” thought could have landed well. Over the two hours, there was a palpable level of intimacy between strangers that was, indeed, life-giving.  People opened up about a topic that touched them in familiar yet deeply unique ways, which was both compelling and comforting. I left feeling lighter, optimistic, clear.

On the whole, we don’t talk about death much.  There is a lot of focus on being present, being mindful, and that is good.  What I found at Death Café was the ability for both to coexist.  In fact, I found that being present to life made talking about death simple, elegant even.  To talk about death is to talk about life. 

Death Cafés are held in over 56 countries.  You can Google Death Café and find one near you, or find a way to start your own.

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different ends.” Lao Tzu

The Loving and Tough Choice of Hospice

One of the toughest times I recall was when I made the decision to sign papers for Hospice for my father.

He had been ill for a number of years – a slow decline at first, and then a rapid finish, it seemed to me, but my memory is blurred by love and sadness. At the time he was living in an assisted living facility with my Mom, receiving a lot of supportive services and trying desperately to keep a fair amount of time between Emergency Room visits as each one seemed to suck a chunk of time away from him.

My husband and I had taken the opportunity during summer to take some time away, just the two of us, for business and pleasure, after having spent nearly 5 years providing increasing levels of care for both of them. My siblings took time to visit from their own states and give us a reprieve. When our plane landed, I turned on my phone and the texts quickly pinged and populated my screen. I learned that both parents had made trips to the ER in the weekend before we landed back home, but that both were now back in their room, apparently safe.

The next day when I visited it was immediately clear that Dad was not all right. We made another trip to the hospital and by the end of a long day, arrangements had been made for me, as the one holding the Power of Attorney and Health Care Advocate status, had to make some decisions about Hospice.

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Sandwich Generation? Find the Ease in the Squeeze!

The Sandwich Generation squeeze is tough. There are no two ways about it. One of the kickers is that it tends to sneak up on us. We live in a busy world when raising children, even if they are older and able to take care of most of their own needs. Combine any level of childcare or teen and young adult “management” with working, and we have busy with an extra dollop of stress on our plate. So in talking with people in the Sandwich Generation, I often hear how it went from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat. They didn’t really see it coming. Mom fell and broke her hip. Dad had a stroke. I’ve written about how I wasn’t fully in tune with how quickly my mother’s “forgetfulness” went from what I thought was anxiety to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is rather counter-intuitive that we find the signs of aging actually sneak up on us; after all, we are all aging every day. But it does. So yes, it is stressful.

But when we settle in, take care of the immediate needs, try to stabilize any crises, and finally come up for air, what do we find? Is it all doom and gloom? I am an optimistic pragmatist. I try to see the bright side in what is. Get the job done, but always look for the silver linings. In my own experience, and what I have heard from others, there are bright sides.

I’ve heard from people that relationships with parents often softened, deepened, and renewed. Strained sibling relationships often evolved and repaired to a significant extent. Spouses had opportunities to support and care for the caregiver. Children witnessed incredible acts of compassion, and themselves acted with immense love. Caregivers often report finding reserves of strength they didn’t know they had.

Often the bright sides and silver linings are small things with big impact. For me, I found a deepening relationship with my parents. My children loved times when my parents talked about their childhoods, my childhood, and so many funny stories. It became a ritual that we would ask one or both to tell a story when we were together. One time, we took a trip to where my Mother grew up and she lit up with such glee showing my kids her childhood house, her school, the church where she and my dad were married. She was completely delighted. It was wonderful to see how much long-term memory she retained, even if she couldn’t recall the conversation of 5 minutes ago.

My children often supported me, as well. Maybe because they were one generation away, and only knew my parents as older adults, they seemed to have deeper levels of patience for them. I recall one night in, particular; I had gotten crab for dinner because both of my folks loved crab. But my Dad no longer had the dexterity to crack the legs or bodies of the crab and dig for the sweet meat, a chore that had always been half the fun when I was a kid. But now I had to do it for him. He even had difficulty managing a fork, so I had to adjust to that. I became increasingly frustrated and distressed – mostly because I hated witnessing this sharp decline. Both of my kids stopped me and quietly intervened with words and actions. They provided both my father and me with compassion and support. It was these acts that later brought a flood of tears – acknowledging their maturity and gentleness. And looking at it from a distance, I could see a legacy of love from one generation to another. My children were learning more about compassion than I could have predicted.

Now, I wasn’t always great at seeing the bright sides and silver linings, but when I did, it gave me energy, insight, and enthusiasm for pushing on. Journaling about these times was especially helpful to me. I began with writing a nightly letter to God as a form of prayer. I started always with a gratitude list, then a list of special intentions for others, and then ended with asking for guidance and wisdom to see it when it showed itself to me. It helped me, too, when I asked for the best to come to those who I felt had angered or hurt me. It was easier to let them go when I wished them well, praying always for more joyful energy to show up in the world.

Coping is important for wellbeing. Coping is essential if we are to move through difficult times. And science actually shines a light on the physical and emotional benefits of coping strategies such as meditation, exercise, gratitude, and even compassion.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. David Hamilton (https://drdavidhamilton.com/) in 2017 at the first MindHeart Connect Conference in Gold Coast, Australia (http://www.mindheartconnect.com/). Hamilton is an organic chemist who spent four years developing drugs to combat cardiovascular disease and cancer. He was intrigued by the placebo effect and its power – and the mind’s capacity – to heal the body. He has written many books and lectures on the topic. He sees compassion as not simply good for the one cared for, but as a healing process for the caregiver as well. Hamilton notes that consistent, small acts of compassion are quite powerful. Our compassionate acts need not be grand gestures – the daily little things we do to care for others, also heals us.

Our bodies produce oxytocin, often called the “cuddle hormone,” when we engage in pleasing social situations and acts of compassion. Mothers produce oxytocin during labor and lactation. Men produce oxytocin as well and it is thought to promote social awareness. 

So we can focus on the chaos, the sadness, the added chores, or stop to consider what gifts we are given in this time. That is up to us.

This speaks to the power of intention, mindfulness, and self-awareness. It is easy to get caught up in feelings of overwhelm. But in taking a long view, pulling the lens out a bit to see the big picture, I know I have found that accepting the situation I cannot change – that caregiving for an aging parent will ultimately mean dealing with their death – helped me to focus on the quality of their lives, the quality of my life, and the quality of my children’s and spouse’s lives.

How do you care for yourself during these times of immense stress? Have you found bright sides or silver linings? Have you experienced the power of compassion?

I invite you to share. Thanks for reading!

Christy

Denial

“Christy, I think your Mom is having memory problems. Have you noticed?” my Aunt asks me. A lot of people have been asking me this one lately. No, I tell them. It’s anxiety. She is just so worried about my Dad. She worries all the time and is afraid to leave him for very long, so she cancels things she used to do. She has been cancelling book club, volunteering, various and sundry social engagements. But the question nags at me. Is it anxiety or is something else going on?

My Mom tells me, “I’m afraid I am more like my mother than my father!” She refers to her mother who died the day before her 80th birthday, who probably had some form of dementia for years. She would walk around her home with a burning cigarette with a 5-inch ash at the end, with my grandfather following behind with an ashtray trying to keep the house from burning down. Her father lived nearly another 20 years and died at age 99. His memory was as clear as a bell, although he did tell me the decades seemed to blur together. My Mom worries a lot about my Dad, but she worries a lot about that, too. She worries about her memory. Should I worry, too?

I’m a school psychologist with a background in counseling and various other things. I’ve worked with adults and children. I’ve worked with people with mental illness. I know anxiety when I see it, I tell myself. This is anxiety. But my conscience gnaws at me. Is this denial on my part? Sometimes we are most dangerous when we think we know things.

I visit my parents and stop to check that my Dad’s pillbox is full for the week. I’ve been checking this recently because my Mom tells me Dad messes it up after she fills it. He is on a lot of medication. I look and sure enough, pills have been moved and everything is a jumble.

“Who changed everything?” I ask them both. I sound like the 3rd grade teacher my mother was for 25 years, interrogating the 9 year olds about the messy room or missing markers. This bugs the crap out of my Dad, who huffs. “She keeps messing with it,” he tattles. She is ratted out again and looks aghast and indignant. Seriously – is this what it has come to? I pull back from my frustration about having two more “children” to care for. Eventually, I fix the pills and tape a sticky note to the front, “Do not move, remove or add any pills until you call Christy first”. Yeah – that’ll work.

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