Dying & Death Talk

Looking at dying and death for what it is: a part of life.

Grandma’s traditional Jamaican wake brought me closer to the Windrush generation

Courtesy of | By Guilia Rhodes | Originally Published 05.05.2018 | Posted 06.20.2018

The ‘nine night’ ritual of gathering to eat, drink and swap stories helped Natasha Gordon connect with her family’s past – and inspired her first play.

three-week boat voyage undertaken by thousands of their compatriots – in the late 1950s. Her mother, then 16, joined them in 1963, finding work, a Jamaican-born husband and a reassuringly familiar West Indian community.

As she grew up in 70s and 80s north London, the language, music and food of Natasha’s family life were steeped in the Caribbean island culture. “The first sound on a Saturday morning was pan lids. By 11.30am, the weekend’s food – mutton soup with dumplings, curry goat – was ready,” she says. Home had two meanings, she realised early on. “For my mum, ‘home’ – Jamaica – involved a different sense of identity and connection to the earth than ‘home’ – London.”

So when Natasha’s grandmother, Louisa, died four years ago, it was to the rituals of Jamaica that her family turned. “Someone just said, ‘Oh, we must do a nine night, and there was no more discussion. We had to honour her and do it the right way,” Natasha, 42, recalls.

The traditional Jamaican wake, the nine night, sees family and friends gather over nine consecutive evenings to swap stories, eat and drink. Overseeing proceedings is the departing spirit until, on the final night, it is ready to leave home for ancestral roots in Africa and eternal peace. “I had heard people say they were going to a nine. I’d probably been to them when I was little, but wasn’t really aware of it,” Natasha says. Like many children of immigrants, she realised, she knew neither what was expected nor what to expect. Continue reading “Grandma’s traditional Jamaican wake brought me closer to the Windrush generation”

Grief will let go eventually. And then I’ll remember my dad as he was

Courtesy of | By Owen Jones | Originally Published 05.12.2018 | Posted 06.17.2018

My father’s death made me realise how ill-equipped we are to deal with loss – and the grief that follows.

Grief is like wandering through a minefield, as my mother puts it: however carefully you tread, a sudden detonation can happen out of nowhere. A song played in a supermarket; an overheard phrase; someone in the distance who your mind cruelly suggests is your loved one for a fleeting moment. Grief can be a powerfully malevolent force, too, a rat gnawing at your emotional wellbeing.

I reflected on that after seeing Nightfall, a new play about a family on a declining Hampshire farm both united and divided by the grief of losing their father. The grief gnaws at them all, but they don’t have the emotional tools to deal with it. But do any of us? Our culture poorly equips us to deal with grief, a combination of death being treated as a macabre taboo subject and a particularly English awkwardness with raw emotions. It’s also – and let’s be honest about it – that the expression of emotion is portrayed as weakness in a patriarchal society.

The bereaved are often treated badly. There is no statutory paid bereavement leave, with the emotionally stunned often compelled to work within days of losing a loved one. A third of those who have suffered bereavement report being treated with no compassion by their employers. At the very least, surely, we need to learn to talk more about grief if we are to build a society that treats the bereaved better.

I lost my father in January to advanced prostate cancer; he was the third close family member to die in six months. Grief has been difficult to avoid. And four months on, it has remained hard to escape that final week: a sudden deterioration at home, wheeling him into a taxi to the hospice for the last time, the long nights of increasingly rattling breaths, wondering when the moment would come – and then that long pause before the last gasp, the instinctive, wide-eyed panic etched on everyone’s face in a moment when time froze. Continue reading “Grief will let go eventually. And then I’ll remember my dad as he was”

Dr. Death & the Humorist:Ten Objects Your Kids Don’t Want

Lisa and Jer discuss an excerpt from Elizabeth Stewart’s book, No Thanks, Mom. Of course, Jer has an idea on how to get the kids to take some of the stuff you have.


Gel, wand, belly, ultrasound: the moment life as I knew it ended

Courtesy of | By Phillipa McGiunness | Photo by Katie Collins/PA | Originally Published 05.23.2018 | Posted 06.15.2018

When I saw the obstetrician’s face, hope receded. She tried to find a heartbeat but there was no heartbeat in my body but my own.

It’s late 2001 and Crown Princess Masako of Japan is having a baby. Her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, is heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. Sinking into its fourth recession in a decade, Japan hungers for good news and hopes Masako might have a boy. The Imperial Household Law of 1947 decreed that only men could assume the throne as emperor.

The doubleness of the term “confinement” – imprisonment and childbirth – seems especially apt for Masako. Though she lives secluded in a palace, she is such an object of scrutiny that she may as well reside in a glass cube at the centre of Shibuya crossing.

Nine months pregnant myself, I watch this fertility saga of a woman caught between medieval dynasties and 21st century celebrity unfold from Singapore, where we are living. It’s so humid there, I don’t feel as if I have a mini oven inside me; I am the oven. But, I think, at least I’m not going through this with millions of eyes upon me, like Princess Masako.

Looking back now, I would have given birth on the Shibuya crossing if doing so would have changed the outcome for my baby.

People always ask me if there were any warning signs. But everything seemed fine. A few days before Christmas I’d gone to the obstetrician, who measured the baby’s position and heartbeat, and my vitals. I lay down with a band around my enormous middle for 20 minutes and left with reassurances that everything was as normal as it could be. Not long till the baby came now.


Death was in me. In shock, I could barely form thoughts. Someone handed me tissues. How could this be?

Continue reading “Gel, wand, belly, ultrasound: the moment life as I knew it ended”

How to survive Mother’s Day when you’re grieving

Courtesy of | By Sophie Tull | Originally Published 05.11.2018 | Posted 06.14.2018

I am sure these tips are applicable to those for Father’s Day as well. 

I flinch every time Mother’s Day is mentioned: every time I open an email, hear a radio or TV ad, or walk past advertising with promotions on flowers and high tea.

Mothers give us life and love. They have a hard job; they deserve to be celebrated. It’s just difficult to celebrate when your mum has gone and it feels your guts have been ripped out while your life has been simultaneously turned upside down and shaken all over the floor. When reminders of this well-marketed holiday pops up in my day, mostly I want to hit something.

Grief is a response to loss that most of us have faced, or will face soon enough. But like many aspects of mental health, it’s something we don’t seem that good at talking about. Everyone responds to grief differently, and your own response can change on a day-by-day basis. It can be a numb or raw, a staid or sobbing pain that settles in your bones, without the schedule or process you expected.

When an insidious illness wore away at my beautiful mother, the grief scrubbed me raw. Every hope I had for her was torn into tiny shreds. When she died, six terrible months after being diagnosed, this new grief was coupled with relief that her suffering was over.

I didn’t think I was feeling what I should. I felt guilty both that I was able to go to work, to laugh, to love, and conversely, that I wasn’t as strong as I thought. I learnt that grief wasn’t a tidy bundle of pain that faded in a month or two: it’s a messy, unpredictable, illogical state that, 16 months on, can still feel fresh. It’s getting used to a new way of life; I relate to CS Lewis’ visceral description in A Grief Observed: “The death of a beloved is an amputation.”

As I face my second Mother’s Day without my mum, I explore how to get through this day without her. Continue reading “How to survive Mother’s Day when you’re grieving”

Fearing Death, and Photographing the Rituals That Surround It

Courtesy of | By John Otis | Photos by Chanho Park | Originally Published 04.30.2018 | Posted 06.13.2018

The question of what awaits after death has obsessed humanity for millennia.

The Korean photographer Chanho Park’s fixation took root when he was 11 and his mother, who suffered from pancreatic cancer, was hospitalized. Much of his time was spent at her side, where he heard the anguished screams of the dying and their mourning families and saw the beds of gaunt patients become empty from one day to the next.

“I began to feel more afraid of the pain and screams that they were experiencing than the death itself,” Mr. Park said.

After his mother died, he was adrift and bereft. Discord with his father led him to run away from home when he was 14. By his late 30s, he fell into depression, which he sought to ease by taking pictures. Without meaning to, he found himself drawn to burial plots, ritual sites, and places of prayer — synonymous with marking the end of life or remembering those who died. While sorting through his photos, he was struck by a commonality: the image of mothers praying.

Credit: Chanho Park

Continue reading “Fearing Death, and Photographing the Rituals That Surround It”

How To Comfort A Friend Who Lost A Parent

Courtesy of | By Nicole Pajer | Originally Published 05.11.2018 | Posted 06.13.2018


Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are great ways to celebrate the people who brought you into the world. But while many are off brunching and showing up at their parent’s doorsteps with flowers on these two family-centric holidays, others may be curled up on the couch feeling the pain of having lost their parent.

“Once May rolls around, the advertisements and TV commercials start. ‘Show your mom how much you love her this Mother’s Day!’ ‘This Mother’s Day, call your mother!’ I think, ‘I wish!,’” said Lisa Goich, who lost her mother to kidney failure in 2011 and wrote about the experience in her book 14 Days: A Mother, A Daughter, A Two-Week Goodbye.

As he approaches his first Mother’s Day without his mom, Clark Souter, a musician in Los Angeles, is gearing up for an inevitably tough day. “I travel a lot as a pro musician and unfortunately have missed many Mother’s Days as a result. But knowing that even if I had the opportunity to see her this year, I couldn’t, is pretty sad,” he said.

And having witnessed a number of her friends having difficult times with these holidays, Courtney Woody, a 36-year-old marketing manager in Auburn Hills, Michigan, has struggled to try and help them through it. “It’s so hard, especially when I haven’t lost a parent and I know no matter what I say or do isn’t going to bring them back. And that’s what kills me,” she said.

Here are some ways in which you can help support your friends on what may be a painful holiday for them:

1. Understand the magnitude of the holiday


Once you’ve lost a parent, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will never be the same. “This is true whether your parent’s death was expected or unexpected, regardless of your age or the age at which your parent died,” said Sherry Benton, a psychologist and founder of TAO Connect, a subscription-based mental health tool.

It’s therefore inevitable that a friend with a deceased parent will experience some degree of pain on these particular days, said Elizabeth Skibinski-Bortman, a family therapist and host of the podcast “Advice from Mom.”

“If your friend has lost a parent, these holidays may function in the same way that the anniversary of their death functions,” she said. “It can feel like the scab has been ripped off. The day itself might put your friend into a spiral of sadness and suffering all over again.”

2. Listen
“Although it may be uncomfortable for you, because you’re not quite sure what to say or do to ‘make it better,’ the key is to just listen,” said Jackie Bustamante, a bereavement coordinator at Compassus, a nationwide provider of hospice care.

She suggested sitting in silence and just being present with your grieving friend. “You may be surprised afterward when they share how much you helped them, just by listening. That’s one of the most wonderful gifts you can give,” she explained.

3. Honor their parent’s memory
Seize the opportunity to do something nice to honor your friend’s passed family member. “Take them out to dinner and give a toast to their parent! Order dessert in their parent’s honor,” Goich said. “It sounds silly, but save a seat for the spirit of their mom at the table. The first Christmas after my mom’s death, we reserved a seat for her at the table next to my dad. I really felt like she was there with us.”

Benton also added that you might try encouraging your friend to post a tribute photo of their parent on social media or to plant flowers or make a donation in their parent’s honor.

4. Reach out


Pick up the phone or pop a thoughtful card in the mail to let your friend know that you are thinking of them on this difficult day.

“When you’re in a place of grieving, especially during holidays, you feel like no one could possibly understand what you’re going through. You certainly don’t think that anyone is thinking about you on days like this,” Goich said, who explained that a simple, “Just checking on you and letting you know that I’m thinking about you today” note can have a huge impact.
5. Let them feel sad
Your first instinct may be to cheer your friend up. However, sometimes its necessary to feel the grief. “If you have a friend going through this pain, let them feel sad. With any grief reaction, it is helpful for people to spend some time letting themselves experience the grief,” Benton said.

Juliann Rasanayagam, a registered psychotherapist at Empathic Counselling Centre in Toronto, also stressed the importance of validating your friend’s gloomy emotions versus trying to change them.

“If they are feeling down, you don’t need to pull them out of it. Be alongside with them and show your support through your presence. Be the shoulder for them to cry on, share memories of mom/dad, and acknowledge that their feelings are normal,” she explained.

6. Be careful with your words
You might not know what to say to a grieving friend, and that’s OK, said Juli Fraga, a licensed psychologist in San Francisco. But there are a few phrases you shouldn’t express. “Avoid asking them, ‘What do you need?’ as this open-ended question may feel overwhelming to those in the depths of despair,” Fraga said.

Instead, offer support by doing something like dropping off a meal. Fraga also suggested steering clear of positive platitudes. “Telling your friend how lucky they are that their parent lived a full life may not feel supportive,” she said.

And refrain from saying, “Everything will be OK” and “Everything happens for a reason.”

“These statements can feel invalidating, causing your friend to feel uneasy opening up to you about their anguish,” Fraga said. Try sympathizing with, “I’m so sorry. This sucks. I care about you, and I’m here for you.”

7. Extend an invitation


Have your brunch with your parent then offer to meet up with your pal later in the day. “For me, just getting invited to do something with a friend on Mother’s Day is really nice,” said Thomas Giordonello, a 29-year-old account executive in Garrison, New York, who lost his mother in 2013.

Your friend might prefer to be alone but it’s definitely the thought that counts. “The people who invite me somewhere every year, even if I didn’t accept their past invitation, are the ones who make an impact on a lonely day,” Giordonello said.

8. Encourage self-care
Encouraging your friend to do something for themselves helps them find a way out of their grief, even if it’s only for a few minutes, said Sal Raichbach, a therapist and chief of ethics and compliance at Ambrosia Treatment Center.

“Meditation, getting a massage or doing anything that makes them happy can be a great escape from a somber day,” he explained. “Remind them that their sadness is only temporary, and there are plenty of reasons that life is good, despite the losses we experience.”

9. Follow your friend’s lead
Before making suggestions on what the two of you can do together, it can be beneficial to ask your friend how they want to spend the day. Then do your best to be supportive of their plans. For instance, maybe your friend would like to visit their parent’s gravesite.

“Going with them and being emotionally present for them would be a great gift,” said James Zender, a clinical psychologist in Detroit.

10. Finally, don’t ignore their loss


Bringing up a friend’s deceased parent may seem daunting, but it’s important to not ignore the elephant in the room.

“Everyone has a different relationship to loss and many people avoid the topic because it is too painful for them to think about or discuss,” said Natalie Moore, a Los Angeles-based mental health expert. “Keep in mind that you’ll be the one who sets the tone for how comfortable your friend feels talking to you about their grief. If you can hold space for them and speak candidly about grief and loss, your friend will see you as a safe person to go to and a soft place to land.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misattributed Juli Fraga’s quotes to author Kelsey Crowe.


Let’s Die Together

Courtesy of | By David Samuels | Originally Published 05.2007 | Posted 06.11.2018

Why is anonymous group suicide so popular in Japan?

The Death Cars of Saitama

On March 10, 2006, a car was discovered in a lightly wooded area of Saitama, a suburban prefecture near Tokyo. The windows had been taped shut. What the investigating officers who were called to the scene found was all too familiar: a plastic bag containing traces of crushed sleeping pills, and a row of charcoal burners that had sucked the oxygen from the car, asphyxiating the five young men and one woman inside. When I turned up at the Saitama police headquarters two weeks later, I was greeted by a spindly middle-aged spokesman who at first refused to answer any questions about the most recent case of group suicide in his prefecture. His gray suit and black-framed glasses, and the double row of ballpoint pens in his shirt pocket, gave him the exaggerated geeky appearance of a manga character. During my first two weeks in Japan, five cars filled with dead bodies were discovered in the woods around Tokyo. It is a sign of how familiar these macabre cases have become that none merited more than a passing mention in the local newspapers.

“We do not know if the victims were familiar with each other or how they became familiar,” the police spokesman said, holding his briefcase firmly on his lap. Unlike murder, suicide is not a crime, so investigators find it difficult to justify pursuing these cases. “Indeed,” he continued, “as of today, 15 days after the fact, we are not aware of how they came to know each other, nor has there been any evident violation of law related to this incident, although the investigation is ongoing.”

From 2003 through 2005, 180 people died in 61 reported cases of Internet-assisted group suicide in Japan. (No statistics have so far been made public for 2006.) All but two of these cases have proceeded according to a common blueprint: The victims meet online, using anonymous screen names, and then take sleeping pills and use briquettes, charcoal burners, and tape to turn a car or van into a mobile gas chamber.

The first official report of the deaths in Saitama, filed at 12:30 p.m. on March 10, indicates that residents of the village of Chichibu informed the local police that a car with six bodies had been found on a dirt road nearby. In the driver’s seat, police reports stated blandly, was a male, 20 to 30 years old, with long hair, a checkered shirt, and blue jeans. Next to him was a woman in her 20s wearing a brown coat and brown skirt, and on her left, a man in his 20s in a black jacket and jeans. The driver and the man in the black jacket both worked as clerks. The woman was an unemployed 28-year-old from the provincial city of Fukuoka. In the backseat were a male in his 20s with “normal hair” who wore black jeans and had worked as an architect in Saitama; an unemployed male in his 20s in a red jacket; and a 21-year-old male with longish hair, in a black jacket and blue jeans, who was employed as a shop assistant in Kanagawa. All they appeared to have in common was that they were in their 20s, had access to the Internet, and had met online for the purpose of dying together in a car.

As I looked over the files at a teahouse near the police station, I was joined by a young reporter from  Saitama who had been covering Internet-related group suicide for the Mainichi newspapers. He began working the suicide beat on February 11, 2003, when, in the first case recorded by government statisticians, three people killed themselves in Iruma City by burning charcoal briquettes in an empty apartment. The victims were a 26-year-old man named Michio Sakai, who was troubled by his inability to find work, and two 24-year-old women he had met on an Internet site called “Group Suicide Bulletin Board,” which he had opened the previous year.

“Where did they get the idea of using charcoal?” I asked.

“There were rumors on the Internet that to die from briquettes was to die in your sleep,” the young reporter, handsome and open-faced, with a touch of adolescent acne, explained. “It was a very painless way to go.”

The death site was a traditional tatami room, with a plastic sheet laid down to preserve the mats. Smoldering charcoal burners had been placed in each corner, and the bodies were lying parallel in the center of the room. The women had brought sleeping bags to protect themselves from the cold; all three wore ski goggles to keep the smoke from their eyes.

“I just didn’t get it,” the reporter said. “How could you end your life with someone you’d never even met before?”

Continue Reading

I’m So Sorry for My Loss

Courtesy of | By Mary Cella | Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht | Originally Published 05.12.2018 | Posted 06.09.2018

Ms. Cella is a comedian.

This is my ninth motherless Mother’s Day, and while I still feel a little that people who take their mom out to brunch to celebrate are bragging, I’d like to assure you all that I’m fine.

The worst part of losing my mom is the fact that she’s no longer alive, since she had so much living left to do. The second worst part is how much I and the rest of her loved ones miss her. About the 100th worst part is how uncomfortable most people get when I tell them my mother is dead.

Sometimes I wonder if the word “dead” is what upsets people, as I tend to use straightforward language when talking about my mother. Death, after all, is nothing if not blunt. However, I’ve tried every euphemism, from delicate terms like “my mother passed away” or “she’s deceased” to less common phrasings like “my mom sleeps with the fishes.” (My gynecologist really didn’t like that last one.) All expressions meant to soften, for strangers, this harsh reality, and yet no matter how I word it, I’m met with the same look of sadness and pity.

I avoid the subject of my mother with strangers and casual acquaintances. I don’t like to make someone feel noticeably guilty for having made me talk about my dead parent in the middle of a mutual friend’s birthday party. There have been times, particularly right after she died and I brought it up more readily, when seeing the shock and horror I was feeling reflected on another person’s face brought me some comfort. Now it just makes me feel like a jerk for having upset some poor person who was trying to make small talk over hummus. Continue reading “I’m So Sorry for My Loss”

A Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: