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  • Therese Wells

Death, a Rite of Passage

“I will not die an unlived life.”

~ Dawna Markova

We are fortunate to be a part of a tipping point in our culture. Approaches to dying, death and grief are beginning to shift; people are talking.

Conversations on death can be found everywhere – in numerous articles, bestselling books, TED talks, and among regular people who attend Death Cafés. Even the National Academy of Medicine has an ongoing conversation focused on Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life.

Much of the wisdom that comes out of these conversations is the encouragement to initiate our own conversations with our loved ones, doctors and spiritual advisers. We are urged to make preparations by creating written declarations such as Advance Health Care Directives, Power of Attorneys, and Last Will & Testaments. However, while these documents are important, they alone do not address the psychological and emotional closure needed in the dying process.

I propose that we expand the conversation and approach death as a rite of passage. In doing so, we may become more engaged to witness the final passage of others, celebrate the accomplishment of navigating the journey to death, and have a greater sense of our own journey to come. It is my experience that preparing for and celebrating the thresholds we walk through in our lives, wakes us up and allows us to live more consciously with courage and joy.

So, what is a rite of passage?

A rite of passage is a ritual which marks the thresholds we walk through during our life time, from one role or social position to another, integrating our cultural experience with our biological destiny of birth, reproduction, aging and death.” – Mircea Eliade

Baptisms, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, graduations and weddings are familiar rituals or rites of passage that imply that an old self has been left behind, a threshold crossed, and new responsibilities accepted. We spend time and money planning the rituals of the rites of passage that are important to us. We like to celebrate beginnings.

In our culture endings do not receive the same recognition. We don’t have rituals for leaving home, job loss, miscarriage, divorce, aging, or the dying process. If we honored our old roles and then stepped into our new life consciously, grief would feel very different.

Researchers have documented the power of rituals and rites of passage in working with veterans suffering with PTSD and women victimized by domestic abuse. In these studies, participants embark on a healing path using rituals, storytelling, art and music to construct a new identity founded on strength and resilience.

Preparing for death as a rite of passage can be creative, instructive, and full of life affirming activities. The first step is to start the conversation. In this way, you begin to build your team and involve them in the conversation. Now you can begin to make your “literal” preparations for dying.

“Literal” preparations include the creation of medical and legal documents and the gathering of important information such as a listing of accounts and passwords. Plus, deciding what to do with your physical remains can be an interesting exploration. There are so many options: organ donation, burial, cremation, leaving a low carbon footprint with a green burial. You will be amazed at the range of choices that you now have.

When you have completed your “literal” preparations for death, you have recruited your end-of-life team that includes your primary care doctor, medical and financial agents, executor of your will and your beneficiaries. You might also choose a “digital doer,” who can close down your social media and internet accounts when the time comes.

Why not take this opportunity to celebrate! Create a ritual practice that brings your end-of-life team together. This could be an annual round of golf, a seasonal hike, or the sharing of a scrumptious meal. Allow your team to get to know each other. On the other hand, it can be as simple as on your birthday sending your end-of-life team an email of gratitude for their support and their celebration of your life.

To prepare for any rite of passage we must plan, invest time and often money to complete the ritual tasks along the way. The “literal” preparations are only the beginning. We also must engage in “mythic” and “energetic” preparations for death. I will discuss these in my next blog posts.

Stay tuned…

Learn more about preparing for death as a rite of passage in our upcoming workshop

July 29 – 30, 2017

Boulder, Colorado

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