Volume 2#4 Life after Death: Life after 4 Deaths by Christopher Sassano
Christopher Sassano shares the story of his remarkable four enar-death experiences and the life lessons he learned from them.
Volume 1#4 (Advance Directives) Pathways to a “Good Death”
Jennifer Ballentine, director of the Life Quality Institute on why it can be difficult to die in today’s America, and routes to a peaceful passage.
You wouldn’t think dying would be that hard. Besides birth, daily bodily functions, and — some would say — paying taxes, death is the only guaranteed experience for every individual on the planet. But as it turns out, in today’s America, it’s difficult to die.
Whatever problem exists, there is (seemingly) always one more procedure or drug that can be tried to keep a person biologically “alive.” If you are inclined to pull out all the stops, insist that “everything” be done, and take advantage of all that 21st-Century medical technology has to offer, stop reading now. If you are more inclined (as a vast majority of Americans is, in poll after poll) to opt for a less impeded, more peaceful and comfortable death, then carry on. There are well-marked paths to a “good death” — legal and ethical alternatives to the “do everything” directive — but they take reflection, awareness of personal values, insistent communication with providers, and strong advocacy.
The notion that patients might have a say in the direction of their heatlhcare is realtively new — barely 100 years ago in the 5,000-year-long history of medicine. Landmark court cases in the early 20th Century established the doctrine of “informed consent”: Patients must be informed of any proposed medical treatment and give their consent to the treatment before it is performed. If consent is not given, and treatment is, the law considers the treatment a form of assault.
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Volume#1 Issue#4 (Advance Directives) Do as I Say
Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers’ Alliance and advocate of advance directives planning admits he didn’t have his own when a heart attack landed him in the emergency room. Here are some excerpts.
The EKG at the foot of my bed slowly spit out a piece of paper into Nurse Tracy’s hands. She looked at it and started running. In seconds, I had a team of doctors ripping off my clothes, inserting an IV, and scaring the hell out of me. ”Who’s your family – how soon can they get here?” asked the nurse. I felt utter terror. “Is it really like that?” I asked. ”Yes. They need to be here right now.” I’d had the foresight to call my co-worker, Sherry, and ask her to call my family, who all live eight hours away. The nurse was handing the phone to me as a doctor came over to report that – surprise! – I was having a heart attack and needed immediate catheterization and a stent.
It was a trick trying to comfort my mother on the phone while the voice in my head screamed, “OH, MY GOD! I’M GOING TO DIE AT 36! I CAN’T DIE – NO!” As they pushed my gurney to the cardiac lab. I saw Sherry and my good friend, Lisa Carlson. Ever practical, Lisa asked, “Where are your advance directives and your ‘Before I Go’ planning kit?” By this point, I was on so much morphine and so many sedatives that sentences were becoming a problem, but this woke me up. ”I don’t know.” If the heart attack didn’t kill me, the look from Lisa easily could: “You idiot.”
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Volume #1 Issue# 3 Altar Therapy
This is an excerpt from an article on Altar Therapy by Alakananda Ma. Altar Therapy is a profoundly healing practice used to promote healthy grieving. Its roots can be traced back to a number of indigenous cultures. This article appeared in Issue #3 of Natural Transitions Magazine.
Grief is a profound experience, reaching into the limbic brain to produce intense visceral sensations. Because of its limbic nature, grief cannot be addressed effectively by words alone. Actions of ritual and ceremony that involve the whole body are immensely helpful to the process of moving through grief.
Altar therapy is an example of a whole-body approach that also makes use of the healing power of time and repetition. Based on a West African ritual taught by Sobonfu Somé, Altar Therapy has been adapted to suit American lifestyles.
Although helpful for all kinds of grief, Altar Therapy is especially valuable for intensely complex and difficult grief-situations, such as abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, rape, missing persons, or divorce. Typically, for these life-events, there are no ceremonies, condolence cards, or opportunities for community-comforting. Through Altar Therapy, we can reclaim our need to honor and mourn these defining experiences.
Creating Your Altars
Altar Therapy can be performed by anyone of any tradition. To begin the process as it has been traditionally practiced, set up three altars.
The first should be outdoors — in your garden, on your patio or terrace, or any safe outdoor space to which you have access. This will be your Grief Altar. Rocks, painted pebbles, crystals, shells, moss, plants, ceramics, wood, prayer flags, bottles, and statues can be used for your grief altar – whatever you choose to represent your grief and that will allow you to create a safe space to mourn. “Apache Tears” are particularly valuable for your grief altar.
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Volume #1 Issue #2 Greening End Of Life.
This is an excerpt from an article on the environmental impact of end-of-life care and how some care providers are minimizing their carbon footprint through proactive measures to green up their act. Kai Abelkis is the sustainability coordinator at Boulder Community Hospital, the first hospital in the US to employ a staff member to focus on environmental policy in the workplace. It appeared in Issue #2 of Natural Transitions Magazine.
Bart Windrum, author of Notes from the Waiting Room, doesn’t mince his words. “The best way to avoid a hospital death is not to go there.” It’s that simple. The same story applies to those who want to “green” their end of life by using fewer resources, minimizing their carbon footprint, and embracing natural, non-toxic treatments with little or no environmental impact. If these are your goals, stay out of the intensive care unit. When you’re on institutional turf, medical professionals will employ all the artillery they have to win the battle against disease and defeat death. This is why a living will, expressing your wishes about your end-of-life care, is vitally important, if you or your family want any control over the circumstances surrounding your death.
Seven out of ten Americans say they would prefer to die at home, yet only about a quarter get to experience a home death. When it comes to spending on the terminally ill, healthcare costs spike as the end of life nears.Nearly a third of Medicare money is spent on treating patients with chronic illness during their last two years of life. Americans enter the hospital system for acute care and access expensive technology and drugs to stave off the inevitable.
In the US, “embracing death” is synonymous with “giving up.” We also believe that American prowess in scientific research and development will yield continuous treatment breakthroughs. We cling to the hope of immortality, however false it may be.
Almost 50 percent of Americans die in a hospital. Patients land in a system that consumes huge amounts of energy. Kai Abelkis, sustainability coordinator for Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) in Boulder, Colorado, speaks internationally on the ecological impact of the medical-industrial complex. “The healthcare industry is the second largest user of cheap, extracted fuels. We operate 24/7. We use a lot of electricity, the majority of it from coal. MRIs and CAT scans use a lot of energy. We use a lot of petroleum, whether in transportation, or in products like IV bags,” he said.
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Volume #1 Issue # 1 Home Funerals
This is an excerpt from an interview with JOANNA MACY, international peace activist, eco-philosopher,environmental activist and Buddhist scholar about her husband, Fran Macy’s home funeral in 2009. It appeared in Issue #1 of NT Magazine. Fran Macy died of a suspected heart attack and was taken to hospital where his family appealed to staff to allow them to bring his body home.
Karen van Vuuren: Did you know about families’ rights to care for their own before Fran died?
Joanna Macy: Well, I had a video called “A Family Undertaking” from the people at Crossings (home funeral and green burial resource center) in Washington, D.C., and I had talked on the phone with a person up in Sonoma County who counsels people.
KV: Jerrigrace Lyons?
JM: Yes, but I did not talk to her after Fran died. I had called her a couple of years before, simply to ask about a workshop – if there was a workshop I could go to.
I have a friend who was working with Crossings and we had read Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death.” We wanted very much to avoid the funeral industry and I did not want to be cremated for ecological reasons, and also for a personal sense of wanting to decompose in the earth. In late 2004, I discovered a green burial place called Fernwood Cemetery and Fran and I invested in securing two spots side by side. It had a very strong ecological, conservation element to it. The money goes into beautifying and protecting the wild nature of the land.
Our inclination for a long time had been that death was a natural phenomenon and that like life itself, death can be seen and approached as a blessing even though it’s hard because you are losing somebody you love and you don’t know what is happening to yourself when you die. There’s that great mystery. At any rate, when we acquired our plot in the green burial site at Fernwood, they told us that we didn’t even need a coffin!
There’s another beautiful cemetery near our home and I had thought, “Oh, that’s lovely! My grandchildren can come and sit by my grave,” but then I learned that I would have to go into a cement vault andI did not want to be in some private pool of putrefaction. I wanted to enter the earth. So that impelled my search for green burial. Once we found Fernwood, it made us so happy to think of it. It’s right across the bay and about a 45-minute drive from here near a beautiful hike that we used to take.
KV: Apart from getting the burial plots, did you have a plan? Had you talked about what would happen when one of you died?
JM: No. We thought that we would certainly talk about that, but didn’t get around to it. And Fran died very suddenly. As I went to the hospital following the ambulance, I kept saying, “I want his body! I’ve got to get his body!” And they wouldn’t let me have it. They said, “We have a very nice morgue here.” And I said, “I have to have it at home!” because I’d wanted to be able to read and play music and sing and pray around his body. So it’s because of the green burial place that we were able to get his body that very night. They kept him in emergency and I called Fernwood, managed to get someone, and they sent a mortuary vehicle over across the bay to get Fran’s body and bring it to our home, which was just a few blocks away.
We had to wait about an hour. During that time, I sent the children, my grown children, to get dry ice, flowers and candles. I was waiting with a woman who was the co-director of Fran’s organization, the Center for Safe Energy. We were standing next to his body in the emergency room and I said, “I want to read to him!” But I didn’t want to read to him out of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” because I’m the Buddhist and he isn’t. So I asked the hospital chaplain, “Do you have anything I can read?” and she said, “All I have is Obama’s inaugural address.” It was the day of the inauguration and the address had been printed in the afternoon paper. We stood there on either side of Fran and read him Obama’s inaugural speech. We were next to an adjoining room that was separated from us by a curtain and there was another family with someone who was dying. It was an African-American family. When the driver of the mortuary vehicle came, put Fran in a bag, zipped it up, and wheeled him out, the people in the next room came out into the hall and embraced us and said, “We heard every word you said and it meant so much to us, and we have written you a poem.” They had written the poem on paper towels, which was all that they had. So I felt that our way of dying or our way of being with Fran in his passing was a blessing to other people as well.
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