Death, Be Not Proud

PRC Title settlement reverse mortgages 

reverse mortgage newsDuring the dog days of summer, Betsy Davis, who had ALS (the progressive motor neuron disease also known Lou Gehrig’s disease, which theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has as well) hosted an extraordinary gathering: a two-day party for friends and relatives — at the close of which she took a lethal dose of drugs to end her life. Davis is one of the first Californians to take advantage of the state’s new End of Life Option Act for the terminally ill.

Her friends called the party “the final performance” for the painter and performance artist, who could no longer stand, brush her teeth or scratch an itch. “What Betsy did gave her the most beautiful death that any person could ever wish for,” said cinematographer Niels Alpert. “By taking charge, she turned her departure into a work of art.”

Dying the way she wanted

Although Davis wasn’t a senior, her decision to take control of her dying process is becoming more common among elders who know the end is near.

While Betsy Davis hosted her farewell party in San Diego, in Chicago, 92-year-old Margaret Coleman was also preparing to die: at home, attended by her fourteen children. For the previous two years, the kids had rotated caregiving shifts as their mother grew frail. With fourteen people dividing the work, each needed to cover only a single weekly 12-hour shift, so that Coleman was never alone.

In her final weeks, the devoted children helped their mom fulfill the final item on her bucket list: a visit to the family cottage on Lake Michigan, where she’d been summering since the 1930s. They packed up her wheelchair and portable oxygen. Parked her bed next to the window, with a view of the lake. And yes, threw a party.

Once back home, Coleman smiled her gratitude, and peacefully expired. The family talked about how happy it made them that she could die at home, as she’d wanted.

Preparing for the death they choose

This is what many seniors want — and what their families and friends may be quite reluctant to face: enabling the elders they love to die the way they prefer, which is far from the dominant paradigm of being hospitalized, surrounded by strangers and impersonal machines.

The less we fear aging and death, the more helpful we can be to those approaching this passage. Reverse mortgage professionals can serve as a bridge, since you work with both a senior population and their family members. As one LO wisely states, “As we age, we become our parents and finally our grandparents, and it provides us with the unique opportunity to help guide and instill the right values in our younger family members without being judgmental.”

Holding space for the dying

The best way to prepare those who are nearing death is to hold space for their process, which will also go a long way towards mitigating the fear of dying, for them and for us.

What does “holding space” mean? Basically, to walk with someone (figuratively, if not literally) on their journey, without judging how it could or should look. Admittedly, this is not an easy task. It entails opening the heart wide in vulnerability.

Ideally, holding space happens in a circle of support and not in a vacuum, so that while you hold space for a client or a loved one who is dying, someone else (perhaps a chaplain, hospice nurse, other caregiver, or friend) is holding space for you.

By creating a container in which it is safe enough for someone to express what they want and share challenging emotions, we grant the seniors in our lives the power to choose the kind of exit that surrounds them with love, peace, and even a measure of happiness.

The Sacred Work of Grief

Beyond Loss into Renewal

I was sharing a table with a stranger at Whole Foods, enjoying an al fresco summer dinner, when two sweet 20-year-olds I know stopped by to say hello on their way into the store. Afterwards, the fellow with whom I was chatting remarked that it’s nice to have friends of different ages. I told him one of my dearest lifelong friends had passed in 2014 at 101, and I still miss her keenly. And then this man I’d been talking with for the better part of an hour said, “My father died a week ago.”revnewal-tree

Wait, what?

Our conversation took a deep dive into death, grief, and healing. He told me his father had been very ill for fourteen months, so his passing was a blessing, and the family, all local, are close-knit. We spoke of aging, how conventional medicine often seeks to prolong life to the patient’s detriment, and the different ways people grieve. Then we said good night. It was an illuminating evening.

The Five Gates of Grief

There are many ways to approach talking about grief, and many ways to grieve, but what most people in Western culture don’t know is that death is just one of grief’s doorways. We’ve touched on the idea of anticipatory grief, such as losing one’s eyesight, and how that might manifest behaviorally. We can also lose people due to conflict and misunderstanding, and these losses can feel like a death.

These other forms of grief, suppressed, can be misdiagnosed as depression — or show up later as chronic disease, says noted psychotherapist and author Francis Weller in The Wild Edge of Sorrow. He elucidates five “gates of grief” and provides tools for navigating these uncharted waters. It is important for reverse mortgage professionals to be aware of these grief gates so you can more fully understand the seniors you serve:

1. First Gate: Everything We Love, We Will Lose. Accepting life’s impermanence helps mediate the pain we experience when someone dear to us dies — and enables us to keep our hearts open in the face of inevitable loss. Illness is part of the first gate, and offers us an opportunity to go deep into life and come through the challenge with an expanded vision of who and what we are. A health crisis in my mid-thirties served as a huge wake-up call, and set me on my path of purpose and service. People who ignore what their health is trying to tell them forfeit this opportunity, as Weller explains with his example of a client who, after a heart attack, wanted to get back to business as quickly as possible. Weller told him, “I’m concerned that you’re going to waste a perfectly good heart attack!” Illness asks much of us, and if we recognize this and answer the call, how we perceive life, loss, and grief can shift dramatically.
2. Second Gate: The Places That Have Not Known Love. Shame, unworthiness and regret can close our hearts to compassion, and almost everyone has experienced them to some degree. These emotions are like a slow trauma that, unresolved, eats away at the soul.
3. Third Gate: The Sorrows of the World. We experience this every time there is an oil spill, or we see a dead animal in the road. Most of us in modern culture suffer from “nature deficit disorder”, and this creates soul loss that we experience as emptiness.
4. Fourth Gate: What We Expected and Did Not Receive. This gate encompasses what we may not even know we have lost. Weller gives the example of participating in an evening community circle among West African villagers, who shared food, drink and conversation as their children wove in and out, welcomed by all. Our equivalent to this nightly ritual is happy hour, which may be how we anesthetize our loss, he says. We have no communal rituals, and we grieve them even as we don’t know what is missing.
5. Fifth Gate: Ancestral Grief. Previous generations lived under great hardship, adapting to American ways and forsaking their traditions, language, culture, and even family “back home.” This grief and loss lingers silently in their descendants, who may feel a bone-deep sadness they cannot identify.

The rest of Weller’s book offers rituals and practices to heal and renew us, and finally a chapter on how to prepare to become ancestors. When we serve this “apprenticeship to sorrow,” we have more of ourselves available to offer in service to the world.

The Final Frontier

The Final Frontier: Saying Yes to Death

When we’ve discussed the “D” word before, it’s often been in the context of humor. But for one demographic, death, while potentially far from where they are in their life trajectory, is very much top of mind.

We’re speaking, of course, of the Millennials, whose digital innovation touches upon every aspect of life — including death. Last month we took a look at an app that helps patients reflect on their medical wishes and facilitate family discussions. Now some innovative young entrepreneurs are taking it a step beyond, creating death apps that guide people in planning their own passage, where even the memorial service is likely to be worthy of Instagram uploads.

reverse mortgage newsCurating one’s death, no matter how far in the future, also seems like a natural extension of digital estate planning: if you’re going to make sure your Facebook and Twitter accounts are in good hands once you shuffle off this mortal coil, it’s prudent to do the same with your own passage. And in keeping with the potential humor inherent in life (and death) discussions, death apps put a positive spin on the formerly sarcastic expression, “It’s your funeral.”

Millennials point up the disquieting truth that it’s never too soon to think about one’s own death. This may actually be easier to do when it’s a vague vision in some distant decade — though even those in midlife (ahem) may have difficulty deciding to actually complete that Advance Directive sitting on their computer desktop for a few years now.

One mortician describes how, in the Middle Ages, people prepared to face death via a religious vehicle known as the Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying: an instruction manual that taught Christians how to die a good death. She laments that there is no such manual available to us today.

How to Prepare for Your Own Death

That’s not quite accurate. A few years ago, a hospice volunteer introduced me to an exceptional resource that has kept a fairly low profile: Deathing: An Intelligent Alternative for the Final Moments of Life. Published in 1989 by Anya Foos-Graber, Deathing is the real deal on conscious departure. Her definitive guide spells out clearly how each person can prepare for an informed death.

The first part of the book presents two teaching stories, illustrating first an “unconscious” death (how most of us in Western culture experience dying) followed by a conscious one.

Part 2 is a step-by-step manual, with complete instructions and simple exercises, such as breathing, visualization, and how to direct your attention during the death transition.

We have a lot of help entering the world, with attendants such as doctors, nurses, midwives, spouses and friends ready to welcome us and tend to the birthing mother. But in Western culture there is no corresponding death ritual to support us in exiting the body we’ve inhabited.

This is a stunning work, especially comforting for people who may have no belief system or structure for facing life’s final ascent. It may be a useful tool to refer to certain reverse mortgage clients or their families, depending on your relationship with them.

Looking for more reverse mortgage news, commentary, and technology? Visit today.