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Concrete

observations

The following are observations that I have made while and after conducting Conversing with Death workshops to mental health and healthcare professionals in individual, small groups, and audience format over the last 8 years, as well as facilitating monthly Conversing with Death "peer groups" since about 2015. My hypothesis is as follows: Death is a natural anxiety producing subject that can be minimized over time through felt sense exercises that replicate an aspect of real dying experiences, ongoing discussions, and  individual and group reflections or processing, which, in turn, cultivates a more awareness of personal finality that provokes an intentional and gratuitous lifestyle and a potentially peaceful transition in the future. Implied in this hypothesis is the process of aging and chronic to terminal illnesses that accompany the phase and assumption of dying at an estimated lifespan in the US (See CDC; WHO).

 

Training: My hypothesis stems from work with death conducted during chaplain training in a hospital with crisis, chronic, and terminally ill patients, a 15-year career as hospice chaplain with children and adults, and service as chaplain in the military by attending casualty assistance calls and conducting funerals for those killed in action (KIA).

Data: I have over 100 surveys distributed immediately to healthcare and mental health professionals after the Conversing with Death Intro workshops and several online surveys to participants local and out of state. I have conducted a Conversing with Death Peer Group for over 5 years. And I have had numerous one-on-one discussions and friendly debates with colleagues. Nevertheless, my research is qualitative in nature, exploring evidence on the subject from a social science perspective.

Approach: Conversing with Death is more process oriented and less didactic. It uses a mindfulness method as understood in the East where mindfulness and meditation include daily reflections on death-and-dying See Dying with Confidence by Anyone Rinpoche). Conversing with Death also replicates an exposure approach as used in exposure therapy to heighten a felt-sense experience.

  • Definition: The Conversing with Death Intro Workshop is 2-hours. in length and consists of a didactic and exercises that I constructed using mental and emotional processes that I often found within the context of hospice (See, Last Breath Awareness). Since participants consists of mental and healthcare professionals, I discourage the learning process of "helping others grieve" and, instead, encourage a closeup look into one's own last breath.

    • During the workshops, this distinction needed to be repeated at times for some participants to stay within the intended purpose of the workshop. Such a deflection on the part of some participants could suggest: (1) a general and familiar method of training expected among professionals for clients or patients; (2) the need to maintain death "out there"; or (3) an unconscious unwillingness to maintain focus on one's own death.​

  • Experience: The experiences of the participant play a role in how they relate to personal death reflections. Those who engage more willingly with death reflections have: (1) a heightened sensitivity toward existential matters due to a "close call" some time in their past (as early as in their teens); (2) have had a death of a significant member; and (3) entered into the second half of life.​​

 

  • Conditions: For the workshop, I developed a screening for potential participants based on my theory and professional training as counselor. This screening excludes anyone from the workshop who has been diagnosed with major depression, certain types of anxiety such as phobia or anxiety attacks, any personality disorder, recent trauma or past trauma unresolved, and with a history of suicide. While I assume participants are willing to disclose these conditions, there are potential reasons why a professional would not do so.

  • Emotive Reactions: ​The exercises I construct temporarily sustains and/or moderately increases certain emotional states. Common emotional responses are: anxiety, fear, unease, peace, joy, and gratitude. While anxiety was highest, other emotive responses have ranked close to it. Some experience both positive and negative emotions. ​​

    • Many, if not most, of the participants seemed surprised at their reaction to their own inevitable death, including some who specialize in hospice. This could suggest that on some level mental and healthcare workers either don't feel it necessary to or want to (i.e. resistance) employ self-reflection on personal last breath awareness.

    • Many of the participants are followed up about a week later. A percentage of participants report moving passed their initial reactions and transition into more contemplative and productive behavioral states, such as converting their experiences into discussions with loved ones about themes such as having a plan in place for end of life care. 

    • Those who continue their dialogue with me on death either through the Peer Group or in one-on-one conversation admit that a moderate level and transient nature of anxiety occurs at various times when the reflection goes deep. No impaired functioning is reported.

  • Practical Value: Reflections on own's own personal death seems to have an impact on perceptions and on how we live. In a hospice, some patients and family members I decided to "take one day at a time", which in some cases shifted how they conducted themselves in the face of felt-sense awareness on brevity of time. 

    • Those who participate in the monthly Peer Group seem to integrate their learning with personal and professional interests. Some report deeper work with clients. Others find greater existential narratives in their clients' stories. Still others incorporate Conversing with Death processing  into their own chronic health concerns.

  • Conclusion: Conversing with Death provides an incentive to mental and healthcare professionals to discover a personalized version of universal angst in a carefully monitored setting and to cultivate a relationship with the inevitable last breath, both of which seem to provide therapeutic value to patients and clients.

Copyright 2019 by Body Mind Metaphor LLC. Conversing with Death is a Registered Trademark.