Dying

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Working with the Dying in California Prisons

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Reverend Lorie Adoff has trained over 130 inmate-volunteers to sit with and support dying prisoners at California Men’s Colony, a minimum- and medium-security prison in San Luis Obispo. After training inmates for eleven years, Adoff retired in 2013. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Many people hope to die surrounded by friends and family. But for prison inmates death can be unusually isolating. As part of our ongoing health series called Vital Signs, we hear from retired hospice chaplain Lorie Adoff. More than a decade ago, she helped launch a project called Supportive Care Services at the California Men’s Colony — a prison in San Luis Obispo. The program trained inmates serving life sentences to sit with other men dying behind bars.

By Lorie Adoff

First of all imagine, it’s very, very stark. There is nothing pretty about a hospital in prison. Nothing.

But I have discovered, working with the dying in prison, there is transformation. 

They have the opportunity to have family come and visit them on a limited basis. A lot of times because they’ve been there so long though, they don’t have anybody who it matters whether or not they die in prison. They’ve been in prison for 30 years or 40 years and who cares? So, dying alone is a very, very real situation in prison.

Before Supportive Care Services, there really wasn’t anything in place to be with the dying inmates. Patients who were dying in the hospital would be put in a room. A nurse would check on him periodically, until he died. Continue reading

Death Cafe: Talking About Death — While Eating Cake

A recent Death Cafe, held at San Francisco's Zen Hospice Project. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

A recent Death Cafe, held at San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

By Jeremy Raff

In a dimly lit room decorated with several Buddhas and a large red-and-white Zen illustration, twenty-nine people sat in a circle. Some were eating chocolate bundt cake. It was an unusual setting to be discussing the topic at hand: death and dying. These death cafes have sprung up around the world to address the taboo subject head-on. Organizers hope that increased awareness of death will help people make the most of their lives.

Roy Remer, the group’s facilitator, hushed the room and passed around pieces of cardstock covered in Post-its. Each person wrote intimate words on them — family members’ names, roles they play (mother, mentor), significant relationships and important objects. The Post-its became a boiled-down map of what each person holds dearest. Then, Remer walked the circle, visiting each person with inevitable gravity. He then ripped away Post-its from each one.

Some reflexively clutched their children’s names. But most averted their eyes, looking stunned. It wasn’t easy for Remer either. “It felt violent,” he said. The exercise simulated loss and started the conversation about death and dying. Continue reading