In early November, New York Times best-selling author (Knocking on Heaven’s Door) Katy Butler gave a talk focused on themes from her new 2019 book The Art of Dying Well at Sutter Health CPMC in San Francisco. Approximately 100 healthcare workers participated.
I was fortunate enough to attend and briefly meet Katy and her husband Brian, also active in humanitarian and senior care issues.
The event gave Butler a chance to share compelling, medically complicated personal stories relating to the passing of her parents and friends. She also spoke about her commitment to compassionate care and the human right to die with dignity and grace when possible.
I found what she had to say authentic, heartfelt, and practical… especially her reminders that a good many of us working in senior care and palliative care find imperative to share with others – make a plan for end-of-life if you haven’t already, find your tribe (who will be there for you, presuming your demise is not sudden), stay in charge (ask for what you want and need), and “bring in the sacred.”
Katy hosts a Facebook group entitled Slow Medicine, based on principles in the book of the same name by her Bay Area colleague and friend Dr. Victoria Sweet, calling for change in medical practices. Quality of life over invasive and perhaps unnecessary procedures, especially at end-of-life.
Notable aside: Butler, a Buddhist, was lay-ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese monk and peace activist. She lived seven months at his Plum Village retreat in France, among other significant life experiences.
In January of 2018 Loretta Downs, M.A. gerontology, and I co-founded Death Café Ajijic aka Café Mortality Ajijic at Lake Chapala, Mexico.
The first café started the next month with the intention of encouraging the mostly retired community to talk about and prepare for end-of-life, not only to save loved ones and neighbors a lot of grief and time, but to provide a space to talk out feelings, hopefully leading to more well-being.
Because we travel a lot, we invited other health professionals in the community to join as volunteer hosts. We have been fortunate. There is now a rotating team to handle responsibilities for the all-volunteer events starting in 2019. We continue to do our best to improve the experience for attendees. One of the best ways for me to learn is to experience other Death Cafes.
For those of you unfamiliar with Death Cafes, they have been in existence since 2011 and are now in 63 countries of the world. See www.DeathCafe.com for a café near you.
I was recently in Santa Barbara, CA, originally a Spanish mission post, to attend the Santa Barbara Death Café.
It was a pleasure to enter the donated venue at 11 E. Carrillo Street, the Hill-Carrillo Adobe. Beautiful place built in 1825. It is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
There are three dedicated hostesses in Santa Barbara. One of them provides her grandmother’s tea cups and linen. Others bring cake or cookies. Attendees offer donations to defray expenses.
One of the surprises for me was that Santa Barbara Death Cafe provides a mobile library. They bring books in a large carton each month for participants to check out!! I love this idea!!
Participants in Santa Barbara are all adults, mostly older adults. In a group of about 20, there were two men, one a recent widower. We introduced ourselves to each other at a long, rectangular table, one by one, sharing briefly what brought us to the café.
We dispersed after the introductions to talk in groups of three, four, or more. It was organic, and attendees were encouraged to move to another group if they so desired. I see how attendees return over and over again. The hostesses and environment feel cozy and safe.
Thank you Death Café Santa Barbara and Center for Successful Aging for your hospitality!!!
I also attended an intimate Death Café in Santa Monica a few days prior to the Santa Barbara Café. It was hosted by a lovely woman at her office space. She is a psychologist, grief counselor. death doula, and drama therapist from Pasadena. There were five of us all together. The counselor led by asking why each came, and the other three participants, each in their 30’s, were off and running, lively and engaged from the start. Time went by quickly. This multi-talented lady also offers a Death Goes to the Movies night. Recently she screened a documentary about a psychiatrist/musician preparing for his green burial.
Both cafes in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica were unique, rewarding experiences. You may find the next dates for these Death Cafes or others near you at http://www.DeathCafe.com. If you do not find one, perhaps you may have a desire to start one.
Please see the following links for articles about two of the cafes in Ajijic if you are interested – how we organized, and how attendees shared experiences at the end.
For the last few years I have had the good fortune to visit palliative care and hospice entities in California as well as in six states of Mexico with the objective of learning more about what works, what’s missing, and what might work in Mexico for years to come. There are challenges based on cultural differences, but all is possible.
I am comparing various models – hospitals and facilities (medical), in-home community outreach (medical and/or volunteer), all volunteer, government, non-profit, and for profit.
Hospice of San Luis Obispo County (HSLO) has been on my radar for some time because it is a successful, locally based non-profit volunteer hospice that has sustained itself for 41 years!! For those of you who are familiar with the operations of non-profits, this is an extraordinary achievement.
Aside from serving the public, HSLO educates and trains locals and others as end-of-life doulas (companions). They host Death Cafes and much more.
The sustainability is based on more than dedication and love – mainly inventive ways to engage the public, an especially hard task in a difficult economy.
I am so pleased I was finally able to visit HSLO. I am indebted to the Executive Director and the Director of Volunteers, the few paid staff, for a warm, meaningful, memorable exchange.
HSLO is one of six hospice services in a county with a population of around 284,000. It is the only volunteer in-home hospice supported by the generous energy of over 200 volunteers. They serve approximately 5,000 persons per year.
Any county resident with life-limiting illness is served through “in-home respite care, emotional, spiritual, practical and non-medical support, and grief counseling support (group and individual).”
Other services are education about dying and death for professionals, caregivers and the community, doula programs, Death Cafes, Threshold Choirs, and Pet Peace of Mind groups.
From my perspective their outreach and activities place HSLO in the vanguard of the “death care and the death positive” movement that is sweeping North America and beyond. It is exhausting but rewarding work.
Additional treat: I was blessed to attend HSLO’s annual Light Up A Lifecandlelight vigil held at the San LuisObispo Mission on a nippy, rainy evening. Names of those who have passed were read out loud during the hour service that included a choir. Later we carried candles outside for readings and prayers.
Anyone may pay a fee (fundraising) to have the name or names of loved ones read at Light Up A Life. This lovely event is repeated during one week in December in different cities of the county.
HSLO was created in 1977 and has an excellent reputation through word-of-mouth.
Services are provided without charge; no insurance company is billed.
HSLO relies on community donations, fundraising events, grants, doula training fees, and the time of its over 200 volunteers.
Hospice of San Luis Obispo County is a remarkable operation. So much goodwill!! A great gift to the community.
The home which serves as office was bequeathed to HSLO by Dorothy D. Rupe; it bears her name.
1304 Pacific Street, San Luis Obispo,CA 93401 tel. (805)544-2266
While conducting research on health care and end-of-life options for older adults in Mexico, and volunteering at a Guadalajara palliative care hospital and hospice, I have witnessed both expected and unexpected deaths of Americans, Canadians, other foreigners, and Mexicans. In the case of Mexicans, the procedure following death is almost seamless, with rare exception.
The question is, how will you prepare for such a situation if you are not Mexican?
Here is some of what I’ve learned in expat havens from Alamos to Ajijic, Mazatlan to Merida, and Tijuana to Oaxaca:
If you wish to save your family, other loved ones, and your neighbors considerable grief and time, it is important to understand what is involved when a foreigner dies in Mexico, and, to have a plan in place.
This goes for 18-year olds, 40-year olds, and especially for all persons over age 60.
Even though the subject is one many of us prefer to avoid, family and friends back home, as well as your local neighbors, will be grateful if you plan ahead. Planning ahead might even give you peace of mind!
WHAT TO BE AWARE OF
The system of law is different. If you are from Canada, England, or the U.S., you are accustomed to common law, not civil law based on Napoleonic code. The rules governing disposition of human remains in Mexico are not the same as at home. The time and bureaucratic requirements required to negotiate the Mexican system, post-death, can be daunting.
Mexico is a country with predominantly Catholic traditions. These traditions influence choices. If you are Catholic, the system may seem familiar, such as burial over cremation. If you had chosen to live in Buddhist or Hindu Asia, cremation would be a relatively easy matter involving fewer steps as cremation is common practice. Or, you could have opted for a Tibetan sky burial.
The Mexican culture, language, and way of thinking are unique. Most of all, procedures may be unfamiliar and complex.
PREPARING AHEAD FOR YOUR DEMISE & DISPOSITION OF REMAINS IN MEXICO
The key Mexican legal document you need to acquire for best outcomes is a “declaración jurada ” (more or less the equivalent of a living will) stating burial or cremation wishes. This document must be created before your demise. The declaración jurada will almost always insure your plan is followed. It is usually prepared by notaries (notarios). Current costs are approximately 1000 pesos in Jalisco state, for example. Note: powers of attorney (equally important for pre-death and health care complications), and wills regarding your property are separate documents. Once a year, older adults can receive a 50% discount in the month of September for wills relating to property (home, car, jewelry, and other assets).
Note: Some funeral homes offer notarized Letters of Intention for cremation or burial. This, in addition to your declaración jurada, is a somewhat reliable back-up. These funeral homes will give you a card to carry on your person at all times; the card contains your name and other details plus their contact information. Not all funeral homes offer this service.
Your Advance Health Care Directive or Five Wishes from home is not valid in Mexico even if notarized, apostilled and translated into Spanish unless you get lucky.
You are best off incorporating preferences from your Advance Directive or Five Wishes (https://fivewishes.org/) in your Mexican legal document. Most legal documents for foreigners, unless you live in a rural area, are written in Spanish on one half of the page, and English on the other. Again, this is the most important document you can obtain relating to your end-of-life wishes. Note: there is no guarantee your healthcare requests will be honored by doctors, hospitals, and ambulance services, just as in your home country. Your cremation request will be honored if it is in writing and your papers are presented.
Burial in Mexico
Burial in Mexico could be easier than shipping a casket home and less expensive, with one exception. Many cemeteries offer plots for purchase for a set period of time (usually six years) with the understanding that remains will be removed and buried elsewhere at the end of that period. Arrangements must be made in advance for relocation of remains or they may be removed to a communal grave.
Note: There is less and less room at cemeteries in heavily populated areas. According to some city Pantheon (cemetery) directors, families with plots are burying loved ones 10 persons deep.
The population from Chapala to Jocotopec (north Lake Chapala) just south of Guadalajara, for example, is around 100,000, including 20,000 full-time ex-pats (numbers not exact). There are approximately 80+ deaths per year among the ex-pat community according to Chapala’s Registro Civil, Civil Registry office.
Ajijic Cemetery along Lake Chapala serves a population of 10,000. It is full unless a family will sell you a plot there.
Cremation in Mexico
When death occurs in Mexico, local practices will govern how quickly a cremation can take place. In the state of Jalisco burial or cremation must be within 48 hours, or the body must be embalmed. There is one exception – a body can lie up to 30 days in refrigeration (if refrigeration is available and with permission) awaiting family members from out of country to view the remains. Then cremation or interment will take place. Cost for cremation in Jalisco, for example, is approximately 10,500 Mexican pesos; costs for embalming, around 5,000 Mexican pesos.
In Mexico your legal next-of-kin may request cremation or interment if you do not have a notarized living will with end-of-life wishes. It is unwise, however, to depend on good luck or miracles in this situation – again, best to have a Mexican living will.
Some churches in Mexico offer space for cremated remains in an urn or box in a mini-mausoleum setting. Here again, you are usually paying for a specified number of years.
Note: According to a U.S. Consulate web site, “if the deceased is to be transported between states in Mexico for cremation, the body must be embalmed. If the body is to be transported over 100 km a special transit permit is also required.”
By law, a body is to be identified ahead of time. In Guadalajara, for example, no toe tags are used. Photos are taken of faces before the procedure. The name of the person is also written on a ticket. That ticket, serving as I.D., is inserted into a slot space outside the crematory machine.
Shipment of Remains Outside of Mexico
If you are American and wish your ashes or remains sent home, there is another step for a loved one or trusted advocate to complete after all Mexican death-related documents are obtained. (If you are Canadian, see the links in the Resources section below. Canadian procedures are not the same as American procedures). If your body has been cremated, a cremation certificate from the funeral home, an affidavit from the funeral director, and an original copy of the death certificate must be delivered to the nearest Embassy or Consulate. (See U.S. Government 7 FAM 258 DOCUMENTS TO ACCOMPANY REMAINS; these regulations were last updated January 18, 2013). If you die in a small city or rural area and cremation is your preference, understand the expense, effort, and permissions needed to fulfill this requirement.
According to the U.S. government, a consular officer will prepare a consular mortuary certificate to ensure “orderly shipment of remains and facilitate U.S. Customs clearance.” The certificate will be delivered to you in English and it will contain the essential information including cause of death.
As for shipment of remains in a casket, a U.S. consular officer will work to ensure that the Mexican funeral director and American funeral director are in communication to guarantee preparation of remains complies with local, U.S. Department of State, and federal requirements. All corpses going to the U.S. must be embalmed. The shipping time is approximately seven days.
Also note: DHL, Federal Express, and embassy diplomatic pouches cannot be used to ship cremated remains out of the country. There is no customs fee to ship remains to the U.S. Note: Shipment of remains outside of Mexico involves not only high cost, but red tape. Consider buying repatriation of remains insurance.
Other Details to Consider for Smoother Disposition of Remains in Mexico:
Someone to Act on Your Behalf
Are you living alone? If so, do you have at least three friends or neighbors who will follow through with your wishes and instructions if you die in Mexico? Note: Do not depend on legal next-of-kin (spouse) or significant other to represent you. What if you both die in a car accident or other tragedy? It is best to delegate additional persons or a trusted attorney to take charge.
Do you have a working relationship with a medical doctor who can be called immediately by the designated person or persons to declare cause of death and write the death certificate so an autopsy can be avoided? Do not call 911,an ambulance (Cruz Roja or Cruz Verde), the fire department (bomberos), or the police. Call the doctor, obtain the death certificate (Certificado de Defunción – delivered with three copies), then call the funeral home. The copies of the certificate are then delivered to the local Civil Registry (Registro Civil), the Ministry of Public Health, and INEGI (the National Statistics Office).
In places with a number of expatriates, funeral homes sometimes have doctors who can appear if your doctor is on vacation, but most doctors prefer a relationship with you before they will appear and sign a death certificate. Note: If foul play is suspected, an autopsy will be required and the police and fiscalia (the district attorney’s forensics department) will be involved.
Have you selected a funeral service or transporter to collect your body and handle your remains? Using a funeral service is necessary in most of Mexico, unless you are in a remote, rural village where you may be buried in a local cemetery.
Do you want your organs donated? Mexico City’s UNAM, Programa de Donacion de Cuerpo, for example, will welcome your body for science. Are your wishes written in your living will or indicated on your Mexican driver’s license?
Where to Place Remains. Do you wish your remains to stay in country or shipped home?
Someone to Act on Your Behalf, Part 2
Again, designate at least three people to be in charge of your affairs in Mexico in the immediate aftermath of your death. This is recommended based on witnessing situations in Ecuador and Mexico over a period of seven years, and accompanying distressed family members. Your ex-pat friends may travel quite a bit or may not be present at the time.
Do your designees know which funeral service or transporter will collect your body? Do they know where your legal documents (passport, INM immigration green card, living will – specific for cremation or burial, contact info) are and how to pay the funeral home if not pre-paid? Do they know where to locate your bankcard, cash, and/or documents 24/7? Do they have a copy of your keys? Plan on leaving about 20,000 Mexican pesos or more for the certifying doctor, transportation, the funeral company, Civil Registry fees, and cremation so your friends are not left to raise funds.
Copies of Documents. There must be several copies of critical documents – passport, residence card, living will, death certificate, mortuary certificate, affidavit of Mexican funeral director, transit permit, et altri. The person(s) in charge must be told not to offer an original document to transit people, most bureaucrats, etc. – in most instances these entities receive copies.
Death Certificate (Acta de Defunción)
Who will obtain the Mexican government declaration of death with the appropriate stamps from the Civil Registry and the Ministry of Public Health? This is not only a death certificate but an authorization for burial or cremation. Some Mexican funeral homes have experience assisting with these matters, others not. Will your designees need to do it? Best to find out how to obtain the certificate in the state or province where you live so you can leave instructions. (See Resources section below the article with links to information about death certificates in Mexico).
Register Death with Your Country’s Embassy or Consulate
Who will obtain the proper documents from the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, the Canadian Embassy or Consulate, or other foreign government representative in Mexico not only to register the death, but for remains transported home? Some funeral homes are accustomed to offering this service, others not. The embassy or consulate will prepare a Report of Death from the death certificate. Your family member or representative will use this document along with the Mexican documents if or when remains are transported out of Mexico. At the U.S. Consulate you are entitled to 10 to 20 original copies in English.
Spanish language skills are imperative
Depending on English-speaking Mexicans during this process is not advised as they may not be available when you need them. Have someone at the ready who can negotiate procedures in Spanish. There are a number of facilitators, translators, and attorneys who speak English or other languages, best to keep their information handy.
What happens if you die in Mexico, have no spouse, no next-of-kin, no legal documents stating your wishes, and no legal representatives?
Your body will probably be transported to a morgue, usually a SEMEFO (Servicio Médico Forense – Medical Forensic Service) building with refrigeration. Not all SEMEFO buildings have refrigeration or space, even if they have refrigeration. See video links at end of article with tours of SEMEFO in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Sinaloa and the Yucatan. Your country’s representatives will be called. Each country has different procedures for handling such situations. Your body will probably be autopsied. Often, if no one claims your body, your remains will be placed in a communal grave in Mexico. Each state of Mexico and each rural area has different traditions and preferences.
Few people know where they will die or when. If you spend time in Mexico, or any Latin American country with deeply Catholic traditions, where family ties and support reign (i.e. you will be rescued and your loved ones will know what to do), as well as strict codes and preferences that may not be yours, please choose to prepare yourself.
Preparation hint: register your whereabouts and family contact information with your embassy or consulate The U.S. government, for example, has an excellent system for Americans at https://step.state.gov/. It is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and advises you of security risks in the place where you are living and assists with connecting family and others to you in case of emergency. Other places to register your emergency information are located in expat communities around the country. The registries are usually announced in local directories, magazines, English-language newspapers, or found by word-of-mouth. Some non-profit expat organizations provide registries as do churches and synagogues with English-speaking congregations.
End-of-Life Planning is critical for expats.
Create peace of mind for yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors.
Note: Preparing medical directives for healthcare emergencies, and preparing wills, are subjects worthy of their own long articles and are not included above.
Note two: Physicians, funeral directors, cemetery directors, city and province officials (including a district attorney forensics office), one attorney, one notary, and a consulate were consulted with or interviewed in Mexico for this article.
Note three: If you are alone with no spouse, no children, and no one to rescue you, it is suggested you carry a copy of the funeral home card with contact information on you, plus a copy of key contacts including the notary public. When traveling, also carry a copy of your declaración jurada. If you have a car, it is recommended you keep a copy of your declaración jurada in the glove compartment.
Wendy Jane Carrel, MA, is a Spanish-speaking senior care specialist from California. Over a period of several years she has traveled state to state in Mexico researching senior care options. She volunteers at the only 24/7 palliative care hospital/hospice in Jalisco which also has a community outreach service. She has investigated, studied, and negotiated health systems, senior care options, end-of-life care and planning, and, disposition of remains in Mexico. See http://www.WellnessShepherd.com or contact her at email@example.com .
You have permission to re-post the entire article when you include author’s name, biography, and contact information as above.
https://wdef.com/2018/09/19/morgue-director-fired-over-stench-of-157-corpses-in-truck/ September 2018 article reporting on two tractor trailers filled with unidentified corpses as there is not enough refrigerated space at the morgue in Guadalajara. A report by the English-language Guadalajara Reporter stated that corpses of two unrelated Americans, who died of natural causes, were stored in the tractor trailers, an indication that some stored corpses were identified first, not that it makes being stored in a tractor trailer palpable.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWNr53cWfxk Sinaloa SEMEFO, a report in Spanish about abandoned corpses and no refrigeration 2016, “muerte indigna.” Apparently a new building has been constructed since with refrigeration. Note: in places of extreme humidity and heat with no refrigeration, imagine the stench.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fNXN6XycPA According to the video, “drug dealer” tombs in Sinaloa represent the opposite kind of ending from an abandoned body left at the morgue. The Jardines de Humaya cemetery in Culiacán, Sinaloa, is known for its extravagant mausoleums, not all that dissimilar from the concept of the Mamluk tombs in Cairo Egypt’s City of the Dead (circa 642 AD). The video shows the tomb of Ignacio Coronel that apparently cost millions of pesos or dollars.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-mHof2axB4 According to this 2017 documentary video from Mexico City, if after three weeks no one identifies a body, it will usually end up in a communal grave. In another report, some bodies may go to a medical school for study.
https://tomzap.com/dying.html Dying in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, a 2013 report. At that time it was estimated one needed about 12,000 pesos to pay for cremation, now transportation and cremation will come to around 20,000 pesos, depending on the funeral home.
In the course of one week of August 2018 a fellowship, a Death Cafe, and a talk group at Lake Chapala, Mexico hosted events related to considerations for end-of-life.
These events, intentionally or not, are part of the growing Death Positive movement around the world – places to share, plan, or think about what we want; to consider how we foresee our own passing; and to learn from others who openly share their experiences.
Wikipedia’s explanation of Death Positive:
“The death positive movement is a social and philosophical movement that encourages people to speak openly about death, dying, and corpses. The movement seeks to eliminate silence around death-related topics, decrease anxiety surrounding death, and encourages more diversity in end-of-life care options available to the public.”
Retiree ex-pats ages 50+ from Canada, Germany, the U.S., and the UK gathered at three different venues to hear or participate in interesting, lively, or poignant discussions about mortality.
Lake Chapala Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
On a sunny lakeside morning, the fellowship hosted an inspirational, memorable service devoted to End-of-Life.
Sandy Wallin was the service leader. The sermon, “What I Learned from Charlie,” was delivered by Lew Crippen. Hymns related to transitions – I’ll Fly Away ( performed on a recording by the Humbard family), plus One More Step, and Spirit of Life. The postlude was Handel’s The Trumpet Shall Sound.
Crippen’s sharing was an endearing, sometimes funny, but definitely moving tale about how witnessing the dying of his beloved rescue cat taught him more about love and life.
Service poetry included Mending Walls by Robert Frost, and the surprisingly amusing Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death (Roger McGough), beautifully read by Wallin.
Note: The tenets of the Universalist Unitarians have much in common with palliative care and hospice – “to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” plus “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”
A group of American, Canadian, and German retirees and others recently gathered for the third Café Mortality Ajijic in Mexico August 2018. Thirty persons sat in an engaged way at six round tables and one rectangle table (added at the last minute) at Min Wah Restaurant. Conversation was uncommonly lively. Participants included a hospice chaplain (a new café volunteer), a hospice nurse, a hospice volunteer (a new café volunteer), three psychologists, a psychiatrist, one professor, one journalist, and others.
Currently, there are three co-hosts sharing the duties – Debi Buckland, Wendy Jane Carrel, and Loretta Downs, each with 20+ years devoted to some or all aspects of end-of-life care, planning, and transitions. Each Cafe Mortality is introduced by one of the hosts. The August café was heralded by Loretta Downs who flew in from Chicago to lead.
In the last few minutes, a representative from each table stood up to share with attendees interests and concerns discussed – how to die peacefully at home in Mexico, how to take one’s life legally in Mexico, how to die on your own terms in Mexico (have your wishes honored), and what happens in the afterlife.
These all-volunteer social gatherings which discuss death and dying respectfully and informally (no agenda) are now held in 52 countries. See http://deathcafe.com/
A review of the first Death Café Ajijic, held in February 2018, may be found at the following link:
The next Cafe Mortality is scheduled for October 9, 2018. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to attend. Note: the venue may change.
Open Circle Ajijic
David Acuff, PhD, talk show host, and author of 15 books, spoke to over 300 attendees at Open Circle Ajijic on Creation of the Afterlife: Perspectives of Different Cultures. He brought forth views from Native Americans, Australian aborigines, Judeo-Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus about what happens when we die. He interspersed his presentation with audience breaks asking those present to find a partner to ask questions with such as…Where are we going after our demise? As at Café Mortality, the audience was fully engaged with the subject, voices were animated and lively.
In closing, Acuff offered a new view of afterlife suggested from findings at tombs of the Nazca mummies in Peru. Perhaps, he shared, there is evidence we are not alone in the world. According to DNA research in the spring of this year, mummies from 300 A.D. and 1400 A.D. had three fingers on each hand and were not homo sapiens.
Maybe we do go somewhere else, time travel, or reincarnate… all food for thought.
Award-winning author, podcast host, and hospice physician Karen Wyatt connects healthcare professionals and the public with information about healing options for the dying through End of Life University, which she founded in 2013.
For three years+ I have been dedicated to a palliative care/hospice mission for Mexico. Even though I am back and forth to California, I am continually on the look-out for how care and support for patients and families is being provided on a national and global basis.
What interests me are differences place to place as they relate to education for providers, physicians, patients, and families – what’s missing, what’s working, what options and perceptions about dying are offered.
This is where Colorado-based hospice physician and thought leader Karen Wyatt comes in. She brings my quest to my computer in an open and engaging way through her END OF LIFE UNIVERSITY web site podcasts. Colleagues share experiences, feelings, information and wisdom about how they are advancing best practices for end-of-life.
Dr. Wyatt’s approach to death and dying is holistic, with a special emphasis on sacred and spiritual aspects of our transitions.
The goal of her effort is a national dialogue for “creative healing… opening the heart of Western medicine.” The podcasts, connections, and resources are a welcome gift not only for healthcare professionals but the public as well. See www.EOLUniversity.com.
In conjunction with the university, Dr. Wyatt launched an on-line book club in January 2018, The Year of Reading Dangerously, where she introduces one book per month about an aspect of end-of-life, and, interviews the book’s authors live on-line. Participants type in questions on-line or ask via the phone line they are listening on.
Interview with Dr. Wyatt
Please share with us about your personal history, and, what led to your work in end-of-life care.
I trained to be a family doctor. I had no knowledge of death and dying or hospice.
Three years after my residency, my father died by suicide. His sudden death upended my world. I felt guilty. I had training in psychiatry and couldn’t save my dad. I floundered for a long, long time trying to get through the grief. Three years after his death, I still felt very lost. I was wondering if I would ever smile or feel joy again. Suddenly a voice said, “call hospice.” It was my voice, and I have no idea where the message came from.
I didn’t even know if there was a hospice in the Utah community I lived in. I searched “hospice” and found one. I called and asked if they needed a volunteer. When they discovered I am a doctor they enthusiastically exclaimed “oh my goodness!” The Hospice Director, stunned, continued to ask “what made you call us now?” I just had an inspiration, I replied. The Director continued, “Our medical director resigned 30 minutes ago and now you’ve called us.” Just like that I became a hospice medical director. I was guided to this place, and I knew it for sure when I met the team.
What inspired the creation of End-of-Life University? What led you to gather fellow end-of-life colleagues to share what they know with each other and the public?
Years in hospice have brought me profound spiritual experiences. I have learned many lessons about how to live my own life. Hospice has helped me live a life of appreciation and that brought me to the decision to write a book. Many patients had asked if I could tell their stories one day. I made a promise to do so.
Writing a book was a long process and is what probably inspired the eventual creation of EOL University. I began the book in 1999 and finished in 2010. I felt I must live the lessons of the book in order for it to be complete. The book was published in 2012 and it was then I realized for the first time that the population, in general, was resistant to talking about death and dying. It seemed people were not ready or open; it was the last thing they wanted to talk about. It was then I knew I wished to do something to change this, something different needed to happen.
Brainstorming led to the question, what else may I be involved with other than a blog or writing? (At the time, Wyatt was posting occasional articles on Huffington Post and in local newspapers). The year was 2013 and I began listening to on-line interviews on other subjects and realized no one was doing this on-line for death and dying. I started the research to find people to interview. It was fun, I loved it (and still do). I was learning so much and wished to keep it going. That was five years ago. I am grateful to the Internet and social media as networks for good.
What response did you receive when you first began End-of-Life University?
End-of-Life University is always a work-in-progress, unfolding. In the beginning I felt no one was listening to the interviews, and that no one cared. The interest grew slowly over time. I learned consistency is important, showing up regularly. I followed the top web sites in Google search. I recognized ranking makes a difference. Over the years EOL University has gone from 200 to 4,000 subscribers. There is a lot of patience on my part.
I knew I was in it for the long haul, and it was the right thing to do whether I received validation for it or not. In the last couple years, whenever I’ve been at a conference, I kept meeting people who have been listening to the podcasts. Some would say, “every week, your interviews got me through two terrible years when my mother died, or “I’m interested in working in end of life because of your podcasts.” One of most important things I learned is that your heart tells you to continue, even if there are signs showing otherwise. You don’t know the impact you are making, but someday you may find out. Always trust your heart.
How did the concept of creating the book club with its engaging title, the Year of Reading Dangerously, take hold?
I felt it would be important. There are so many books, and books are another wonderful way people can learn about death and dying. The goal is to reach people. The concept of reading and discussing a different book each month had been with me for a while. So late one night I posted the book club on Facebook to see if there might be any interest. I was imagining maybe 20 persons might respond, and if so, that would be great. Well 150 had signed up! Now over 1,000 have signed up. It’s never too late to join. The response has been so positive I am thinking about continuing the book club in 2019.
What I like most about the club are diverse points of view, completely different voices with unique perspectives discussing end-of-life. I owned some of the books and hadn’t read them yet. Some of the authors I had invited to talk about their books suggested others. Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, suggested Megory Anderson’s book Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life. Ken Wilbur is a friend and I felt his story Grace and Grit would be compelling.
I find a lot of our listeners are going through their own personal struggles related to death and dying. It seems energetically powerful and perhaps healing if people around the world are reading the same books. There is something enormously attractive about bringing people a shared body of useful knowledge.
Dr. Wyatt has retired from her medical practice. Her focus is end-of-life education. She enjoys speaking to audiences across the U.S. and has discovered that “threads” connecting those who do this work remain strong. “Death has called us in and somehow we end up sharing our experiences with others,” she says.
The “death positive” movement has taken off in recent years. Dr. Wyatt’s End-of-Life University and her podcasts seem to be at the right place at the right time.
It was almost 20 years ago when Bill Moyers’ PBS series ON OUR OWN TERMS showed that those of us who tend to the dying wish “to assure patients they can have a ‘good death’ one that fits them, their families, and their culture.” This is Dr. Wyatt’s mission as well. More people are now receiving the message.
Thought: What do you wish for your end-of-life?
Links where you can learn more or support the non-profit, all volunteer End-of-Life University: