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Five ways to go better into that good night

By Pieta Woolley

September’s Observer offers two thought-provoking stories that detail how poor we often are — in mainstream North American society — at embracing aging and dying. One is Julie McGonegal's culture piece,  “Lingering, not living, and the other is Erica Lenti’s story, “Twilight Blues,” which centers on her own grandmother’s depression in a nursing home.

Conversations about the misery that often accompanies terminal diagnosis and illness are at the centre of Canada’s discourse about doctor-assisted dying.

But an emerging crew of thinkers — some attached to medicine or religion, and some not — are urging Canadians to be mindful in the midst of our rush out the door.

Instead, they’re pushing us to use aging and death to find meaning and connection, for ourselves, and for those we love.

Here are five ways to go better into that good night:

1. Dr. Glen E. Miller, a now-retired American physician and hospital administrator – and Mennonite
Book: Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well: A Doctor Explains How to Make Death a Natural Part of Life (2014)
Idea: Plan to die at home, surrounded by friends and family, and well-cared for – it’s possible, he argues, if you know your illness, understand when it’s time to die and are able to articulate your wishes.

2. Stephen Jenkinson, founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in the Ottawa Valley. He has a master’s in theology from Harvard, and a master’s in social work from the University of Toronto
Book: Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul (2015)
Films: Griefwalker and Meaning of Death
Idea: No one in North America wants to die. But dying is your last act in relationship with your spouse, your children, and others you love. Use that time, and the experience, to strengthen those bonds and share your wisdom. While living, use the inevitability of your own death to cleave to life and develop that wisdom.

3. Cassandra Yonder, a death midwife and founder of the Virtual School for Death Midwifery in Canada
Website: deathmidwifery.ca
Idea: Like the pioneers of the ‘death midwifery’ and thanadoula movements in the U.K., Yonder helps those near the end of life make peace with their own death and connect in new ways to their communities.

4. Carrie Bourassa, Associate Professor, Department of Science, First Nations University of Canada, teaching Indigenous Health Studies
Paper & DVD: Completing the Circle: End of Life Care with Aboriginal Families
Idea: Many First Nations people already invoke diverse traditional customs when they are dying. Health care workers in mainstream facilities can support them by understanding what’s important at that time. For example: “even though a person may be dying, s/he may be doing the most mental, emotional and spiritual healing that s/he has ever done and the Elders or healers and the ceremonies they perform are essential to that healing.”

5. Ira Byock, long-time palliative care physician and the founder of the Institute for Human Caring, a U.S. hospitals-based initiative to train medical professionals in helping patients navigate end-of-life considerations
Books: Dying Well (2007); The Four Things that Matter Most (2004); The Best Care Possible (2012), among others.
Idea: Discomfort with death stems from an immature culture. Meticulous communication, initiated by medical professionals, will help the vast majority of people near the end of their lives experience a good death. For most, this means an at-home or well-staffed hospice before medical interventions become onerous. This year, Byock has published several national articles slamming progressives’ rush to legalize doctor-assisted suicide (he considers himself a Democrat and progressive) as a response to the crisis of dying in America.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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