Death is a complicated topic. We aren’t able to have a conversation with anyone who’s really died, so it is the one experience that remains a mystery — a journey we must each travel on our own.
Content warning: of course Death is a sensitive topic for many of us, for many reasons, but we also want to alert you that we include suicide in our conversation. If you’d prefer to skip that portion, it’s from 19:05 to 23:50.
Content warning: The following transcript includes a conversation about suicide.
The hushed tones whispered about a thing I knew already, but couldn’t comprehend. It was serious, somber, sad. But all of that was over my head. Literally. My grandfather was in a coffin I had to be lifted up to see. And watching from beside, I could tell, death causes tears. I watched happen time after time as people looked in. It was a remarkable transformation, sometimes loud sobs with crumpled faces, sometimes silent weeping. For everyone it seemed. But me. I wonder now if it occurred to me that I should cry or to question why I didn’t. I bet I was the kind of kid who’d think about stuff like that. If asked, I would have been able to answer that I was four, but I’m not sure I could have defined what a year was. And here I was shuffled into a sea of swirling skirts and suit pants, to face the starkest reality of life: it ends.
Maybe this is why I never had what people call “the invincibility of youth” because I knew mortality. It happens to people doing everything to prepare for a long life, surrounded by all of the things they have sacrificed and worked immensely hard for. In the middle of a long run the very heart attack they were trying to fend off can claim them.
I was too young for “this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” It just became part of my “this is.” And in retrospect, it seems like that was good preparation.
Sophia: What we see and experience as children can sometimes guide how we hold death and all our years to come.
I’m so honored to have our Shift podcast engage with the topic of death. It’s such an important conversation during this pandemic time, and at the stage that many of our listeners are at in their lives, their faith, and spiritual journeys: a stage of questioning, wondering, deconstructing and reconstructing what they know, and yet no longer know about death, life, God and humanity.
I’m intrigued that by engaging with what’s possible in death, we might open up to what is possible in life. Let’s see, friends listen along while Brad and Hilde dive deep into our death, denying culture, explore dignity and choice in death. Breathe in, as they explore suicide, and mental health, and eulogies. And in conversations that inform how we live and support how we die. That’s what this podcast is all about. Exploring who we are, and who we choose to be, and what we choose to believe, and the rich conversations of our lives, that open our minds and our hearts to new perspectives, and new ways of relating. Welcome to Shift.
Brad: I thought it would be a really good addition to this podcast to interview somebody who has done extensive amounts of research and, is pondering the whole concept of death and our thinking around it and our culture’s awareness. And so we’re grateful to have Hilde with us here today. Hilde, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Hilde: Thanks, Brad. My name is Hilde a different name for most people.
My mother’s name was Margaret Jean. My grandmother’s name was Mary. my paternal grandparents were Henrietta and Austin. And my father’s name was Joseph Guy.
So I’m a person who loves to be out in nature. I love to walk in trees and listen to trees. I spend as much time as possible in bare feet, even outside, I’m a person of silence. I’m also known to talk a lot. So my kids always thought that that was just an oxymoron, that I like silence.
I’m also just coming out of or going into retirement from being a United Church Minister for the last 23 years.
And before that, my focus was with children. And my focus was and university on aging and death and dying.
Brad: So this interest goes back a long way.
Hilde: A long way.
Brad: And in preparation for this, you drafted a document for us to sort of wrestle with and and that document ended up being about 20 pages long. And it struck me that that is still just scratching the surface on this.
Hilde: It is.
Brad: And so this conversation that we’re having is just scratching the surface of the surface that’s being scratched. So it’s interesting to me: where have you felt this kind of this kind of pull to to ponder death and to help people through it? Where did that kind of start for you? Do you have a clear sense of that?
Hilde: I do. I believe it came from my connection with animals. I grew up having cats. And I remember when the one cat ran away, and so everyone said, “well, they must have been killed.” And so that was tragic to me. And well, why would that happen? And I was probably seven or eight. And then I remember clearly when scamp died. Got sick, actually. And then we had to take her to the vet. And my mother made me decide what to do. And so I asked, I asked her, I asked her if she was ready to die, and clear as I can hear it now. I got the message that “hold me, and let me die.” And so then I went on a questioning of other people. So, “how do you want to die?” And here I am this 10 year old.
Brad: [laughs] I was gonna say, What age was that?
Hilde: About 10. Or 11. You know, “how do you want to die?” Because I had just experienced not too long ago holding my cat. And watching her die. And loving her immensely. And knowing that something that was part of her was still part of me. I didn’t get a lot of good reception, especially from people that I thought were really old. They were probably 40. But they didn’t want to talk about that. And that that was a problem. Because if it was so easy just to decide, or let me decide that a cat was going to die, then why wouldn’t people talk about it?
Brad: Right. Right. And so that would prompt your curiosity, even more like you’re wrestling with: “Why is it hard for people to talk about that?” And so that’s a very early awareness of that. Yeah. One of the things that, that you’ve pointed out, and we’ve had conversations around this, too, is that death is taboo. We don’t like to talk about it. And that’s kind of in this too. That people want to protect themselves from that kind of awareness, or just, it doesn’t feel like ever quite the right time to talk about it. How have you seen that sort of show up? And then how do you kind of intervene with that?
Hilde: We are certainly a death denying culture. We want it to go away. “It’s not going to happen to me.” We talk about our teenagers or youth as being invincible, and they never think about it. But it’s not until I’m sitting across from a family often, and someone has died, that I hear “well, we’ve never talked about this. We’ve never done this before. We’re glad you’re here. You’re the expert.” And so I say Well, have you did you not talk about this with your mom knowing she was very sick with cancer? And she was dying? No, no, no, she didn’t want to talk about it. Or on the other hand, there’d be “well, she wanted to talk about it. But we didn’t know how.” So it… I’m not sure if we’re afraid of pain. …People don’t seem to be afraid to be dead. They seem more afraid of the dying part. And in my experience, and the things I’ve done with families, we don’t have to be afraid there is so much that we can do to make that whole experience and that journey. Even lovely. Even lovely.
Brad: Yeah, so the taboo that that we’re talking about shows up in the euphemisms that we use, there was a narrow portion of my life where I watched the language of our culture change from “passed away,” to “passed on” to simply “passed.” And it’s like we’re just trying to soften all of this so that it doesn’t feel real to us. And that has just huge implications for how prepared we are for any of this to affect us personally.
Hilde: It doesn’t. It’s also traumatic for members of our population and our children, especially when we start using the word “lost.” Because “we lost grandma.” Well, so what we lost the cat yesterday and we found the cat go find grandma.
Yeah, no, or, you know, “I’m sorry to hear about your loss.” “Well, I didn’t lose anything.” “Well, you know, didn’t grandma just die?” “Oh, well, we know where she is. She’s in the you know, and so kids have the good language around it, right? Unless they’re given the euphemisms, then they get scared and they don’t understand. Right?
Brad: And that that concept of lost is something that we’ve also talked about in reference to how we frame the entire thing. If somebody beats cancer, for example, is this big triumph, right? They won, they’ve come out victorious. But if they die from cancer, then the flipside is that they lost, they succumbed. It’s a tragic defeat. And that doesn’t strike me as hopeful for how to understand death.
Hilde: One of the push backs is our medical system, because again, “lost, lost… they’ve lost the battle, they, they weren’t good enough doctors, they weren’t good enough, nurses giving care because they lost.” So there’s that competition there to keep us alive. And I like being alive. But it’s not a competition. And we’re running into those conversations all the time now with “how long do we really want to live?” “What do I want to be like, when I’ve lived my 100 years?” You know, if I’m still walking in being able to talk to people, and you know, pet the dog, that’s great. But if I’ve been 20 years lying there, barely knowing that people around me or if I do, I can’t say anything. That’s a whole different thing. And so we have that, with our medical assistance in dying, the whole conversation about what does it mean to die? And is that possible?
Brad: Yeah, there’s a whole new emphasis on on dignity and understanding what what the end of life looks like when we look at it through the lens of dignity. How do you perceive that and the changes that are happening in our culture right now?
Hilde: I’ve seen lots of changes, even just in the last 20 years about how we have respect for people who are dying, how we accompany them, and not leave them just to die. I’ve probably been in over 700 places where people have either just died or dying. That’s a lot of death I’ve seen. And for me, one of the most privileged places is in that hospital room or bedroom, where someone’s dying, and the family has called me. And they have no idea what to do. But they’re willing to just be gentle with themselves and take a lead, and listen and talk and ask the person. If they’re a person that always liked to be hugged, then chances are they’d love you to hold their hand hold their hand. If they’re not saying anything, they can probably hear you. Because that’s the last sense that leaves so tell them a story. What did you see when you were coming here? Who was playing in the puddles? And you no, was there a cat in a window? tell those stories because they’re still connected with what they hear. So that gentleness and that privilege, and that honoring and dignity, as you said, of being present and helping someone die?
Brad: Yeah, that’s, that’s powerful. You’ve mentioned children and their perspectives on this. When I turned 30, I had a conversation with my doctor. And he said, You’re 30 now right? And I agreed, “yeah, that, you know” –he can see my medical record. So he knows that, you know, it was a question more for my sake than his obviously– and he said, “so when you hit 30 you become aware of mortality in a completely different way. It feels there. It’s like real, it’s approaching–it’s not imminent. It doesn’t feel imminent yet. It’s not like it’s happening tomorrow. But this is a natural change that happens at age 30. I was just like, “Yeah, he’s read my mail. Like he’s right on, this is where I am! I have this fresh new awareness that’s just kind of emerging from somewhere.” And I just suddenly thought, like, Where else would I have encountered this thought? Where else would I have come across this awareness because we’re not so willing to talk about this reality of our awareness of mortality even, and the inevitability of mortality. And so it made me think there are ways that we should be able to talk about this, about death with every age group. And I wonder if you could just kind of run through a few perspective-sharing strategies for how to how to broach this topic at age appropriate levels, maybe through the decades
Hilde: Sure. Kids ask the best questions. Usually around five to eight is where you’ll get the questions “if grandma dies.” And the questions will be really concrete because that’s What those people are thinking they’re concrete. So the the book that’s a great book is won’t grandma need her socks? So the picture or the best scene they set up is, and there are still are people that have caskets. So you can still see, we’ve come to view a body. But it was back in the decades where you did that regularly. So they wonder, “did grandma have her socks on? Because she always had cold feet.” So that was the question. And so I don’t know what the answer was, at the time. But that’s the kinds of questions you get. And, you know, how will they… how will they get to heaven? If that’s part of your belief system. If that’s where you think they’re going. How did they get there? Because right now, they’re just very, very still.
Hilde: So in those things we talk about, I talk about things like letters when we did get letters, and we still get mail. So when you get a piece of mail, what do you do? You open it up, and often throw out the envelope and read the letter. So you know, kids understand, you don’t need that envelope, but that’s the body, you know, and what’s inside–the best part of the person? That’s what we hold on to. And we can’t put it in a box, and we can’t hold its hand. And that’s sad. But we can remember the very essence of what that person did, how they make us laugh. What we did together, so that concrete thinking, that’s where under-tens usually are.
When you move into 10, 11, 12 to, often to 20. It’s very similar, you want to fix everything, right. And so you want to fix the death, you want the doctors to stop the person from dying. So that’s often where people try to run away from the death, they want it not to happen, and they feel like they’ve done something wrong. For a 14-15 year old, to hear about the death of someone: they will blame themselves. And it’s really key that we make sure that you didn’t do anything wrong, they will remember the last thing they said to that person. And if it wasn’t a nice thing, then it’s their fault that they’ve died. So that’s a place that you really have to watch their hearts and to really be open about the scientific stuff, because that age group is really interested in that. So if it was the failure of the lungs, then you talk about that, and it becomes a body and science conversation. But then you always move it over to “the best part of the person is still with us.” We still have their laughter we still can remember these things. Mostly, for kids, I’ll or give them something to hold on to, to remember grandpa in their hands. So “put it beside your toothbrush. And every time you brush your teeth, you’ll think or grandpa and remember the smile.” So that yeah, that emotional piece between our 12 and 20 year olds. That’s where they are. They need the conversations about, their feelings more than anything else.
Brad: Right. And that age group too–they’re just starting to learn abstract thought.
Brad: So that kind of interacts with that too. There’s an awareness that goes beyond just, you know, the tangible and the concrete.
Content Warning: Suicide
Hilde: Yeah. So that that is very important piece to remember that they can do that kind of piece. Once you’re in your 20s, usually, you’re still feeling invincible. So death is not ever going to happen to you. So when it does, it’s, very tragic. And it’s very, I would say, soul shaking. And these are these are folks that need a lot of attention as well. That’s a time, unfortunately, when we run across a lot of suicide, when people are struggling with who they are, and feeling good about themselves. So those are other conversations that I think are really important to have, even in our early teens, so that we can help ourselves to understand our worth, and that we always have something that we can look forward to and nothing means that you are not worth being alive.
Brad: I appreciate you bringing that up. One of the things that I’ve seen around that is even more delicacy. Like “if I ask a question about somebody’s mental health or about somebody suicidal ideation, might that put that idea in their head? Might that encourage them to go through with that?” And the research is saying no. And rather be forthright about that and just just ask the question.
Hilde: That’s really important. Brad asking those questions, even if you just a little bit wonder, “have they thought about it?” Ask the question. “So that question made me think about needing to ask you, are you going to kill yourself?” “Are you at the end of your rope?” “Do you Have a plan?” Sometimes people say, “Yeah, I just want to be off this world.” “Well, what’s your plan?” “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know the plan.” Then likely we don’t have to worry about them. But if they have a plan: “yes, I’m driving the car off the bridge.” “What bridge?” “When are you going to?” I’ve had some experience working with suicide in other communities. So we would teach businesses and schools to talk about suicide and those questions that you need to ask. And I always say, so “before you do it, would you call me so I can say goodbye?” Because that might be the last thing they think about. before they’re going to do it. “Well, I’d have to call Hilde. And say goodbye. Well, that means she must miss me, or she will. So maybe it’s not worth it. And I’ll just call her and talk.”
And I have… I have in my life had someone who did not complete suicide, because they had to call me and I wasn’t home. And they had to wait. And then life got different. So, I don’t even remember that young person’s name. But I remember the look on their face when they said, “thanks that you made me call you. But you weren’t home. How dare you?” I was not home. Yeah. But yeah. There’s lots we can learn about walking with people, through our mental illness through life being just too tough.
And one of those things is to be very clear about talking about death. Death is the end. It’s final. It’s not a solution to anything. And we’re trying to fix things often, if suicide seems the right thing to do. It doesn’t fix anything. And isn’t nice to anybody. And it’s not a selfish act. But it does hurt people. And it doesn’t take a burden off anybody. So all those things to be a live conversation often is good for us to do.
Brad: Thank you. Yeah, that’s, those are important things. I’ve heard suicide framed, like the reason you shouldn’t is because it’s such a selfish act. And the way that is framed is so problematic to me,
Hilde: That’s more of a burden on the person than anything.
Brad: And there’s also this way to bypass people and just tell them, they should be happy because they, they can take another breath, right. And that’s just like, if they’re at this stage, that’s not helpful either.
Hilde: The other piece about suicide is the language around it. I have learned having talked to a number of people who’s have a member completed suicide, we don’t commit suicide. That’s an old word. It used to be against the law. So you were committing an unlawful act, if you committed suicide, so the language is now “completed, completed suicide or death by suicide. Or took their own life.” So it’s very clear, it’s same with the words about death and dying, it’s clear what’s happening. And it’s not a crime, you’ve done nothing wrong. Or the person that has attempted wasn’t doing anything wrong, they were reaching out, and we just weren’t listening.
Brad: That’s a good corrective. And then as we progress through the ages into into 30, and beyond, there are all of these things kind of compound and, and grow. But what would you say to somebody in their 30s or 40s, around this topic? Now, some of this, as we’ve already talked about, is helpful because there might be kids involved, that, that having that kind of perspective would be helpful for the kids, but but a 30, or 40 year old has a different relationship with all of this.
Hilde: Sure. First, I’d ask the question, if they’ve made a plan for their life. Okay. You know, what do you want to be when you grow up? Yeah, what do you want to be doing in the last 10 years before you retire? And I’ll start there, because that gets someone thinking about living. And then we ask the question, “so when you’ve had a really good life, and you’ve had but success and everything you’ve done, you’ve retired, well, how do you want to die? What do you want to be doing in your last month of your life? If it’s sudden death?” We can’t make those choices, right? But hopefully we live long enough that we can have that choice. “What do I want to do for the last month, if I know that I’m about to die?” Those are good things to think about. And I can make choices about those things. When someone is given a last date, “you’ve got three months or or two months,” or whatever it is. We’ve got lots of things that we can think about and make choices about instead of being powerless, and having control taken away. We give that control back to people. When we talk about: “how do you want to die?” Because there are choices can be that can be made. Like, “Are you someone who, on your last day wants the curtains open and the sun coming in your room? Do you want to hear the kids playing in the playground and the birds? Or do you want the curtains drawn and there’s three candles there and it’s dark?” That’s a decision that’s very, very different. And if I don’t know that, then I probably will do the wrong thing, because I’m going to do what I would like, which would be to having the curtains open and the sun coming in. Right? But that might not be right for you. So I have to ask those questions. Because that puts that power back into someone’s hands into their hearts. And they can then think about how I want to do this.
Brad: There’s a magic to that — giving somebody back volition, even in this. I’ve heard this kind of exercise done in, in various formats in corporate boardrooms, or, you know, the business world, the church world where people are presented with this. “So what do you want your epitaph to say?” “How do you want to frame your life?” And that’s the follow up, right? So if you know what you want people to say about you when you’re gone–how are you going to make the decisions to make that true? And I think that’s such a meaningful exercise. Because we’re so uncomfortable with even processing the concept of death, we don’t do that enough. I think we live in the tyranny of the urgent and all of the distractions and the things that fill our attention. And we don’t think about how to be intentional and mindful about the decisions that we can make. And it ends up feeling more and more powerless. But if we would choose the other way, then we recognize our volition and, and that enhances our understanding of the value of life and living. Right? So if somebody was going to contemplate that, like, “I’m this age, and I need to make some choices about where I’m going to put my attention and energy.” How would you help them from here? In a talking conversation that’s sort of disembodied to people.
Brad: How would you help people guide themselves through that?
Hilde: I think what was key is what you’ve just said: “Look at what you’d want to say in your obituary? What do you want your friends to remember you by?” And then get some help make it a conversation with friends. So this is what I want my obit to say. When I screw up would you help remind me that I’m not going to get there if I keep acting like this. Wow. So let’s, you know, make a team that’s going to help you we had teams for all sorts of things, winning basketball games, and you know, playing golf, but a team to live and help me live better. That’s a pretty cool team. That is a great and then I get to help other people too. And I’ve been given permission to say, Whoa, you know, “Sarah, if you want this on your, you know, me to read this tribute, I can’t, if you, you know, if you keep doing that, you know, or I thought you want it to be a great artist, right? You’ve given that up. I can’t read this when you die if you don’t finish, you know, that painting or go back to school or, or something. Or, you know, you want it to be remembered in this way. I don’t see that anywhere in your life.” So you told me I could remind you that that’s what you wanted. So how can I get you back there?
Brad: It’s so funny as you’re sharing that, because I realized that the way that I’m even framing that is like it’s my secret. How I want to be remembered is kind of my secret. And then I hope it shows up by magic. Not gonna happen. No, that’s right. And to think about that in a in a team environment to bring people alongside who understand that bigger purpose in your own life
Hilde: Meet every year at the same pub, go over your your obit and see if you’re living into it. Wow. And make sure that the people you love and care for are doing the same thing. What a great reason to meet Yeah, right. You know, to say, “this is how I want to live and help me and I messed up here” or “Wow, I’m really going strong. How can I help you?”
Brad: Yeah, that’s that’s great perspective. That’s amazing! One of the things that I’ve considered in pondering this topic, there’s a lot of meaninglessness around death and suffering and grieving. And I think we tend to try and put meanings on things that don’t necessarily belong there. But one of the things that does give shape and meaning to life is that it ends. And this is kind of where you’re nudging with this, right, like, there, there’s a timeframe that we have, and we don’t even know what the timeframe is. But we know that we have a timeframe. And so does that resonate with you that that part of the meaning of life is that it comes to an end? And how does that get expressed?
Hilde: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I have right now any answers for that. Except about what we’ve talked about. To be present to that knowledge that I’m going to die. So what does that mean for today? Because I might only have today. So if I’ve been planning to write that letter, or make that phone call, today, maybe should be the day. So if it can stir us to do those kinds of things, as I was doing some reading, in preparation for this, one of the books that I was reading said, Every morning when you get up, and it was happened to be a guy with a beard. So when you’re trimming your beard, remind yourself, you’re going to die. I thought, whoa, that’s a little different.
Brad: Yeah. [laughs] That’s why I don’t shave so much.
Hilde: When do I remind myself that I’m going to die? You know, and let’s do I have to change anything today? Or do I put something in my my timer for Friday that I need to get to? Because I, you know, I don’t know that we do that we want to live well. We also can die Well, I believe, but the living well is the first piece. So how do I remind myself and knowing that someday Yeah, I will be dead. That might help.
Brad: Yeah. You are in the process. You’ve mentioned this already, but you’re in a career transition. You’re about to retire from an extended stint as a minister. And you have an interesting trajectory that you’ve chosen–or that’s chosen you, I’m not sure exactly how you would frame that for that for this–but you are an accredited end of life doula. Can you explain what that is?
Hilde: Sure. End of Life doula or death doula. The name comes from the piece of doula which birth doula is paired with. So people got to thinking about if we’re preparing for a birth to happen, should we not also be preparing for the end of life? So the death doula was thought of. And it’s very similar. It’s preparation. It’s knowing that you’re going to die. Most often a death doula will be called when someone has been given that. So when someone has been told that death is imminent, they want to prepare so a death doula will join the family will talk to the person. Ask them those questions. “How do you want to die?” “What do you want to be happening?” “When you are dying?” “Do you want lots of people there?” “Do you want to die alone?” “Do you want one person holding your hand?” “What does the space look like?” “Do you want the smell of lavender?” “Do you want the smell of beer? “Do you want the curtains open?” “Do you want lots of people there talking?” “Or do you want people to sign in and only come one at a time?” So those are questions that we can ask people that probably they’ve never thought about. They usually answer “I don’t want to die.” “But I don’t want pain.” “And I want to know my family’s there.” So okay, so we can the medical system can help with the pain usually. But what do you mean by family? “Is that everybody who knows and loves you?” “Or is that three really important to people?” “Is that you know all the aunts and uncles that you’ve never really talked too much.” “You know, who is it?” “And what do they do?” “And what do you want happening as well?” “Where do you want the bed to face if you’re at home?” “Do you want it to face the door so you can see everybody coming?” “Or do you want it to face the window?” “Do you want to have your favorite beverage there so you can sip on it?” Do you want a backrub?” “Do you want, you know your grandkids to rub your feet?” “What is it you want?” “What music do you want to listen to?” I know for my spouse, I will try my very best to make sure a real live horse can put their head through the window. Because that’s what they want. Or a bale of hay at least. Right? “So is the dog going to be there with you?” “What are the things that are important that you want to be surrounded by?”
Brad: Presenting with somebody with questions like that probably helps them frame their life in a way that they wouldn’t naturally, they wouldn’t naturally think of these as even being options. But when you’ve got somebody coming alongside and saying these are options, and you get to pick and you get to select how this looks for you and for your loved ones, then everybody can be in on that. It’s a collaborative venture of this is how it’s all gonna happen. And this is this is our the role we get to play. Right?
Hilde: So the death doula would try to ensure that all that happens, because the family gets into other places. Yes, they get thinking about their own feelings and what’s happening there. “Or how, Where are the kids? And as someone watching the children?” Well, I as a death, doula would make sure that all those things that we’ve talked about happen. So no, you can’t be on your cell phone right now talking to the babysitter, you go outside and do that. Because that’s not what we do here. Right. So those kinds of things. So that would be my job, is to make sure that all those details that we’ve talked about are still true. And that can happen. And when others forget, then “I’m the one that says no, this is what we’ve talked about. So we need to change what you’re doing now.” And to be that constant presence in the background most often to make sure that the conversations that that person wants happens. So I might not make the call to Aunt Margaret to say that so and so wants to talk to you. But I’d make sure that Margaret knows that the conversation is is invited. So please come. Yeah, and have that conversation. Right? Because it’s hard. When I when I’m dying, I’m thinking about dying. Yeah, but a couple of days or a week before that I might have some other ideas about Oh, “I’d love to talk to but I don’t have the capacity to do that.” So I make sure it happens. “I want fresh daisies in the room all the time.” The death doula would make sure that happens.
Brad: Yeah. I have had the privilege of walking or watching hospice care. And the level of attention and that kind of care is so it’s so unique. The people who are building that kind of space and environment are gifted in ways that most of us don’t see at least until that stage until we’re affected by it personally. And so there are places where I have connected with this. But it’s in kind of specialized environments. And so to open up this opportunity to people who haven’t contemplated before is really unique to me. I think this is such a neat offering to give people the space to to reflect on not just their life and their preferences, but how all their relational dynamics are working right at the end when they can still make those choices.
Hilde: A death doula will also talk to you about your health directives and make sure you’ve got will that’s been written. What are other things that need to be put in place as far as documents, death, doulas will also help with that. And I’ve learned as I’ve talked to death, doulas that they each seem to have a specialty. One person really didn’t want to be there when people were dying so much, but they wanted to make sure that everybody’s ready, and that all the things are set in place. So and so they can talk about what the end of care is, but “I don’t really want to be there. But I want to know that that’s happening.” So often, doulas will work in teams. So each one having their own specialty or being there if it’s over a longer period of time, like a month. So you would take a you know, like a 12 hour shift and then someone else would come. So you can share that as well. That seems to be the practice of some doulas also, also planning what you want to have happened after you’ve died. I mean, the most curious thing for me was the peace of the question. “When you have died, what do you want people to do?” And I’d never thought about that.
Some of the things where “I want everybody to stand up and sing. My favorite song while I’m still in the bed dead.” I thought: “Curious okay so they’re thinking, as someone who’s dying, what the rest of the people need and they think this would be helpful so they’ve asked for it. “Family was able to do that. So there’s a lot of talk about dying at home. And what that looks like it feels like. Our funeral home providers, they have a great job to do, but I’m learning that they don’t need to do anything. We can handle everything if people are willing to move a body from the death at home in a bed to the cemetery. So I’m still learning about what all that means but it is possible, apparently. But we also should look into what our funeral directors are doing, because they are remarkable people do know a lot, and they can’t answer.
Brad: Yes. Yeah, I was going to bring that up to my encounters with funeral directors hadn’t been many in they’re willing to just be open and answer questions and even when it wasn’t to related to questions of death. And also, one of my favorite experiences was my when my mother in law passed away–or died. The funeral directors were hanging back with us, the kids and the in-laws. And it was very dark humor that was being expressed. That’s how my wife’s family processes death. The funeral directors were right in there with those same kind of jokes and that I just remember like my eyebrows were totally raised. They were being extremely sensitive and very delicate with this, not stepping out of bounds or doing anything disrespectful, but they are right here, that they need to. And it just, yeah it surprised me. What a resource for a culture that is so death averse–to have people who are remarkably comfortable with it, and can help people grieve, however they need to.
Hilde: And grieving is really important and it’s hard work. I often get people questioning my language when I say “do the hard work, you know you’re here in front of me at this funeral this is hard work.” I mention it at least three or four times. And sometimes people will say, “Why do you keep telling us it’s hard work?” Tell me what is easy. It’s not and it’s work. And if we don’t do the work. We will not get to the places where we can get to, to have some kind of peace, we never get over it, don’t plan on getting over it, because it’s not going to happen. But the good grieving and the intentional work of grieving will get us to a place where we can live with whatever that pain is or that sorrow, or that hurt.
Right. And I just wanted to add, it’s, it’s important for us to acknowledge that on, on each other’s behalf that we should not expecting each other to get over it. We have to hold space for grief and that hard work, whatever that looks like on each other’s behalf.
One of the best books, is to Tear Soup that I give to a lot of people who come to me and say, “I wish everybody would just telling me I should be better now, should get back to work. I’m not ready.” I said, “it’s a person who is making their own time and tears, and I’ll get there.” It just gives a gentle “back off, friends, family, I need to do this.” We can tell when people are stuck. And that’s part of my job. I’ll tell you if you’re stuck. Right now you’re just doing a really good job grieving and keep the crying, keep the walking. And if you have to stamp your feet in my basement. When you’re unhealthy, I’ll tell you. But usually it’s just the different time we take. To have someone honor that time is so important. “Just keep doing this, you’re doing well.”
Brad: And speaking of that honor and another component that I’ve received is instruction, which is, again, contrary to instinct, is to remind people of the person that has died. That person lived and that life was really important and often the way that we kind of approach this is, we’d rather not talk about it because that might make somebody feel uncomfortable. And to remind people that we do remember, We’re there for this, this journey. We appreciated it that person too is, is so remarkably life-giving and honoring
Hilde: People say, so what do I say to them? “Ask them a story. So even if it’s on the year. I usually try to send a person a card at the anniversary of the death at least for three years and all I say is “remembering you as you remember. Love Hilde.” I don’t need to say anything else. And then that acknowledges that I to remember that they’ve got a sadness that they’re remembering. And it helps. It doesn’t take a long letter to say anything. “I just am remembering them.” or “I didn’t want to mention it because you know, it’s the year of the death. “Well you think I’m not remembering?” “What’s wrong with you? Of course I am remembering.” So people aren’t gonna forget. So remember with them. And even the death of a dog. Send a card. Even if you think it’s a little foolish then “I know your pet dog died.” That’s ggrief. Especially if that’s the only family that they have. That’s a death and that’s a grief. They can be as serious a grief as someone over the death of a human being. That might sound foolish to us. We don’t have a connection with a dog. But grieving’s grieving. No one’s forgetting the date.
Brad: No, that’s right. Well, I have really appreciated this I think you touched on some really important things. From here, if somebody was interested to understand, or for either engaging, a death doula us a death doula or maybe somebody else. The entire concept of it, or if they were interested in becoming a death doula, to potentially discovering more about that for their own deaths. Do you have a way of people getting in touch with you?
Hilde: Sure. They can send me an email, they can also go online, to Douglas College. And I remembered the name. [laughs] Where I went, and it was online because of this COVID. It was a great course. I learned a lot of things. I was also, fortunately, able to tell some stories, because I’ve been doing it for a long time. Yeah, it’s, It’s a great course. They can contact me at my email. email@example.com I’d be glad for the conversation.
Brad: Yeah. Well thanks again for for sharing this moment, and for sharing your perspective, and the wisdom that you’ve gleaned from your curiosity on this. I hope this is a benefit to our listeners who are definitely aware in a whole new way of mortality, with COVID and some of the other things that have happened in our lives. To have this kind of confidence and gentle approach with ourselves and each other as we face this.
Sophia: Okay, that was a lot. Both informative and thought and heart provoking. It’s so great to be sitting here with friends listening in on the conversation and wondering how: “that’s a new take, that’s a new perspective. I’m gonna have to think about some of those.” I wonder, Kay, what kind of hit home for you or brought up a question for you?
K: Yeah. Thank you, Sophia. I found the, resonance between Hilde as a barefoot human, and a grounded human. That really stuck with me throughout this, whole conversation. That Hilde is somebody who is concerned and entrenched in questions of ground. Questions of returning to ground. There’s something about that, that moves between death and life, that her orientation towards death leads to a renewed sense of life, a new way of engaging with life, and I just felt that that really trickled down into every aspect of what she was presenting. It was very impactful for me.
Brad: They’re just inseparable. They’re part of the same thing. Hilde did such a good job of weaving those things together. Life is complicated, and full. Death is even that, in the midst of it, yeah.
Sophia: I was struck by the weaving in of new language and the understanding that at each stage of our lives, we comprehend and relate to death in such different ways. And that, as we update our own understanding of what is death, it helps us to guide then those who are younger, or to relate to those who are older as we’re on this journey in life.
K: That community aspect I think was was the most impactful for me. Just that the role of friends and family, community, what whatever that might be–that is key. I think particularly what you said Brad, about how we like to think of ourselves as, you know, thinking and perceiving death, in a very personal way that it’s “me, I will die so why get anyone else involved?” Right? But no, it is it’s a communal thing because we all will die and we all are actually impinged on by the people around us, so there’s no need to forget them. In fact, It’s more to invite them in.
Brad: Yeah, that part of the conversation was probably the most meaningful to me, that drawing people, in helping other people. So, both as you’re as you’re making the important decisions that end up with a eulogy that you want your life to write, and just that whole community element in life and in the end of life too. It’s all part of the same thing. We have an impact on each other, whether we want it or not. So let’s explore them, enjoy them together, and it seems kind of weird to say “enjoy death,” but the way that Hilde’s approach was can be even lovely, it surprised me. And as I was reflecting on this as she was talking, I was like, “yea, the way that you are approaching death is alive, which is just great.
Sophia: There was, and there was a wakefulness, about that, that different than dying peacefully. But there’s a sense of: “it can be lovely. In an awake-full way in a conscious way as we choose to do it with our families differently and engage the conversation.” But in particular, going back to what you talked about, that writing of the eulogy, but having it affect how you live your life, not just what happens after you die. I really liked that and, and I loved how in the practice of writing that, Hilde invites us into maybe finding a team, a life team that helps keep us accountable to that practice of the words and the qualities that we’ve written about ourselves, are we living that? And having people once a year, I think she said “go to the bar and hang out or just you know get together with friends and ask, Is this how you’re living your life?”
Brad: That’s right. Yeah. And that intentional drawing together and, and, as you say “wakefulness.” There’s the joint collaboration in making that experience of my life the way that we’ve agreed that it should be. Right. It was, that was beautiful.
Sophia: And there’s support in that. So as a death doula, Hilde really becomes also a life doula like helping people live life more fully.
K: Absolutely. And I think that just what you folks and what Hilde is getting at is part of the long story of religion. I wondered for years why it was that skulls were such a large part of the Christian tradition, particularly Catholic tradition–that “momento mori,” right? That “remember death.” It’s figured everywhere in our congregations and certainly beyond Christianity. There’s something here that’s ever-present when when we dwell in religious spaces. And I think that part of it at least is that, that of community, it’s the sense that death is done best in community, and religious spaces as spaces that invite community are ones that best equip us to recognize that death will happen, recognize that deaths are happening, and then walk with others as we move towards our own death.
Brad: Who knew to a topic that should be so morbid but it’s so full of life and energy?
Sophia: Right? Who knew? And I hope that this is just the beginning. The beginning of engaging death in a whole new way for all of us, you know over the years. You know I’ve been exposed to various practices that people have done to start to engage these questions, I have some friends who are Buddhists to have a practice of dying every day. And so there’s a very set meditation process that they do and they do it in order that they might live more fully. It’s not just about that wakefulness at the moment of death but it’s that wakefulness in all of life are Wayne Muller’s book, you know, How then shall we live? with the tagline: “knowing we will die.” And so I think we have the opportunity here to engage in practices, write our eulogy. Determine what are those qualities that we want to live by. In every moment, and then go and do it, and to live fully into those qualities. And so even if you’re walking or driving while you’re listening to this podcast, think. What are those two or three qualities that you would like to have someone say about you, as they’re celebrating your life, and then choose those qualities every day as, “how do I live more, this or that?” And so I think: Let’s hope this is just the beginning that we continue the conversation here and that we make available through our show notes and other ways of practices and ways of engaging with death, dying, life.
And so our invitation to all of you listening here is to engage with the podcast, engage with us through Twitter, through Instagram, through Facebook. All the ways that we can be in conversation. Let’s be a part of the shift that is happening in each one of us, and also support the shift that is happening in our world.