Episode #20 Death, Dead and Dying – ways of navigating our own mortality: an interview with Dr Judith Wester
We spend our lives squinting past the inevitable reality of our own death. But suppose we were able to talk about it openly, to shape it, to embrace it so that by contemplating a good death, we could become fully alive?
Dr Judith Wester is a thanatologist: an academic who specialises in the study of death, dying and the cultural rituals of many nations. Her life is given to teaching others of all ages and in all walks of life how to broach this subject with themselves and so with other people.
In this deep dive into death, Judith explains the difference between death, dying and dead, between grief, mourning and bereavement – and looks into the ways we could explore beyond the inevitable mortality of each of us, to the mortality of our culture – and how something new might be reborn from the ashes in this time of Corona Lockdown.
Today, my guest is Dr. Judith Wester. Judith is a thanatologist, someone who studies death for a living. She’s an academic who has committed herself to transferring contemporary research on death, dying and bereavement into language that everyone can understand.
Her experience includes working with home care hospices, with children’s hospitals, and with developing a death studies program in higher education. She’s currently on the steering committee of LGBT Sand, which stands for Safe Aging No Discrimination, which cheers me up immensely. They address the needs of vulnerable elderly, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at the end of life. How much better can you get than that? Judith lives in our local town. Under ordinary pre-viral conditions, we would have talked face to face. As it is in this post fossil fuel economy, we spoke online and we had more technical challenges with this podcast than any of those we’ve done to date. So I apologize in advance for the sound quality. But it seemed to me that Judith opened some really interesting doors to places that this podcast will want to explore further and much more deeply in the future. So I didn’t want to lose any of it. So people of the podcast, please welcome Dr. Judith Wester.
Manda: [00:02:32.74] Judith Wester, welcome to Accidental Gods podcast, and thank you so much for agreeing to come on. I gather that in your role in helping people to understand death and dying, life has become a lot busier with lockdown than it has for most of us. So can you tell us a little bit about how life is for you in this very strange time?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:02:57.46] Yes. Well, first of all, thank you for having me. It’s a real pleasure. I always take advantage of any opportunity I can to talk about death and dying and loss with others because I want them to feel very relaxed about it. Our goal at Cedar Education, where we deliver programs and things, is really just to get people to not only just relax, but to relieve their fear of talking about death. We often hear people having a fear of death, but what’s really going on is they have a fear of talking about death. And that’s what we really want to address. So, yes, I’ve been getting phone calls from different groups saying ‘We have problems with our volunteers and we have problems with our staff, or someone has died. What should we say? What should we do?’.
And those are the different things that I address. So I give them some positive things to say. And I talk a lot about different cultural perceptions of death as well and age differences as well. So, for example, whether you’re talking to a child or an adult or someone from a different cultural background, you might want to frame the way you speak in different ways. But most importantly of all, what I tried to get people to understand in talking about death is – it’s not about you. It’s about the person you’re talking to.
Now, there’s two different things, isn’t there? There’s one aspect is I want to talk about my own loss. That’s about me. But most of the time, we’re talking to others in a way to help comfort them. So in that case, it’s not about me. It’s about the person I’m talking to.
Manda: [00:04:55.57] Yes. Always. So many routes already that we could take from this. Because one of the things that was most striking on the Cedar Education website is your comment, that ‘Grief is a deep lake and we want to teach you to swim before you fall in’. It’s so beautiful and so prescient. And grief is one of the things that is coming up for so many people in so many ways just now.
So let’s start with our culture, because most of our listeners are UK, US and Canada. And our demographic is largely us, and we can explore other cultures, that would be really exciting. But for what Jonathan Haidt called the WEIRD cultures: Western Educated, Industrial, Rich Democracies, it seems to me that ours is a particularly weird inability to make friends with our own death and thereby also, when we’re amongst people who are encountering death, we don’t have a common language. So if I were to come to you and a loved one had died or the loved one of a friend had died, how would you encourage me to begin the conversations?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:06:20.24] Well, one of the things I would want to do is roll the tape back a bit. You know when we were talking earlier? I’d want to teach you how to swim before you fall in. And quite often in emergency situations, you’re dealing with a person who’s already fallen in. They’re already in the middle of their sorrow, their grief, their experience, or they’re visiting someone that they love very much who’s dying.
So I want to roll the tape back a little bit because I’m sure that there will be listeners that haven’t reached that point yet. And then we can move into that. So one of the things I would do is actually explain what death is and what it is not, because it’s very difficult to talk about something if you do not understand it. It’s like going to a foreign country, say, for example, if I were to go to France and I did not speak any French, but I ended up in a small town where no one spoke any English. How would communication begin? And it would have to begin with cultural understandings. But what if you do not know what those cultural understandings are? So things are becoming more and more complex and difficult.
Manda: [00:07:39.47] I would be terrified under those circumstances.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:07:42.53] So what I do is to take the idea of death and break it down into three parts. And that’s one of the main problems with Western thought, is that we crunch these three areas together to be one big idea of death. But if we were to break it down, what we would see is there is Dying and that’s an action. Believe it or not, it’s a real action. It may not seem like an action, but it’s got I N G on the end of that word. So diying is an action like walking, running, swimming.
And there’s a lot that goes on when someone is dying.It’s going on inside their bodies. It might be going on inside their mind. It might be going on in the environment around them. A lot of action is going on, even though it might seem like a person’s just in a coma or they’re not responsive. But the body is working so hard to keep that body alive, it really wants to do that. So there’s a lot going on inside. There’s a lot going on in the brain (if they’re not brain dead) and there’s a lot going on around them. People, either trying to resuscitate them or keep them alive or families worrying.
So that’s one aspect of death. The other aspect of death is ‘Dead‘. So we’ve got a body and there’s no life in it. And now all kinds of things start to happen around that dead body. We either try to figure out how did it die, what happened? What about funeral arrangements? What’s the funeral going to be like? Memorial service? All those different aspects of ‘dead’. So there’s a lot of science dealing with the dead. There’s a lot of forensic pathology dealing with dead. It’s a whole body of knowledge in and of itself. Just as dying is a whole body of medical knowledge. How to treat the dying? What do I say to the dying? So on and so forth.
And then up above all those two things, like an umbrella is Death.And death is a personal construction of the way you adopt the world.So it can include your religious belief. Do you believe in an afterlife? Do you not believe in an afterlife? Are you an atheist or agnostic? Are you a Hindu? Are you a Christian? Are you a Christian? Hindu? Because this area of belief is not straightforward. It’s very complex.
But whatever I believe death to be in my own personal experience will inform the way I treat the dying and the way I treat the dead. So there’s a direct correlation between what I think and what I believe and how I respond to a dying person and how I respond to a dead person. So it’s very important to start to unpack and. Stand this area called death, which affects our imaginations so strongly and so powerfully.
Manda: [00:11:10.84] So can we unpick it in terms of our own death? When I was doing some of the research for this forecast, I came across something about a month ago. It was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this podcat – where somebody was having a conversation with an old lady in an Ecuadorean village. And it was right at the start of the point when we all realized the pandemic was a pandemic. And the conversation went along the lines of, ‘You guys don’t have ventilators. It is way too far to a hospital that has one. What are you going to do when the virus reaches you?’.
And the old lady looked at this person in utter bemusement and said, ‘Well, we’ll call the shaman to make sure they have a good death.’ And ventilators just did not come into the equation. And I remember when I was studying with various Native American teachers, Rolling Thunder or SunBear, I can’t remember which one – they wrote of indigenous peoples who have a real connection to the land. Who know when death is coming and they go around and they say their goodbyes to the people they need to say goodbye to. They take themselves back home, they surround themselves with their family. They lie down and they…Let go. It’s like stepping over a threshold. And it seems to me that under those circumstances, the body is probably not medicalised. And our bodies are not then struggling to live.
It’s the right time to die. And it’s what I would consider a good death in terms of having fully embraced it. We are unafraid or at least got a sense of adventure within our fear. And we’re stepping forward onto the next part of our journey. And I’m aware that there’s a lot of belief system built in to that. But I’m wondering, within the structures, that you just taught, we were discussing how medics and family might approach the person who was dying. And I wonder if we take it one step inwards, if it was me who was dying. What can I do to ensure that I have a good death, that I embrace it well.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:13:24.31] What you’re talking about is actually there’s a term for it when it’s studied. It’s called the Tame death.
Manda: [00:13:30.85] Tame as in ‘not wild? That sounds horrible. I want to wild death!
Dr Judith Wester: [00:13:40.45] Well, the tame death is a death that’s come to in full awareness.So, for example, I’m fully aware I’m dying. I’m fully aware that I do not want to be in hospital for that. I’m fully aware that I want my family around me. I’m fully aware that I want to say my goodbyes. And I’m fully aware that once I die, I’m okay with the dying process and I’m okay with being dead. And that’s a tame death.
Manda: [00:14:13.75] Oh, I so want to rename this time. Tame to so, so wrong to me. I want this to be wild and wonderful and exciting and inspiring,
Dr Judith Wester: [00:14:22.18] Wild, not necessarily wonderful to me, would be being in a hospital with all kinds of bells and whistles going off and someone trying to resuscitate me, that would be wild.
Manda: [00:14:32.89] Oh, I see. Okay. We have different views of what Wild is. Yes.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:14:39.76] Ah it’s like a battle ground. So that’s where that that comes from. Okay. And in fact they use battle language anytime they’re talking about illness and disease and what have you.
Manda: [00:14:52.02] And it would be good to step away from that.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:14:53.98] Yes. And if that is what you want – a ‘Tame death’ a fully aware death. Then one of the ways to acquire that is to inform everyone around you that that is what you want. Because if that is what you want, the last thing in the world would be for you to be out shopping and fall over in the store and someone to call an ambulance rushed to the hospital and put you on life support. So you have to let people know what it is you want. And that’s where the talking about death comes in. But interestingly, that’s also you may want a specific thing, but if you do not tell others and inform others what you want, then how are they to know?
Manda: [00:15:42.91] The medical process kicks in unless I have managed to do it very cleanly.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:15:46.93] Unless you can move to Ecuador and live in a very small village, no ventilators and hospitals!
So that’s in one way it’s a burden of the West that we have so much science and medicine. But if I’m a mother and I have a five year old son and he has an accident, and I know that if I get him to the hospital, we can save him, then I’m grateful for that medical science because I do not want to lose my son. So that’s where time comes in, you see. On one hand, you have the elderly person come to the end of their life, they’ve done all the things they want to do. They would like to have the unburdened death, as it were. And they’re accepting of it.
But the flip side of that is you have a young parent, a young child, and they’re not ready to give in to that. They do not want it not in any way, shape or form. And I guarantee you that even in the small village in Ecuador, the parent would worry and fret that they do not want to lose their son if there was anything they could do to keep them alive.
Manda: [00:17:07.37] So they’d still go to the shaman. But then, within their worlds world, they would do what they could.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:17:13.26] They would do whatever they had or could or were able to do. So that’s where the notion of time and culture comes in. Who are you speaking to? Are you speaking to an older person or are you speaking to a young person?
Manda: [00:17:28.79] Because young people die. Your children get leukemia. Middle aged people fall over and break their necks. So death is always there. So how do we how do we bring that awareness of death always being there into a culture where we have largely sanitized death. I’ve met people who who genuinely have never encountered death other than, flies on the windscreen, which they don’t notice happening until their own death. And it seems to me that’s extraordinarily unhealthy. How do we bring a full awareness of death as being on our left shoulder and and potentially there at any moment back into our culture?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:18:14.33] Well, I’m a huge believer in education, and I think that we should educate children in primary secondary schools all about death, teach them everything we know about it and get them talking about it as much as possible and exploring it in healthy and appropriate ways, in healthy, inappropriate ways is very crucial to this exercise. Because there are a lot of inappropriate ways to go about it.
So education livens the subject so that they want to talk about it. I teach young people all the time and I’ve talked to young people in schools and developed programs for young people and they’re so engaged and they’re engaged even when they’ve had a loss. So, for example, I might have a group of young people and some of them have had no losses at all and others will have had a parent die or a sibling die or someone very, very close to them or a best friend die. And they’re eager to talk about it if they’re given permission to what age group?
Manda: [00:19:27.05] So how young do you go?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:19:29.69] I go as young as 10. So the first group of life lessons cohorts that I taught, the youngest was 10 and the oldest was 22. And I taught them all together in one space. Brilliant. And I had I had 10 young people and they were 10, 12, 14, 17, 18, 20, you know, mixed like that. And someone challenged me, saying, ‘How can you teach all those young people in one group?’.
And I said, ‘Well, I’m teaching him about death and it happens every day. In fact, a person dies every minute in the UK and that statistic will have gone up throughout this corona virus pandemic. But if they go home and they’re sitting at a dinner table, they’re going to have a mom or dad, you know, an older sibling, a younger sibling, grandparents. They’re all sitting around the table talking. So why not put them all in one room with all the different age groups and let them talk as well.
It’s not like it’s about different levels of math. There aren’t different levels of death. It is what it is. So you can have them all talk about it and they share their perspective and their ideas with each other. It’s just wonderful to see. And I hope that that’s going to be the new culture. I know you want to come back to culture later. But I hope that’s going to be the new normal, is that we do talk about it more often, because I can tell you right now, without talking about it, it causes a huge amount of anxiety and anxiety is what really gets people wound up.
It can get them very angry. It can get them very sad, very depressed, all kinds of things by holding all this in. But when something like this happens, you need a release valve. You need to relieve that pressure in your mind. You feel it in your body. Some people get physically ill. But if they’re able to talk about it, they’re just transformed.
saw young people within 24 hours, they were new human beings just because they were able to sit all day long and explore/talk about death, and ask questions. And they wanted me to answer questions that other people you would think would be quite afraid to ask. But they wanted to know, for example, exactly what happens to the body as it’s dying. You know, they wanted so detail. They wanted to know cultural differences. What did they do in India? What are the Hindus? What what rituals? I showed them rituals from around the world. Funerals from around the world.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:22:16.95] They were amazed.I asked them, ‘What was it that impressed you the most? What was it that made you the most interested in this subject?’ And he said, ‘I had no idea that people from other parts of the world handled it differently from the way we do here.’ And he liked that in some cultures it was perfectly acceptable to wail and moan and lament and cry loudly. And other ones were bit more demure about it. But they had color and food and they dressed very, very colorfully for the funerals and all kinds of things like that they found fascinating.
And they even found it fascinating to go back into our own culture, for example, the Victorian period. How come the Victorians are able to wear black for a whole year and then move into purple and then move into colours and what have you. And they had ways of talking about it to each other. They had behavioural protocols of things you had to do at a funeral and how you should address the bereaved. And they also sent out lots of cards and expressions, poetry, song, music. It just went on and on. And so they didn’t realize how rich their own culture was as well.
Manda: [00:23:43.83] I’m very curious because my concept of the Victorians is that they were terribly emotionally hidebound. You know, a lot of our own emotional pathology seems to me to arise from a generational inability to access and express our own feelings. And yet, from what you’re saying, it sounds as if the Victorians were perhaps more authentic about death than we are presuming because there was a lot more of it around?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:24:13.07] Well, actually, what happened is traditionally in most cultures and almost all the cultures I’ve studied, the tradition has been from grandparents to teach their grandchildren about death.
So they were the educators of death. They were the ones that said this is what you should say to someone who’s bereaved. This is how you should dress. This is how you should behave at the funeral. The grandparents taught the grandchildren the tradition. But what happens when you lose a generation? If you lose the generation that are the teachers, then the lessons stop. So what happened with Western culture was World War One and World War Two where you had deaths so massive, there were so many people dying that you couldn’t have the funerals.
Manda: [00:25:09.23] Also, they were dying in France.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:25:10.68] Yes, they were dying in other cultures and they were dying on in other places. So you couldn’t have funerals and you couldn’t have all the different ceremonies and things that went along with that. And some people in a lot of cases, you didn’t even have a body. It’s called an anonymous death. And anonymous death is when there is no body. How do you grieve for something you can’t truly identify? Perhaps you do not even want to believe. So this left a gap. And one of the things you often hear was the fact that people came home from war silent. They could not talk about what they had seen or experienced because they were just stunned into silence. And they were also suffering from post-traumatic stress.
So if you stop talking. There is no education to pass on to the younger generation. So the older generation simply stopped talking to the younger generation. And they lost the lessons. Now, when I’ve looked into other cultures, I found something similar. Other people have told me, well, a really interesting culture is that of Kashubia in northern Poland. And they have a wonderful, rich tradition around how you do a funeral, how you prepare. You might even have a box where you’d put the special outfit. The women make her own outfit that she wants to be buried in. And she’ll have her grave goods all in a box. ‘I want you to bury me with this? And I want to wear this outfit. And I’ve made this especially for me to wear and hats and my favorite colors. And yet this is the jewelry I want to have’ and so on and so forth. So it’s like a dowry. But it’s her funeral dowry, as it were. And they have lots of other rich traditions as well. But what I was talking to them about these rich traditions, I said, ‘My goodness, is this still going on today?’ And one older elderly woman said, ‘No, unfortunately, it is not. Because we’ve lost the tradition of teaching our young people what these traditions are and what they mean to us.’
Manda: [00:27:36.45] And is that because they were behind the Iron Curtain? Or is that because World War Two wiped them out?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:27:40.98] It’s both. It’s changes in freedoms, changes in culture, forced changes for some in not being able to be more open about their religious beliefs. Lots of different restrictions that were put down. And so culture shifts when we have these restrictions placed upon us. Now we have corona virus and we are being told we cannot have the funeral. We cannot have the people get together. We cannot have the groups of people in one place. We can’t have more than 10 people. So lots of rules are starting to fall into place. But then what happens when you lift the restrictions and people are still frightened of the rules that were previously adopted?
Because we’re seeing that already where people are saying, ‘Well, even if you did open the school, I do not know if I want to bring my child to it. Even if you did open the movie theater, I do not know if I want to sit next to someone that could potentially have this illness.’.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:28:47.85] So these are challenges. And again, how do you get around those challenges? You talk about them and you talk and talk and talk and the communication does get better and it does get easier, the more we do.But also, I think it’s important that we learn how to do it appropriately with each other.
Manda: [00:29:09.86] And who defines what’s appropriate. So, yes, let’s talk about that.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:29:14.45] I think to me, the first appropriate approach is to keep in mind, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about the person you’re speaking to’. Unless you’re actually telling someone how you want to die and you’re telling them how you want to be treated in hospital, unless it’s a conversation that your loved ones are having. If the conversation is your loved ones talking to you about your death, then yes, it is about you.
But the majority of the time, it’s not about you. Even for example, if I was dying and I was going to talk to my husband about my wishes, I would also want to consider whether or not he would be okay with those wishes. I might tell him something that he finds deeply disturbing. I might say I do not want any one to resuscitate me. And he might be thinking, ‘But what if there’s a chance that if they do resuscitate you, you’ll be okay? I do not want to lose you.’ So those are the sorts of things you have to consider when talking to another person.
Manda: [00:30:27.59] So we have to be enormously self-aware and up to a point, wee need to have done the personal work to know where we stand so that we can then embrace the possibility of somebody else standing somewhere different.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:30:41.54] What I really think it is, is we need to be socially aware. And that’s one of the things I really try to teach my students: you need to be socially aware because it really is true, no one is an island. Not in life and not in death. It may appear that’s the case, but that is not the case at all.
I had a situation once, I was living in San Francisco and I met a man – I didn’t actually meet the man face forward. I met him by sitting back to back to him and I heard his voice. And I just thought, this person is a wonderful person. I must meet this person. We were in a call center and he had his back was to me. I was facing the wall and he was facing the wall on his side.
But by the time I did get around to meeting him, it was too late because he didn’t show up for work one day. And I found out that he didn’t show up because he was in hospital and he was in hospital because he was dying. And I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I must rush to him. And because he doesn’t know how much I care for him. I had almost fallen in love with him only by his voice alone. I never even saw him. And so by the time I did get to the hospital, I realized he was dying of AIDS.
He was a heroin addict. He had contracted it through living on the street, sharing needles. A full description of someone no one would want to touch with a bargepole. And yet all I could see was Emmet – and this beautiful voice.And I wanted to know, where did that beautiful voice come from?
I found all sorts of things about him. He was a poet. He was a failed artist.He was a remarkable mind. And he had such a philosophy. And he was he was beautiful as a human being. He was beautiful. But nobody knew any of this stuff about him. And he died more or less a homeless man.
Manda: [00:33:02.99] But were you able to be there for him? Did you have a chance to talk?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:33:05.63] I went to see him at least five times when he was in hospital. And I brought things for him: chocolates or bring him different things to sort of assist him. Eventually, he went blind, but he could hear. So I brought him a radio that he could plug in and listen to the radio. He was an avid reader. So going blind was very, very difficult for him. But what struck me was when he died, the hospital contacted me and they said, ‘What do you want us to do with his body?
I said, ‘what are you talking about?’ They said, ‘Well, you’re the only person that’s ever come to visit him.’ And I didn’t realize how homeless he was. He had no family to speak of. Turns out he was from the Midwest, not from California at all. But you see, what I’m saying here is Emmet affected me. He was not a single homeless man with a drug addiction. He affected the people in the hospital. He affected me. He affected a world of people around him that eventually found out about his death. And back in his home town, for example.
So that’s why we need to communicate with each other, because our death will affect others.
Manda: [00:34:35.76] Yeah, just as our life effect to others. What you’re describing is the core failure of our current culture to validate and value individuals in and of and for themselves. And this goes so much bigger than living and dying. This goes to to how we are in the world.
When I started doing the shamanic work, I was told that if we learned to die well, I guess what you would call a Tame Death – which I’m really never going to call that – then we could learn to live well. And what I’ve realized over the years is that by learning how to live fully balanced on the knife edge of the moment, then we can learn how to die in a way that is a joy and a wonder and an embracing of the experience. And that you can’t have one without the other.
But then the ripple effect of that, is that it changes how we live so dramatically that we enter the edge spaces of our culture because this is not how our culture functions. And so it seems to me that what you’re doing is quite radical. If you can engage with children as young as 10 and teach them to embrace death in a way that makes it a friend, then living becomes a different thing. And with luck, then we learn to live in ways that are more engaged and engaging. Are you finding that as you as you teach this?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:36:07.44] Absolutely. I’ll give you a couple of case studies,and the changes in their lives were absolutely remarkable. One of the first things that I saw, changes I saw in some of the kids that came to me were quite upset about a death or a loss that had occurred in their life. It could have been the suicide of a friend. The death of a father. The death of a mother.The death of a sister…
Manda: [00:36:35.94] The death of a pet can be just as torture.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:36:39.34] Yes, I had one young woman who was quite shook up about the death of her cat because her father and mother had divorced when she was quite young. And the cat was a comfort and a great, great comfort to her. So that’s the other thing about pets and animals, is they not just a dog or a cat, they’re an embodiment of an event and a comfort. And so sometimes they feel the event all over again when that particular animal dies. If that animal was the one that got them through their struggle.
But one of the first things that came up with the children was they had a strong desire to help someone else. So by learning about death, they turned away from their own anxiety by talking to others and they began to help each other. And that act of altruism was very uplifting for them.
And so then they wanted to go on. A lot of them reengaged with education to the point where they decided they wanted to become social care workers or nurses or doctors. Some of my students went on to get in medical school and become doctors themselves. They’re working on the front lines now. It was wonderful. It was so remarkable.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:38:12.42] S,o when you look at death, a lot of people think it’s a selfish thing, isn’t it? It’s my loss. It’s my bereavement. But when they learn about it and they learn about the social, cultural aspect of it, how it affects an entire family, an entire community, even an entire nation as a coronavirus, then they begin to reach beyond themselves. And we see this now in this crisis where we have people that are, you know, like Captain Tom Moore, who wants to walk for the NHS. I love that story. And we have all these young people making masks and we have people that are doing things for others and playing music and helping one another in all the different ways they can.
And that’s one of the things that makes the experience of death and loss more bearable. And it also makes it our own death and loss less painful because we can talk about it and we can share it with others and we can do things to help other people.
And these young people, they embrace that straight away.They are remarkable.
Manda: [00:39:29.13] More than older people?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:39:31.23] Well, the older people that I teach and have in my classes, they’re usually professionals. So they might be solicitors, going to be doctors, nurses. They may be end of life care nurses. And they’re already working in areas where they have to work with death. So the difference isn’t as striking.
I’m not saying the difference doesn’t exist. I’m just saying that after they’ve had a class, what some of them do is it raises their awareness or it reaffirms what they already knew.
But with young people, it’s all new knowledge to them. They’re saying, I didn’t know this about death. I didn’t know that there were these different aspects of it. I didn’t know that how I believe, is completely different from how someone else might believe.
Manda: [00:40:27.5] Because when we’re young, we think that our reality is the reality.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:40:30.36] Yes. And so that’s the thing that really surprised them. But I do that with adults. I put them all together in a room and I simply asked the question, ‘What is death discuss! And they’re quite surprised that the person next to them doesn’t think about it the exact same way they do. That’s what death education does: it allows you to discuss it in a non-threatening, objective way.And then segue in to the emotional.
But I never start with the emotional. I never say, ‘Tell me about your awful experience’. That would frighten me. I wouldn’t want to do that. So I start with very basic cultural differences. I start with linguistics defining words. A lot of people do not know the difference between grief, bereavement, mourning. They kind of lump those together, too. So that’s what education does, is it helps you to pull something apart or what we call deconstruct it, figure out how this house is built, and then we can start to think about how we want to rearrange that house.
Manda: [00:41:42.33] So would you like to say a little bit about the distinction between grief, bereavement and mourning?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:41:46.44] Well, grief is a feeling. It’s an emotion. And you really have no control over it. If something happens and you’re very, very sad, that’s grief.You could have feelings of deep sadness. For example, if your parents separate and then divorce, you could really deeply feel that loss.
Manda: [00:42:09.99] Mourning is a period of public time of grieving. So it’s crying, weeping, lamenting. And you might see at a funeral that people are weeping and that’s called mourning. It’s public. It’s there for a period of time. And a person may just feel grief so deeply that they’re in a grocery store shopping and they start to cry. And then over a certain period of time, maybe so many years, that starts to fade and becomes easier and easier task to perform without their husband, for example.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:42:50.67] And mourning, that public expression, that lamenting, that crying, that weeping will stop or it may go like a rollercoaster and go for a while and then nothing and then go for a while and nothing.
But that’s mourning. And bereavement only occurs when someone has died. So I would be a bereaved person if my husband died. I’m bereaved and my bereavement would include mourning and grief and all the complicated things that go with it.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:43:32.28] And then there’s more and more to that. My courses are rather long. So when I teach a day, I go into much more depth on those three topics, such as, for example, complicated mourning, I will not go in to here because it’s beyond the scope of this podcast.
But what we do as a culture is we mash everything together and we just think of it as all one thing when it is not one thing. So, for example, a lot of the nurses that I teach were actually surprised that they didn’t recognize that the way they treat a dying patient in hospital was actually a rather selfish treatment based on the way they believe. And not on the way the patient believes.
Now, if you flip that around and you start treating a patient based on their own belief, you might come up with a different treatment plan.
Manda: [00:44:33.43] You might. But I wonder if the patient is someone who is deeply afraid of dying and hasn’t done any of this work. And you are a nurse or you work in a hospice and you have. Do you want to collude with that person in their fear and denial?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:44:53.84] I’m thinking more of paying attention. So I’ll give you an example. There was a doctor who came to me and he had a patient who was appeared to be in a great deal of pain. And she was really moaning in the night time or in the day time. And the nurses went to him and said, ‘Look, she’s really making a lot of noise. And she’s it’s disturbing. It’s disturbing the other patients and so on and so forth. Could we, you know, help us out here?’.
So he said, OK, well, increase her pain killer. Increase the dose that we give everything to take care of that. So they did. And she quieted down. And then relatively quickly, the hospital administrator called the doctor in and he said, ‘I need to talk to you. We’ve had a complaint by this woman’s family’. And he said, ‘What?’ And they said, ‘You’ve dosed her up on pain killers’.
And he said, ‘Of course I did. I did. She was in pain.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but what you didn’t pay attention to was that she’s Chinese. And she follows the Chinese ancestral religious belief that the more she suffers it end of life, the greater her glory in her afterlife. So you you’ve robbed her of a beautiful or eternity. And her family knows this. And they complained about it because you’ve robbed not only her of a great attorney eternity, you’ve robbed her family of the belief that she was going to have a good eternity.’
You just wind the morphine down. It’ll come back.
But what they also found out is when they wound the morphine down, she had a little bit of exaggeration going on. When her family was around, she wanted them to believe that she was going to have a good afterlife. So she may have exaggerated her moan a little bit.
Manda: [00:47:00.87] OK, but that’s cultural as well.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:47:03.74] Yes. That’s OK, because that’s Mom wanting to take care of husband and children. So you have lots of different communications that go on at end of life. And it’s all about paying attention to the cultural cues, asking finding out, you know.
It used to be that end of life care, you were always instructed, never to ask the person about their personal beliefs. That’s too invasive. That’s what it used to be. And now they say you should ask someone about their spiritual beliefs. So that you could address their needs at end of life. It was years ago was fifteen, sixteen years ago when this doctor told me the story. And it was at a point in time where they did not ask the family or the woman what her spiritual beliefs were.
So now what we’re talking about is time again. But this time we’re talking about time on earth or time after death. So there’s Earth time. There’s lifetime. And there’s death time. Some people believe there’s no such thing as death time.
Manda: [00:48:26.76] I was going to say this is moving into belief systems now.
Other other people believe there’s a lot of death time. And I need to prepare myself for my death time. Because eternity can be a long time.
And if you don’t believe in reincarnation, then it can be. So I did some work with a woman called Sophy Banks around grief tending rituals. And I believe that her work is based on the work of Patrice Melanoma’s Somé, who is an African shamanic teacher. He was kidnapped by Jesuits as a young boy and he escaped in his late teens and then went through his tribe’s initiation ceremonies, much older than was normal. And he’s become something of a conduit from their culture to ours.
And so, as I understand it, when he leads grief, attending’s I heard from someone who’d been on one, they were on a five day retreat. And the first two they really built up to totally expressing a lifetime’s grief. And you do it flowing across a room towards an altar with some highly trained and very talented drummers holding various rhythms that, as far as I can tell, really help us to move into that. And at the end of day three, when they were all utterly exhausted and thought they’d given vent to every part of grief they ever had, Patrice Malidoma Somé said, ‘Well, that wasn’t bad for rehearsal. Tomorrow we’ll do the real thing and you really give it everything!’
Manda: [00:49:56.55] And then I did this, the one with with Sophy Banks, which again was over a few days and discovered depths of grief within myself that I’d never expected. I thought that I knew where I was going and I just opened into a sea that I had no idea was there. And it was extraordinarily moving and cathartic. And I felt entirely different after it. But we were reaching levels of expression of grief that are generally hidden in our society. And I’m wondering whether because we’ve talked a lot about talking and obviously the whole profession of therapy is based on talking out our inner worlds. But I wonder at what point talking is not enough. And we need to learn to express our grief in much more somatic ways. Is that something that you work with?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:50:53.67] Yes. Just to roll the tape back a little bit with regard to talking. Talking is when you are helping another person sharing with another person. So the communication is a natural one, just having a conversation and talking. But, of course, there’s most wonderful ways to communicate or express rather feelings through art and music, through ritual, which is what you’re talking about. The ritual with the drumming and the certain exercises that you would go through.
And ritual is very important with regard to expressing feelings of deep loss, grief, bereavement. And they’re fantastic. And when you mix the art, the music with the ritual, which can also include food, that’s just fantastic. And it can be a a wonderful healing experience. And also, as we were talking about before, a relief to that pressure valve of the self. And it can also raise personal self-awareness. So the difference between the two for me is, am I going to concentrate on myself through the act of the ritual. Or am I going to concentrate on the other whoever the other is? And those would be different in the way you approach them and come to them, because one is you have to be self less and the other is you have to be self-ish, but selfish in a good way when you’re raising your own awareness.
Manda: [00:52:52.94] And how would you do a ritual that was focused on the other?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:52:58.04] Well, rituals focused on the other are generally communal. So, for example, a funeral is a ritual that is communal.
Manda: [00:53:07.02] So we’re heading towards the end. What I’d really like to look out for the last few minutes is where we are now – we’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. We are surrounded by death on a scale that probably does usually happen, but we don’t usually examine it to this extent. But we would appear to me to be in the middle of the death of, let’s call it the fossil fuel economy. Our entire culture may be in the process of dying in order that something else can be reborn. We talked about this on last week’s podcast with Angharad Wynne. And I wonder, therefore, how can we translate our understanding of personal dying and death into that of a society and a culture?
Dr Judith Wester: [00:54:01.94] Yes. I mean, I think that one of the ways we can do that naturally is through an appreciation of nature, because we have seen two things happen during the Corona virus. We’ve seen fear arise, anxiety and, of course, death of dear loved ones.And the pressure that this puts on us.
We’ve seen the death to a degree of our economy and how that loss puts pressure on us because there is an economic element to all deaths. But what we’ve also seen is this incredible rise of a beautiful spring. It happened in April. The weather was wonderful. We had amazing daffodils and tulips popping up everywhere. Wild garlic of wild bluebells and wood anemones. I mean, stunning, beautiful nature just coming out. Spring green. I mean, how incredible is spring green? I didn’t even know it was a real color in real life until I saw spring green on the trees. And it just it. So you’ve got this juxtaposition, don’t you? You have this horrible thing on one side. You have this stunning and beautiful thing on the other.
And that is what death always brings us. That’s that’s what I would call the positive side of death. And a lot of people do not like me to say that there’s anything positive that comes out of death. But it’s true in nature. It’s true. So what we have is the tree dies, the leaves fall off. It rots down, and it produces a compost. And up comes the beautiful wild garlic and the bluebells and what have you.
Manda: [00:56:04.99] Yes, death and rebirth are a natural cycle and we are trying to deny that.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:56:09.94] That is correct. But you cannot have the rebirth at all without the death preceding it. And let’s face it, if everyone on this planet never died, we would run into some serious issues. So we have to have one in order to support the other. So that means we’re mortal. We’re limited. And I think to have a rebirth, as it were, of a culture and the way we think about things – unfortunately, we have to experience this sadness, this grief, this bereavement, in order to fertilize that birth and rebirth of a new society. To me, nature gives us the perfect example for that.
Manda: [00:57:07.31] Which fits very well with where we are and where we’re going. Thank you. That’s brilliant. So I think we’ve run to the end of our time. Yes. Thank you so much. This is such an important subject. And you’ve been really clear and I’ve really enjoyed the the different ways that we’ve gone on this. I think it would have been room for at least one more podcast;there’s lots of questions I haven’t gotten to asking that were on my list, but I think we’ve covered a lot of ground and we’ll see how we can all move forward into new ways of living if we can fully embrace all the possible aspects of death and dying and being dead. So, Judith, thank you very much indeed.
Dr Judith Wester: [00:57:49.91] You’re welcome. Thank you, Manda.
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