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Exclusive Preview of Short Film:
A Dinner With Dad

Daughter. Wife. Mother. These are labels many women consciously and unconsciously wear. But when these roles dissolve, who is left? In this short documentary animated by Sarita McNeil, filmmaker Johanna Lunn reaches out to her father for help. The catch? He’s been dead for years.

Exclusive Day of the Dead Documentary from When You Die

Ever wonder where jack-o-lanterns on Halloween came from? Watch this short documentary from the creator of the WYD project Johanna Lunn to find out this and more about the history and customs of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

We Need to Talk ​

How do we talk to someone who is dying? How can we help? In this excerpt from interviews done for the When You Die Project practical advice is offered on the importance of listening and some suggestions on how to start the conversation we have been ignoring. Featuring David Maginley, Head Chaplin at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Halifax & Sue Brayne, a London Bereavement Counseler.

When You Die Project
A Conversation with David Maginley and Sue Brayne:
“We Need to Talk”

David Maginley: I find that patients will commonly protect their families from the conversation about, and the reality of, death. But they have begun to negotiate with it from the moment they were diagnosed. And it’s been the secret inner world that they’ve been wrestling with. And families protect the patient from the conversation about death, because it’s their greatest fear, and they don’t dare speak it, because it might give power to it or make it more real.

In both cases, people are not aware of how to be present with themselves. They want to be responsible for the other person’s feelings, to protect them, and that’s part of love.

Sue Brayne: I think one of the most important things about how to talk to the dying is listening. I say this to anybody, “Get out of your own way, and listen to what they’re having to say.” Many dying people are afraid to say anything, because they’re afraid that whoever they’re talking to will come back and say, “Oh, don’t …. Don’t talk like that.” Or, “Don’t say that.” “Oh, but you’ll be alright.” “Oh, have some supper.” It’s that kind of language to shut them up and say, “Well, we don’t want to talk about that.”

And I think if you can just listen, just really open your ears and listen, you don’t have to even respond. Just listen to what the dying person has to say. Don’t come back with your own stuff. Whatever you’re thinking, just leave it to the side and let them say what matters to them. And that will open up so much.

And don’t try to fix them, ‘cause they ain’t gonna be alright; they’re going to die, and that’s really important to take on board. And often people say, “Oh, I don’t want to say anything, because I feel so helpless.” Yes, you do feel helpless, because you can’t help them, you can’t fix them, but you can at least listen, and that’s such a gift to a dying person. Well, it’s such a gift to another human being let alone somebody who’s dying. So, I would just say that: just listen. Really be conscious. Listen.

DM: So, to get them to talk about it, sometimes I’ll be very blunt. I’ll ask, with the family there, I’ll ask the patient, “What do you think it’ll be like to die? Who would you like to have around you, when you go? Are you curious about what lies in wait for you? Would you like to be able to watch over your family?” I’ll turn to the family and ask, “Would you like him to watch over you? If he promises not to scare you or mess around with your life?”

The quality of my presence can open up the conversation. It’s the ability to be frank and gentle and name the elephant in the room. People, I find, are usually very relieved. I can’t recall an incident in which a person ran away. I’ve seen people try to shut that down. A family member may say, “Oh, John is doing much better. He’s been feeling more energy now.” And what they’re doing is covering the grief and the pain of losing him.

But grief is the price you pay for love. So, let’s go there, because if you miss this moment of love, you’re missing the most important work. So, I may say to that individual, “This is really, really hard. It’s really hard for you. You guys have so much love.” Then hold the silence, and let the love speak. Let the people have a moment to meet that part of themselves that is so afraid and hold it, trusting that they do know how to do this, but they need to be guided.

So, pull the wife close to her husband. Have her sit by the side of the bed. Hold her husband’s hand, right? Look into each other’s eyes. Let’s hold this moment. Say the words you’re aching to say, but you’re so scared that your tears will never stop. But it’s part of the love. So, that’s really what the work is about.

Dr Anthony Bossis shares insights from psilocybin research with cancer patients with end-of-life anxiety and extreme fear conducted at NYU Medical Center. 

Death, Fear & Love

When You Die Project
A Conversation with Dr. Anthony Bossis on Death, Fear and Love

Anthony Bossis, PhD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine at NYU’s Langone Health Center. Over many years he has conducted extensive research on the beneficial effects of treating end-of-life patients suffering from existential fear with psilosybin and psychedelic drugs.

Hello, I’m Dr. Anthony Bossis. I’m a psychologist at New York University School of Medicine.

At the end of life, people are suffering in a number of domains. Lack of meaning, lack of an ability to speak about their life review, anxiety and depression. And they feel trapped by a cultural denial around death. That has led to a research study that actually has its seeds planted in the 1950s and 1960s. Many people don’t know that: that there’s a large body of literature on psychedelic research, peer-reviewed, government-approved research with people who are dying.

And the basis of this research is that we’re wired for meaning. Humans are wired, it appears, for this incredible occurrence that we call a mystical experience. It’s been called that for millennia. Jung called it numinosity. Abraham Maslow, the great American psychologist, called it a peak experience. And these experiences of unity, the sense that we’re all connected, that all things are connected, are a sacredness, an ineffability, impossible to describe, a transcendence. A key feature is a capacity to see ourselves in a much broader perspective, transcending past, present, and future, transcending our bodies, in some sense. And for the person who is dying, the insight that I’m not only this body, that I’m not this cancer, is a gift.

What’s interesting is that in the last 50 years there’s been an increasing body of literature on near death experiences, routinely called NDEs. People like Kenneth Ring and Raymond Moody have spoken about these experiences. Kenneth Ring has accumulated dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of narratives, and these feel similar to that body of literature.

And the one piece I’ve noticed that is identical in each episode is the experience of love. Kenneth Ring said that of all the experiences people with NDEs had, the most robust was this primacy of love. Everyone said, “Consciousness is love.” And they came back with that experience. And that’s remarkable, because that dovetails with what we see in this research, which raises the question, “What is it about this state of awareness? Why is it so available to us?” It may be somewhat infrequently experienced, but it’s there.

I think it’s been pushed out of our culture. I mean children, and adults, have brief peak experiences over time, but they’re pushed out of our context, out of our language, as are the experiences of death and dying.

And what is the fear about? People say many things. “I’m afraid of dying, not death itself.” “I’m afraid of not existing.” Yet, every night people fall asleep without incredible fear when they go into this space of not being, so to speak.

And to open that up to conversation, if the person wants to, could lead to many insights. For example, what is the fear? One of the incredible insights from the research is that participants who felt that we don’t survive the body were still okay with the ebb and flow of life. That this is the way it’s been. We’re born, we live for a while and hopefully find meaning. We live well, hopefully, and then we die. And there’s been an acceptance of this evolutionary cycle.

It seems we wait too long to talk about death and dying. I don’t think any conversation about death and dying is appropriate or full without talking about how we live, because they’re linked. Healthy dying means healthy living, and in the end, that is one of my take-aways from all of this, from these wonderful people who’ve effectively been teachers. These patients have been teachers to us through their incredible experiences and insights about death and dying. And we have thousands of years of teachings, as well.

So, it seems important that people have an increased awareness and a kind of a practice about this. That is, they speak about dying, make it a part of their lives, in a sense, and are aware of it and live fully.

But I think, also, it’s not about a fascination with death. In the end, we have to live our life and connect with our life, connect with our relationships and connect with our work, and this gives us meaning. In the end we’re not sitting around in isolation contemplating death all the time. Although, that can be part of our experience. But it’s about living a full life.