Let's talk about death

DEATH ISSUE: Saying goodbye isn't easy, but it's an important part of life. We explore the Bay Area's evolving relationship with the end of life, from Boomer care and Death with Dignity to the "death midwives" movement.

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Image from Paul Koudounaris's book "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs"

steve@sfbg.com

DEATH ISSUE  Death comes for all of us, sometimes with advanced warning, other times suddenly.

Loved ones get a chance to say goodbye in fewer than half of all deaths, so I was fortunate to see my 92-year-old Grandma Elinor Bonin in the week between her massive heart attack and her passing on Oct. 7. And I was doubly lucky to catch her while she was still fairly stable and lucid, before she went downhill, wracked by pain, fighting for each breath, and wishing for the relief of death.

Her health had been deteriorating for years and she was ready to die, as she told me in her room at Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo, the same hospital where my daughter Breanna and I were each born.

Grandma was already suffering from pneumonia and congestive heart failure when she had a massive heart attack in the early morning hours of Oct. 1. The prognosis wasn't good, so she worked with my mom and others to craft an exit plan: creating an advanced care directive with do-not-resuscitate order, setting up home hospice care paid for by Medicare, and going home to die.

"I'm ready," she told me — sweetly if wearily, with a resolute resignation in her voice — as we waited for the ambulance that would take her home from the hospital. "I just don't want to live in agony anymore."

We all want to believe that we'll show that kind of grace, clarity, and courage as we greet death. Society is beginning to wake up to the realization that extraordinary efforts to prolong life as long as possible can be as inhumane as they are costly, finally opening up a long-overdue conversation about death.

As we explore in this issue, the Bay Area is the epicenter for evolving attitudes towards the end of life, from the death midwives movement and home funerals to the complex discussions and confrontations of taboos now being triggered by the Baby Boomers facing death, both their parents' and their own.

"The reality now is we're kickstarting the conversation about death. We're at the very beginning of this," says San Franciscan Suzette Sherman, who just launched www.sevenponds.com, an information clearinghouse designed to elevate the end of life experience. "Death is a wonderful part of life, it's a profound moment."

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Read more about: death midwives, AIDS obit archives, passing pet care, and Death with Dignity in California

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We honor and celebrate death in San Francisco more than they do in most American cities. The AIDS crisis forced San Franciscans to grapple with death in once unimaginable ways. We continue to pioneer comforting passages with programs such as Hospice by the Bay and the Zen Hospice Project.

Comments

"As we explore in this issue, the Bay Area is the epicenter for evolving attitudes towards the end of life,"

Why does every article on a controversial topic have to include some kudos to the bay area for being at the forefront of something.
I would say Oregon, which has an assisted suicide law, has been thinking about this more than the bay area.
The constant need to pat ourselves on the back is a turn off.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 7:05 am

What, mental masterbation should not get as much respect as physical masterbation? I say bring it out of the shadows!

Posted by Guest on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 7:10 am

Because the San Francisco Bay Guardian covers the San Francisco Bay Area. It also happens to be true that the region are is at the forefront of progressive change in a number of areas, which we chronicle and amplify. If you want cynicism about where we live, read the Chronicle or the Weekly.

Posted by Steven T. Jones on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 7:58 am

Why nothing about Marin?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 10:34 am

San Jose isn't part of our coverage area, but this article from our Death Issue is about people based in Marin: http://www.sfbg.com/2013/10/29/reclaiming-death
Also, we discuss Oregon's Death with Dignity law here: http://www.sfbg.com/2013/10/29/why-wont-you-let-me-go

Posted by steven on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 12:04 pm
Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 6:14 am

Steven can't bear to admit that San Jose is bigger and more important than San Francisco.

Having San Francisco turning into nothing more than a bedroom suburb for Silicon Valley is just too, too, humiliating.

Posted by racer さ on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 7:28 am

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into petty, mean spirited, personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 7:44 am

from Berkeley and Oakland. The rest of the Bay Area is evidently of no interest even though it has about 80% of the population.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 7:57 am

As the SFBG well knows, there is a magical forcefield that surrounds the City of San Francisco.

Nothing of real import ever happens outside that forcefield.

In particular, if someone is forced by circumstances to move from San Francisco to a place outside the forcefield, that is a crime against humanity.

Posted by racer さ on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:11 am

San Francisco Exceptionalism Guardian.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:25 am

"The rest of the Bay Area is evidently of no interest even though it has about 80% of the population."

Actually, just over 90% of the population of the Bay Area lives outside of San Francisco.

Posted by racer さ on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:16 am

I suppose that SFBG would argue that there would be no readers for a left-wing rag anywhere outside the three most liberal cities in the State. So why bother covering them? So much more fun to pretend that we are at the center of the universe.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:26 am

I particularly appreciate SFBG's encyclopedic coverage of San Mateo County politics!

Posted by racer さ on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:13 am

Which is technically in San Mateo County.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:27 am

The Pacific Sun has been doing a Halloween-week "Death issue" for eight years--glad to see the Guardian is smart enough to borrow good ideas from other alt weeklies. Check it out at http://www.pacificsun.com

Posted by Guest on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

We didn't borrow ours directly from the Pacific Sun, but I'm happy to see that fine paper and the good work it does recognized here. Good ideas have a way of spreading, as the Best Of issues that all alt-weeklies now run attests, nearly 40 years after we started that trend.

Posted by steven on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

The discussion about death is wholly incomplete without acknowledging the massive financial debt that seniors are foisting upon younger generations through an ever increasing healthcare cost curve coupled with the black hole that is the well established pattern for baby boomer over consumption of healthcare resources.

The baby boomers have made a huge shit sandwich for subsequent generations that will undoubtedly be eaten by me and my children, but we can lessen the pain if we force them all to take a big bite first.

Solution?

ALL BABY BOOMERS AND OLD PEOPLE - START A TWO PACK A DAY HABIT.

It is your civic duty to die quickly, so you will minimize the resources required to keep your old ass alive after your tax donative years. You made this bed, now it is time to lie down in it. I was too young to vote while you were granting yourself massive inter-generational wealth transfers in the form of unfunded entitlements on the shoulders of future generations. EVERYONE saw this debt catastrophe coming. Shame on you.

Economist Kip Viscusi of Vanderbilt has demonstrated that the country saves $0.32 cents for every pack of cigarettes an individual smokes in the form of reduced entitlements expenditures.

So baby boomers, the bill for your selfishness and over-consumption is coming due. Get out of the way and solve our nation's debt problems via generational attrition facilitated by Lucky Strikes.

Do it for the children.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

for people over 55. Then the casualties of war would be borne by the same generation with the greatest clout to prevent war and the greatest wisdom to know why, when, and how.

(And each casualty would help the balance sheet, instead of hurt it.)

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 7:48 am

That's when a lot of cops and fire guys retire too. There's a reason for that.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:01 am

Don't blame me, I voted for Jimmy Carter.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:06 am

I didn't have the vote back then but I doubt that Carter, who was little known at the time, would have won against anyone but Ford, who of course was not a natural candidate.

It didn't end well, as you may recall.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:13 am

I was eighteen, it was a long time ago.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 8:44 am

OMG... this is exactly what needs to happen.... I am feeling a part of the shit sandwich you speak of!!!! LOL

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