for you: chapter one, upcoming podcast, & almost home
here is the first chapter of "Death and its Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Beautiful Lessons: field notes from The Death Dialogues Project" & news about our upcoming podcast episode
Let Us Begin
tell me your story
and I’ll tell you mine
we will meet in the field where love lives
as if we were yet to know loss and dream together of how we are to live without them
I’m so pleased you have found this place, where we speak of death openly, and I’m gutted for you if overwhelming heartbreak sent you looking. My wish is that your relationship with death becomes a kinder, gentler experience for coming here.
Maybe you are on the heels of great, traumatic loss.
Maybe someone in your life is experiencing deep grief and you are looking for ways to be a better human for them.
Maybe death, itself, keeps you up at night; worrying about its eventual knock on your door.
And quite possibly, you are intrigued with the stage of life we call death and dying, and opening these pages falls within the many ways you wish to expand your understanding of death and begin to walk hand in hand with it.
For whatever reason you are here: Welcome.
You belong here.
Welcome to this garden of messy, overgrown, yet frequently beautiful weeds.
There are books on death, dying, and grief aplenty––so why read this one?
Soon after experiencing the unimaginable, people repeatedly say they go searching, wanting to hear from the people who have been there. Many survivors say they want to witness that someone could actually live through this heart-wrenching pain they are experiencing. And just maybe, along the way as they explore others’ stories, they will be given hope for moving forward.
Within The Death Dialogues Project, we have had countless conversations surrounding death. Not all of the real gets published or brought into the light in mainstream publications.
What you’ll find here is the steam escaping from a pot full of conversations, sometimes boiling and sometimes simmering slowly, a stew of experiences, concerns and questions from people looking over death’s abyss.
Maybe you can envision the typical book on the topic of death as neatly poured pavement, and this offering as the weeds that grow up through the cracks—straggly, thorny, sometimes blossoming, difficult to yank out and ever-returning.
This book holds conversations that you may not find elsewhere. Jagged edges, unanswered questions, and cloistered observations.
This book was created to hold you.
the death dialogues project’s “why”
Why, oh why, have humans run from death to the point that we have rendered ourselves mute in its presence?
The answers are many and vast and frequently remain deeply buried.
Illiteracy surrounding the end of life and death.
Viewing death as failure.
Fear, however, seems to be the common thread woven through all of these reasons. Fear often leads to magical thinking: If I just don’t talk about it, maybe it will go away. Having worked in human services and clinical mental health for a great portion of my professional career, I can tell you that when you peel back leaf after leaf of excessive worry, it is common to find that fear of death lies at the heart of any incapacitating anxiety. Our brains work overtime to run from death, and this can lead to sensations and feelings that seem overwhelming and can incapacitate some people altogether.
It is always fascinating to break down how some human characteristics that are so troubling today might have served the human race in its early days. It seems obvious in that historical context that the drive to stay alive was accompanied by fear of death.
Early humans faced huge risk at every turn, and failing to be hyper-vigilant could end in the decimation of a whole group of people. Fortunately, evolution has generally decreased our need to be constantly on alert and running from accidental death or attack. Yes, those survival mechanisms will always be a part of us. We will notice an increase in our fight-flight-freeze symptoms during times when our health, safety, and wellbeing feel threatened, such as a worldwide pandemic or those times we feel there is a sudden, acute threat. It is not in the best interest of our mind-body health to spend excessive time in those states. (We will unpack that more later and discuss some simple ways to shift our physiology to an increased sense of ease.) Dealing with our thoughts and feelings surrounding death and grief is something like dismantling an artichoke. We have to wade through the bristly, bitter, hard bits, sometimes choking on the heartbreak of it all—and nearly losing ourselves—to finally arrive at the heart of it; to be honest about what lies beneath, and what is aching and calling for attention at our tender core.
It’s not a journey everyone can take with their heart and mind wide open. But you, my friend, are here to find that tender morsel in an area of our existence that for so many evokes dissonance, terror, disdain, dread, even horror: death.
Despite the pain it brings, as Zenith Virago, who calls herself a DeathWalker and has spent decades companioning people at end of life, points out in her trainings, we also experience intrigue, a desire to be close to that magic place—the threshold between life and death. We want to lightly touch that electric space enough to get a wee taste of it.
Many of us have known that place and are drawn to return, where one almost steps right into the space of dying, and what comes after, with another person. One foot in this world and one foot in the beyond.
We send off their bodily vessel into the sea of the great mystery, one foot on dry land and one on their departing boat, and at the very last minute try to pull back and have both feet resting on the solid shore. Sometimes, though, part of us seems to linger above the water, or plunges into the depths, rendering us soaked to the bone. Fully arriving back on dry land can be its own difficult transition, especially if a piece of our essence has left on the boat with our beloved one.
Of course, there are also sudden deaths that wake us in the night and render us forever dismantled by the trauma they rode in on.
Death experiences can never be fully explained or compared, because they are so very unique to each and every human. The sun- flowers in a vastly planted field all appear identical, but on closer inspection are individual. Such is death and how we experience it.
Having dealt with death and dying throughout my life and career, the end of life has always held a special place of interest for me. You could say my spirit felt called to that transitional space. I have felt very much the same about birth. Even as a child, I was captivated by tran- sitions into and out of the world’s sacredness.
Throughout the years, I tried to meet the challenges of handling death head-on and in a variety of ways. Early in my career, I took time to sit with the dying when my busy nursing workload suggested that type of “compassionate care” (spoken almost with a roll of the eyes by a bristly charge nurse) was not the priority.
Within my work I tiptoed towards a change in my environment: insisting, for example, that care after death be conducted with some sacred attention; speaking with med students and doctors about their need to come to terms with their own feelings about death if they were going to sit with patients as they neared the end of life, and encouraging them to look beyond defining death as a medical failure; conducting Dignity Therapy—developed and researched by Dr. Harvey Chochinov, a psychiatrist who specializes in palliative care—with dying people.
But it was my journey with my soul-connect brother during his year-long odyssey with brain cancer and ensuing death that compelled me to step up and do more to bring these conversations out of the closet. Creating and immersing myself in The Death Dialogues Project was, admittedly, one way I coped with my own grief. My mother, who lived with us and with whom I was very close, had a very mindful death nine months after my brother’s. Then both in-laws died within the next six months. And death has continued to visit our family.
About seven months after my brother’s death, I was in the early planning of staging The Vagina Monologues for the annual V-Day protest against violence towards women and children, when I wondered whether my deceased brother was whispering a directive in my ear.
Bec, you need to facilitate these conversations surrounding death. We need to get death out of the closet, too.
You see, American playwright Eve Ensler had interviewed 200 women about a topic we don’t readily talk about: their vaginas. Then she created a renowned, award-winning piece of verbatim theatre consisting of monologues written from those interviews.
Shortly after that whisper, The Death Dialogues Project was born.
Interviewing people about their stories of death was always a moving experience. The tellers would express gratitude for being given the space to open their hearts and share their loved ones’ stories freely. They found the experience transformational, and for many, it was the first time they’d ever told their story. Some of these experiences had occurred decades earlier.
The Death Dialogues Project led to a couple of well-received stage productions created from death stories, as well as a social media presence and a podcast developed to share these stories more broadly. Within three years after my brother’s death in January 2017, we’d staged four productions, counting The Vagina Monologues, put together a workshop on death and created the podcast. I like to call the project a meeting at the crossroads of social action and art.
I’d be remiss not to mention that, in the cracks between all these happenings, I was deeply grieving, missing the pillars and soul- connects of my complicated family of origin.
After some prodding, realizing that a podcast could reach a broader audience, we started The Death Dialogues Project podcast. It offers an opportunity for people to dismantle the myth of one- dimensional descriptions of end-of-life issues––tragic, devastating–– and to get a privileged view into another person’s intimate and boundless story.
Admittedly, a podcast met the all or nothing demands the Covid- 19 pandemic dumped on our doorstep. If we could not create productions for the public to attend, we could create conversations to engage the wider world. Having received overwhelmingly positive responses from people about the impact of those conversations on their lives, the podcast seems a beautiful way to carry on the mission of drawing conversations about death and dying out of the closet.
death is not a failure
We’re often fed the lie that in life, anything less than “good” is failure. And that view, my friends, deprives us of the sweetest nectar of life. If you’ve listened to our podcast, you will have heard me speak of full-spectrum living.
In every conversation I have had with people who have experienced unimaginable loss—and walked the terrain of death with a willingness to be open to expansion—they report their lives are forever changed.
Not diminished, but expanded.
It’s the beautiful-horrible of it all that comes from our stories that feel terrible-no-good.
We can feel guilty for even admitting the possibility that the death of someone we loved dearly was partly responsible for breaking us open to such an extent that we are now living in a more expansive manner. But I encourage you to give yourself that permission.
Permission to expand when your wings begin to sprout.
It may take years of walking through the hell-fires of missing your loved one so very deeply. But feeling all the feelings is what fertilizes the growth of your full-spectrum living.
This is a new era we are living in, when it comes to the topic of death and dying. There is a wave building of death-workers, death- talkers, death-positive allies, open-grievers—and it’s changing the cultural silence surrounding death.
By sitting with open conversations, such as our chats on The Death Dialogues Project Podcast, you get practice at simply being still and listening to another human’s deep and moving story.
Yes, in a way it’s a free therapeutic intervention. Because all that people really want or need, in times of great trauma or loss, is someone who deeply understands what they are going through, at a time when it feels like no one can. Someone who can offer unconditional acceptance of wherever they are at in their process.
If we really examine the underbelly of our death-averse culture, we discover that avoidance is born of fear. And what is the frontline treatment for extreme fear or phobia?
Simply put, experiencing that which you fear the most and learning that you are still able to breathe and function in its presence can be the cure.
Not that you are orgasmic about the experience, but that you can, in fact, tolerate it. That means no longer running from death, attempting to hide from it. What we do to avoid death is often like a toddler who shuts her eyes, thinking that if she can’t see someone, they can’t see her. Death will always see us. Why not look it in the eye?
For people who struggle to be present with difficult stories, our episodes give you an opportunity to step into that uncomfortable space at your extreme convenience. When I say that you’ll be a better human for listening, I mean it. By opening yourself to conversations and stories about death, you will feel more confident in the face of the inevitable, and that will be a gift to those around you as well as yourself.
Recently, there was another whisper in my ear––to begin this writing project.
People report searching for reading material they can relate to in the immediate aftermath of death. Something that makes them feel less alone, where they can see others have lived through the deep pain they are experiencing.
People tell us they are exhausted by reading academic-type texts telling us what we should be experiencing, and when, how our grief may be heading towards pathology, and all sorts of clinical speculation.
They’re frustrated by the bastardization of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of grief, created to define the emotional stages people go through after receiving diagnosis of a terminal illness. Don’t tell me my feelings are linear or have to fit that model. Her description of five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) was actually written to explain the reactions of people who receive a terminal diagnosis, which was how it was taught to me in nursing school in the early ‘80s.
What people actually want, and thrive from, is hearing another person’s real-life experience. We aren’t fools. We know that you can’t wrap up death, dying and the aftermath in a tidy container and tie it up with a bow. But when we listen to a story, bits of it are filed into places such as: Yes, that resonates, that was similar to my experience. Or: I may have to call on that in the future. Our reservoir of death literacy is generously replenished.
Many people have commented that following The Death Dialogues Project has informed them and made them feel more grounded as they deal with a recent death or head into watching their loved one’s life winding down. That has been the payment, graciously received, for the work of this project.
Maybe you, too, are here because you are thinking: I want to know I’m not alone, and I want to hear how others have navigated this jagged terrain.
We are here for you. Again, welcome.
a note on the format of the book
What you will find here are common threads that have been shared within people’s stories, including my own. Each topic is one that’s been discussed so frequently, you may find comfort hearing about it.
Unique individuals have unique experiences. But common threads do exist, and this book creates a beautifully-messy display out of those threads.
May the contents within these pages land gently in your heart.
We know that we learn most from shared experiences, people’s stories, and we hope you find some comfort and a feeling of: Yes, I’ve found a space where people get me.
Accept this as a nourishing resource from which you can pick up and read whatever your heart is calling out for at any given time. At the end of the book, you will find a list of relevant conversations from our podcast so you can easily listen to those who have walked a similar path with loss.
The hope is that, within these pages, you find a balm to soothe your soul and a focus that centers your rambling mind. These words have been written understanding the tricks that death, loss and grief can play on our fragile brains. You will find shorter sections pertinent to a particular topic within some of the chapters.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive resource. Rather, think of it as something like an antiquated key that may unlock some of the places your weary mind has been going as you have pondered death or dealt with its aftermath.
Poems open each chapter, and they are completed with words of nourishment to ponder. Throughout, you will also find the words of contributors who generously share a glimpse of their own experience.
My wish for your experience with this book is that within these pages you will find a variety of places you may turn to as your experience of death and grief evolves within you. As our experiences change, our needs change.
Thanks for being here.
may the words here comfort and provide you with a sense of connection
may you feel your body relax and experience a deep exhale, through knowing that you are not alone
may you feel the love of those who have gone before you as you explore deeply
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of my book. Look out for more chapters in the future. The book is widely available and very affordable if you’d like to read more now or gift someone (many people are finding it to be a pertinent and lovely book for those times there are no words). You can find several links for different purchase options HERE.
Be on the lookout right here, or wherever else you listen to your podcasts, for another episode of The Death Dialogues Project Podcast that will be released this Thursday (US)/Friday (NZ). Unexpecting with Rachel Lewis. Rachel Lewis is a foster, adoptive and birth mom. After a 5-year battle with secondary infertility and the losses of five babies during pregnancy, she now has three children in her arms and a foster son in her heart.
As the founder of the Facebook support group Brave Mamas, she is passionate about helping others through their grief. She is a contributor to Still Standing Magazine, Pregnancy After Loss Support, and Filter Free Parents. Rachel holds bachelor’s degrees in Theology, Bible, and Speech Communications.
Rachel wrote the book Unexpecting: Real Talk on Pregnancy Loss as a way for other parents experiencing similar loss to connect and know what to expect. You can find Rachel’s book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Kate’s conversation with Rachel spans talking about platitudes, to paper plates, and the grief she felt as she experienced unprecedented loss.
I’m six days away from my departure back to New Zealand after this epic 93 day trip. I’ll see you on the other side! I’m having some lovely time, having met our precious final grandchild. Tomorrow Asheville, North Carolina, then LA and Joshua Tree and then hoooooooome.
As always, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com
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