Are there rituals to prepare for death?
July 12th, 2020
The end of every day is a ritual to prepare for death. We may shower, put on pajamas, turn out the lights, lie flat and go to sleep. But where do we go during sleep? See what I mean? It’s a little death rehearsal. Saying goodbye to people at the door is, too. If we’re talking about knowing that you have a terminal illness, what can you do to prepare in a ritualistic way, I would say that’s up to you. There are things religion wise, for example, in the Catholic church, you can get sacrament of the sick or special blessing or anointing, which I think of as giving you a map on the way out. It’s like a blessing bon voyage party.
The question is, What would be special to you? When my dad died, we sold my mom’s house and I moved her up to where I live. The last time I was at the house, I went out to a tree she had planted when I was born. It gives this beautiful, bountiful crop of the most sweet and delicious oranges. So, I went to this tree and thanked it. I said, “I’m so thankful for your presence in my life.” I did this with every tree that I knew in the yard. Then I felt great, like buttoning the last button on the coat. Now I’m ready to go.
Think about what is meaningful to you. Say goodbye to things in your house, say goodbye to your friends, light a candle—and then blow it out. Acknowledge that you were a light in the world and now you are ready to burn on another candle! I had a friend who surrounded her bed with photos of her dead dogs. She felt like they were the ones she would see first. She was looking forward to death because she couldn’t wait to see them.
July 12th, 2020
Writing letters to the deceased is very good therapy.
July 14th, 2020
Some people like to smudge their room with sage and some are suddenly very drawn to the religion they grew up in. I've met people who were total atheists, then suddenly, they wanted people to do the rosary with them, or those who grew up Jewish, but not religious, and suddenly want to talk to a rabbi. Some people like to be alone.
It's important to consider who you want there, who you don't want there and what you want the room to be like. Sometimes people want others to be with them, but silent. And other people want a bed encircled with people chanting the Heart Sutra. So I think it's important to keep it as an open question like: are there spiritual practices or ways of being that may be important to incorporate as the process unfolds? And as it unfolds, continue asking: what would be meaningful here?
To me, it's a way of living, you know, as we're dying, being alive until we die, and how in that, as we move towards death, that liminal space, knowing that things often open up that we want that we wouldn't have foreseen.
July 14th, 2020
Any preparation for death beforehand can be a ritual and the rituals can be created by the family. It's great to have discussions while the dying person is still alive and conscious, whether it's a couple of months or weeks before the actual dying, the question is what do you want? Who do you want in the room? What kind of music do you want playing, if any? Do you want candles burning throughout the vigil process? What kind of flowers do you want, if any? Is there incense that you would like burning? Who don't you want in the room?
This is important when we're in our process, heading towards those final moments. Suddenly all the lost relatives and friends and neighbors crawl out of the woodworks because they want to be part of this event. And the dying person could be thinking what the hell are they doing here? There are certain people I just know I want to be here as I move towards my death and some I don't.
So, ritual could be writing down the list of people that should be there, and the ones that shouldn't be there. Also, ritual is talking about how and where I want to be buried, what I want my memorial to be to look like. Talking about how I want my body prepared. And who do you want to bathe your body?
We had a friend who was fortunate enough to have a harpist during the vigil, then someone came in with Tibetan bells, then someone else with woodwind instruments. This is incredible ritual, and it's not for everyone. Also, food. One of our students wrote about someone in hospice and all he wanted was a reuben sandwich. The man's dying and they're giving him all this slushy food, and he said, I just want a reuben. One of the aides went to the deli and got one and he ate. He ate the whole thing. Slowly, slowly, slowly. There's ritual right there: how do you want to approach your death? Ritualize every piece of every part of it.