Most of us are familiar with the saying: “But, in this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.” It is, of course, part of the last great quote (of many) attributed to founder Benjamin Franklin, shortly before his own death in 1790. A key element (in my view) is missing from that statement, which the writer Margaret Mitchell amended in her classic book “Gone with the Wind”: “Death and taxes and childbirth. There’s never any convenient time for any of them.” I’m glad someone pointed that out. As anyone can see, we couldn’t have the two without the happy occasion of welcoming a child into this world. Unlike birth, we Americans tend to do our best to ignore death and taxes. Ours is a culture of youth and forward motion, and we only pay our dues (or taxes) when there is no other alternative. With one million U.S. deaths and counting, the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that life can change dramatically from one day to the next and that “death sits on our shoulder” whether we like it or not.
Deah Kinion and MortaliTea
Fortunately, Rochester is home to many women practitioners who are here to demystify death and grieving and to incorporate them into the full circle of life experience as much as possible. Deah Kinion of MortaliTea began working in this field in 2012 after decades as an acupuncturist trained in Chinese and Eastern medicine. Kinion is a death-positive educator and mortality-midwife and is certified by DoulaGivers, where she trained. She also has a proficiency badge from National End-of-Life Doula Alliance (NEDA), signifying that core competencies have been met. Kinion’s resources are limitless and include everything from advance care planning to bedside vigils to green burial options. She regularly hosts tea meetings around town as an informal way to broach this most dreaded of topics.
The loss of her mother early in life began Kinion’s health-care provider journey, as well as her work with death and grief. “My experience with losing my mom at a young age was alienating, confusing and lonely. That was a long time ago, but I still feel we have a long way to go to take care of everyone who is losing someone. That’s helped me gravitate toward that field.”
Kinion shares, “Most people don’t even realize they have choices when it comes to death care. For example, embalming is not required. Also, the family has a right to maintain their loved one for a few days prior to final disposition, for a home funeral, for example. That’s been kind of my mission, to let people know they have choices in death, just like we do in life.”
Harriet Hodgson: “Grief Doodling” and daily affirmations for survivors
Harriet Hodgson is literally a force of nature, and personal loss and tragedy over the years has made her look death squarely in the eye many times during her 86 years. One way she has coped with several deaths in her immediate family was to get involved in helping people to better integrate their experiences as they mourn their loved ones. “Death and grief don’t just go away,” she says. “They simply become part of you, and you move forward with them in a way that works for you.”
Hodgson’s beloved husband of 63 years, Dr. John Hodgson, died in 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. She planned his funeral, wrote his obituary and then decided to write her own. Writing is clearly central to how Hodgson, author of over 44 books (the 45th will be published in 2023), embraces both life and death. Her latest projects, “Grief Doodling” and “A Daisy a Day,” have been popular in every form of media since they were published in 2021 and 2022. She happened upon grief doodling as a way to relieve stress while beside her husband’s deathbed. “Anyone, at any age, can do this,” says Hodgson, “and it accesses both the conscious and unconscious minds as part of the bereavement process.” After a successful exhibition at Charter House, Hodgson will continue to offer grief doodling classes in Rochester and through various media online.
Sisters of Saint Francis, Rochester, Minnesota: intention and accompaniment
Our city is home to a unique community of about 100 women: the Sisters of Saint Francis, Rochester, Minnesota, founded in 1877. The group has had a very intentional process to plan for the end of life, hospice care and the passing of its members, which once numbered about 1,000. Each sister works on an advance directive, as well as an individualized funeral, and they prepare to be present for as long as an individual death might take.
“What we have is a culture of accompaniment,” say Sisters Ramona, Mary Eliot and Jesse.
“We work with the advance directive,” says Sister Mary Eliot. “Because of our theology, for the most part, and because of our spiritual growth over the years, we look at life and death as almost a seamless continuum. If someone is in a state of deterioration, they have already made decisions about their end-of-life care and celebrations.”
The sisters also have a planning process and a prayer listing of birthdays and deaths going back to their founding. Says Sister Ramona, “We are mindful when someone is getting close to crossing the threshold, whether we are in the room with them or not. We share the passage prayerfully and mindfully.”
Sister Jesse recalls many visits during deathbed vigils that were very moving. “Above all, it is about being present and being able to share and witness the many stories and goodbyes for the dying person.” The sisters also sit with patients who are in hospice or dying at Mayo Clinic and in other facilities around town, setting an example of service both inside and outside the walls of Assisi Heights.
Seasons Hospice: a Minnesota tradition for end-of-life care and the grieving process
Seasons Hospice has an in-patient care facility and an administrative office that includes their Center for Grief Support and Education. It grew out of the foresight of two community women. It is part of a larger tradition of hospice facilities in rural areas in Minnesota, particularly in the western part of the state.
Seasons offers all aspects of service, health care and education for palliative and death caregiving, as well as grief counseling through the entire process and beyond. Executive Director Kristina Wright-Peterson, social worker Amy Myrvold and registered nurse Amy Batterson sum up their mission, “It’s a privilege to be present with families at this time in their lives. We work with incredible colleagues, and we all support each other and what we do. We get to meet great people, and we are honored to be invited to their homes during this special time. It’s not easy work, but that makes it easier to do. We really are called to it.”
Myrvold adds, “It’s an intimate time. Death can be joyful, and you see the tears and laughter together, when thinking about a life well lived especially. We’re focused on what the patient wants and what we can do to bring them joy and quality in the time we have with them.”
Batterson continues, “Have those open conversations with your loved ones about death. Don’t wait for a terminal diagnosis or when you are enrolled in hospice. It’s so important; it alleviates any stress or worry you might have about whether you are doing the right thing. Then you know you can honor them when the time comes.” ::
compassionatefriends.org (Compassionate Friends Conference)
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Caitlin Doughty
“From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death,” Caitlin Doughty
“Grief Doodling,” Harriet Hodgson
“A Daisy a Day,” Harriet Hodgson
“A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last,” Steven Levine
“I’m Dead, Now What?” workbook for survivors, Peter Pauper Press