Death and Dying

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The inevitability of our death and the uncertainty about what happens afterwards is terrifying to many of us. The thought of no longer being alive can feel too scary or the loss of a loved one too sad, so we often just can’t face it. Rather, we tend to deal with it by avoidance, denial, helplessness, and despair. We may just laugh it off. After all, we are human beings. And yet there is more to consider here, something larger than our personal thoughts, emotions, and experience. Whatever our beliefs – whether we identify with a particular form of spirit or religion, or with a secular perspective about cycles of physical nature – we can connect to a larger reality, that life and death are intertwined in an intimate circle of existence. It is a circle that we can embrace with our minds and hearts, in ways practical and emotional. And for many, with our souls too, in ways spiritual. Seeing from inside this circle, we can live our lives more fully and then more lightly let go of our lives when it is time. We can lovingly engage our fear of death, and see death as a doorway to something mysterious and okay, whether that be in the form of spirit or matter, or both. Without being obsessed about death and dying, we can be both diligent about all its practical details and curious about its emotional and spiritual aspects.

From this perspective, Rev. Gary assists those facing their death or the death of a loved one to better understand and engage with many aspects of dying, death, and beyond. To do this, he offers a range of services and support as a hospice spiritual care counselor. These include: preparing for death through leading Death Cafes and facilitating the One Year to Live program; end-of-life accompaniment and support; leading funeral and memorial services, including eulogies; counseling in befriending and transformation of grief; and staying connected with those who have died.

Death Café (Eat Cake, Drink Tea, and Discuss Death)

He not busy being born
Is busy dying

(Bob Dylan, from the song “It’s Alright, Ma”)

If life and death are intertwined and part of a larger whole, however our individual faith paths may describe that, then preparing for death is not a withdrawal from life or a morbid obsession or a resignation about the future, but actually a part of living life more truthfully, attentively, and fully. In this way, we are “busy being born”. It is when we miss this bigger picture and try to exclude death from life, that we are in fact escaping life and “busy dying”, however subtly.

Death Cafés began in the UK several years ago with the aim, in part, of increasing awareness and acceptance of death. At a Death Café, people – often strangers to each other – gather to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death openly. They discuss their hopes, questions, and struggles, such as about accepting the impermanence and end of our human lives. They discuss their fears, their grief, and matters such as near-death experiences and conscious dying. And they discuss practical details, like advance directives, memorials and funerals, and green burials.

Yet, much of the conversation at a Death Café is about life, how we can make the most if it, and what we can leave to others from our lives. One aspect people will talk about is creating legacies, (such as via emotional wills and death boxes). Another is about how best to make use of one’s time on earth, and increasing meaning and fulfillment in life, in our daily lives, through learning, community, spirituality, service, passions, and fun.

At a Death Café, participants embrace this intermingling of death with life in an accessible, respectful, and confidential space, where all beliefs and faiths are accepted and all views can be safely expressed.  

Rev. Gary facilitates Death Café groups that can be ongoing and open to whoever comes to the meeting, or can be for a fixed number of meetings (minimum 6) and only open to people who sign up beforehand. Generally, groups meet every other week or once monthly, for 2 hours each meeting. Group size ranges from minimum 4 to maximum 20 people, with 8-14 the optimal size. Rev. Gary offers Death Café get-togethers at his home in Vermont or other suitable community locations throughout New England. Suggested donation is $10 per person for Death Café to be sustainable.

One Year to Live (as if it were our last)

Beyond the logistics and practical aspects of dying, being prepared for death has to do with accepting our life and feeling it as complete and fulfilled as possible. That means doing the inner and outer work of taking care of unfinished business, healing relationships, pursuing dreams, and releasing fear. As with any major transition in life, death unfolds within us through larger and unpredictable forces, so it is probably not possible for most of us to be totally prepared for death. But many people are almost totally unprepared. They wait too long, only beginning when death is imminent, during the last few months, weeks, days, or even moments, hoping for a miraculous healing, but by then it is usually too late. Preparing for death is an act of wisdom, courage, and self-kindness. And it takes time.

The One Year to Live program, developed by death and dying teacher Stephen Levine, shares many of the goals of the Death Café conversations, but goes deeper and is more individualized. In this work, the person commits, sooner rather than later, to live for one year as if it is the last year of his or her life. Levine describes it as “A year to live as consciously as possible, a year to finish business, to catch up with our lives, to investigate and deal with our fear of death, to cultivate our true heart and find our essential wisdom and joy.” Mindfully, and in our hearts and bodies, it is “a year to be fully alive… each moment, hour, day, as if it were all that was left.” Rev. Gary supports and facilitates people in this challenging endeavor, both one-on-one and in groups.

One Year to Live starts with getting our priorities straight – we ask ourselves what would we do if we had just one year to live, deciding which items are most important, setting a schedule to accomplish them, and making a commitment to ourselves and at least one other person to do them.

At the heart of One Year to Live is the Life Review, where we explore our past in order to clear the way for what is come, and to be more present and mindful to our life. It is a recognition of work completed and healings yet to be done. As if on our deathbed, we look back to discern not just the most significant things we’ve done, but also the states of mind from which the actions originated. According to Levine, we are “confronting our life with mercy and awareness.” Part of what we are confronting is our fear of death, which can be seen as being more about the fear of life and of living life fully, a fear of the unknown, and a fear of fear itself. We are asked to gently examine these fears, with curiosity, starting with our smallest fears and doubts, and see where they go.

The Life Review has a strong focus on gratitude, grieving, and healing, primarily through meditation and visualization. With gratitude and appreciation, we recall the good times and those people most dear to us. We invite each one individually into our heart, open a dialogue with them, and then say goodbye and let them go. Then we tune into the events and people for which we have painful memories and resentments, and respond with forgiveness – for others and for ourselves. In so doing, we are repaying debts for the wrongs we’ve done, healing our wounds, and getting our house in order.

This also means grieving our losses, the little deaths of our lives, through the many relationship and work transitions that happen to us, such as a child leaving home or the end of a friendship or a job. Levine likens what can happen in a Life Review to

“awakening in the dream” where we can let go of our story line and look back on life with equanimity and a sense of completion.

One Year to Live also zeroes in – again through mediation and visualization – on the act of dying, the moment of death, and then what may be beyond, contemplating the space from our last breath to the possible first breath of a new life, to meeting God, or to merging into nature, wherever our deepest beliefs may lead us. And we get to write our own epitaph, eulogy, and/or obituary. And through it all, we keep a journal – recording our experiences, and the changing states of mind.

Given the nature of this work and the commitment involved to accomplish all the above in a year’s time, some people might choose to do only certain parts, such as the Life Review. Each person’s One Year to Live is custom-designed. Rev. Gary serves as a coach/guide, counselor, and anchor. His role includes facilitating the specific activities and assisting the person to manage and address thoughts, feelings, and challenges that come up. Together, they will create a specific agreement outlining what he or she will do independently and what the sessions with Rev. Gary will involve.

End-of-Life Accompaniment and Support

Although dying is ultimately a solitary spiritual journey, no one should have to die alone and unsupported. And no loved one being there for the person dying should have to do it alone, either. As a hospice spiritual care counselor/chaplain, in homes, hospitals, and other care centers, Rev. Gary offers spiritual accompaniment, comfort and connection for the journey - both for the person at the end of life and to the family and friends who love and care for the person. No matter what may unfold, Rev. Gary is there to witness and hold the sacred space of love, and let the rest be.

Woven into Rev. Gary’s work with the dying is a fundamental way of being and connection which is to stay with the person, meeting them wherever they are and wherever they go. He does this through patient, empathic listening, and an ongoing inquiry around: what is important to you at this moment, where is the pain, and where is the joy? From this base, some of the key themes that may come up for the person and Rev. Gary to engage with include:

    • Living more deeply in love; surrendering to love
    • Living fully in the present, in each moment and each day; bringing the past and future into the present; finding purpose and meaning and joy each day
    • The power of laughter
    • Appreciating one’s life; embracing memories
    • Healing old wounds, resentments; forgiveness
    • Dealing with unfinished business; letting go of desires and project unfulfilled
    • Strengthening hope, trust, dignity
    • Addressing loss of independence; acknowledging one’s limits; accepting help
    • Accepting “what is” and the cycle of living and dying; addressing fear of suffering and not existing; taking the weight off oneself and giving it to God or love or whatever is sacred for each person
    • Exploring what may happen after death. (e.g. going to sleep, ego dissolving into larger sphere of being, where spirits may reside, life between lives, recycling of body in nature)
    • Staying connected to loved ones after death, living on in one’s heart, creating a new relationship with the person after death

Exactly how to engage with these themes depends greatly on the person’s physical and mental condition as well as culture, personality, religious or spiritual beliefs and to what extent they are anchored or conflicted in those beliefs. To have this fuller picture, Rev. Gary will do an assessment of spiritual, religious, cultural and existential needs, and it includes taking one’s spiritual history. He is there both to help people connect with and experience the spiritual resources they most relate to, such as materials, traditions, and, if desired, other clergy. Activities that Rev. Gary and the person may do together include appropriate prayer, reading of sacred text, meditation on death (as ascent, doorway, return to earth, etc.), Life Review, purification and forgiveness rituals, music, conversation about whatever is unresolved for the person, body visualization, and simple loving touch.

With those loved ones close to the dying person, Rev. Gary serves their spiritual and emotional needs, around impending loss, sadness, loneliness, anger, helplessness, “where is God”, “what else could I have done”, rivalries within the family, and many other possible unhealed wounds and unresolved issues. Rev Gary may serve as a bridge to facilitate difficult conversations that require an impartial presence, between loved ones or with the dying person. He may perhaps give gentle encouragement that loved ones make sure they say what they need to say to the dying person before death to avoid regrets later. And he assists with working through practical concerns such as decision making around conflicting medical choices (including when to end care), disclosure of information, relationships with hospital and other care providers, and finances.

In all these ways and more, Rev. Gary accompanies the dying person and their loved ones, going as far along the journey as they and Spirit will allow. Whatever is taking place in the journey, the essence of his work is always loving, listening, and letting go.

Funerals and Memorial Services; Eulogies

Deepening Reverence and Meaning; Supporting Grieving and Healing

For those who have experienced the death of a loved one, Rev. Gary is, above all, a caring and compassionate presence during the bereavement period. He serves in many ways: listening, understanding, educating, advocating, encouraging and referring. (As described by Alan Wolfelt). And Rev. Gary is there to plan, create and lead the funeral or memorial service. These are personalized ceremonies to mourn, honor, and more fully connect with the heart and soul of a loved one who has died. In so doing, we deepen reverence and meaning for the departed one and support our own grieving and healing. There are so many ways to express reverence and facilitate healing, ranging from a solemn event to the party of a lifetime, and everything in-between. To find what is most appropriate, Rev. Gary meets with family and friends to learn all he can about the person who died, and then share with all mourners about who the person was and celebrate the life he or she lived. In the eulogy, music, prayers, readings, and other parts of the service, Rev. Gary expresses the joys, challenges, stories, wishes, what gave that person meaning in life, and how others were affected by that life.

As an ordained interfaith and interspiritual minister, Rev. Gary incorporates whatever religious, spiritual, or secular beliefs, traditions and rituals truly reflect the person who has passed and those closest to him or her.

“My mom’s memorial service was absolutely perfect, in large part due to the words you spoke & how you delivered them. You have a true gift to paint such lovely pictures of the departed after speaking to a surviving loved one for a short time. No one would have guessed that you had never met my mom.”   Yvonne Driscoll

Click here for excerpts from Eulogy for “Betty” given by Rev. Gary

Befriending and Transformation of Grief

Grief is a natural response to the death of someone we care about, (as well as to other losses in our lives, such as divorce and job ending). The normal process of grief can include physical reactions of poor sleep and lack of appetite, emotional reactions of anger, guilt, and sadness, and spiritual reactions of despair, meaninglessness, and disconnection from God. Grief is a very strong emotion, especially when the loss is of a parent, spouse, or child. Psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan calls grief one of the “dark emotions” (along with fear and despair), because it affects us at our core and can be the source of much emotional/spiritual ill health. It can be so difficult to tolerate that we often feel we must suppress or avoid it, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and addiction.

But grief also carries a deeper wisdom of gratitude if we can allow ourselves to experience it fully. For Greenspan, the only way to truly heal grief is to go through it. “You have to feel it if you want to heal it”, she writes. By listening to our pain, by “befriending” grief, and surrendering to it, we can heal. In this way, we transform grief from the sorrow for what we’ve lost to the gratitude for what remains. Greenspan calls this process “emotional alchemy.” Grief arises because we are not alone, and what connect us to others also breaks our hearts. But if we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to hurt, we can open to a larger appreciation, understanding and acceptance for the person we lost, and how blessed is our life for them being a part of it – before, now, and always. Grief is not about coping or resolution, but rather a new awareness or reality, and a transformation of self, the loved one and the world. The gift of grief is that is offers us the capacity to see deeply into the way things are – that life is impermanent, but love never dies. And for that, we can be deeply grateful.

Rev. Gary’s grief counseling is based on this approach of befriending and transforming grief, and can best be described as “compassionate accompaniment”. He accompanies the griever at all stages of grief – prior to death (anticipatory grief), its expression through the period of a funeral or memorial service, and then afterwards when it can become entrenched in our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. Key to this approach is building our emotional self-awareness and literacy when it comes to grief, to be able to mindfully feel, understand, and manage it. So the main work of the emotional alchemy process is a series of exercises (including journaling, breathing, and visualization) around the following steps:

  • Intention to focus our spiritual will for healing and transformation
  • Affirmation of the wisdom and value of grief – as with all emotions, grief is part of our life energy that needs to be expressed, not a sign of weakness, failure, or pathology
  • Connection to body and heart – sensing and being with grief; letting it move through us with compassion and tenderness
  • Contextualization – telling our stories, creating a bigger picture
  • Befriending what hurts – slowly developing greater empathy and tolerance for our grief, befriending it, and gradually surrendering into it
  • Transformation – finding meaning in the loss, purpose in the future, and deep gratitude for all of it.
  • The way of action – sustaining the change through creating a new relationship with the person who died, and ongoing spiritual/social service to one’s personal networks and the wider world

It’s important to highlight that the healing of grief – whatever the approach or process – is usually not quick, simple, or linear. Grief is not something we must try to control or get rid of, but rather let its wisdom and purpose unfold over time. That is the spirit behind Rev. Gary’s work.

 
 

Staying connected with those who have died

When a loved one dies, we grieve that they are gone, but we can take some comfort in the possibility that they haven’t gone very far away. Their life on earth has ended, but the relationship we have with them doesn’t have to end. Rather, it can be transformed into something that exists beyond life and beyond death, into a space of love that rests in our minds, hearts, and souls. Part of what’s going on is that, as we heal and transform our grief, we may feel them more and more in our memories, in familiar objects, places and experiences that continue in our lives. And in so doing, our healing deepens.

But there may be even more to this new relationship with someone who has died. Depending on our beliefs, and the mysterious workings of the Divine (or whatever we call That Which is greater than ourselves), we can connect directly with the spirit presence of our loved one. The spirits of our loved ones are around and profoundly bonded to us. We can talk with them and they will respond. We can explore any unhealed wounds we have with them, and they can be a powerful loving guide and anchor for us as we live our lives.

Rev. Gary works with people to open and develop this connection with spirit presence through strong visual and auditory attunement, and guided meditation. He has been exploring this connection in his own life for over 30 years with his Dad’s spirit, and their relationship is very vibrant and a true blessing. Rev. Gary teaches people to do it on their own, because eventually the most powerful connection is one-on-one without outside help.

To be clear, Rev. Gary is NOT a psychic medium and cannot call in the spirit presence of someone else’s departed loved ones, or communicate with them or convey messages.

What Rev. Gary does is assist people to link with their loved ones within – to see, hear, and experience them, to be with them directly, through the medium of one’s own heart and soul. He supports one’s own inner medium via the work mentioned above which creates a certain quality of receptivity and expression that brings the loved one into ever greater focus and engagement. To benefit from this work, it is not necessary to totally understand what is taking place or even to believe it. What matters is to do it.

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For more information and fee schedules on Rev. Gary’s Death and Dying work, including Death Cafes, One Year to Live program; end-of-life accompaniment and support; funeral and memorial services, eulogies; counseling in befriending and transformation of grief; and staying connected with those who have died, please contact him at: (802) 229-1165 or gary@reverendgaryshapiro.com.