Spiritual Practice: Facing Death During a Pandemic

man in black jacket holding mirror

 

In the last month, we have all been confronted with our mortality. If you have not, you’re not paying attention. This virus is a killer, of any age, race, or socioeconomic status. 

How do we face the reality that we might die sooner than later? I’m not trying to be morbid or doomsaying, but simply invite us to look at how we handle this as spiritually focused people. Besides pulling up your, “I’m not afraid to die because I know where I’m going,” boots, how do we live in this current reality? Here are some ideas:

This reality, and our new social isolation, give us a unique opportunity to reflect on our lives. It’s a good time to look back and review. How do I feel about life so far? How do I feel about the choices I’ve made, the job I have, or the people I’ve committed to? What are my regrets? What might be some things I’d like to change if I live through this pandemic?

As we look back, are there people we need to forgive? People we need to affirm? Perhaps it’s a good time to make a phone call or send a letter to someone you have unfinished business with — or a card of encouragement to someone who has loved you well.

When I worked for hospice with people staring death in the face, the number one thing they wanted was to reconnect with people they’d been estranged from. When we could make that happen, both parties always cried tears of joy and relief. 

Many of my therapy clients were anxious and stressed the first week of social distancing. By the second week, all but the teenagers were starting to enjoy a slower pace and relax into it. What lessons have we learned about ourselves and a slower pace that we might want to take into the next season when life gets back to “normal?” Perhaps we would like to keep some of the slowness we are experiencing now. 

woman putting on a face mask

On a practical side, is it time to update your will? Perhaps you need to share your passwords with someone you trust or let the people you love know how you feel about being kept alive by extreme measures. If your family were to have a funeral down the road or a memorial service, is there something specific you’d like to happen there? Is there anything important you need to share with anyone?

It might be good to make a video or write a letter to your family or friends, saying what’s important. People that are dying of the virus are dying quickly, and they are isolated from their families, many without a chance to even call and say goodbye. You can proactively do this for your family by making a video or writing a letter just in case. 

And finally, how are you doing with God? God loves every inch of you, just the way you are, and longs for a relationship with you. God is good, kind, loving, and accepting. God is not the sole property of any one religion, but available to all. If you’ve become estranged from God, this might be a good time to reconnect. I’ve found that faith communities can be a good support to you and your loved ones during a time of crisis or death. 

It’s a scary time, but not facing these things will not help you. American’s are notoriously afraid of talking about death. It’s time to change that narrative and take away the fear and panic. We can be proactive and use this crisis as a time to grow spiritually and prepare ourselves. 

 

Let me know if you have some ideas to help you as you think about your own mortality.

 

Photo of man with mirror by Marlon Schmeiski on Pexels.com
Photo of woman in mirror by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Spiritual Practice: Moving Through Thresholds

threshold

(I decided to share the book I’m writing over on Wattpad. You can read it here). Now, back to the blog on Spiritual Practices!

Recently I was with a patient as he was dying. His body fought hard to stay alive and I sat with him, holding his hand, praying for him and singing, as he crossed over. He’d been homeless at the end of his life, and he was estranged from his family because of his choices. But nobody should die alone, so I stayed as long as I could.

As I watched him struggle, I was reminded of the labor it takes to give birth. I’ve had the privilege of sitting with three women who have given birth, plus I’ve done it twice myself, and I can tell you – it is hard work! There is one point during labor and delivery called “transition.” It’s the period when partners get slapped, swear words fly, and statements like: “Don’t ever touch me again,” become part of the birth story.

Once I was in a training with a wizened hospice counselor who was talking about the process of “crossing over” when we die. She called that passage a “threshold.” She said that thresholds are hard and dangerous. For example, an airplane is in the most danger when it is taking off or landing. She said perhaps the thresholds between life and death are also hard to navigate and that was why so many of our patients see long-dead relatives who come to escort them over the threshold.

There are many kinds of thresholds besides birthing a new life and dying to new life. I believe that moving through them can be a spiritual practice.

There is a threshold when you’ve lost a job, and before you get a new one. Or when one relationship ends, and before a new one begins. Or when you let go of an old idea of God but haven’t yet formed a new one.

During these kinds of transitions, it’s good to have someone with you to guide you across the threshold. There are birth and death doulas for those transitions and there are others:

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Four kinds of helpers when moving through thresholds:

If you have lost a job it can be a very scary time. But, it can also be freeing and a time to re-envision what you want to do next. This is a good time to consult a guidance counselor who can give you some assessments and help you think about options for your future. You may decide to go back to school or re-tool for a different career. Get someone to help you with your resume as well. The rules about resumes may have changed and the requirements for each job need to be considered with each resume. There are also places online to get that kind of help.

If you have lost a relationship, a marriage and family counselor can be a great help. It’s important to grieve the loss before moving on. It’s also vital to own your part in the failure of the relationship, as well as determine what features of the relationship you would like to avoid with the next. The Psychology Today website is a good place to find counselors in your area.

If the transition you are going through is physical, you’ll need medical help. A doctor, a nutritionist, a personal trainer or physical therapist might be parts of a great team to help you through your transition. Asking for referrals from friends or on Facebook can be an excellent way to get a good recommendation.

But also, I see all transition as spiritual, and there are people trained as spiritual directors who can help you navigate that area. They usually meet with you for one hour, once per month, and don’t charge too much either. Spiritual Directors International is a good place to find one in your area. Some will work long distance through Skype or on the phone.

Whatever kind of transition you’re in, don’t feel you have to go through it alone. I remember a 12-step friend changing the old saying about, “When God closes a door, he opens a window,” to add, “but the hallway is hell!” I agree. It can be tough in the hallway, the waiting room, the threshold. But these transitions usually lead to new life, new possibilities, growth, and joy. All you need is someone to come along and guide you through.

Are you facing a threshold? What help are you finding as you go through? Any hints to share?

 

Spiritual Practice: Grieving

bathing the dying

Grieving is a spiritual practice? I believe it is and it’s one we often try to cut short, but it’s time to reevaluate grieving, it’s time to give it it’s due. I mean, even Jesus wept.

I’ve learned a lot about grief, personally and in my work as a hospice counselor. I guess if I had to summarize what I’ve learned about grief, I would say: White, non-Jewish Americans don’t have the practices in place to support a grieving process that allows the body, mind, and spirit of a person to truly heal after a loss.

Grieving is a beautiful, natural outcome of loss, but we just don’t know how to make space for it in our culture. Let me give some examples of grief I’ve seen in white, non-Jewish families and then compare them to that of other cultures.

I attended a death yesterday of the husband/father of a beautiful family that was quite typical in this way. When the father died, the mother rushed everyone out of the room while the funeral home attendant loaded the body onto a gurney, covered him completely with a blanket and took him out to an awaiting van. It was all very quiet. Then the wife looked at me with a blank expression and asked, “What do we do now?”

Typically, in these kinds of families, what happens next is a flurry of activity. Family and friends are called, the house is cleaned, insurances companies are informed, death certificates are ordered, funeral arrangements made, and the bereft has to make a million small decisions. This process takes about a week, maybe two. Then the funeral comes, an hour of remembrance about the loved one, and that’s it. Now you are expected to go back to work or life — as if your world didn’t just explode.

In a Jewish death, people observe Shiva: the mirrors are covered and people gather to sit with you at your house for a week to offer condolences. Often the dead body is lovingly washed by family. A candle burns in the home and everyone wears a black torn ribbon to symbolize grief. A Jewish friend of mine said when a family experiences a loss, they can turn down social invitations for a year without any bad feelings; I think that is beautiful.

My hospice agency had a Latino family who lost a beloved sister, and when we went to pronounce the death, the house was packed full of friends and family, weeping, wailing and eating together. Death in the Latino community is a communal affair. No one grieves alone. This is true in many other cultures and I believe communal grieving is extremely helpful in allowing the natural process of grief to occur. Grief can receive its full expression and is not cut short.

We need some rituals for our grieving. In the Hebrew Scriptures, grieving is taken seriously. There are psalms called Psalms of Lament and an entire book called Lamentations. Sadly these two sets of scripture have been removed from many modern prayer books. It’s as if we are afraid to give expression to our grief and we choose instead to “suck it up and be strong.” In my opinion, this leads to prolonged/unresolved grief and unhealthy bodies that have to carry unexpressed grief.

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Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?

How can we learn to grieve well?

  1. Realize that loss is a natural part of life. Not just death, but any kind of loss: loss of a job, loss of a friend, loss of a pet, loss of your health…
  2. Lament is another name for deep grief. Cultures that lament together heal together. As a culture, we have a lot of things we need to lament together to heal our nation: let’s start with the loss of our national unity, or our failure to end racism or systemic injustice. What would it be like to lament that together? Might that be a starting place for the healing of our nation?
  3. Make room for grief in your life and give yourself permission to grieve. Take naps, wear waterproof mascara, eat chocolate, lower your expectations…
  4. Invite people into your grief so that you don’t have to grieve alone. Friends don’t know what to say to a grieving person but they usually want to help. Let them in on how you’re doing, accept offers of food, chores, and company.
  5. Brainstorm, in advance how you want to respond to grief so that you have some ideas/structures in place to help. There are many grief groups, generally offered by hospitals and hospices; those are important, especially if you don’t have family or friends who understand what you are going through.
  6. Remember that everyone grieves differently. There is no rule book to follow and those unhelpful reminders by others to, “get on with it,” are just that: unhelpful. It’s okay to stand up for your right to grieve in your own way.

We need to create new rituals to allow for grief. What new ways can we allow ourselves to heal through the power of grief? Are there ways that we can facilitate healthy grieving through art, music, or dance? How can religious/spiritual organizations help create these spaces? What can you add to the discussion? I’d love to hear ideas about how we can help each other grieve more freely.

For more spiritual practices check out my newest book, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening.

Photo Credit: Statute , Violin 

Bathing the Dying: how to care for those experiencing grief and loss

bathing the dying

I work in for a hospice company as the Bereavement Coordinator. This job encompasses my training in both pastoral care marriage and family therapy. Wanna see a family go haywire? Just have a member die. I get to be there when things are falling apart. I get to be a peaceful presence in a less than peaceful environment. I love that.

Most people, when told what I do, reply with something like: “Wow, I could never do that. It would be too depressing.” So far, I’ve found it to be anything but depressing. To me, if feels like holy work. It’s an opportunity to bring the Spirit of Peace to a family negotiating one of the worst experiences of their lives. Now, I’ll admit, I’m still new at this, and thankfully, my agency doesn’t work with dying kids. That might push me past my ability to be a calming presence. But so far, it’s been good.

The other day we were working with a family who lived on the margins. They were poor people, in a downtown weekly motel. This kind of living is one step up from homelessness. Living like this does not endear you to other people and this family had rarely been treated with respect. I happened to open the door of their one-room home and come face to face with a holy moment. Our CNA was washing the hair of the dying woman. Her toothless wasted body was two days from death and yet our CNA was lovingly bathing her, gently washing her hair.

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The beauty of the action stopped me in my tracks, and I finally backed out of the room with the image seared onto my corneas like a Michelangelo painting. Similar images from the life of Christ flooded my vision: The prostitute who anointed Jesus with the tools of her trade: her tears, her perfume, her hair. There was Jesus’ friend, Mary of Bethany, who unknowingly anointed his body for burial with her gift of costly perfume. There were Joseph and Nicodemus, who prepared his body for burial. And finally, the women who went to prepare his body with spices, after the Sabbath, and found him missing.

The Jews knew about preparing a body for burial; they were not afraid of it, but saw it as a loving and holy act, a precious responsibility. The washing of the dead is a ritual of love that most of us unless we work in a funeral home, are totally unfamiliar with. But in many Jewish circles, it is still done. The family prepares the body after death in a ritual called Tahara. The body is washed and wrapped in a plain white cloth, so there will be no attachment to earthly things and no stigma for the poor. For the same reason, the casket is plain, and also must biodegrade so the body can go back into the earth. Then the family and their friends sit “Shiva” for a week of mourning and the bereaved are not expected to attend social events for a year. What wonderful rituals these are to honor the loss of a loved one.

We non-Jews have lost something significant in these rituals. For us, death has become sterilized. We die and our body is removed by men in black suits that come from a mortuary – looking somber. Or worse, if someone dies unexpectedly, like my mother did, and an ambulance is called, a death room can look more like a crime scene with fire trucks, police, flashing lights, and a coroner. We have funerals or memorial services that are over in an hour. If we are lucky, friends bring us food. But after a week or two, we are left alone with our sorrow.

Recently I sat with a man whose wife, his love of sixty years, was dying. Sixty years! How is he supposed to recover from that? He can’t. He won’t. We shouldn’t expect him to. But we can be there to listen to his rage at her loss, to honor his tears, to hear the stories of their wonderful life together. We can be there to bathe the dead, to open a holy space for the Spirit of Peace to come in.

In what ways have you been able to bathe the dying? How has someone bathed you in your times of grief?