Donald Grayston is slouched back into his sofa, lit by a soft sunbeam the Dutch masters would kill for. Wearing a transparent nebulizer over his nose and mouth, inhaling vapourized medicine to the constant bap-swish of the machine in the corner, he’s no pink-cheeked Rembrandt model. There is nothing pretty about this scene.
A-hagh. A-hargh. A-hem. Grayston, an Anglican priest and religious studies professor, coughs and wheezes. It looks painful. The laboured breathing does not evoke a good death but rather what advocates of assisted suicide seek to avoid by exiting early.
For nearly two decades, Grayston’s breath has been constrained. Under a microscope, the tissue that surrounds his alveoli looks like shattered glass. It’s inflamed, scarring his lungs and interfering with the flow of oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. Fibrotic non-specific interstitial pneumonia can be an appalling way to live and to die. At this stage, he can only leave his East Vancouver apartment in a wheelchair, with portable oxygen machines that give him up to four hours of freedom. He doesn’t leave often. He can’t be left alone, ever, in case of a breathing crisis — which has landed him in the hospital at least four times in the past year.
Grayston has outlived his prognosis by almost a decade. Instead, here he is, consciously dying and determined to make his death a good one.
“Well, what is a good death?” I ask the man who taught my fourth-year Gandhi seminar at Simon Fraser University back in the mid-1990s.
A little shakier than I remember, his professorial index finger rises. A point is about to be made. His sense of drama intact, he lets his finger hover for a moment, then he catches my eye, he twinkles and he spills.
“A good death is being at peace with God, with others and with the self,” says the sage in slippers. “So far, so good.”
Interest in planning and preparing for a “good death” is surging. The demographically huge boomer generation is walking in the shadow right now: their parents are dying, their peers are being diagnosed with terrifying illnesses, and some of them have started to die, too. Statistically, about a quarter of a million Canadians die each year, a number that’s increasing annually.
The market is responding. Turn on CBC Radio at any time of day or night, and you’ve got at least a 50 percent chance of hearing a piece about assisted suicide (well, not really — but it seems like it). Death doulas and death midwives are hanging out their shingles, promising hands-on help for those navigating their own endings. In the past few years, you’ve likely also encountered news of innovative cemeteries, death tourism to Switzerland, do-it-yourself funerals and green burials. Gathering all of these initiatives together in a loose affiliation is the Order of the Good Death, “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.”
Why now? The 20th-century death model of hospital, morgue, funeral home is too impersonal for this generation’s dying, explains Reena Lazar, co-founder of Willow, an end-of-life planning business in Vancouver. “They’ve lived their lives in an innovative and values-oriented way. Why not apply the values of conscientious consumerism, social justice and environmentalism to death — the same way we try to create a sense of wellness in our lives?”
Back to Donald Grayston. I should pause here to explain a bit more about who he is — or was. Six weeks after our last interview, Grayston died in October at Cottage Hospice in East Vancouver, from complications associated with the disease he’d been fighting for nearly two decades. He was 78.
Lazar met Grayston as she was starting Peace It Together, a youth filmmaking initiative to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians — a goal that Grayston also pursued for years. Lazar’s business partner, Michelle Pante, met him around the same time as she was co-founding the InterSpiritual Centre of Vancouver Society, a network on whose board Grayston eventually served. He became a mentor and friend to both women and was the “number one cheerleader and promoter” for their two-year-old death education business, which promises “pragmatic, heart-centred end of life planning.”
To most of those who knew him, Grayston was much more than a professor or a priest. He had that glow of a human who knew his purpose and at every moment was achieving it. He was also an author, a father, an occasional Observer freelance writer and one of my favourite people.
Back in the 1970s, when Grayston was first ordained, he spent two months visiting every elderly person in his congregation, getting to know those who would “likely be leaving first.” He realized then that there are two kinds of old people: contented and cranky. And, more importantly, that they’d been preparing to become this kind of person their whole lives. Cranky young people became cranky old people. Contented young people became contented old people. Aha. He knew where he preferred to aim.
“Cranky people are their own worst enemies,” he said. “They alienate their families. They don’t make friends. There’s a lot of lonely old people out there. Cranky and lonely.”
Instead, he sought out deep friendships. During the last many months of his life, he reaped the reward of this learning. His adult son moved into Grayston’s condo, and his plentiful friends took two four-hour shifts each day to sit with him as he was dying — and to call 911 if his breathing seized.
Also early in his career, at just 32, he bought a painting: The Holy Man, by Czech-Canadian artist Velenka Fanderlik. It became a touchstone for him — a reminder of the kind of man he wanted to become in his later years.
Between ministering to the elderly and continually reflecting on the image of old age in the painting, Grayston began preparing for his own death more than 40 years ago. Being at peace with self, others and God has been his life’s work. When he reached his final stages, the only aspect he was shocked by was the immediacy of death.
“Before, if I were sitting with someone who was dying, it was they who were dying and not me,” he reflected. “That’s wrong, I’ve discovered. We’re all dying. Just at different speeds. I didn’t know what it feels like to be the person who was dying. The reality of it. The reality of my own mortality.”
“What’s your greatest fear about your inevitable death?”
That’s the question that 15 women and three men are grappling with in a chic room at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery. Surrounded by wood walls and hanging glass orbs, the boomers don’t hesitate.
“My greatest fear about my inevitable death is dying alone,” one volunteers. “Pain,” says another. “Being a burden to my children.” “That I can’t get medical assistance in dying.” “That no one will come to my memorial.”
“What’s your greatest hope about your inevitable death?” asks Willow facilitator Michelle Pante, her prematurely grey hair in a messy bun on top of her head.
“That I die before the money runs out,” one man quips, and several people chuckle, though heads are also nodding. “That my wife keeps her commitment to care for me,” says another. “That people feel comfortable coming to say goodbye.” “That the people close to me know how cherished they are.” “That I have a good death.”
That’s why this group is here. To plan their good deaths.
This is the introductory session of Departure Directions, a workshop that helps participants make decisions such as how they’d like their remains disposed, what rituals will be observed and where their final resting place will be.
Interest in Willow’s workshops is surging. The company’s other offerings include sessions on writing “heart wills” and an ongoing “reality of our mortality” learning circle. Both push participants to embrace the life that remains for them, think deeply about their values and seek forgiveness and healing with their loved ones. In October, the Willow co-founders presented their Departure Directions workshops at St. Andrew’s United in North Vancouver. In time, the company intends to offer in-person workshops and online resources to train faith leaders on helping parishioners plan their death care.
Lazar has personally experienced what can happen when you delay talking about death. Her family is Jewish. Simply put, that should make death easy. Most cities have a Jewish burial society whose responsibilities kick in at the moment of death. Male volunteers wash male bodies; females wash females. The body must be buried, not cremated. And Jewish tradition dictates that the family sit shiva — seven full days of official mourning, resisting the secular pressure to get back to work and regular routines — followed by a month or more of restrictions like refraining from celebrations. Loved ones remember the deceased every year on the anniversary of the death.
However, when Lazar’s father was dying 13 years ago, he said, “I want to be cremated. No funeral. No sitting shiva.”
When her mother was approaching death five months later, Lazar asked her what she wanted. “The same as your father,” she replied.
“I just felt cheated,” Lazar reflects. She had wanted to mourn their deaths together with her community. “I learned how important it is to contemplate and talk about death with people close to you before it’s too late,” she says. “This requires a certain agency and openness on the part of both the dying and the grieving.”
Up until recently, religions owned death. Religious leaders know how to do death. In the recent past, Irish Catholics could expect a wake, with the body in the home. Eastern Orthodox Christians might expect a priest to come immediately after death, and a paper crown to be placed on the head of the deceased with the Trisagion prayers written on it, among many more ornate rituals. United Church members usually opt for a closed casket and burial. But as congregations have dwindled, these rituals have faded. Secular Canadians struggle with dead bodies.
Last year, for example, I chatted with a funeral director as I planned a relative’s cremation. “I’ve seen a real change in the past 10 years,” he grumbled to me. “People don’t want anything to do with their dead anymore. They treat me like I’m the garbage man, just taking out the trash.”
Pante points out that family members are generally not at their most sharp-thinking or creative just after their loved ones die. It’s not a great time to make significant decisions. A good death, she says, gets planned ahead of time.
For his own death, Grayston chose to be buried in a shroud, in the grave of his father and grandfather. It’s all in his Departure Directions document.
On my Facebook feed, one of the few regular references to death I see is a quote attributed to the late American journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
That approach may work if you die young, in a mess of drugs. But for those aging into their deaths in 21st-century Canada, with chronic and potentially deadly illnesses that can last for decades — heart disease, emphysema, cancer, hepatitis C, diabetes — the near-endless medical interventions offer a period of grace and of horror. Infused with the knowledge of your coming death, and without a cloak of tradition to warm you, what should you be doing?
Well, preparing, according to the good death movement. Matching your death values to your life values. Finding peace.
That’s why people show up to Willow’s Departure Directions workshop. But even this group, self-selected to face their own mortality, seemed terrified, lost, hurt and overwhelmed.
Pursuing a peaceful death while still in midlife — a gruelling spiritual side-hustle — isn’t on the agenda for most of us. The promise of Willow and the good death movement is that even if you’ve blown off your spiritual life until the final stretch, you can still get it right in the end and go gently and elegantly into that good night.
Maybe that’s true.
Grayston’s audacious statement — that he was at peace with God, self and others — is still ringing in my ears. How can someone who has lived a full life — had children, been both married and divorced, worked in churches and in academia — truly be at peace? Marching through midlife myself, I am so, so far from this ideal.
Paging through my notes from our conversations, I find clues I didn’t notice before. Dying at peace, Grayston said, is a choice. “It’s clear to me that the prospect of my death is upsetting to my children. The more peacefully I can die, the better it will be for them.”
Pursuing peace, he said later, “has an element of defiance. We have an impatient culture, and that has stimulated me to live patiently.”
Palliative-care physician and author Ira Byock advises that there are four things a dying person should say to those close to them, and needs to hear as well: “Thank you,” “I love you,” “I forgive you” and “Please forgive me.” In other words, use your final moments to bring peace to your relationships. It’s good advice, but compared to Grayston’s 40-year spiritual odyssey toward the end, it reads like a last-minute life hack for those whose time is running out.
Grayston was a sage, and his death was good. For the rest of us, there’s still time to plan ahead.
This story originally appeared in The Observer’s January 2018 issue with the title “A good death.”