Death can be a moment that connects us, even as it parts us

Anne O'Connor
Anne O'Connor: It's no surprise that a death sometimes tears families apart.
Submitted photo

Anne O'Connor is a speaker, writer and editor, and a member of the Threshold Care Circle.

It strikes me that more of us could stand to consider our own deaths right now, while we still have the chance.

You know you're going to die, right? It could happen tomorrow or in many years. We just don't know, do we?

Some of us fool ourselves, and say that we have time. We tell ourselves that we'll get to sorting that stuff out. Soon. Or maybe we don't tell ourselves anything at all: La, la, la ... la, la, la ... living our lives. Death? Who, me? Or maybe we believe it doesn't matter, that somebody else can figure it all out.

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Uh-huh. Thanks, Dad.

Is it any wonder that when our loved ones are dying we don't know what they want? Or that when they are actually dead, we seek out people who know how to do this death thing and pay them lots of money to just ... deal with it? Is it a big surprise that families are sometimes torn apart in the process?

There is a better way.

There's a way that connects people more strongly than ever. There's a way to have someone's life and death be genuinely and deeply honored. A way that brings peace, healing and strength to those still living.

But death rarely just happens this way. We need to plan for it.

I live in a part of the world where people are particularly aware of the opportunity that comes at the end of life. In Viroqua, my tiny southwestern Wisconsin town, we're changing the way we honor the process of death. I have been privileged to be involved in this critical part of life with several families.

People have begun to consider how they want to die, where they want to die, and what they want to happen to their bodies when they're gone. The very idea of taking these steps is radical. You may be starting to get a little fidgety in your chair. But hang on, it's worth it.

What is happening in my town is happening across the country. People everywhere have begun to realize that we've lost the vital importance of ceremony and ritual in our lives. People here have begun to understand that caring for our loved ones as they are dying and after they are dead is profoundly moving, healing work. Many of us have come to understand that when we get close up and cozy with death, the experiences can show us much about priorities in a full life.

This is something that hospice workers and others who work with the dying have known forever. It used to be a part of our cultural knowledge, and not so long ago. We used to have home funerals regularly, to spend a lot of time with the dead, to sit with the family, to hold each other's hands.

Today, though, choosing your own way to die and your own style of funeral requires a large leap. Instead of handing over the entire experience of death and dying to the medical establishment and then to the systematic structure of the funeral homes, you decide how you want your death and how you want your loved ones to care for you.

In Viroqua, we've had an accidental death in which the parents of a teen-age boy decided to bring his body home and create the viewing and funeral there. We've had adults dying of cancer who have been lovingly cared for in their homes, died in their homes, and had the funeral right in their homes. Family and friends have cared for their loved one, often with the help of medical professionals, and sometimes with the help of funeral directors.

There is no right way, no black and white. You can decide to do as much or as little of the work as you care to. Things can change in the moment. The key is to consider your options now, while you can.

Here in Viroqua, a community group called the Threshold Care Circle has been instrumental in helping people consider these options. This educational group is working to let people know what is possible, both legally and practically. Such groups are popping up all over the country, including in the Twin Cities, as more people begin to understand that they want to be involved in the care of their loved ones.

Death is one of life's most important moments. We only get one shot at it. Both the person dying and the loved ones will be best served by considering the possibilities in advance. No family member has to do all the practical work; there's always help to be had.

But it is worth considering: Someone will wash the body. Someone will dress the body. Someone will close the eyes for the final time. Someone will. At the critical moment of death, someone will perform these tasks for the person whom we have loved and cared for all our lives. Why would we give those meaningful rituals away to a stranger? Why do we give away the best stuff?

We need not let fear of the unknown keep us from what often turns out to be one of life's richest moments. We can plan, we can talk to each other, we can find out what options we have. In the end, we can have what we need.