Looking Globally at Death – & Life

Buda-conf.5In Japan the shift from Buddhism to secularism is complicating life and death. Ireland has launched a nationwide effort to encourage end-of-life planning. A Celtic Storyteller now based in Canada draws on her training as a nurse in helping people through illness and grieving. And at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, UK, one researcher/textile artist explores the intricate usefulness of cloth in the mourning process.

These were a few of the insights into end-of-life issues around the world shared at a recent Inter-Disciplinary.Net global conference in Budapest, Care, Loss and the End of Life. The conference provided a perfect excuse – once the abstract for my own paper was accepted – for this writer to take off several weeks for a memorable trip to Paris, Cologne and (eventually!) Budapest. The latter two ancient and wonder-filled cities I had never visited. More on travels later. This essay is a severely abbreviated commentary on a remarkable event, and explanation of the absence of any other commentary in this space over recent weeks. (The digital world does seem to have kept right on turning without my assistance.)

Inter-Disciplinary.Net was founded in the late 1990s by Dr. Rob Fisher, who gave up a tenured position at Oxford (not something many people would be inclined to do) to devote his entire and considerable energies to bolstering the “interaction of ideas, research and points of view that bear on a wide range of issues of concern and interest in the contemporary world.” The recent conference was the second global Inter-Disciplinary.Net event this writer has been privileged to attend, and they seem just to get better. As with more than a decade of conferences on end-of-life (and several other) issues, Care, Loss & the End of Life was organized and run by Nate Hinerman, PhD, Dean of Undergraduate Programs at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.  The following brief glimpses into end-of-life matters in other countries are summarized from three out of nearly two dozen presentations.

ancestor altar

Tomofumi Oka of Sophia University in Tokyo spoke on “Making Peace with Grief Through Indigenous Wisdom: A Case Study of Japanese Family Survivors of Suicide.” Oka illustrated his presentation with clips from Japanese films (thankfully with English subtitles) showing several Buddhist altars to departed relatives. The tradition of ancestor worship that has for generations been part of Japanese culture, Oka maintains, was helpful both in confronting death and in dealing with grief. As the country has become increasingly secular, though, the business of helping survivors through the grieving process has been turned over to nonprofits that are largely funded by the government – and Oka is dismissive of their usefulness. “You join a group of other survivors, talk about your loved ones for a while until you are ‘graduated’ into another course in which you’re supposed to get on with your life,” he told me. “The nonprofits don’t know what they’re doing, and the system just doesn’t work.” Japanese Buddhists seem to have it better.

One of the most moving presentations was titled “The Materialisation of Loss in Cloth,” given by Beverly Ayling-Smith. An award-winning textile artist and researcher, Ayling-Smith illustrated her presentation with images of burial cloths and related textiles, including some elegantly ethereal images of shrouds. “Cloth has its own language as curator Julia Curtis has written,” she comments, “‘. . . fold, drape, stretch, stain and tear – it signifies an emotional range from intimacy, comfort and protection, to more disquieting states of restriction fragility, loss and impermanence.’ It is this range that allows cloth to be used as a holder of memories of events, experiences and people.”

This storyteller bonded early in the conference with Celtic Storyteller Mary Gavan, whose mastery of the oral form is both challenge and inspiration to a practitioner of the written form. Gavan grew up “as a Celtic storyteller tramp,” delighting in the ancient tradition as she heard it from grandparents and friends across Scotland and Ireland. Her presentation was told as story from her two personal perspectives: community palliative care nurse and Celtic Storyteller. It served as a vivid demonstration of how effective the well-told story can be in communicating and understanding the complex emotions brought to bear at the end of life.

Buda-conf.3

There were many more: perspectives on loss and grief offered by participants from Turkey, Spain, Norway, Slovakia and elsewhere, and one mesmerizing – if not for the squeamish – illustrated discussion of an anonymous 15th century Middle English debate, “A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms.” On that latter, presenter Martin Blum of the University of British Columbia Okanagan read the ancient text “not only as a contemplation of the transitory nature of life, but also as an affirmation of life.”

Which was, in effect, what this conference managed to achieve: pulling together diverse global perspectives on death to create a giant affirmation of life.

 

 

 

Setting Patterns: Defaulting to Justice

Nishioka with the writer
Nishioka with the author

“You know why we drill?” the Lt. Colonel said; “to establish a pattern.”

That brief story was told recently by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, keynote speaker at a conference that was all about establishing patterns – possibly changing them for the better. Well, about patterns and a few other things. But the business of pattern-establishment is particularly relevant. “In a time of crisis,” Nishioka says, “you will default to your pattern.”

Soldiers drill interminably so they can take their rifles apart without thinking. Nishioka suggests that others of us might install default patterns to create peace and bring justice. An associate professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Nishioka was speaking at a church retreat, to a Christian audience. But the message is universal. “All three major Abrahamic religions,” he points out, “Judaism, Islam and Christianity, have a core belief in peace and justice.” Add the followers of decidedly peace-loving Buddha, and one would think there should be a little less war and injustice on the planet.

Nishioka maintains that one person can make a difference. He tells the story of a seven-year-old girl whose father had been taken from their California farm by the F.B.I. one night in 1942, and who was waiting with a crowd of other Japanese Americans for buses that would take them to an internment camp. Her mother, in the rush to pack what the family might need, had forgotten to bring anything to eat or drink. The girl wandered off looking for something for her hungry little brother, and found a lady handing out sandwiches and juice. “We are Christian Friends (Quakers),” she explained, “and we think what is happening to you is wrong.” The girl lived through three years in the camp, where her father soon joyfully joined them, and through hard years and several moves after the war ended. She managed to enter college, where she met and fell in love with a young Japanese-American man. They married, and raised four sons who all finished college and/or graduate school, one of whom is now a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. On the top of his list of people he’d like to meet in heaven, Nishioka says, is the lady who gave his mother sandwiches and juice.

But back to patterns. Quakers practice patterns of quiet and tranquility, reinforcing their persistent efforts to right injustice. Yogis practice meditation. Buddhists chant. Practitioners of almost all religions repetitively recite creeds as a way of establishing patterns of belief and action. In California we have earthquake drills designed to instill a default pattern of Drop, Cover and Hold on. School children, sadly, are drilled to take cover in the event of an assault. If your default pattern is ingrained enough, you might even be able to grab your cellphone and passport on the way out the door when the house catches fire.

What if large numbers of us altered our driving pattern just to let that jerk in the next lane break into the line ahead? Road rage deaths would nose dive. Or we could default to smiling, as Jaden, the incredibly precious six-year-old Georgia orphan is trying to make us do. Or we could default to justice: trying to create better lives for those less fortunate, those without power, those who need sandwiches and juice.

It is possible, Rodger Nishioka suggests, to change the world, one person, one pattern at a time.

 

 

Dying in the Fix-It Society

Buddhist teacher/lecturer Frank Ostaseski spoke recently to the Bay Area Network of End-of-Life Care on the subject of compassion – something Ostaseski preaches, teaches and practices himself. Co-founder, in 1987, of the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice in the U.S., Ostaseski currently heads the Metta Institute, created to provide education and training on spirituality in dying.Buddha

Buddhism, Ostaseski said, holds that life is supported by two wings, compassion and wisdom, and neither is at its best without the other. His audience, made up of physicians, hospice workers and others involved with end-of-life care, was in interested agreement with the renowned speaker as he expanded on the theme. But this writer, also in agreement, found one side remark particularly pertinent to today’s end-of-life issues.

Ostaseski spoke of a severe heart attack he suffered not long ago, and of the wisdom gained from that experience. It was insight on critical illness “from the other side of the sheets.” During his hospitalization most visitors, even longtime friends with credentials in compassion, said the wrong things. “They were always saying, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow, Frank,’ when I wanted to talk about what was going on that very moment.” Additionally, Ostaseski found that nurses and doctors “interacted with monitors far more than with the patient.” What could well have been an end-of-life situation was, in short, lacking in compassion and wisdom both.

“Hospitals are fix-it places,” Ostaseski remarked.

We may have gotten fixated on being a fix-it society. Whatever the problem, a chemical or technological answer, in the fix-it society, is instantly sought. We fix brain injuries, once-fatal diseases, missing limbs, and more. But can we let someone who is terminally ill quietly die? Seldom. More often than not we keep trying to fix her with extended interventions, futile and expensive treatments or hospital stays that make dying a horror.

Ostaseski and others are working hard to help people find meaning in their final days, focusing on palliative care. Some, including this writer, are working hard to make medical aid in dying a legal option available across the U.S. ALL of us want a peaceful and compassionate death.

The_flame_of_wisdom
The flame of wisdom

 

The personal bottom line, yours and mine, is this: eventually we die. If the focus can be shifted away from constantly trying to extend our days, we can fix the final days that lead, one way or another, to the mysterious, inevitable, unpredictable, un-fixable but quite natural end. All it takes is a little compassion, and a lot of wisdom.

Holidays and the “Worried Well”

Our local paper, the thin-but-still-here San Francisco Chronicle, greeted the morning recently with a story about a new hospital facility for “the worried well.” And I say, just in time. Some of us may be sick; most of us, I suspect, are among the Worried Well. Especially from now until next January 1.

The facility in question is the Brain Health Center, part of the California Pacific Medical Center‘s Davies campus. It is designed (with a little help from an anonymous $21 million gift) to address a multiplicity of brain-related issues, including help and support for those in fear of lurking neurodegenerative disease. If you haven’t ever worried about where you put the car keys or left the cell phone you can stop reading right now. You are in that tiny population of the angst-free unworried. Then there are all the rest of us.

(Since I am a contented Kaiser member, I feared for a moment that CPMC was one-upping us. But a quick check reveals Kaiser offers things like core dementia training and behavioral understanding, not to mention support groups without end to comfort the Worried Well.)

Worried Well issues range far beyond the challenges of short-term memory loss.  WWs don’t know where the next paycheck, or mortgage payment, is coming from, or whether that little lump might be malignant. Or if the good-looking guy at the party is ever going to call. Closer to home for yours truly it’s how a half-century of accumulated Stuff scattered around a four-story Victorian will ever reduce into the 1600-sq-ft condo at the continuing-care place where worries would be less and wellness more.

Here is the good news: faith trumps angst. At the annual Thanksgiving Day interfaith service sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the hearts of the Worried Well were encouraged by just about every known faith tradition. A little inner peace from the Buddhist bell, a few stories building trust and understanding from the Mormons and the Muslims, eloquent prayers from the Jews and the Brahma Kumaris. Pastor Maggi Henderson of Old First Presbyterian Church, who organized this year’s service, then spoke convincingly of how hard it is to be angst-ridden when simply contemplating being loved by the creator.

So it seems, with science and religion BOTH looking out for us, the worried may yet be well.