Dr. Lani Leary, author of No One Has to Die Alone, provided us with an exclusive interview. Her research and experience with the ill and dying provides readers with tangible ways to cope with death, bereavement, and grief.
How did you come to write No One Has to Die Alone?
I began writing when I was 13 years old after my mother’s sudden and unexpected death as a way to help myself understand my feelings, process my grief, and cope with her loss. I have been writing ever since. As I worked in hospices with dying patients, friends and professionals often asked me: “What do you do? What do you say? What gets you through all the sadness?” Years later when I was a professor of death studies, my graduate students reported that the experiential exercises that confronted their fears, assumptions, and inexperience with dying had a significant impact on their relationships, health, and life choices. They referred to that class as “Graduate Soul Work.” It became evident to me that there was a great need to speak to those issues surrounding death that were “in the closet,” and that so many did not know how to begin talking about. This book was originally titled Ten Things I Wish I Had Known Before My Mother Died.
I spoke at a conference for the Foundation of End of Life Care. The program was filmed and aired on public radio, and was the most requested rebroadcasted show. Letters from viewers, patients, families, and professionals led me to believe that others might benefit from the lessons I have learned over the past 25 years working with more than 500 dying patients and thousands of grieving family members.
What is the one thing you want readers to take away after reading your book?
I want readers to know that they can make a difference: that they have more power and more choices in the way that they can respond to the challenges of illness, dying, and grief. I want them to embrace their ability to adopt healthy, healing attitudes and learn new skills that will help their loved ones live right up to the moment of their last breath. I want those left to grieve to know that they can cope, feel and honor all of their feelings, and grow from the experience of responding to end-of-life needs and their experience of loss. I want readers’ fears and misconceptions about death, dying, illness, and grief to change so that we can accept all of life and respond with compassion.
What do you feel sets this book apart from other books on the subject?
There are many helpful books on the market about death, dying, and grief but many are replete with theory, data, or stories that end without being “translated” into immediate, practical, and realistic action items that the reader can use in their personal situation. Readers will benefit from this book because I have broken down the theories and stories into meaningful ways the reader can apply the information. The book introduces “ways to say it” to help people begin difficult conversations and help people feel comfortable responding to painful situations. There are chapters describing activities that children can help with in order to reduce mitigate fears, teach them skills, and include them in this sacred transition. The book helps parents know what to expect, what to address, and how to talk to their children during illness, dying, and bereavement. And to respond to professionals’ report that they often feel helpless in the face of a terminal illness, the book reports how to respond to what the dying have told me most matters to them. This book will raise readers’ confidence to be able to engage and “stay the course,” and in so doing, will bring relief to their dying and grieving loved ones.
What are the biggest misconceptions that we have about death?
The greatest misconceptions in our culture about death are that death is:
-A failure. (As when someone judges that “the patient did not try hard enough…or the illness was their fault.)
-A punishment. (There is often a distinction between “exceptional cancer patients” or those in remission versus those whose illness is progressing. While we are responsible for caring for ourselves, there are many causes of decline that are out of our control.)
-A “dial tone”or the end of consciousness. (Extensive research and reports from all over the world and hundreds of millions of people who have a near death experience refutes this theory)
-Painful.(Based on what patients who have been resuscitated report, what the family may observe on the “outside” is not what the patient is experiencing on the “inside” during the process of letting go.)
-Is the enemy, a negative that should be fought at all cost. (The dying report that in many circumstances, when the body’s condition and the quality of life can not be resumed, the end of illness is a reprieve and a relief. The dying do not fear their imminent death after irreversible decline as much as they fear being emotionally abandoned and physically shunned.)
-Means your loved one has abandoned or left you. (One’s interpretation of a death or the meaning attributed to the death can cause years of exacerbated grief and pain.)
-Is the end of a relationship.(One of the tasks of healthy grief is to come to an understanding of the ongoing-ness of love and the relationship with the deceased, that is, to “place” them someplace.)
Is there are “right” way to grieve?
There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. Grief is personal and unique to each individual, like a fingerprint. Children will grieve differently in intensity, duration, and language than adults. Masculine grief is expressed differently than feminine expressions of grief. Generations demonstrate and talk about their grief differently. All people come to their own understandings and attribute different personal meanings to their loss. How one moves through their grief depends on several factors. Some of the factors include: the coping strategies learned in life; the experiences one has with previous deaths; the quality of the relationship with the deceased; the circumstances of the death; one’s religious beliefs and customs of support; the emotional support from family and friends; and the meaning attributed to the death. As there is no right way to grieve, there is also no right amount of time to grieve. Each person finds their own timetable and may experience their grief in waves or spurts of different intensity that come up suddenly many years after a loss. Anniversary reactions are common, and sensory reminders of a loved one can return the bereaved to the center of their grief at any time. If we are to be helpful, it is best that we not judge, compare, direct, or use language that includes “should”, “must”, or “need to” when comforting the bereaved. We do not need to understand another’s grief in order to be helpful; rather, we are most helpful when we are present, open, and validating. Denial may be part of the process of grieving and can be a protective coping response to an experience that is perceived as threatening and overwhelming.