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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.

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.

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.

When You Die Project
Origin Story of the Mexican Day of the Dead
With Eduardo Morales

Eduardo Morales: The Day of the Dead, from what I know and the interpretation that I get from having witnessed the celebrations in my village, Tepoztlan, is a Mexican tradition, especially. And from the things that I have read about its history in Mexico, I think it’s the only country where the dead are celebrated in this form, honouring our ancestors in this way.

So, the celebration is as old as the ancestors here, as the Aztecs, as the Mayans, as any other tribes in Mexico. They all celebrated Day of The Dead. And I think it’s important to explain a little bit the philosophy behind that.

Aztecs and Mayans and all the other tribes in Mexico, they didn’t have a concept of death. For them, I don’t think the word, “death,” even existed. I think it was more the philosophy of transformation. They also didn’t have a concept of hell and heaven. Their spiritual devotion was more towards the elements. And the elements, they were always kind of personalized more like spirits. So, the water element, it was one kind of a spirit. The air element was another kind of a spirit. The fire, also, was another spirit. And depending on the presence of the element, it also had its own personality, you know.

So, Earth was the biggest mother, the biggest spirit. The other thing that we need to understand, or that is important to know, is that for the Aztecs, and all the other people, the most important thing was corn. So, worshiping corn, the spirit of corn and the spirit of Earth and the spirits of the other elements, it was very important.

In those days, the celebration was all year long. Now we have certain dates for celebration, like Day of the Dead. But Day of the Dead is part of a celebration that used to begin, let’s say, in the month of May. In the month of May, they worshiped the rain. They called the rain, they called the spirits of the rain, the wind, to create a harmonious relationship with the elements and for us, the humans, to have a good harvest, good food. And in this case the corn was the most important thing for Mexicans.

But every single one who died had a mission, and the mission was that every single ancestor goes back to Earth to help Mother Earth to be fertile and, also, to be like the intermediaries for us, the humans, and for Mother Earth, so we could have good life, abundant, and so that life will continue. For them, it was important for life to continue, to be expanded in order to experience it in a beautiful way. There’s nothing better than to have plenty of food, you know. And in those times, it was not important having a house, or anything else. There were no possessions. It was a very spiritual attitude they had.

Here in Tepoztlan the first celebration of gratitude is the 28 of September. The 28 of September, the corn is fresh. It’s already ready to be eaten, but it’s not completely dry.

So, we have fresh corn. Every single yellow flower or orange flower that comes out from Earth is the spirit of our ancestors coming out to see if we are taking good care of the corn.

In the past, the yellow flowers were cut off from the fields, and they were taken to the corn plantation, and they were put in all the corners. So, they had this belief that for the honour of all these ancestors, they needed to see that our plantation was healthy. And the best way to celebrate was to have the corns, right there, in the plantation, to make a fire, you know, and cook the corns, right in the plantation. And everybody who helped working, including the spirits of our first ancestors, they were invited to eat them right in the plantation, you know.

Some people, they go a little deeper into the celebration, and they take one of those flowers and cook and boil the corn with those flowers. Just with the idea that the spirits need to go into the corn, so they could know how good the corn was that they helped Mother Earth with. So, that is the first celebration of gratitude.

Then the second celebration of gratitude is Day of the Dead. And, again, the corn at this time is not fresh anymore, but it’s not dry, yet. So, now with this corn that we have we could make many other dishes. You could make, I don’t know how to call it in English, it is a kind of a soup, with some chili peppers, and some other ingredients. And nowadays, we put in some mayonnaise, put in some cheese, put in some lemon. That’s one thing.

There’s another kind of bread, too, that they make. And there’s also tamales, of course. Actually, right now, my mother’s cooking for her ancestors. And she’s cooking today to make an offering tonight. And the offering, again, is to call all the ancestors who had gone into the Earth, to work with Mother Earth. And now it is time to honour them, and to be grateful to them by cooking what they helped to grow and show them that we have an abundance of it. So, we put it in the offering.

The ritual goes like this: You decorate your altar, and you put out some yellow flowers, and you put a path of petals of flowers all the way out to your street. And we believe that the ancestors will come, and the aroma of the flowers will guide them to where the food is, where the altar is.

So, as you handpick your flowers, you light a candle, and you call your ancestors, the ancestors that are more lovable, that are closer to you, because you cannot call everyone, right? [He laughs.] At least, in my family we have great-great-great grandparents and aunts and uncles. And so, my mother, she only calls the ones that are more important, of course. You will see that she has twenty candles, because she can’t discriminate between some of the ancestors [He laughs.] But for every candle you call the name of your ancestor, inviting the ancestor to come, so you can show your humbleness and ask them for forgiveness. That you are giving them something that is not so rich, but this is what you have, and that they are welcome to come and eat. So, that’s the first candle, okay.

Then they start putting the dishes that were more favored by our ancestors, you know. And, in general, there’s mole, green and red, and tamales and all kinds of food. After that, a glass of water is given to them, a dish of salt is put on the altar and flowers, of course. Those are the three things.

If it’s a family, we sit around the altar, and it just comes naturally, you know. The family starts talking about the ancestors, and the mother and the father will start remembering each one of the ancestors or what was the last thing one of the ancestors said in life. And before you know, it turns into some release, emotional release, because sometimes there are beautiful things, beautiful memories that come out from our ancestors, and other times, there are not so beautiful memories.

And other times, there is something emotional that we have and that we can see, especially the older ones. The older ones that start talking: You know, “I remember my father, I didn’t treat him well.” So, then they start asking for forgiveness right there on the altar.

And I think one of the most vital things that I’ve seen that happens is that we, the living, start asking for help. So, the ancestors become the ones who intercede in our reality and our spiritual world. So, we could ask the grandfather, “Grandfather, please, intercede for me with God. I ask you for forgiveness to ask you this at this time, but I won’t see you much next year.” So, they ask them, “Please, you know that the family or our business is not doing very well. So, you are closer to God; please ask God to give you the opportunity to intercede for us and make things work for us.

They use the moment not to just give but also to ask. And I think that’s the most touching thing. Of course, there are many stories.

Whether it is the collective consciousness and influence that happens or not, it always happens. And this is one of the stories, one of the personal stories: Last year, we were out of the town until one day before Day of the Dead, and Sylvia had a cold. Sylvia is my wife. She had a cold, and we hadn’t gone to the market to buy the things because, and this is another important thing, traditionally all the food has to be in new dishes. The milk, the mole, the rice, the chicken, all have to go in new dishes. Sylvia was feeling sick, and she didn’t look like she was getting any better. So, I said to her, “I think your ancestors are holding onto you, because they are not seeing that you are moving to put an altar for them.” And she said, “Oh, no, no. I don’t think they care.” But I think we have to do something. So, anyway, she got enough energy to say, “Okay, let’s go to the market.” You know, we went to the market and bought the flowers, the candles, the bread (there’s a special bread that they make, you know,) and all of the decorations.

We came back, we started doing our altar, and as soon as she called her father and her mother it was like, kind of dramatic, like magic, her cold was gone. [He laughs.]

So, those kinds of little stories you find in every single house if you go at the right moment when they’re putting up the altar. Everybody talks nicely to the ancestors and has nice memories. And some of them also have something to say to the ancestor that is not so nice, and not so pleasant, you know. Some of them, they put out a candle, and say, “Granddad or Father, I’m putting out a candle, but I want to remind you that I was not so happy the way you treated me when you were alive.” Or something like that.

And the next thing is that after that, after everybody has put up their altars, then the way to celebrate is with the children. The tradition is that the children here, they make their own pumpkin. It’s a kind of a pumpkin that they carve. They take it inside, and they make little figures, like the face, and some of them, are very artistic. They put a candle inside, you know, and they go out in the streets, asking for a treat. “A treat for my skeleton,” they say, or something like that.
So, they go house by house, asking for treats. And the explanation for that is that this is a representation of all the ancestors. They have no families that are waiting for them. So, they are allowed to go house by house, and ask for some of the treats.

Nowadays, the treat is for the children who are alive, right? So, they give them candies. But in my day, we used to get a tamale, some rice pudding or real food, because the belief was that we are representing in this pumpkin that a real spirit has possessed it. And that’s the spirit that you take along to ask for a treat, because they don’t have anybody that will wait for them.

And then there are also stories. One of my stories that I remember, on one of those nights, maybe I was nine years old, maybe eight years old, and we were in a group, children in a group. And we had not many cars at the time, we had no electric light in the streets. So, the only light we had was from our pumpkins.

And one of the streets we had to cross was a dry river. We had to cross it. And when we got there, we couldn’t cross it, because there were five big pigs laying down in the middle of the street, and every time we tried to cross, maybe because we were children, we were afraid of these big pigs. They were really big, you know.

So, we decided to walk back, and as we got to the corner our parents, who were behind us, said, “What’s the matter? Why are you coming back?” And we said, “Oh, it’s because there are some pigs in the street, in the middle of the river. They’re laying down there, and they don’t let us pass.” So, they came with us to the river, and sure enough, they see these big pigs. And one of the adults says, “Well these pigs, they are not normal.”

Now, Tepoztlan has been known as “The Village of Healers,” for thousands of years, even before it was conquered by the Aztecs. And actually, it was conquered by the Aztecs for the reason that the people from Tepoztlan knew a lot about remedies, natural remedies and spiritual remedies. We had healers everywhere.

I still had that experience of being healed by different healers around the town. I was taken to them by my parents. Now, from what I understood at that time, that to study to become a healer had different stages. There were three stages. And the second stage was to learn how to become your animal totem. How to have the ability to turn into your animal totem. And the reason to become that animal is to know the nature of that animal, so you could connect and talk with nature, and it will be your gift as a healer. So, in Spanish we call that, “the healer in an animal form,” you know.

So, to get back to my story, we have here five pigs, big, like this. The adults, they live with this philosophy, and some of them, they say, “These are not pigs, these are nahuales [sorcerers who, in this case, have turned themselves into their spirit animals.] So, as soon as he says that, he calls out all the male adults and says, “Let’s put our hats face up.” Because they believe that you break the … how do you say, the enchantment of the animal, of the nahual, and they have no other choice than to turn into humans. So, that’s what he tells all the men. He says, “Put your hat upside down,” you know, “Let’s get these buggers!” And as soon as he said that, it was … I don’t know, now. I don’t remember if it was my imagination, or we were so excited that it really happened, I don’t remember exactly. But the pigs stood up and ran. [Dog barks. He laughs.]

Death, Fear & Love

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

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.