Monday, September 11, 2017

Death Be Not...Scary. Laura Pritchett talks about Making Friends With Death, angst, afterlife thoughts, and so much more

Laura Pritchett is amazing. When she felt near to death, she began to investigate and even make friends with it. And she's an astonishing writer. Her novel The Blue Hour, about passion and small town, is extraordinary. I blurbed it! So are her novels: Stars Go Blue, Red Lightning, Hell's Bottom Colorado; and her non-fiction Pulse of the River, Great Colorado Bear Stories, Homeland and Going Green. And she's also a writing coach.

Since I have had my own near-death, which changed the way I saw life, I was particularly fascinated with her book. And it is so great. Thank you, Laura, for being here!

So, what was the why now moment that made you want to write this book about death?

About a decade ago, in my mid-30s, my life changed. To make a long story short, my neck and skull and face suddenly felt like they were being electrocuted at high voltage. 24/7. A roaring something was taking over my neck and head and eye muscles—diagnoses were plentiful and colorful and ranged from Multiple Sclerosis to infections to Trigeminal Neuralgia to Cervical Dystonia. The brain MRIs and the repeat-brain-MRIs and the shots and blood draws and pokes and dizzy spells and neurologists testing got more and more plentiful. So did my despair, because at one point, it ceased to matter. It just felt like I was going to die.

I really started to go deep into a scary space within myself—which alternated between a “dead/in-shock” space and a panic-attack space. I didn’t know what was wrong with me—and wouldn’t for several years—but I kept thinking ut-oh, I better get ready here. Of course, I didn’t want to die. I had young children, a writing career that was just taking off, a good life.

I found myself suddenly seeking some wisdoms, and fast. But there was no help. At least, not that I could find that were really practical and applicable.

I basically put this book together for me – I had to write it then because I thought I was dying. But then I wasn’t. I was diagnosed with Trigeminal Neuralgia, which totally sucks, but which isn’t killing me (any faster than any of life is going to kill me). Now, after several years of chronic unrelenting pain, I feel much better. Not totally better, but much much better. Which means, of course, that it all seemed much less imminent. But did I let it go? No. By then I was hooked and wanted to finish and publish this book. Because the one thing that this mess taught me was this: It’s absolutely contingent upon us to prepare while we are healthy and calm—so that when the shit hits the fan, we are better prepared to work with the mess. I truly believe that it’s slightly irreverent, sometimes-awkward, but totally honest about getting ready for death might help some others, too.

Did writing it make you feel less scared? How so? (If you were scared that is.)

Oh, I was scared. So very scared. Scared of living in pain, scared of dying, scared of leaving my children behind, and scared of the afterlife (I had been raised a strict Catholic, and although I left the faith a long time ago for a lot of good reasons, and have been to therapy for a long time to get some of that remnant after-life fear out of my body, that whole hell thing really had firm footing in my mind—which is why I believe that some religion, or the way its taught, is most certainly a form of child abuse). Anyway, I started to get less scared the more I faced my fear. I read a lot of books, I talked to people. I attended seminars and retreats of various sorts. I talked to those who volunteered in hospice work, I talked to folks who had serious diagnoses, I talked to people who were dying. I talked to my therapist a lot. With all this reading, interviewing, list-making, home works, journaling, therapy-ing, and so on, well, I was making some progress in facing my fear. I still don’t wanna die. And sometimes I’m still scared. But I certainly feel more peaceful about going. 

Please tell us about confronting The Grim Reaper and how that changed you?

“Use death as your advisor,” I heard someone say – and that’s how it changed me the most. I used death to advise me on how to live life. And I made some pretty big life decisions based on the fact that I was contemplating my death. I got divorced, for example—because I was in the wrong marriage and I had to confront that. I also really slowed down my life. I started living a life that I simply enjoyed more. That isn’t to say that I don’t make an effort to be responsible for the future (socking away a bit of money, paying my taxes, planning for retirement, etc.). It means I was able to reassess my life—so that I could be better prepared for death.

What is a good death?

That’s such a good question, and I’m not sure many people have thought about it at all—I know I hadn’t. But now I basically think a good death is simply one that has been claimed, to the extent possible, and that will be different for everyone. For me, will involve:

My medical wishes and decisions are respected – for example, I have a DNR, and I don’t want long-term life support.

I would like to die outside, or with a view of nature.

I’d like to be with my children and loved ones, if possible. There are certain people I don’t want in the room, and I’ve made that clear in my own “My Dying Book” that I’ve done (a version of the book now for sale) and set in a place where it will be found upon my death.

I’d like to be surrounded by the color blue, the smell of basil or roses, and some of my favorite songs (I have a whole list).

I want pain relief; I’d like to be comfortable as possible.

I’d like to be as fully informed about what’s going on (to the extent possible).

I want people to be honest with me. I want to be honest with them.

Would this work also work for people who believe in the Afterlife or a specific religious belief?

Yeah, thanks for asking that. Because that’s a big deal for many folks – your decisions about death are highly contingent on your religious beliefs. In this book, I don’t presume to tell anyone what death is, or what comes next. I, for one, would immediately distrust anyone who said they did know with certainty. All I do know is that there are better and worse ways to die. So: This book is for the religious and nonreligious, the spiritual and the not so much so. We all have to take that last breath.

I will say: Of course it matters what you believe comes after death—eternalism or nihilism being the two polar opposites, with a whole exciting and strange range in between. I myself was raised a Catholic but now call myself something along the lines of a Humanist Agnostic with Strong Buddhist-Practice Leanings, or, rather, Someone Honored To Be Seeking. Religion and death are pretty darn intertwined, of course—in fact, religion is about death, seeking to explain where you go after you die, coming up with ideas about what comes after, and guiding you to that particular spot. Surely your faith, if you have one, will guide your own process. My book doesn’t address or assume any particular Afterlife Scenario; it just takes us up to that last on-Earth breath. In other words, I think it respects all beliefs.

What was the writing like?

At the beginning, it was rather angst filled, because I thought death was immanent, and it was more like a crazy dash to make some peace. Later, it became super fun, because it included doing weirdo things like a class called “Facing Death and Partner Yoga,” and learning the basics on how to fly a Cessna, and going to New Zealand. Writing books takes you on all sorts of adventures!

What's obsessing you now and why?

Death, still. Death. Love. Communication. Nature. Those have always been my core themes. My obsessions.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Heh. I love that question. But I’ll throw one back at ya, just for fun. Question to Caroline Leavitt:
Have you done your Advance Directives and let someone know the basics of what a good peaceful death looks like to you? ANSWER: YES WE HAVE! I bet you have. Because you’re awesome. But for those who haven’t, mark your calendars-- APRIL 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day.

It’s funny. Most of us have homeowner’s insurance or renter’s insurance, but only a few of us (only 20%, in fact) have done advance directives and other helpful paperwork, even though for sure you are going to die (whereas your house or apartment might be fine forever). It blows my mind that a recent Pew Research Center study on end-of life issues found that less than half of people over 75 had given much thought to the end of their lives, and incredibly, only 22% of them had written down or talked to someone about medical treatment at the end of their lives. And that’s folks who are, statistically, getting close! We all – even if we’re young and healthy and got a ton of life stuff going on – we gotta get this stuff down on paper. So can perhaps gracefully do what is going to happen someday . . . . . hopefully far in the future.

Thanks so much for having me on! Yay death!

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