So first, the old bromide that begins all such conversations: we all are dying. Birth and death fall out of the vending machine together; thus if you're reading this, you're headed in the same direction. (And if you're reading this but have already made "the transition," I don't think I want to know about it while writing a post lest fingers quake so much I can't type.)
We spent this past weekend at a conference with this post's title as its theme. Several days in the Catskills at peak, which this year is a soft wash of the vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges we're used to in the Northeast in early October. Wash is the right word as we've had no rain all summer, until this past Friday that is, when torrents fell, roads flooded, and creeks rushed in muddy brown rapids causing Phoenicia, NY, residents to evacuate on October 1, the very day and the very place where the conference began.
Quick takes: nice people attending (I talked with half a dozen other women in my situation), good and original presenters overall, lovely setting, very wrenching, and short enough that overwhelm was averted.
Learned facts such as this: more than a third of all deaths in the US now take place in hospice, a number that has virtually tripled in 15 years.
And learned practical things, like coming up with a "vigil plan," operating agreements for the final days/hours of a person's life generated by the person doing the dying; that there's a field of "music thanatology," a subspeciality in palliative care (involves a harp and was invented by the angelically voiced Therese Schroeder-Sheker, who performed); that "care providers are but wisdom keepers for the dying" (see Frank Ostaseski's Metta Institute work--he presented skillfully too, as per below); that Bob Thurman (as responsible as anyone on earth for holding Tibet's flame high in the western world) should be doing stand-up (even if he delivers mainly sitting down); and that there can be keynoters who are out of touch at such conferences, purveying messages that feel soulless in the name of soul.
In Ostaseski's workshop (he also delivered a beautifully written speech about his long work with hospice patients), he did an exercise I've never seen before: he built a Jung-like model of human development, asking volunteers to sit or stand to embody the stages that we go through as we clamber our way through life: mother-fused-with-child/child-differentiating from mother; awareness of the time/space dichotomy; consciousness of the mind/body schism; the recognition of conflict between persona and shadow; and then, as we approach mid-life, the turn toward integration as the capacity to self-reflect works to reconcile these apparent dualities and the ego and the soul come into greater alignment.
People stood in pairs to symbolize each of the dualities except for the very first and the very last positions, where differentiation and separateness both fuse and come together (my interpretation here) in the dying process. Jeff chose to take this position in the room, which resulted in a profound conversation between this particular volunteer and the workshop leader. That the subject was acceptance of death was enough to capture the attention of everyone in the room; that two older men were having such an intimate and compelling conversation in public, a dialogue about the very meaning of life that was intensely personal and not theoretical or in any way hidden behind "ideas," was its own magnetic force, its own rapturous moment.
So that would have been enough but, as per above, there were other powerful workshops and talks, including the last that we attended with Henry Fersko-Weiss, who created the first "End-of-Life Doula Program," that helps those who are dying and their families through the dying process and whose work was featured in this NY Times article. This very practical session walked through how to plan for dying, i.e. precisely what the person's wishes are at the very end--including everything from their preferences in regard to medication to what music they want playing, to suggestions for creating images of the person's life story, to what happens after the last breath (how soon the funeral home is contacted and suchnot). This is all very tough emotional stuff but the program Fersko-Weiss described seems to affect quite remarkable passings, stories told with great tenderness.
So what was missing for me? Talk about disorderly deaths: sudden deaths by accident, stroke, heart attack, murder, suicide. For those who've had to live through any of these, you/we know how radically different such passings are from those we can anticipate, almost as if they are different species altogether, and how excruciating they are for survivors. Every person who takes their own life is a suicide bomber really, those left behind blown apart in their grief, maimed by their inability to understand, bereft of any center from which to make meaning of what happened for a very long time. There's a corollary potential set of learnings here about how to navigate these very dangerous streets. It's not art, it's not science, but it is life and everyone I know who's been through one of these devastations suffers for a very long time.
Meanwhile, if they have another such event (they're planning to, they being The New York Open Center and Tibet House, which have co-sponsored four in the past fifteen years) and you're interested in the topic), go. Everyone needs to spend time in conferences like this.