I was probably about 17 years old when I first read the poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. I was immediately taken by his depiction of each life eventually reaching an end and becoming part of creation again. Up until that point, I had contemplated various views on what happens after we die. Only in “Thanatopsis” could I see something that concretely made sense. During my years as a hospice chaplain, I often talked with people who were near death and their families. I saw people having visions of beautiful places, talking with family members who had died decades ago, tossing imaginary cigarette butts, talking with angels, wielding invisible paint brushes, and many times lifting their arms upward, calling out for “mama”.
Oftentimes, people are hesitant to share about these strange experiences that happen around the time of death. Usually, the story starts with something like, “I don’t want you to think I’m crazy, but…” I always have a smile inside when I hear these words, because I know something very valuable is about to be expressed! These experiences are part of “nearing death awareness” or “nearing death communication” (see Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan). These special forms of communication give us an indication of what is happening with the person who is dying. If we listen closely to the words being shared, the gestures being made, the names being called, the songs being sung, the dreams and visions being seen, we can be more fully present and comfort the dying person in their journey. Looking back on these moments and unpacking their meaning may also help us to understand our own grief experiences.
This week, I will be travelling from my home-base in Atlanta to Portland, OR for the 2017 Association of Death Education and Counseling Conference (ADEC)! I know…my friends and family usually smirk and say something like, “Don’t get wild and crazy at that death conference,” or “Oy, you’re going to that death conference again!?” The thing about it is that most of the people I meet at the “death conference” have had some up close and personal experiences with death and grief. Like myself, they may work in Palliative Care or Hospice, they may be counselors at colleges and universities where grieving students are working hard to stay in class; they may be poets (like William Cullen Bryant) who try to give the experience of death and grief a voice; they may be researchers who are finding new ways to understand the phenomenon of grief and the best forms of counseling. Death touches all of us and yet we too often shy away from talking about it. At ADEC, Thanatologists gather to hear about the latest research, learn best practices from experts around the world, reflect on our own experiences with death and grief, remember those who have died during the past year, and all the while honor both the pain and the mystery that lies at the heart of our experiences of life and death.