Strange times we are living in. And, as always, there is something to be learned in adversity. I am noticing that questions related to death and preparation for it are burbling to the surface for me and for other people right now.
How did we get here?
During the last century, in western settler cultures in particular, we have taken death largely out of our homes and away from our faith communities and handed it off to the experts. Medical folks, funeral directors, hospices, hospitals, long term care homes. This is where and how death is managed now. Consequently, we have lost skills. We don’t see or handle or anoint dead bodies anymore. Most of us don’t know what to do or how to be when sitting with a dying loved one or a woman who has just miscarried. No one modelled that for us, and we can’t model it for others. We often allow the professionals to mediate the experience for us. We don’t trust our instincts. No one is laid out in the front parlour anymore. Most of us don’t live on farms or hunt for our food so we are removed from the natural cycles of birth and death amongst animals.
How do we experience death and dying now?
Death is mostly an individual event in our lives and the lives of our families. It is less and less a community event. We speak in hushed tones. We don’t know much about how to move through grief or support others moving through it. The rituals and signposts of mourning are fading in our collective memories.
That is certainly how I felt witnessing the dying of my mother-in-law and my father a number of years ago. They did not seem prepared and I did not know what they wanted or how best to support them. Or even talk with them about what was going on. That felt empty and lonely and unsatisfying – as if I had somehow failed at something where no-one had explained the rules of the game to me.
How is COVID-19 impacting this?
Into this social context comes COVID-19. Suddenly pictures and statistics and warnings about death are taking up the entire media landscape. We get hour by hour updates on the number of deaths and detailed stories of how people died and the stresses on the people caring for them. It isn’t just the occasional life event that we stumble through now. We can’t escape it. Our fear and denial are harder to hide. Maybe this is an opportunity…
How could we make this a positive thing?
What if instead of allowing this to ratchet up our fear of death, and running from it, we turn around, face it, and allow ourselves to actually feel it and see where that takes us? What if that created opportunities to contemplate our own mortality, to make plans to guide our loved ones when our time comes, to think about our legacy and how we want to be remembered?
What if we brought the idea of death into the light and turned that fear into positive action? What if we took some of this ‘found time’, now that our busy busy lives have been slowed down, to take control of some small things that we can. Like making a will or an advance care plan? Like telling stories about elders and ancestors to grandchildren? Like pre-paying for our funerals? Like writing our life story or love letters to unborn descendants? What if we actually did some of that? What might happen?
Being more prepared can soften our fear
What if taking control of some concrete actions actually softened our fear? What if it made us more mindful after this is all over? What if we had a clearer sense of what is most important in life? And allowed that to guide us in the days ahead?
Death doulas witness this all the time with people who are near the end of their lives. Facing their fear and taking concrete steps to influence the kind of death and legacy they want really can soften people’s fear. It could help all of us right now. Because, while any single one of us is very unlikely to die from COVID-19, we will all die at some point. And so will everyone we love. We don’t know when or how. So why not take this time to be just a bit better prepared? Perhaps you will feel a little less afraid as a result.
I know I felt better after letting my husband and grown children know that in the current circumstances, I would not want to be put on a ventilator if it came to that. I don’t want to burden them or the doctors with not knowing my wishes. I have already lived a full life and would rather a ventilator go to someone younger – that children lose a grandparent in this epidemic rather than a parent. Sharing my wishes with my loved ones is one action I have taken to be better prepared for my eventual death.
CIRCLESPACE'S NEWEST FREE RESOURCE
Caring from Afar: Staying Connected and Saying Good-Bye During Physical Distancing
How do we show our love when we can’t be there to hold a loved one who is ill? How do we accompany them through the dying process if we can’t be physically present? This resource offers 6 steps to comfort people who are separated from their ill or dying loved one. It includes ideas for how to stay connected and ways to honour your grief through these unprecedented times.
In this field the personal is definitely linked with the professional. I’m happy to share this interview I recently did with Girl Warrior Productions and for the opportunity to reflect on the experiences that called me into being an end-of-life doula.
Chelsea Peddle. The End-of-Life Doula Bringing Comfort and Guidance When it’s Needed Most.
Today we raise our fists high and put our hands together in celebration of our Feature Girl Warrior, the compassionate and wise End-of-Life Doula Chelsea Peddle, founder of CircleSpace, a warm and engaging space to reimagine death as a normal part of the lifecycle.
What makes you a Girl Warrior?
My resilience. My willingness to find lightness, love, and connection even in difficult times.
My name, “Chelsea,” means a harbour. As a kid, I thought that was so boring! At the time I didn’t understand a harbour’s purpose, which is to shield vessels from stormy waters and to welcome people to new shores. Looking back on my career and personal life, I see now that my name was actually quite prophetic. In every role, I’ve held space for diverse people to come together to create more equitable relationships and communities. Now, in my role as an end-of-life doula, I hold individuals and families through very difficult times.
How did your father’s diagnosis of glioblastoma brain tumor change your life?
Like many teenagers, I thought I was invincible. At 15 years old, I had a great group of friends, I had found my passion in local theatre and I thought my family and my world were completely safe. That bubble popped when my dad was diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive form of brain cancer...
"What's your favorite thing about death?" was the first question I was asked by an earnest and inquisitive student. Whoa! Way to get things started!
This past week I had the privilege of being interviewed by a group of university students at an event called Campus Conversations, organized by Christopher Bowers, multi-faith co-Chaplain at the University of Victoria. It was a truly delightful opportunity for me to talk about my profession and to reflect on why I love this work! It was also amazing insight in to how this group of post-millenials view their relationship to death and the supports they need to accept the reality of their mortality.
Several students approached me after the interview with further questions and comments. The theme that came up the most: My grandparent recently died, how can I support my parents through their loss? We talked about being direct and honest, saying things like, "I don't know what to say but I want you to know I see how much this hurt. I'm here for you. How can I help?" We talked about setting up a weekly phone call with their mum back home, so they can look forward to a regular, loving connection. And we talked about the importance of seeking grief support, even years after the death of a loved one. Finally, the piece that surprised these students the most: we talked about the importance of sharing their own grief; for a death in the family is an opportunity to explore their own relationship to death and to put plans in place for themselves. (I'm sure you've heard me say this before, if you're 19 years old or older, you need to make an Advance Care Plan that defines the care you would want if you couldn't make decisions for yourself!).
These young people expressed so feverently their desire to be there for their parents. Their love and loyalty was incredibly touching. For me, this reinforced my belief that many of us are seeking more authentic connections and a relationship to death. But, sadly many of us aren't yet equipped for it. As my friend, counsellor Shauna Janz says, grief is a learned skill. So, too, is dying.
I felt energized and even more committed to my work as an end-of-life planner and death doula after this interview. I hope this video inspires you, too!
Campus Conversations: Chelsea Peddle... Death Doula
Chelsea Peddle is an end-of-life planner and death doula. In 2017, she founded CircleSpace: Empowered End-of-Life Planning in Victoria, BC, to help people prepare for end-of-life so they can live in peace. Through workshops and coaching, Chelsea offers emotional, physical, spiritual and pragmatic support for individuals and their families. Chelsea recently expanded her services to offer death doula care: guiding and companioning people and their families before, during and after death. Chelsea's passion is helping people find peace of mind and peace of heart in a time of great stress. She has an End-of-Life Doula certificate from Douglas College and is a member of the End-of-Life Doula Association of Canada.
You can’t take it with you, so why do we make those impulse buys this time of year? The talking unicorn you’ll want to smash within 5 minutes of inserting its batteries. The novelty back scratcher. The wind-up robot and stockings-full of plastic dollar store wares. Are we seeking connection? A moment of shared indulgence? Are we pacifying our fear of being unliked by buying more and more? If you’re like me, the answer is sadly, “Yes.”
In Dr. Phil’s words, “How’s that working for you?” Do you feel connected and loved? Are you living your values? Are you caring for your family and our planet? Are you getting what you really want and need? Likely, not.
During my annual pre-Christmas clean up, I recently took 3 bags of long forgotten toys to the donation bin and 2 more bursting with broken things to the dump. As I tossed the bags down the chute I wondered, how many of these items were meant to show my love on Christmas days past? The cost to the planet became crystal clear as my bags tumbled down, landing on other obsolete demonstrations of "love"; the cost to my relationships: a hollow feeling in my chest.
I know consumerism doesn’t bring connection; you know you can’t buy love. So, why is it so hard to change?
Perhaps it’s because this holiday season and our desire to consume is tightly wrapped in our culture of death denial.
Writer Philip Roth says, “In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” And boy, do we humans work hard to quell the petrified voice of that second being.
It makes sense that shopping appears to be the perfect antidote to death. First, you feel that lovely hit of serotonin when you lay out your debit card for something shiny and new. We literally feel “love,” thanks to the hormone surge. A base need seems to be met. Sheldon Solomon, one of the founders of terror management theory, suggests our purchase then becomes a symbol of immortality; something intended to last longer than we do, thereby helping us to conquer death. For a moment, our death anxiety is quieted.
But in our world of planned obsolescence, these material symbols are fragile and their effects fleeting. They break or fall out of favour and are soon cast aside, speeding the destruction of the planet and leaving a void in our relationships. Awareness of our mortality creeps back in to our psyche. To keep our existential anxiety at bay (and to demonstrate our love), we must buy again, and again and again.
Our search for immortality is not inherently a bad thing. We just need to seek it in the right places (and perhaps become more aware of the false promises of consumerism). Being mindful about our desire to be a part of something bigger and longer-lasting than ourselves can move us in a productive direction. One that can enrich our lives now and soften our loved ones’ grief, later.
So, here’s my challenge for you this holiday season:
As you go about your holiday shopping this year, IMAGINE THIS IS YOUR LAST CHRISTMAS, HANUKKAH OR WINTER SOLSTICE.
How do you want your loved ones to remember this time with you? Is there a family heirloom or special object you’d like them to enjoy now? Are there things unsaid? Love to express? Wisdom to pass down? Next year, when they look back on this time, will your loved ones still be cherishing your gifts, or will these gifts have already faded in to the past?
Invest in experiences. Give the present of your presence and undivided attention. Gift a love letter to your beloveds. Don’t turn away from death this season. Let it inspire you and guide you to true immortality through genuine connection and love.
I’ve been debating whether to share this post as it is about my own journey through the grief of my mum’s death this past summer. I’ve heard from many people that hearing about my experience has helped them. So, I’m sharing this story in hopes that it will soothe in some way, whatever darkness may be pulling at your heart at the moment.
No matter your faith or beliefs, we seek meaning and purpose, especially when our world seems untethered through loss. Maybe it’s a message of love and release brought by an unexpected visitor. Maybe it’s a loved one asking, “how are you?” and listening deeply to your truthful reply... but my hope for you, today, is for you to ask for what you need and for the Universe to answer. May you be blessed with an open heart and open mind to receive it!
This morning, I packed up the remaining items at my mum’s and said goodbye to the house my sister, Briana and I grew up in. I wondered, as I walked through the empty rooms, how do I say goodbye to a home that holds so many memories?
Turns out, the answer came in the form of a little brown bird.
Briana and I have a long-standing relationship with birds. We believe our deceased loved ones return to us through birds to give us reassurance and comfort. Or, just a little “hello, I’m here” nudge. Our Dad has been visiting us for over 20 years, buzzing in as a hummingbird when we need it most.
This morning as I sat in the sunshine on mum’s back porch, saying my goodbyes, I heard that familiar sound of flapping at a window. I turned and saw a little brown bird trapped INSIDE mum’s house. How did it get in???! I realized I had left the front door open and on this day, of all days, this little bird chose to fly through the door and in to the house. I was stunned for a moment but then thought, Ya, this is about right! Of course mum would want to be here, in this moment, helping me to let go.
It dawned on me, with trepidation and awe, that the task before me was to literally and figuratively release bird/mum from her home. But how do I do this without giving bird/mum a heart attack? (Can you imagine?!!). A quick search yielded a long handled broom, which I used to gently encourage bird/mum to stop stunning itself against the window and fly for the open back door. After a few tries, I managed to get it out of the den and in to the kitchen where it fell on the window sill. I could see its little breath puffing circles on the glass as it rested. Bird/mum flapped about some more and eventually collapsed on to the end of my broom, exhausted. With relief, I shuffled toward the back door, bird/mum balanced on the bristles. I whispered, “it’s ok to go.”
As soon as bird/mum was through the door and clear of the house it took to the sky, directly in to the path of a HUMMINGBIRD!!! My mouth agog, I watched the two birds dance together, circling one another for a moment then perch side by side in a nearby tree. I mean, come on! Hi mum and dad!
It’s a strange reality that both my parents are now on the other side. It also feels so perfect, so poetic to witness bird/mum literally released from the physical confines of her home and welcomed by hummingbird/dad to the freedom of the open air.
Thanks mum, for once again finding a way to lead our healing. You sure come up with some beautiful and creative ways of doing it! Love you. Miss you.
One of the great mysteries of life is, “when we will face our death? What will the experience of dying be like? And what, if anything, awaits us on the other side?”
While we can’t completely control the when or the how of our death, we do know that it is inevitable. It’s a rattling truth for many people, but at least we are in it together because mortality is one thing we all have in common! Thankfully, there are steps we can take to increase our chances of an empowered death.
Planning for end-of-life is a way to safeguard your wishes and
protect your family from the pain of not knowing what you want.
There’s plenty of research that shows the value of end-of-life planning. Atual Gawande says people who discuss and record their end-of-life wishes, “are more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation, and to spare their family anguish.” When illness does hit, people who have shared their end-of-life wishes also report greater satisfaction with their medical care. There’s benefits for the here and now, as well. The act of talking about death can actually soften your fears and help you live a more peaceful and meaningful life.
Though many of us are afraid to discuss death with our friends and family for fear of upsetting them, studies show the opposite is true. The Conversation Project found that 53% of people would be relieved if a loved one started the conversation! Sharing your wishes with your loved ones gives them a better understanding of your values and goals. This is especially important for the people who will be making decisions for you when you are incapable. Ultimately, these conversations equip your loved ones to make good choices for you. And knowing with certainty that they honoured your wishes can ease their grief and the bereavement process after your death.
“Planning for death is one of the most empowering things you can do.
Thinking about death clarifies your life.”
- Candy Chang
Let’s also talk about the availability of healthcare and why this should spur you to make plans for your future.
The scarcity of healthcare services is front-of-mind for many people, especially those ages 55-73 (affectionately known as boomers or “the silver tsunami”). And they are right to take notice. We are about to enter a unique time in our society. By 2036, 1 in 4 people in Canada will be over 65 years old (Stats Canada). In Victoria alone, the number of people 85 or older will rise from 40,000 today to 121,000 by 2035. Longer lives means many people will spend their final years managing two or more chronic illnesses. These stats tell us that our population is growing faster than our capacity to provide care (Victoria Hospice, 2018). Though it may seem unnerving, we are lucky to have the foreknowledge of what our health system will look like so we can make our plans accordingly, now.
The Good News
People with an advance care plan are less likely to have overly aggressive treatments at end-of-life. This means you can focus on comfort or palliative care in your home or in a hospice setting, rather than receiving life-saving interventions you do not want and which take up valuable hospital resources.
Talking about your end-of-life wishes while you are healthy is one of the best ways to ensure your wishes are met and that you and your family are ready when the time comes.
Will you be prepared?
What motivates you to get the conversation going with your loved ones and to record your future medical care wishes? Tell me in the comments!
When I first started working in the field of deathcare, I was worried that no one would want to talk to me at parties. What would I say when asked what I do for a living?
“Ummmm, I help people plan for their eventual death?”
In this lonely fantasy of mine, I imagined the guest spitting out their drink in shock or suddenly excusing themselves to “take a phone call.”
To my surprise, I’m actually quite popular at parties. It seems that death is “in.” It’s trending! I’m finally a part of the in-crowd! The validation feels nice. But I don’t want to seem too trite. I believe my new popularity actually signals the start of an important and long worked-for culture shift where people are remembering the power of accepting death.
In an ideal world, preparing for end-of-life is something that happens from birth. It’s woven in to the fabric of our lives, so commonplace that we don’t always know we are doing the important work of preparing for our inevitable end.
But most of us didn’t grow up that way and we are now struggling to catch up. And by “catching up” I don’t mean you need to hang out at cemeteries (though there are some beautiful ones in the Victoria area that are great for a picnic as well as several music festivals held at local memorial gardens). Instead, start by creating just a little space in your life to think and talk about death.
Here’s a few ways you can start:
Thanks for sharing your precious time with me. Please share this post with people you think it might inspire.