It's not easy to talk about death in this culture of glitzy denial. There are no courses in school and little official recognition that being with a dying person or dying yourself requires massive social support.
None of us is ever the same after the death of a loved one. By necessity, the grieving process is about redefining ourselves and reorganizing our lives in the face of enormous loss. So, too, dying involves a profound coming to terms with our life.
We can ease these transitions by accepting our feelings without judgment -- whether fury, sorrow, bitterness or peaceful anticipation -- and by delving deeper into our life philosophy or spiritual practice.
When we're close to a dying person or mourning a loss, it can feel disrespectful to focus on our own well-being. Being realistic about death, however, also means realizing the fact that in the land of the living we're responsible for our own health.
Stomach pain, loss of appetite, intestinal upsets, sleep disturbances, panic attacks, chronic fatigue, suicidal thoughts and depression are all common when we're experiencing acute grief. An existing illness may worsen, or a new one might develop. If you lose someone due to a crime, overwhelming anger can greatly complicate your grief. Multiple losses such as happen with AIDS can also overwhelm.
If these scenarios are part of your life, seek professional help or a support group. You might also find it helpful to research near-death experiences (NDEs) -- most people who've had one lose their fear of death.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Grief, bereavement and mourning are different for every individual. (Expecting a particular) pattern of response can make you feel you're doing something wrong. Acknowledge that grief work can be a very complicated process that takes time. Our culture is not very good at giving that kind of time. Try not to have expectations of yourself; this an exploratory time for finding meaning. As well, you want to start giving yourself signs that you can survive this. Find ways to nourish yourself."
JUDE JOHNSTON, MSW, harm reduction counsellor, psychotherapist
"If a death is "in time,' it's easier to assimilate -- it's in the natural order of things. If the death is "out of time,' it challenges our worldview more. The more one's assumptive world is challenged, the greater the disequilibrium, chaos and confusion. When trauma overlays grief, grief is complicated immensely. (We explore) what knowing and loving that person has meant to you. What lessons in living and loving has he or she taught you? When you have a sense of the deceased's legacy, you are changed irrevocably, and through the changed you, the deceased continues to influence the world.'
STEPHEN FLEMING, professor of psychology at York University, clinical practice in traumatic grief
"Primary caregivers in the end stages of illness may have to spend up to 17 hours a day in caregiving. (People who succeed) use respite services (e.g., from hospice volunteers) effectively, keep in touch with their emotions, set limits and boundaries, exercise, eat well and sleep. Death is a journey into chaos. To live in that situation entails giving up control, which is counter to our day-to-day modus operandi. The best kept secret in caregiving is that when you care for another and you're feeling competent, not isolated, and you're dealing with your anticipatory grief, it makes you feel good -- it's just an incredible feeling."
BLAIR HENRY, client services coordinator, Trinity Home Hospice
"Every person I have ever done a past-life regression session with has expressed a greater comfort with death as a result. Some people have articulated that they feel a connection with a much longer-lasting part of themselves. They look at the bigger picture and say, "Oh, it's probably not the first time I've died. It won't be the last, and dying brings opportunities for new beginnings.'
TWILA PLANT, hypnotherapist, past-life regressionist
"A healthy dying process for all parties involves realism, respect and responsibility. Ideally, both parties admit they won't live forever and say things they may not have a chance to say again. Older people will sometimes say they want peace. We should't behave as though we think this is cowardice or laziness. When you're sick, there's a strong desire that others take care of you. It's better if responsibility is shared. People who die without a will, a living will or power of attorney for health care aren't respecting their children. Your family might have to live with the burden of being uncertain whether they did what you would have wanted."
RUTH VON FUCHS, spokesperson, Right to Die Network of Canada
"About 15 per cent of adults and 40 per cent or more of children in life-threatening circumstances may have an NDE. At least 95 per cent of people who have one no longer fear death. Many feel a real longing to go back to this area of intense beauty, peace and connectedness. If you let the individual who's caring for a dying individual know about NDEs, anybody who doesn't flat-out reject the idea will receive a message of hope that their loved one will continue on in a realm that's wonderful."
JEFFREY LONG, MD, founder, Near Death Experience Research Foundation