Death and dying are not popular topics in American society today, and that makes their inevitability all the more difficult to deal with, according to two local scholars and licensed counselors.
Why is death so frightening, Linda Smith, a University of Toledo professor and a counselor, asked at a recent workshop titled, “Death, Dying and the Near-Death Experience: What every Health Care Professional Should Know.”
The one-day workshop, attended by nurses, hospice workers, clergy, counselors and educators, was co-led by Peggy Lesniewicz, a professor at Bowling Green State University.
Smith and Lesniewicz have been working together for several years researching and compiling information on how U.S. society handles — or fails to handle — end-of-life issues.
The main reason for avoiding thinking or talking about death is the fear of the unknown, Smith said. “I would put that right at the top,” she said.
Although many people of faith express confidence about what they expect to see after physical death, Smith wondered just how certain they may be when the time comes.
“Some people with strong religious beliefs say they know where they are going, but do they have doubts?” she asked.
And some people who feel sure they are going to heaven are still fearful of the actual process of ding. “They don’t want to go through what it takes to get there, with all the pain and suffering,” said Smith, who teaches in UT’s Honors Colege and runs The Heartworks Counseling Center in West Toledo.
One hospice worker attending the workshop said she although she deals with dying patients on a daily basis, she finds it difficult to think about her own death because of the way it will affect her loved ones.
“I don’t want to leave my kids,” the worker said. “I hate to see them go through the turmoil.”
Another hospice worker said death is “like a train coming down the track, it’s going to come whether you want it to or not. That’s just part of life.”
Smith said death is difficult for medical professionals to deal with because they consider it to be a failure. Their training is focused on saving lives, not accepting death as inevitable, she said.
As a result, patients are often reluctant to tell their doctors of caregivers about near-death experiences because they anticipate “negative or condescending responses,” according to Smith.
Americans’ materialistic approach to the world, where “nothing exists but physical matter and its processes,” further hinders any talk of spiritual matters and the afterlife.
As a result of avoiding discussions on death, Americans can find themselves in denial, lacking preparation for themselves and their loved ones, which increases the emotional suffering and hinders the grieving process, Smith said.
In contrast, death is less taboo in many other cultures.
Mexicans, for example, celebrate “Dia de los Muertos,” or Day of the Dead, when they honor their deceased loved ones, pray for dead souls and bring gifts to the graves.
Ancestors are venerated in China and Southeast Asia, and Taiwanese have a tradition of widows communicating with their deceased husbands, Smith said.
A new paradigm is slowly developing in the West, however, as research consistently shows that “helping the dying process their end-of-life experiences increases their comfort and well being,” according to Smith.
As society becomes more open and accepting toward death, caregiving becomes more holistic, compassionate, nonjudgmental, and normalizing, she said.
Lesniewicz reviewed some of the common end-of-life phenomena and death-bed visions.
Among the most frequent experiences reported are visions of loved ones, strangers or angelic beings “comforting and beckoning the dying to a beautiful reality,” she said.
These visions are usually “unexpected and independent of religious or non-belief,” Lesniewicz said. They also are “clearly distinguishable from mental illness, hallucinations, or the effects of medication.”
The typical number of visitors is two, usually seen two to seven days before death, she said. The most commonly seen visitors are a mother, both parents or grandparents, siblings, deceased children or deceased spouses.
Death-bed visions can include dialogue and are “overwhelmingly positive” in their effects on the dying, she added.
Lesniewicz said research suggests that hospice workers, doctors, clergy and caregivers should be open to, and to pay attention to, their patients’ descriptions of death-bed visions.
“Listen to what is important to the patient and be truly present for them. Do not isolate the patient – a sense of connection is important,” she said.
Being open to talking about these experiences gives the dying patient a sense of validation, she said.
Researchers estimate that between 9 million and 15 million Americans have had a near-death experience, and the number is rising as medical advances make it more commonplace for people to survive cardiac arrests or other traumas.
The two counselors/professors gave workshop participants a bibliography of more than 60 books dealing with death, grief, death-bed visions, and near-death experiences.
They credited Raymond Moody’s 1975 bestseller, “Life After Life,” with causing a breakthrough in Americans’ views of death.