Life and Death

Ghosting the shadowy edges of a fatal diagnosis

When Kati Standefer was staring down the barrel at her own death, many of her friends and family found it too painful to talk with her about the possibility of her dying. At 24, Standefer had not expected to be ghosting the shadowy edges of life and death. Her Congenital Long QT Syndrome diagnosis, a potentially life-threatening arrhythmia that had turned deadly, changed that.

Though she survived, Standefer's experience with sickness and death sharpened her realization that Western society's promise that everyone will have a long life filled with an abundance of time is incongruent with reality. Her difficulty finding opportunities to discuss death openly led her to Tucson's Death Cafe. From there, the idea for Tucson's second Natural Death Intensive arose.

The intensive was supposed to take place in late February*, but had to be postponed. The group hopes to reschedule the event for Spring. Hosts Cindy Whitehead, nurse; Kristine Bentz, home funeral educator; and Standefer, writer and narrative medicine consultant, plan to speak at the event, and focus on creating a place where community members can speak honestly about death.

"When we have a powerful experience we want to share, we want to be heard, we want people to give us the kind of deep listening that makes the story more real," Standefer said.

The day is structured around exploring the journey of natural death. Participants will learn hands-on how to prepare a body for natural burial, and will bear witness to a simulated natural burial.

"It got me thinking about 'what is unnatural death?'" said Sara Vaughan, UA MFA creative fiction writing candidate, who will attend the intensive.

The question is one of the central themes the guides will address. As professionals who interact intimately with end-of-life care, Whitehead and Bentz hope to evoke thought about the kind of environment in which people want to live out the end of their lives and their deaths. Western taboos often discourage people from reflecting on these choices until late in life.

"So many people get sucked into the health care system and before they know it they're doing this and they're having these tests and these treatments and it just goes on and on until they'll get to the point where they're like, 'Why are we even doing this?'" Whitehead explained.

The physical components ground the cerebral elements and shift the focus on death as a physical experience. They also serve to reinforce a sense of bodily awareness, which Standefer hopes will elicit a more visceral response from the group.

Throughout the intensive, participants will be given time and space to process their thoughts with the aid of writing prompts. The outlines are aimed at provoking meditation on people's first interactions with death, their personal relationship to it, and how the intensive's unfolding has affected their understanding.

"Writing sometimes allows us to uncover ourselves; we aren't entirely sure what our experiences have been or what wisdom we have to offer until we write it down and share it with someone else," Standefer said.

The leaders feel strongly that when individuals get together and work to actively challenge their perceptions and beliefs, the changes that result can transcend any single person. Communities can experience a ripple effect as individuals become advocates and involve nonparticipatory community members.

"In Tucson we embrace death and remembrance. The culture's there," said Vaughan, pointing to events like the All Souls Procession.

Engaging the community in conversations that explore death more deeply on an individual level can affect how community members feel in their day-to-day lives, and on a larger scale, can make Tucson a place that is more vibrantly self-aware.

"Ultimately, being comfortable with death helps us to live our life more fully," Whitehead said.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated the event was still taking place on Feb. 21> it has been postponed indefinitely].

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