The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying

August 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, as you know, I’ve been thinking about death and dying lately. Here’s my latest contribution to the conversation, a review of Richard Wagner’s book, The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying. It appears on Richard’s webpage, with a link to Amazon, and was published originally in the August 2012 issue of  Gumbo,  the newsletter of the Grail in the United States.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life, by Richard Wagner, Ph.D. Las Vegas, NV: Nazca Plains, 2012. 431 pp. Paperback, $19.95; Kindle, $12.95.

Well, it’s happening. The baby-boomers are becoming senior citizens. I joined Medicare and got my half-price MTA card in April. My husband has retired and we’re planning a trip to Paris.

But getting older isn’t all sweetness and light.  Even as Keith and I are packing, my best friend from college has checked into a hospice in Toronto, her metastatic breast cancer exploding throughout her body.  Ten or twenty years ago I would have characterized this as a catastrophe. Increasingly, it’s the new normal.

Apparently we Americans put a lot of energy into avoiding this “darker” side of getting older. Psychotherapist Richard Wagner has extensive experience helping people to come to terms with their own deaths and the deaths of those they love, so he’s written a workbook for the rest of us: The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying.

The chapters of The Amateur’s Guide are structured around ten sessions of the death and dying support groups that the author leads professionally in Northern California. Ten fictional group members, composites of actual participants, interact with one another, telling their stories, and engaging the material that Wagner and other experts present.  Forms are also provided for us, the readers, to respond to the materials, provide feedback, even evaluate the contents and process of the workshop.

Among the death and dying-related subjects the book/workshop addresses are fear and avoidance of the reality of death, dealing with regrets and old wounds, end-of -life documents and preparations like advance directives, wills and trusts, who to notify, distribution of your possessions, etc., spirituality in death and dying, sexuality and intimacy in the dying process, and what someone’s last weeks and days are actually like.

Reading the responses of the various group members to the presentations and assignments helps to make this material real. But doing the assignments yourself makes death and dying all the more palpable.  I was surprised at how deeply moved—and disturbed—I was as I did the various exercises, for example, writing my own obituary and describing the last weeks and days of my own life. This may not be true for everyone, but for me, engaging the prospect of my death was a sobering experience. But I feel I am better for it.

No book is perfect, of course.  For the first half of the book, I found it almost impossible to keep the ten members of the group straight in my head. I finally made a crib sheet with the name, age, and a brief description of each, which I printed out and kept inside the front cover. The publisher should send out a bookmark with such information on it when someone buys a copy of The Amateur’s Guide so that readers can consult it as each group member begins to “talk.” The book is also pretty large—the cover is eight by ten inches and the book is an inch thick—which made it hard for me to take on the subway, where I do a lot of my reading.

But this is quibbling. The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying makes a valuable contribution to helping readers come to terms with an aspect of life that too many of us tend to avoid. Groups around the country would do well to use it to help members begin—or continue—to deal with the reality of death

 

 

The Grace of a Happy Death: Mary Louise Birmingham, 1921-2011

June 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
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In my childhood parochial school, the Sisters taught us to pray for “the grace of a happy death,” by which they meant that we should die in the state of grace. No sins on our souls.

Like many other things, the notion of  “happy death” seems to have gotten more complicated as I get older. But I’m pretty sure I have just been part of one, so I want to tell you about it.

Last Friday (June 24th) my dear friend Mary Louise Birmingham died. In August, Mary Louise would have celebrated her 90th birthday, and she and I had been friends for 40 years, more or less. She lived in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan, with her husband Bill, and had five grown children and eight grandchildren, whom she adored. We were both members of the Grail, an international women’s movement, and had met one another at the Grail’s national center outside Cincinnati where we were participating in some program or other in the late 1960s or early 197os.

Now you may think that there’s nothing very remarkable about an almost ninety-year-old woman dying, but that would be to overlook the fact that Mary Louise had been in good health, and was amazingly engaged in life, until two months ago. When I fell and broke my wrists in mid-April, she came out here to Flatbush on the subway bringing me practical things like applesauce and moist-wipes, and cheering me no end with her presence. Mary Louise had in fact visited me when I was sick any number of times over the years. We were going to attend an introduction to birdwatching workshop together on May 21 in Prospect Park but she cancelled because she was “tired.”

I should have known something was up. Increasing exhaustion and some other symptoms led her to the doctor, and on June 6 Mary Louise was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The standard treatment is chemotherapy, but the majority of people over 80 who have that treatment die from it. Mary Louise had herself worked as a hospice nurse for twenty years and so knew better; she wisely chose to spend the time remaining at home with family and friends. The doctors said she might have seven or eight weeks to live, but she died much sooner than that, less than three weeks after her diagnosis.

So why do I consider this a “happy death”? I was blessed to be able to visit Mary Louise three times after her diagnosis, and her utter peace and even joy in the face of her impending death was an enormous gift to me. I might add that my own parents died over several years, never referring in my presence to the fact that their lives were ending, and making absolutely no preparations for such an eventuality. So to see someone of their generation dying without regret or denial, and without burdening her family and friends with such regrets, was an amazing gift.

I also thought that the timing of my friend’s death was almost perfect. Some people of course drop dead or die in their sleep without any warning. And others die over months or even years, as my parents did. Who’s to say if they have any say in choosing such an approach? But my friend lived long enough for her family and friends to smile at her, to kiss her, to say good-bye. When I visited her apartment in her final weeks, Mary Louise’s husband and whichever kids and grandkids were there at the time welcomed me warmly into their loving network of support.  It almost felt like a holiday, albeit one tinged with sadness. We should all be so fortunate.

This afternoon, I am off to Mary Louise’s memorial service, at Tibet House, in Manhattan. Perhaps you will join with me and her family and other friends as we hold her in the light.

“Pink Smoke Over the Vatican”

April 16, 2011 at 9:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Lately people I know have been going to a film about the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.” This week a member of the international women’s movement to which I also belong, the Grail, posted a request for the rest of us to donate money to make it possible for this film to be shown more widely. Here’s my response to her request.

Dear friends:

I would like to say a few words about this film, “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.”

As some of you may know, I have been active in the movement for Catholic women’s ordination for almost forty years. Along with Grail members Eleanor Walker and Janet Kalven I attended the first meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference, in Detroit, in 1975. I served on the national board of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) , the primary US organization working for RC women’s ordination, for five years, and as president of that board for two years. I have collected signatures outside churches for women’s ordination and addressed national assemblies of the wider women’s ordination movement.
The Roman Catholic WomenPriests (RCWP) movement, of which the women in this film are, I believe, members, is one phase of the movement for Catholic women’s ordination.  RCWP began with ordinations on a boat in the Danube some years ago, and members of the group are ordained regularly as priests and deacons here in the US and around the world. Their members have also been ordained bishops.
But nothing is simple. We never just wanted women priests. We wanted what Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza calls a “discipleship of equals,” in which laywomen and ordained women would not be assimilated into the same clerical hierarchy that has characterized the Catholic Church for centuries. And of course, there were ordained Catholic women long before Roman Catholic WomenPriests became, ostensibly, the Catholic women priests. My good friend Judy Heffernan was ordained by the Community of the Christian Spirit (CCS) in Philadelphia in the early 1980s and has been celebrating the liturgy with that group since then. But CCS did not ordain any bishops.
I am wary of the arrival of official women priests and  bishops in the women’s ordination movement. When I gave the keynote address for the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, one of the RCWP bishops, Patricia Fresen, was the other keynoter. Afterwards WOC, the organization whose board I had served on, and for whom I had raised money, published Patricia’s talk  but not mine. Maybe it was an oversight. Or maybe talks by bishops are just more worthy of publication than talks by laywomen.
Because “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” focuses on women priests and bishops, it risks re-inscribing the clerical hierarchy that some of us have been fighting to change for decades. If you see the film, I trust you will keep this in mind. Also,  another way to support women’s ordination is to make a donation to the Women’s Ordination Conference at http://www.womensordination.org/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,4/

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In 2007 I also wrote an article for The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion on ethical questions related to the Catholic women’s ordination movement (and RCWP in particular). It expands on some of the points I make above and also raises questions about the whiteness of the women’s ordination movement overall. If you’d like to have a copy you can drop me a note at New York Theological Seminary, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 500,  New York, NY 10115 with your email address and I’ll send it to you. Or if you have my email address, feel free to write to me.

P.S. I have no idea why this post appears in different sized fonts on my actual blog page. When some younger people come for my birthday party tomorrow maybe one of them can fix it for me! Sorry.

 

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