Making Friends With Death: A New York Open Center Opportunity
By Catharine DeLong
Anne Lamott, the American novelist, non-fiction writer and full-of-grace real life philosopher was interviewed during Reimagine End of Life in San Francisco last month. “Death sucks, AND it’s holy,” she explains as she describes being at the bedside of dying loved ones.
Anne continues, “The more time you spend in the presence of death, the less you will fear it. Your life will be greatly enhanced by spending time with dying people, even though you’ve been taught to avoid it.”
The New York Open Center’s Art of Dying Institute creates programs where participants can be in relationship with all aspects of the end of life. This coming April marks the 25th anniversary of the Art of Dying work at the New York Open Center. The very first conference took place in mid-town Manhattan in the spring of 1995. And it’s going strong a quarter of a century later. We’ve hosted six conferences since that time, and have given birth to an institute that is the home of the Integrative Thanatology Certificate Program, which was launched in 2015. Remember that Thanatos was the Greek god of death, and Thanatology is the study of death and dying.
Our Integrative Thanatology Certificate Program is designed to re-frame our current conception of dying and reclaim the wisdom and practices of the past. On the first night of the six-month course, we speak aloud many of the euphemisms for death that have been collected by John Abraham (Episcopal priest and thanatologist) in his book, How to Get the Death You Want. He has curated 889 substitutions for triggering words that begin with “D.” Spoiler alert: saying “dead, dying, died, death, etc.” won’t hasten the event.
The death rate is still one per person. The fact that our loved-ones will pass away is a certainty, as is our own death. It’s useful to allow space in our lives for these truths. How can we help each other, and ourselves with our living and our dying? How can we retrieve death from its distant place out of sight? How can we create the “good death”? How can we be with our grief in meaningful ways? How can we be assured that our wishes will be honored when our dying time comes? How can we make our passing easier for those we love? These are all useful questions to consider, whose answers are part of the Integrative Thanatology course curriculum.
Let me describe why, as the facilitator of this program, I am grateful to act as the glue between students, presenters, and the New York Open Center’s Art of Dying Institute. Here are my reasons for eagerly anticipating the monthly intensive weekend trainings.
My music-thanatology training is specific to tending to the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of dying individuals and their loved ones with harp and voice. It is my privilege to bring beauty and a sense of the sacred to spaces when there is often pain, sadness and fear. My work is solitary. I am typically holding space for very fragile patients, for tearful and frightened family members, and also for stressed-out staff. Even though I am accustomed to sitting in the face of death, I need the community that is generated by students and presenters at the Art of Dying Institute. The conversations help me process and make meaning of the suffering I witness on a daily basis.
Life has unfolded such that I have received phone calls informing me that loved-ones have died unexpectedly. I have also served as the caregiver when my mother’s dementia-related decline lasted ten years. Participating in the Integrative Thanatology class helps me in the grieving of my particular losses. Participating in the course as facilitator helps with balancing and integrating the various parts of my life. It gives me the opportunity to be in community with those who are on the forefront of our culture’s awakening to death as a natural and sacred passage.
Facilitating the course allows me the honor of witnessing the lives of both presenters and students. Together participants create a container with space for the unfolding of narrative, for mourning, for deep learning, and for curiosity about the physical and spiritual end of life experi-ence. The journey is made profoundly richer by the presence of each participant. I’m counting the days. “Forty ……”
Catharine DeLong is a music-thanatologist and an ordained interfaith minister affiliated with the One Spirit Learning Alliance. She delivers music vigils to Visiting Nurse Service of New York hospice patients, to palliative patients at Bellevue Hospital, and to others approaching the end of life.
Click here for upcoming programs with Catharine DeLong.