Article and Photos By: Michelle Olson, PhD, LCAT, ATR-BC, ACC/MC
I had the joy and honor of raising monarch butterflies this past fall. I mean we all know that butterflies come from caterpillars. But to closely watch the process through every phase and witness this incredible journey gave me a renewed sense of wonder and why I research this very topic of life and death in elder care.
I found myself very protective of my little caterpillars…Each one going into their chrysalis in their own time and finding their own safe place within the habitat. I was so captivated by these mind-boggling transformations, that I would just sit and stare in amazement…sometimes for almost an hour, fearing I would miss the magical moment.
What made it bitter sweet was knowing that I would soon have to say good-bye to my chubby ravenous little friends that had been lovingly named by my family…Then, inevitably, I would have to say yet another good-bye when the time comes for them to fly free and face the dangers and the immense beauty of this world!
I noticed many of them congregated together in preparation for the chrysalis phase. Did they know what was coming or was it pure instinct? Did they feel pain as they liquified and transformed into an entirely new creature or is this just something our simple minds can never really comprehend? I questioned and marveled at what I had previously taken for granted.
I study death but also LIFE and the deep connection between the two. In particular, deaths in elder-care communities and how we in long-term health care respond to these elder deaths. We often avoid it, we pretend it doesn’t happen and we “protect” others from seeing it at all costs as not to “upset them”. Yet, it is unavoidable. It is human and deserves the dignity and compassion of being acknowledged.
Recently, one of my clients I have known for three years passed away unexpectedly. I entered her room to have a private moment, gratitude prayer with her and say my good-byes. On this sunny afternoon, the light was bursting through the two large windows. The warm light caught my eye as it illuminated her face and her life treasures, some of her artwork, photographs of her as a young woman and her loved ones, her beautiful orchids and trinkets. I was reminded of the awe and bittersweet-ness of my butterflies that I wanted to keep safe forever. It was her time, not mine, yet we too, are interconnected.
I looked up next to her head and saw a poem taped to the wall. This poem was created during one of our expressive arts sessions and was about the fleeting cherry blossom. Every line came from the special folks within this group…all living with dementia. But on this day, in this place and in this light, it felt even more meaningful…
To value what we have
Don’t fuss with it
Value what is with us for a short time
The Japanese revere this with festivals throughout the whole country
It’s a sacred thing
Enjoy it before it is gone
When the wind carries the sweet smell of cherry blossoms
You never forget it
Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher and renowned end of life care leader says:
Suppose we stopped compartmentalizing death, cutting it off from life. Imagine if we regarded dying as a final stage of growth that held an unprecedented opportunity for transformation. Could we turn toward death like a master teacher and ask, ‘How, then, shall I live’?
Wishing you peace & a mindful vibrant life!
Reference: Ostaseski, F. (2017). The five invitations: Discovering what death can teach us about living fully. New York: Flat Iron Books.