Conversations on Death and the End Game

Recently, my in-laws came to visit. Both parents are in their mid-eighties. My mother-in-law has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. It has been on my mind for a while now to get them to discuss their end-of-life plans. This latest news made it seem all the more imperative.

AARP Magazine just had a story about a family whose elderly mother had an unexpected fall and broke her pelvis thus ending years of independent living. It was a sobering story of the trials of finding a placement that would not crush her spirit. Neither my husband nor my sisters-in-law have a clear idea about what their folks want regarding this issue. I thought I might be able to get the ball rolling. Death and caring for the dying are, after all, the subjects of my film series, Secrets of Life and Death and numerous workshops, classes and trainings I have given around them.  The family visit offered an ideal opportunity to finally bring up the subject. Both parents, one sister and  brother all in the same place. What could be more perfect? Except, it never happened!

I discovered that it a lot harder to “start the conversation” with my own family then with perfect strangers. There’s an emotional component that figures in. My mother-in-law was already showing discomfort with my initial query about her cancer treatment. Her short worded answers and insistence that she doesn’t think about it because, “What can you do?” indicated to me that she was struggling to keep herself together. I certainly didn’t want to distress her further. Years of socialization around avoiding unpleasant subjects and not hurting feelings stepped in. Asking her to think about being so sick she could no longer care for herself was not something I relished bringing up. Not when she was already having to think about having cancer. And weren’t we having such a nice visit? Well, I just couldn’t do it. But really, the truth is, the conversation needs to happen. So this morning I mailed her the AARP article on caring for parents and a note suggesting we have a discussion. Shortly after, I was told about her latest doctor visit and the likelihood of cancer in her kidney as well as her breast. Bad timing or good? We will see.

After the deaths of my own parents in 1998, I launched into making a film on facing death. I found very few people willing to discuss the subject while my parents were dying, so I made it my quest to help people lose their fears about dying by providing them with an opportunity to talk about their concerns and share their stories. Things are always less scary when you stop resisting them. The film I began in 1998 blossomed into the three-part series, Secrets of Life and Death. My film making efforts predate Bill Moyer’s series, On Our Own Terms, by two years, although he finished his way before I did. Recently, I discovered, that someone else had also beat me to the punch. A very amazing woman named Ganga Stone wrote a book called,  Start the Conversation, which shares the courageous steps she took to help people, many of them with  HIV, face and embrace death fearlessly.

“Listen,” she says in the first pages of her book, “Death is a transition. We all survive. Of this I am absolutely sure.”

“Wow!” I thought, “she believes what I believe about surviving death, only she’s not afraid to say it.”

Well, actually I had been sharing similar ideas during many of my community film screening/workshops. People who come to my workshops tended to self-select. Until, that is, I began doing workshops for cancer patients. They come for different reasons. They come because death has left it’s calling card. During one of these workshops, a young woman announced. “I have inoperable cancer , I don’t believe in an afterlife and I am mad as hell. . .”  It was almost as though she was challenging me to tell her something different. I deflected by asking others in the workshop to share their thoughts. What could I say? I’d be mad as hell too if I thought everything stopped the moment I died. But I could not hope to convince her otherwise in the short time of our workshop. And who was I to even try? Instead, I acknowledged her right to be angry and kept my thoughts on the matter of an afterlife to myself. I spoke, instead, of the elasticity of time and the possibility of living a full life in whatever time remained. I told her that none of us really know when we will die, even her. Any of us could get hit by a bus on our way home, tonight. No offense to the San Francisco transportation authority intended. I did not bring up the subject of life after death. Was my choice correct — not to challenge her beliefs? Ganga’s book had me rethinking my response. Was I helping her with my silence?” Was this person looking to me for something more? Is that why she came to my workshop?

Ganga’s book is fresh and sassy and tells the truth with no apologies or equivocations.

Body Lease: one body, brand new, for temporary use only, may lose functionality over time.
Terms: expires at any time anywhere, at manufacturer’s discretion, with or without warning.

That’s the contract we’re born with. But we all think the contract says “Body will function optimally throughout term of lease and expire during sleep at the ripe old age of 99.” And don’t we feel a little cheated when things work out differently, as though we were sold a defective car and nobody is honoring the warrantee!

After shocking us out of our delusion about a long happy life, Ganga goes on to reassure us that unlike the body, the spirit, the being we really are, does not cease at death. Read her book and you might change the way you feel about dying. That’s her promise. Since I already agree with her, I can not confirm this for the non-believers out there. It certainly provides some interesting proof.
As evidence, she points to the experiences of over eight million near-death survivors, from all walks of life, religion, race, social and educational level. Not only are there stunning similarities in all their stories, but more importantly everyone of them now lives without fear of death. The smoking gun, however, the incontrovertible proof that we are not our bodies is the the story of the sneaker on the ledge. Briefly, it’s the story of a woman, who, during a temporary departure from her body while clinically dead, sees a sneaker on a ledge three stories above the operating room where doctors struggle to restart her heart. The existence of the sneaker is confirmed by an impartial witness shortly after she returns to life. There is no way she could have seen that sneaker from outside the hospital, from above or below. No way to know it was there, unless, she really did separate from her body. Interestingly, I had the story personally verified by a friend who interviewed the witness in the tale — the nurse, who confirmed the existence of the sneaker on the ledge.

There is much more to Ganga’s book then near death experience stories, compelling as they are. It is a whole program for changing the way you think, the way western medicine and the scientific community encourage you to think, about life and death. She is vehement in her crusade to change us. Our annihilation theory of death causes too much suffering, too much fear and grief to let it stand unchallenged, she insists. Time for change. And with the publishing of this book she takes her work to another level.

You might have noticed there is more than one conversation here. There is that ever so engaging discussion about whether we continue to exist after we die, complete with divine light and cosmic consciousness. Then there’s the nitty gritty of getting there — the medical treatments, the indignities of institutional living, the awful food and long hours of incapacity.  It was this second conversation that I found difficulty starting. But don’t kid yourself, the other one lurks just below the surface. With the latest news about my mother-in-law’s kidneys, we were all wondering whether this is, in fact, the end game.

After some reflection I decided I did the right thing with the woman at my workshop.  I am not Ganga. I have my own more modest vision when it come to starting the conversation. It is enough for me to provide the space for people to discuss their beliefs, fears and experiences around death. It’s good for each of us to come to our own conclusions.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at

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