Summit Right Brain: Confronting the taboo subject of death with Karen Wyatt
Special to the Daily
“What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from Stories of the Dying” and “The Tao of Death” can be purchased at Next Page Bookstore & Nosh in Frisco.
End-of-Life University offers a library of interviews on end-of-life topics. EOLUniversity.com/
For more information about Dr. Wyatt, visit KarenWyattMD.com/
Dr. Karen Wyatt is widely regarded as a thought-leader in the effort to transform the way we care for the dying in the United States. A resident of Silverthorne with her husband, Dr. Lawrence George, Wyatt is the best-selling author of the books, “The Tao of Death” and “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying,” published in five languages. Wyatt was medical director for a hospice in Utah and later, after moving to Colorado, was on the Board at the Bristlecone Health Services in Frisco.
Wyatt’s work has drawn a dedicated following among those who find themselves confronting end-of-life situations with friends, family or loved ones. Her “7 Lessons for Living” are stories from her own work with hospice patients that profoundly changed her understanding of life, death and the human condition. Wyatt regularly speaks to groups on end-of-life topics, writes a column for Huffingtonpost.com and hosts End-of-Life University, an online interview series that features conversations with experts who work in all aspects of end-of-life care.
Summit Daily: What experiences led you to begin writing and speaking on the topic of death?
Karen Wyatt: I am trained in family practice, but early in my career I faced a tragedy when my father committed suicide. I really struggled with grief and guilt after his death. In an effort to deal with this, I volunteered for hospice. I ended up working in hospice eight years full time, and then after as a volunteer.
The lessons I learned from my dying patients were so profound, and changed my life in such positive ways, that I was inspired to write about them. The book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living” came out at 2012; trying to get this book published showed me there was so much resistance in our society to talking about death. As a result, I started to do interviews with people who take care of dying patients. This was the genesis for the End-of-Life University; I wanted to create a body of knowledge and inspiration for people to listen to.
SD: Like many people, I think, I find the subject of death frightening to contemplate. Yet one of your recent articles for the Huffington Post is titled: “How Thoughts of Death Can Be a Key to Happiness.” Is it possible to take a lighter attitude towards death?
KW: The idea for that article came from reading about the people of Bhutan. As part of their Buddhist faith, they contemplate death every day in order to prepare for dying completely in contrast to those of us in the West who pretend that we won’t die and try to avoid thoughts of it. The country of Bhutan is rated as one of the five happiest — they have more comfort with the idea that this life, as we know it, eventually ends, and less fear about it. I could say that happened with me as well: facing the unavoidable reality that I, too, would die one day taught me to enjoy life right now. Suddenly instead of fearing death and when it might come, I found myself profoundly embracing life every moment.
SD: Death is almost a taboo subject in our culture. Do you think the subject of death is one that we contemplate only when we are forced to, as we get older? Can people at any stage in life benefit from exploring this subject?
KW: I think Baby Boomers are having to face the topic of death now because their parents are dying; then, they are forced to look at the fact that “this will be me some day.”
Interestingly, today younger people seem to be more interested and involved in the end-of-life movement. I am a guest speaker every semester at CMC (Colorado Mountain College) for a course on “The Psychology of Death and Dying.” I ask the students, “Why are you taking this class?” They’ll say, “We should know about this! Everyone is going to die one day.” I think younger people have broken down a lot of the taboos in our society, and this is another one. It’s really refreshing to see.
SD: I can’t help wondering: What happens when you’re at a cocktail party, here in Summit County for example, and someone comes up to you and asks “What do you do?” How do you answer that?
KW: I used to skirt the issue. Now I come out and say I am a retired physicians and I write books about death and dying. Some people are shocked and walk away from me.
But I also think I tend to attract the people who really do want to talk about the issue. They’ll say, “I can’t believe you said that. I need to talk about this.” So I have to put it forward, and be truthful. There is always someone dealing with a relative or friend who is struggling, someone who needs to talk.
SD: You are currently writing your first work of fiction. Could you offer some thoughts for other writers or creative people who might want to tackle what we think of as “taboo” subjects?
KW: We have to face our own fears. A fear is a block to our creativity. In the area where we harbor a lot of fear and push ideas away, we are blocking the creative impulses. Everyone who is creative should actually embrace the idea of death and dying in their work — not necessarily openly — but when fiction writers are creating characters they should think of the grief history of the character. How does grief motivate them, affect them. That way they are embracing the whole of what life really includes.
When I faced my fears, and began to embrace the notions of death and dying as part of my life, my creativity really blossomed. I encourage other creative people to do this as well.
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