Mindfulness: the art of living with dying


    One library in St. Paul offered a six-week series of talks this winter that drew standing-room only crowds. Such interest may surprise you, because the series focused on a topic most of us avoid in polite conversation: death.

    This curiosity is not so surprising to health care or religious professionals, however, because baby boomers are hitting 60 this year and are facing the "big horizon" questions "What is death? What happens when we die?"

    "We have a medical definition for death," says Ann O’Fallon, a registered nurse and licensed psychologist who specializes in grief and loss. "But how does that relate to life and the quality of life preceding it? And what happens right after we die – or right before our life begins? We don’t have answers to any of these questions. It is all a mystery."

    Silence around death

    O’Fallon’s mother died of breast cancer when she was nine. She remembers no one talking about it and realizing it wasn’t okay to ask questions. Her family’s reaction began a life-long examination of the silence surrounding death.

    To help others, O’Fallon gathered the poems and stories of women who lost their mothers at a young age and put them in a book called Kiss Me Goodnight, which has been nominated for this year’s Minnesota Book Award.

    "I’ve learned that if we don’t grieve as a child," she says, "we grieve over and over again at each developmental stage of our lives, such as leaving home, getting married, having children. And that’s a good thing, because it brings greater levels of peace and helps us break through the barriers of silence."

    O’Fallon is one of three co-leaders who will be tackling the mystery of death at the Benedictine Center during a four-day retreat called "Living with Dying." The other leaders are: Jean Haley, social worker, hospice volunteer and mindfulness leader; and Mary Martin, hospital chaplain and spiritual director. These professionals describe themselves as "women interested in exploring consciousness, especially as it relates to death."

    "In living with dying," Martin says, "we embrace the mystery. We sort out who our God is and we find ways to be at peace with death. That includes finding peace in our everyday lives."

    Forgiveness, mindfulness, compassion

    "Most faith traditions talk about the healing power of forgiveness," Martin says, "and that’s probably not a fluke. So to find peace, forgiveness must be involved. The quality of our relationships will have an impact on how we die, so a lot of good things happen when we forgive. It means forgiving ourselves, of course, and even forgiving the fact that our death may not be how we want it to be."

    Haley says living mindfully and extending compassion will also improve the quality of our relationships, our lives and, ultimately, our deaths. "As we move through life and become more loving and forgiving," she says, "we will carry less baggage moving through the dying process."

    She emphasizes the need for mindfulness, which makes us aware of what’s happening in the moment and helps us act accordingly. "Awareness is everything," she says, "and it’s something we can learn and develop through life. There is no one way to live, or one way to die. So dying shouldn’t be scary. It’s just one more opportunity to be mindful, to give up all our expectations and to experience what is – whether it’s painful or blissful."

    While all of us will die, few of us want to think about death. "And that doesn’t make sense," Martin says. "It’s important to ponder our beliefs about dying, even though it’s uncomfortable. Thinking about death is not ghoulish. It just makes us aware and eliminates fears. For some, life after death is reuniting with family and friends; for others it’s a transformation of consciousness and energy; for others it’s nothingness.

    "And that is their belief. That is where they’ll find their comfort."

    Baby boomers seek change

    One hundred years ago, death was embraced as part of being alive. Families held wakes in their homes and people came to mourn as a community. In the 20th century, however, the medical system introduced technologies that keep us living longer. And the funeral industry introduced aesthetics that make us look better in death than we did in life.

    We’ve made death more discreet, O’Fallon says, and now we feel disconnected from the end-moments of life. She cites statistics showing that of the 2.2 million people who died in 1997, 1.9 million died in a health care facility. Yet 87 percent of these people wanted to die at home. "It shows the desire for an experience that was common a century ago," she says.

    As a generation that has grown up with so many choices, baby boomers are already looking at different health care and "dying" options for their parents – and themselves.

    "This generation is healthier than their parents," O’Fallon says. "They’re living longer and are less disabled by illness. They know what’s out there and they’re demanding more options, including new services around death and dying."

    Some baby boomers, for example, are avoiding nursing homes and designing communities that will help them die with dignity and grace. She cites one woman who asked friends to perform healing touch on her every day. "I was one of those friends," O’Fallon says. "I felt honored to be part of the community she had formed. She was so grateful for the comfort we gave; and I was so grateful to be part of her dying process."

    These three women speak highly of the hospice system, because it embraces the entire family and provides a multi-disciplinary approach to meet each patient’s needs. They recall one musician who sat with a dying person and played his guitar. He would match, or counterbalance, his tempo to the dying person’s breath, hoping to find a rhythm that would bring comfort and peace.

    A wrong way to die?

    Haley tells us it’s wrong to think there’s a "right way" to die. "We can’t predict what the experience will be," she says. "We may insist on no pain medication, for example; but if the pain is bad, we may change our minds. Again, it’s being mindful of the moment and making choices based on that awareness. The more mindful we are in our life, the more mindful we’ll be at our death."

    O’Fallon encourages us to be fluid in our thoughts about death. "When the time comes, there will be things you don’t know and things you cannot know. So don’t beat yourself up for not doing it ‘right.’"

    Even fear is okay, she says. "It’s a normal emotion, and it’s impossible not to be afraid. What gets in our way, however, is when we push that emotion away. The key is to go further and find out what we’re afraid of. When people can articulate on that level, that’s when they tap into their own courage and may find peace."

    Life prepares us for the final moment, Martin says, because it invites us to experience "daily" deaths. "We die to the demands of our ego," she says. "We die to our need for money and things; we die to our drives for power and control. We die before we die, because our life is filled with these little deaths."

    Death is bigger than what our minds can imagine. What all of us can learn, however, is to go mindfully into an experience that none of us will escape.

    "With Lamaze, we’ve mastered the natural birthing process," Martin says. "Now we’re ready to find a natural ‘deathing’ process."

    The “Living with Dying” retreat will be May 18-21 at The Benedictine Center, 2675 Larpenteur Ave. E., in Maplewood, Minn. The retreat is intended for anyone with a professional interest in caring for the dying, anyone currently giving care to someone with a terminal illness, and anyone who is curious about death itself. The presenters will will emphasize mindfulness and the awareness of death to help in the process of living and, ultimately, of dying. The $195 cost includes room and board for four days and three nights. To register online, go to www.stpaulsmonastery.org and follow the Benedictine Center Link. For information, call (651) 777-7251 or e-mail [email protected].

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