THE BLOG

Death, the Great Egalitarian

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Alison Rose Levy Health, food and environmental journalist; radio host, Progressive Radio Network

"We all get invited no matter how cute we are, how much money we have, or who our parents are. As far as I can tell no one gets out of here alive." So says Cynthia Burke (of the New York based non-profit group, Friends Indeed, which supports people in the process of the dying) speaking to the assembled audience at the eighth day of Donna Karan's Urban Zen Well-Being Forum (which took place in downtown New York City a few weeks ago).

Burke joins other panel members to discuss the most taboo subject in health care: death and dying.

"We live in a culture that treats illness and dying and death as a failure," she says. "When someone becomes ill, people act as though something has gone wrong. The patient made a mistake. Or the doctors made a mistake because they can't fix it. We do all what we can to heal. But it's reassuring to know that whatever is happening is all right."

"We must cure them when we can, but when we cannot, we must care for them," said an earlier panelist, Barbara Dossey, RN, quoting pioneering nurse, Florence Nightingale.

"Physical pain is not the only suffering, Sherry Schachter PhD, Director of Bereavement Services for New York's Calvary Hospital, reminds the attendees. "Suffering is physical, psychological, and existential -- we have to address them all."

"In medical education, there should be courses in compassion," believes Buddhist scholar and author Robert Thurman. "Compassion is not something that you have or you don't. You can learn to bring it out through ancient practices."

"What are the needs of patients and their loved ones when facing physical death?" asks moderator, Daniel J. Stone of American Speaks.

"When informed of a serious illness, people are summoned to examine the meaning of their life and brought face to face with death," Thurman says. "Our culture hides death and therefore people don't live realistically. The doctors also don't face death so they give people news which both are equally frightened of."

Christiane Northrup, MD, and bestselling author, agrees that "doctors go into medicine because they fear death, but there's no other way out of here. As a physician, I can bargain on your behalf and perhaps give you a few more years -- but we have to fact that we are all going to die and yet also that we don't die."

"On the material level, we attend to everything we can," says Burke. "On the spiritual level, we hold that nothing is going wrong. The art is balancing the two. We don't know what lessons we have come to learn."

"Death puts us in a place where there is no running." Yoga teacher Rodney Yee reminds the forum that "the Dalai Lama meditates on death six times a day. Spiritual practices teach us that we are more than the body. We aim to understand and believe that."

"What is your deep image of what it is to die?" Thurman asks the audience. "85 percent of Americans say that they believe in God and are sure they are going to die happy because they are good Americans. But most live as if they are getting all they can now."

"Some people assume that this body is like a car we're driving around and the spirit dwells within," sayas Burke. "Many think that this body is it and when it's over, it's over."

"In my childhood, when someone was going to pass, my Mom would get a call and usher them during her sleep," the Reverend Michael Beckwith reveals. "We knew death was a transition."

"There are a lot of things in this world worse than death," Schachter affirms. "Each of us should search within and learn to feel comfortable with our own death. You can't support others if you're afraid or feel death is horrific."

"What a dying person needs is you," says Carolyn Cassin, an expert in end-of-life care. "They want your presence and love. You can't say anything wrong as long as you're there. Get to know who they've been and who they seek to become."

"After a person's death, we abandon their family because bereavement services don't bring in money. It's our collective responsibility to change that," says Schachter.

"Our health care system is broken. The economic incentives are misaligned," points out Cassin. "We'll pay for another round of chemo, but not for an aid to stay with you at night, or for bereavement care. The whole system is upside down. Nothing will change until we demand it, and stand together to say; "This isn't what we want for ourselves and our loved ones." Eighty percent of health care for the dying is paid by Medicare and Medicaid. They determine how our health care dollars are spent. This is a political issue."

"It's vital to decommercialize medicine so that companies don't stand to profit from sickness and suffering," agrees Thurman.

"Tell policy makers: 'You and your loved ones are going to die too. Let's fix this,'" suggests Burke.

"To change how we deal with death, we're going to have change how we live," offers Sharon Gannon, co-direct of New York's Jivamukti Yoga Center. "Our country's mission statement could be: 'The earth belongs to us.' If we keep going with that, we won't have an earth. Even our bodies we borrow from the earth and we give back to the earth. We need to remember that."