11 Apr End-of-Life University: A Conversation With Dr. Karen Wyatt (Part 3)
This blog series is a transcript of a recent interview I did as a speaker for Dr. Karen Wyatt’s End-of-Life University. In our conversation we shared our own personal stories about death, transformation and the end of life. We also talked about our work in this realm, including my backstory on the documentary film Death Makes Life Possible, which will be world premiering at the Illuminate Film Festival in late May and also screened at the Afterlife Conference in early June. The beautiful web site for the movie will be launched very soon as well!
Marilyn Schlitz: I’ve been reading Ernest Becker and The Denial of Death that he won a Pulitzer for. He has a theory. He was an anthropologist who believed that death is the core terror for people, and that we become very defensive when what’s called mortality salience gets triggered. So as people encounter some reminder of their own mortality they experience this terror and this defensiveness, which ultimately leads to a stronger identification with their in-group, so people who believe the way I do, look the way I do, experience the world in a similar way to the way I do, and then this incredible sense of otherness toward the out-group. That can lead to what you just described, which is the kind of violence and intolerance that people are experiencing. I think his insights are very profound.
One of my motivations in this project and in some of the research that also is accompanying the project is: how do we help people to become more comfortable with the idea of death? How do we expose them to these alternative points of view so that they seem less other? They seem more intriguing and compelling and curious. How do we begin to bring that beginners mind in a way that lessens our defensiveness, and encourages our open-mindedness toward all the dimensions of what it means to be alive, including death.
Karen Wyatt: It’s interesting because that’s one of the thoughts that I had when I was writing my book. What really matters is that death is the one commonality we all have. Every single one of us will face death at some point. So my thoughts in sharing stories of patients I worked with in hospice is that there is some universal appeal to describe to people what happens and the stories that unfold at the time of death or various patients that I’ve worked with. I agree with you completely that if we can help people become more comfortable and less fearful of the idea of death, we will trigger less of that defensiveness and retreating to the in-group as a way to protect ourselves. We need to be in a space where we can talk about death and think about it and contemplate it without reacting with so much fear.
Marilyn Schlitz: I think that’s so true. Yassir Chadly, the imam, said when we first started the interview, “This is very good question,” he said, “because it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or atheist. We’re all going to meet at that spot.” So it becomes an opportunity. I also think that in working with patients it’s a big challenge for health professionals, because we’re all human and even if you’re a nurse, say, and you have had a lot of experience with patients, you may not have had a lot of experience really reflecting on your own world view and your own existential understanding of what happens at death. So one of the questions I have is: are there ways that we can begin to train professionals in this kind of pluralism, so that they can be more effective practitioners with their patients and the patient’s family at the end of life? Because people approach that transition point in very different ways. So how can we be empowering of the multiplicity of perspectives that are out there?
Karen Wyatt: Yes, absolutely. That’s something I’ve been doing some talks at medical conferences for physicians who are already in practice, but addressing end of life care. How do physicians approach end of life care with patients? One thing that has been really helpful to me in talking about it is: can Wilber’s integral theory, in using the integral model help understand just what you were talking about? People are at different levels and they view the end of life from totally different perspectives, but then to also use Paul Tillich’s definition of spirituality, which is that spirituality is one’s ultimate concern in life. And by providing that thought for people in hospice particularly, because hospice workers are called upon to provide spiritual care for patients, but are confused because what if you have a patient who says, “I don’t want spiritual care. I’m not religious.” I gave them that word ultimate concern because it creates a way to look at: what’s the patient’s ultimate concern? It might be a religion or a spiritual practice, but it might be that they love baseball. So if baseball is their ultimate concern then you use that as your focus for helping the patient find meaning and purpose.
Marilyn Schlitz: That’s beautiful.
Karen Wyatt: So for me it’s been very helpful and I’m trying to disseminate that now in medical circles, when I’ve been invited to attend medical conferences. I agree with you. We have to start there. We really have to train providers of medical care to view death differently.
Marilyn Schlitz: I see this movie as having that kind of audience. It’s actually everybody. Deepak likes to say this movie is for anybody who’s going to die. That’s true. And we also know that there is a huge number of people that are caregivers now. So it’s not just health professionals. It’s people who are involved in any level of care for a seriously ill or dying friend, relative, colleague. So I think that the opportunity to help educate and expose, and one of the beauties of the film I think is with a compelling soundtrack and beautiful imagery – and funny stories. We pulled a little clip from Monty Python’s death visits the dinner party. I loved that. We interviewed kids and in the trailer you’ll see Indigo. She wondered what happens after we die, but, “I still haven’t figured out the answer.” That brings down the house every time I’ve ever shown the trailer to somebody, because her innocence and yet her quality of curiosity and engagement is beautiful. So we’re trying with this film to lighten, but also deepen our appreciation for this topic.
Karen Wyatt: Yes. I have to agree with you. Just from the trailer I could see how beautiful the images are that you’ve used and the music. I’m so excited to see the full movie whenever it’s available, because it’s a broad and comprehensive look at the end of life and you’ve incorporated so many different perspectives that it can’t leave anyone untouched. That’s how it appears to me. Everyone has to find something they have a commonality with in this movie. I’m really excited to see the impact it makes whenever it’s released. Is that something that we can expect later or hope for later on this year?
Marilyn Schlitz: I sure hope so. We’re showing some sneak previews of it. We can begin then in the fall to submit to film festivals, and then we will begin to run in parallel the film festivals and then the gradual release. So we’ll do some limited showing in various places. Then there’s a book project that’s paralleling the movie. So the hope is that we can begin a theatrical release sometime in the fall of next year, and then the book will drop in through January of 2015. So that’s when we’ll make a very big push to get the film out on television and then for individual sales, and in the process also creating educational materials that will allow the general population to access this material through conversations, these death cafes that have picked up and begun to prosper in the world actually, not just in the United States, and so giving some content that will help in discussion guides around some of these interviews and the insights that have come from them. So it’s kind of a process and it requires patience to get all the way through, but the trailer is available and if anybody just wants to Google Death Makes Life Possible they can go on and see that.
Also, we have posted a lot of material that is kind of behind the scenes as we’re doing the interviews and making the film. So it can be fun for people who want to track that. I also on a fairly regular basis have been tweeting and blogging about some of the developments that we have been making. So that’s for people to just follow Marilyn Schlitz, either on Twitter or to go to my website, MarilynSchlitz.com, and people can – you know, to help to track our progress.
Karen Wyatt: That’s fantastic. So people could subscribe just to get mailings or to be updated about this.
Marilyn Schlitz: That’s right there on that MarilynSchlitz.com website, so people can get alerts when something new has been posted. I just posted a series of three blogs that were on Whole Person Healing, and really taking some of the insights that have come from the consciousness and healing programs, interviews I’ve done with a number of nurses, for example, talking about the various simple tools we can use in order to promote our own healing, our own well being, and certainly this issue of end of life, death, and what comes beyond are really important tools for people to hold.