Rather than shying away from difficult conversations about death and loss, State Senator Liz Krueger, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and psychologist Jeannie Blaustein addressed the topic head-on during an online panel discussion last week — and suggested that others might benefit from doing the same.
“Grief is a teacher,” Blaustein said, “something that reveals to us our deepest values and attachments. And getting in touch with our values, and what we care about, allows us to live authentically and joyfully.”
During the event, titled “Living Well: What Do We Value Most?” — part of Krueger’s “Roundtable for Boomers and Seniors” series — the speakers talked about cultural aversions to confronting death, as well as the “life-affirming” benefits of broaching the topic and planning for one’s final days with loved ones and caretakers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these topics have become particularly relevant.
“Most of us have experienced some kind of loss during this pandemic,” Blaustein said. “Perhaps it’s the loss of people we care deeply about. Maybe it’s a job, and colleagues. Maybe it’s socializing with our neighbors. Maybe it’s the chance to travel or simply meet someone for coffee. We’ve lost the possibility of so many things.”
Let’s Talk About It
Despite the sense of loss that many have experienced over the course of the past year, conversations about death and grief don’t often come naturally for many in the U.S., according to Blaustein. During the roundtable discussion, she referenced her own experience of not learning about her grandfather’s 26-year battle against lymphoma until after his passing as one example. “He didn’t want anyone to know he was sick,” she said, “out of fear that he might look weak.”
“We live in a culture — and in a country — where we are so afraid of death and even of our grief,” Blaustein explained earlier, “that we don’t generally make much room for either one.”
In addition to her work as a psychologist, Blaustein serves as the founding board chair of Reimagine End of Life, a nonprofit organization which hosts workshops and events that center themes of life, death and grief. Blaustein is also an adjunct faculty member in Pace University’s psychology department.
In light of cultural stigmas surrounding open conversations about death and loss, Buchdahl echoed the value of confronting death and spoke to the importance of communicating end-of-life plans with loved ones. She mentioned that talking about and planning for death with her parents five years ago was “one of the most meaningful conversations” she’s shared with them during her adult life.
Buchdahl, who is Central Synagogue’s Senior Rabbi, also acknowledged that it’s easier to have these kinds of conversations when family members are in good health. For those living alone or without family, Blaustein suggested that these conversations are important to have with one’s doctors.
Quality Of Life
By planning for and talking about death, Buchdahl explained, one can also get in touch with their sense of purpose or enjoyment in life. “Death pushes me to embrace life in a very different way,” Buchdahl said.
“It’s not just a conversation about the conditions for saying ‘Don’t resuscitate,’” she added. “But ultimately, they can become discussions about how we want to actually live. What constitutes living, for us?”
During time allotted for audience questions, Krueger raised the topic of “the right to die” — or medically-assisted death nearing the end of one’s life — which all acknowledged as a sensitive and complex matter. After much consideration, Krueger has co-sponsored a bill which would support one’s right to choose this path, she said.
Buchdahl responded that though the Jewish faith posits life as “most sacred,” her “ancient ancestors” could not have predicted a future with such long life expectancies. Earlier, she indicated that modern medicine’s ability to extend lives has made the question of quantity versus quality a crucial one.
At multiple points, though, Krueger, Buchdahl and Blaustein agreed that engaging in frank discussions about death need not conflict with living life to the fullest.
“It’s almost never too late,” Blaustein said, “to deepen passions, to try something new or to repair broken relationships. In the face of limited resources — and in this case, time itself is the limited resource — our values are crystalized and our choices are made clearer.”
“Grief is a teacher, something that reveals to us our deepest values and attachments.” Psychologist Jeannie Blaustein