Fear Not Death
Volunteering to care for the dying, says Deborah Duda, is a chance to ‘open your heart wider’
Death is not to be feared, says Deborah Duda, author of Coming Home: A Practical and Compassionate Guide to Caring for a Dying Loved One.
“It’s the unknown. We’re afraid of change and the unknown,” she says. “But I see the beauty and the peace and the love.”
That’s why Duda has dedicated the past few decades of her life to assisting those who are terminally ill and helping their friends and families cope with the loss.
“I found working with people who are dying – sitting beside the bed of someone holding their hand – more expanding spiritually than all of the times I sat in monasteries and temples meditating,” says Duda, one of the founders of Kaua’i Hospice.
“Two human emotions are there, either love or fear. Every time we transform a fear, our hearts are that much wider open. So being a volunteer with the terminally ill, you have a chance to open your heart wider to a greater appreciation of life and gratitude for what you have. It’s one of the best spiritual practices, and I highly recommend it to anybody.”
Currently releasing the fourth edition of her book – originally published in 1981 – Duda hopes her writing and experiences will allow others to make friends with death and dying.
“Although it’s specifically a guide for families who are caring for someone they love who’s dying, the almost universal response to the book is that everybody should read it, and that after they did, they felt less afraid,” says Duda, a former grief counselor for Kaua’i Humane Society. “And I’d like for them to feel empowered that they can handle a home-dying – that they are probably much more loving and courageous than they even imagine they are. I’d like them to understand that they have a lot more choices than they think they do, and that the ultimate human freedom is freedom of choice of attitude. And whatever attitude we choose will determine our nature of experience.”
Born in Ohio but raised in a small town in England until the sixth grade, Duda returned to the United States at that time as an outcast.
“I had pigtails and glasses and a strong English accent,” she says. “Other kids made fun of me. The blessing of it was, it started me on a spiritual journey because I knew I was never going to fit in. I was never going to be like everybody else, and I’d better not spend my time trying to do that.”
It was from that point on that she began to explore the meaning of life – and death. But it wasn’t until she was older that she had one of her first experiences with the latter.
Working as a foreign service officer in Washington, D.C., Duda was responsible for writing letters to parents whose children had died in the Vietnam War, using a machine to sign President Lydon B. Johnson’s name at the end.
“I used to cry every day at work,” says Duda, who recently retired from Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, where she taught Spanish. “I was very opposed to the war, and reading these letters to parents who had lost their children was very heartbreaking.”
The position, along with other experiences working for the government in close proximity to big-name politicians – and a few movie stars – helped her realize that money and power do not equate with happiness.
“I could see that these were not happy people, that power was not going to make you happy,” she says. “It got very clear to me that having lots of money wasn’t going to make you very happy either.”
By the time Duda worked as a vice-consul cultural attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Chile, she was thoroughly disheartened by the ways of the government, and realized it no longer coincided with her values. Instead, she joined forces with the leader of the Brazilian exiles and his wife in Paris.
Together they wrote an expose on the use of torture in Brazil that went before the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
“But they kept on torturing people,” she says. “And by this time, I’m really disillusioned by all this political work. Nothing is going to change unless people change inside. And the most useful thing I could do if I wanted to be of service in the world is to go look inside and see how I could become a kinder, more peaceful and loving person.”
That’s when her true calling came to be realized – with a little help from Mother Teresa.
After being plagued with nightmares of death while living in Nepal, Duda received a copy of Newsweek with an image of the Catholic nun on the cover, inspiring her to immediately travel to Calcutta to see her.
“I went to a public telephone, dialed zero and said to the operator I’d like to speak to Mother Teresa, and in about two minutes, she was on the telephone,” says Duda.
When she arrived by rickshaw at Mother Teresa’s convent, Duda explained her fears of death to the holy one, who advised her to return home and “work with the sadness and suffering.”
It was the first time in her adult life that she returned to the United States after several years of living and traveling abroad. She immediately began to immerse herself in end-of-life experiences and witnessed first-hand the loss of a close friend who passed away from cancer.
Wanting to share her knowledge, Duda began her first book. She even had her father participate in the final editing, as he passed away shortly thereafter.
“He said he wanted to make sure I had it right from the dying person’s point of view,” she says.
Her experience spending time with those who are ill, including her own friends and family, has allowed Duda to embrace death, and she says she likes to encourage everyone to continue living with joy no matter what the circumstances.
But it doesn’t help that the media plays into people’s insecurities and fears with images of murders, accidents and war. “Death has become something very, very frightening,” she says.
But, she adds, the media is only giving people what they want.
“It sells,” she says.
Until people decide to kick the habit, the addiction to suffering will persist. And it’s the same affliction that holds onto people when they experience a loss, she says.
“Anytime we’re resisting something in our lives, wanting it to be different, we’re creating pain for ourselves,” says Duda, whose newest book, Lighten Up: Seven Ways to Kick the Suffering Habit, is due out in spring 2011.
“Suffering is pain prolonged. We have to walk through the heart of our pain when we feel it and we come out on the other side. But a lot of us get stuck in this sort of gray suffering zone, carrying the sadness from our past into the now and into the future.”
Duda signs copies of her book – along with Gabriela Taylor, author of Geckos and Other Guests: Tales of a Kaua’i Bed and Breakfast – Jan. 7 at Talk Story Bookstore in Hanapepe from 6 to 8 p.m.
The Kalaheo resident says hospices are an invaluable service and can help people move past this suffering.
“They support people caring for a dying loved one at home,” she says. “When people are going through that process it’s very heart opening, very comforting.”
Working with those who are terminally ill can be surprisingly one of the best things one can do.
“The secret about hospice work is it’s not depressing. It’s some of the most joyful work in the world,” Duda says. “When you are with our human family and see the love and courage and the devotion and the compassion of family when they’re caring for someone they love, is it very uplifting.
“It changes your whole life when you’re not afraid of death and dying. When you see people who are dying, I think one of the things they can teach us about joy is to live in the moment, because you don’t know how many moments you have.
“Be grateful for what you have.”
For more information, go to www.deborahduda.com.