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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

I want to be alone and work until the day my heads hits the drawing table and I’m dead. Kaput. Everything is over. Everything that I called living is over. I’m very, very much alone. I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They’re nowhere. I know they’re nowhere and they don’t exist, but if nowhere means that’s where they are, that’s where I want to be.
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Maurice Sendak

Sendak with a beloved characterThe celebrated author of Where the Wild Things Are and other award-winning children’s literature just released Bumble-Ardy at the age of 83. He recently lost several loved ones, including his long-time partner, and shares his thoughts on opening up to his mortality with The Associated Press.

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For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.
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A Demonstrator Awaits Troy Davis' ExecutionTroy Anthony Davis, speaking to the prison officials who executed him by lethal injection at 11:08 in a Georgia prison last night, according to an eyewitness account from an Associated Press reporter.

About the photo: A demonstrator outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, on Wednesday, September 21. (photo: Erik S. Lesser/AFP/Getty Images)

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Twitterscript of Jane Gross, a “Dear Abby” of Caregiving

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Krista brought Jane Gross to our attention at our weekly Monday staff meeting as someone who knows aging intimately from the “far shore of caregiving.”

This Pulitzer-nominated journalist developed her expertise on caregiving and aging not just vocationally, but through living this experience with her elderly mother in her final years.

She started The New Old Age blog for The New York Times and shared her most joyful moments and unexpected insights from role reversals of “becoming my mother’s mother” to learning how to collaborate with her adult sibling. She also has a book called A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves.

Putting words around end-of-life issues is such a difficult task that, even in our tweets, it became difficult to substitute the words “death,” “dying,” or “aging”  literally when she used demonstratives like “this” and “that” to represent those ideas in conversation.

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:

  1. @Janegross settling in at the mic as Krista begins her interview! 15 Jun
  2. "I don’t even remember SEEING old people when I was growing up." -author Jane Gross 15 Jun
  3. "Very few people tell you along the way that just because you CAN fix X or Y doesn’t mean that you should." -Jane Gross 15 Jun
  4. "My mother and I had a difficult relationship. I didn’t race to the loving caregiver’s role with an open heart." -author Jane Gross 15 Jun
  5. "It kicks up all the dust of childhood, everyone becomes who they were when they were 10." -Jane Gross on the stress of caregiving 15 Jun
  6. "(My brother and I) thought the faster we moved, the faster we could get back to what our lives were like before." -Jane Gross 15 Jun
  7. "Most of us are more afraid of the process (of dying) than the fact." -author Jane Gross 15 Jun
  8. "The idea of how to get through this by yourself makes my hair stand up." -Jane Gross 15 Jun 
  9. "It’s pretty likely gonna be a friend (to take care of me at the end of my life)." -Jane Gross 15 Jun
  10. "My only personal solution to this is to be very conservative on the financial side. I don’t have children to pick up the slack."-J.G. 15 Jun
  11. "I’m not sure it’s as bad when it actually happens than to watch it happen." -Jane Gross on aging. 15 Jun
  12. "Rather than squeeze your eyes shut, you decide that there’s something interesting about it in the kind of spiritual life cycle sense."-JG 15 Jun
  13. "One of the great gifts of being a journalist is you get to poke around at ‘these’ things before they’re your things."-Jane Gross 15 Jun
  14. "I have seen what courage can be when there is no hope." -May Sarton in Jane Gross’s "Bittersweet Season" 15 Jun
  15. "You find out what you’re made of. If there’s any advantage to having a long slow dying its the time to get things right."-Jane Gross 15 Jun

Photo by Michael Lionstar.

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Health is not a commodity. Risk factors are not disease. Aging is not an illness. To fix a problem is easy, to sit with another suffering is hard. Doing all we can is not the same as doing what we should. Quality is more than metrics. Patients cannot see outside their pain, we cannot see in, relationship is the only bridge between. Time is precious; we spend it on what we value. The most common condition we treat is unhappiness. And the greatest obstacle to treating a patient’s unhappiness is our own. Nothing is more patient-centered than the process of change. Doctors expect too much from data and not enough from conversation. Community is a locus of healing, not the hospital or the clinic. The foundation of medicine is friendship, conversation and hope.
- David Loxtercamp, author of A Measure of Days: The Journal of a Country Doctor, as read in his interview with NPR’s Liane Hansen.
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Ritual of Floating Lantern Offerings Honors Lost Loved Ones on Memorial Day (video)

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

"Ritual is something we use that moves us gently from one thing, one feeling, one experience, one mindset into another feeling, or experience, or mindset." ~Rabbi Pearl Barlev

Lantern FloatingOn this Memorial Day, an estimated 40,000 people will gather along the shores of Ala Moana Beach Park on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to participate in a Toro Nagashi, a "lantern offerings on the water" ceremony. It’s a way for the living to honor and remember lost loved ones.

Toro Nagashi is a Japanese ritual developed by the Shinnyo-en Buddhist order in 1952. The Memorial Day ceremony made its way to Hawaii in the late 1990s. Participants adorn floating paper lanterns with hand-written messages. And, at dusk, the lanterns are released into the water.

Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike take part in the Hawaiian ceremony, which is now in its 13th year. Where the Water Meets the Sky, the half-hour documentary featured above, offers a window into the lives of people who are drawn to participate.

The Toro Nagashi ceremony provides a way for individuals to publicly grieve a personal loss together with strangers, and to commemorate the links binding past, present, and future generations.

"The ancestors belong to a world beyond which we can imagine," says UC Berkeley Japanese Studies professor Duncan Williams, who appears in the film. “And you use the lanterns to communicate to those who are in the other world.”

Memorial Day Lantern Floating Festival(photo: Alex Porras/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

About the image (top): A young girl holds a glowing lantern inscribed with messages to a mother. (photo: Ryan Ozawa/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

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Drawing Beauty and Decency From Loss

by Krista Tippett, host

I like to say that what we do with this public radio program, one conversation at a time, is trace the intersection of grand religious ideas and human experience — theology and real life. Kate Braestrup embodies this exercise, this adventure.

I discovered her beautiful memoir, Here if You Need Me, somewhat by chance and encountered a bracing wisdom and beauty that are more than borne out in conversation with her.

Kate Braestrup with Game Wardens

Little in Kate Braestrup’s early life pointed to the vocation she has now. She grew up the daughter of a war correspondent for The New York Times, living all over the world. She became, first, a writer. But after she married her husband, Drew Griffith, they moved to a small coastal town in Maine, had four children in eight years, and found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism.

Drew became a state trooper and was preparing to train for a second career as a chaplain to law enforcement officers. Then one day in 1996, he died suddenly in an accident in his squad car. Within a year, Kate had enrolled at Bangor Theological Seminary in his stead.

Kate Braestrup tells a story in her book — a prism of her theology, really — about the day her husband died. She had just gotten the news, and her best friend was with her. The doorbell rang and her friend answered. There on the doorstep was a young man “clad in a spiffy dark suit” holding out a pamphlet. “Have you heard the Good News?” he asked, at which the door was closed in his face. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was an elderly neighbor, pot holders and a pan of brownies in her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks.

good read

She writes:

"That pan of brownies was the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew’s death. … I did not know that my house would be cleaned and the laundry done, that I would have embraces and listening ears, that I would not be abandoned to do the labor of mourning alone. All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News."

Recounting story after story from the work she does now, Kate Braestrup finds the “Good News” — God if you will, love incarnate — in casseroles, in impromptu search parties, in the law enforcement officers who put themselves in the position hour by hour, day by day, to be there and be of service precisely in the midst of danger and disaster they cannot make right again.

From the human dramas in which she becomes implicated, Kate Braestrup gleans and shares insight into the raw processes of human grief and healing — the fact that waiting for news of a missing person is “aching physical labor” the way in which the officer who has just discovered a young woman’s body in the woods becomes “acutely aware of the feel of ordinary ground under the soles of his boots”; the simple, stunning, recurring experience that human beings are equipped, preparing unconsciously in all we do, to deal with unimaginable loss. These losses are final, and yet they have a power to draw beauty and decency into relief, to be tended and redeemed on some level, by the practical care — the human concern — that arises to meet them.

Kate Braestrup makes me think of the formation of Dorothy Day, the 20th-century Catholic social reformer and activist. She was galvanized to create practical everyday communities of care by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which she experienced as an eight-year-old girl living in nearby Oakland. She stood on the street watching for days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. She wondered: Why can’t we live this way, treat each other this way, all the time?

After cataclysmic events both natural and man-made, accounts of courage and help accompany the news of tragedy. Yet they are reported as extraordinary and rarely followed up. Kate Braestrup suggests that this human instinct and capacity to care is more normal, and more reliable, than we imagine.

Among her many bracing reformulations of basic truth, Kate Braestrup notes that we only use the word “miracle” when improbable events go our way. But she inhabits a world where improbable things go wrong, go badly, all the time — and so do the rest of us. Her Unitarian Universalist sensibility is reflected in her sense that Christianity has spent too much time focusing on death as a problem to be solved. This is our culture’s instinct, certainly; and yet as it turns, notions like “solution” and “resolution” are meaningless at the “hinges” of our lives.

Of the deepest lessons she draws from her work in the wilds of Maine, Kate Braestrup writes this: “Sometimes the miracle is a life restored, but the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”

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Complicated Grief: How to Lessen Pain that Persists

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Angel of GriefStatue of an angel grieving in a cemetery in Houston, Texas. (photo: Timothy Faust/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief. ~Aeschylus

UCLA researchers found that grief over losing a loved one can take an extreme form of bereavement, stimulating the part of the brain normally associated with reward and addiction. This is called “complicated grief” and the name alone gives more weight and depth to our varied experiences of loss.

This phrase is being considered for addition to the 2012 DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook for diagnosing mental disorders. There is no formal definition, but The New York Times describes its symptoms as:

"… a yearning for the loved one so intense that it strips a person of other desires. Life has no meaning; joy is out of bounds. Other symptoms include intrusive thoughts about death; uncontrollable bouts of sadness, guilt and other negative emotions; and a preoccupation with, or avoidance of, anything associated with the loss."

Observed differences in brain scans

The nucleus accumbens (NA) is the part of the brain associated with reward and addiction. Participants in the study were asked to view images of their lost loved ones paired with words about their loss. The people who showed the most devastating patterns of grieving also showed more activation in the NA.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, who used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity told the Times: “It’s as if the brain were saying, ‘Yes I’m anticipating seeing this person’ and yet ‘I am not getting to see this person.’ The mismatch is very painful.”

Hope for treatment

Though bereavement research and training is very limited, there are some clinical trials in the works modeling treatment of victims of PTSD.

The patient undergoes the painful task of recalling the death in detail while the therapist records the session on tape. Then the patient must listen to the tape at their home daily with a goal of learning that their grief can be put away or picked up again on their own terms, just as one can do with a tape. Also patients are asked to focus on future goals without their loved one.

Asking a bereaved person to compartmentalize and relive their pain in this way sounds painful, even insensitive. However, the method has shown signs of success and is an important early step in understanding this underserved population of sufferers.

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Two Friends Who Could Have Been Enemies: Forgiveness and Mercy from a Mother to Her Son’s Killer

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Mary Johnson and Oshea IsraelMary Johnson and Oshea Israel (photo: Brian Mogren)

The death of one’s child, I’ve been told by several people, including my grandmother, is something you never get over. My uncle Dennis died of an accidental gunshot wound when he was a young boy living on a farm outside of New Rockford, North Dakota. My grandma once said that she’d rather lose a husband or her parents before she ever lost another child again. Nearly four decades later, the pain is physically present, palpable and thick with grief and sorrow. It breaks my heart to think about it. And Dennis’ death was just an unfortunate accident.

So what Mary Johnson endured 18 years ago and has seen her way through is almost incomprehensible, but it’s a marvelous story to behold. 

“I just hugged the man who murdered my son.”

Necklace with Pictures of Mary Johnson and Her SonIn 1993, Oshea Israel was a teenage gang member in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One night at a party, he got into a fight with Laramiun Byrd — Mary Johnson’s only child — pulled a gun, and shot and killed him.

Convicted of second-degree murder, Israel was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Twelve years after his sentencing, Johnson asked to meet her son’s killer.

The experience transformed both Israel and Johnson. Now 34, Oshea has finished serving his prison sentence. They are friends working together to share their story.

In this interview from StoryCorps (audio above), they speak in loving terms about one another and talk about forgiveness, pain, and the love and mercy of a woman who embraces a man she could rightfully have hated.

Unnatural deaths caused by accidents are unbearable enough, but to lose a child at the willing hands of another individual, I imagine for most parents, might precipitate into bitterness, anger, rage. For Mary Johnson, it became a redemptive moment, an opportunity to transcend the violence. She founded From Death to Life, an organization that supports mothers who have lost children to homicide, and encourages forgiveness between families of murderers and victims. And, Oshea Israel, he’s going to college.

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I’ll be honest, it was not a great feeling that night. It was a good feeling that we got pulses back, but there was nothing in history to tell me he would survive this and that he could recover [with his brain intact]. I wasn’t sure we had done the right thing for him.
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Bruce Goodman, a flight paramedic with the Mayo Clinic’s Medical Transport unit who resuscitated a man without a pulse after 96 minutes had passed.

The Wall Street Journal reports this incredible story while explaining how new technologies such as the capnograph, which measures carbon dioxide levels of patients, are being used to revive what were once lost causes. As the paramedic indicates, ethical questions abound when it comes to weighing the results of bringing someone back to life after such a long period of time without brain damage.

On a lighter note, the cardiac arrest victim had the best line:

"I’m a regular guy. I happened to die at the right place at the right time."

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Words of Wisdom Upon the Death of the World’s Oldest Man
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A little more than an hour northwest of our studios in St. Paul, Minnesota is the small town of Melrose. And, on September 21, 1896, in that rural farming village just off of what is now known as Interstate 94 was born Walter Breuning, “the world’s oldest man” as officially declared by the 2011 Guinness Book of World Records. He died on Thursday in Great Falls, Montana at the age of 114.
Breuning started working for the Great Northern Railway in 1913 and retired when he was 66. The railroad man, whose life spanned three centuries, leaves some sage advice to the rest of us:
"Tell the truth from the go" (it works out better and doesn’t kill you).

Eat only two meals per day (breakfast and lunch).

Pay cash for everything (you’ll spend more if you charge).

Embrace change (even the computer).

Keep the body busy (even strolling the halls with your walker).

And be kind to others:

"Everybody learns from life what’s going on. And if they pay  attention to everything that people do, especially helping people,  that’s one big thing. A lot of people think they’re born for themselves;  I don’t think that. I believe that we’re here to help other people all  the way through."


Oh, and one other important piece of advice, don’t fear death:

"So many people are afraid to die, and there’s no use being afraid. You’re born to die — everybody. Eventually that’s what happens, and  maybe it’s good, maybe bad. It depends on what you did during your life. If you take care of your life, God will take care of you. Amen."


All photos by John Moore/Getty Images

Words of Wisdom Upon the Death of the World’s Oldest Man

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

A little more than an hour northwest of our studios in St. Paul, Minnesota is the small town of Melrose. And, on September 21, 1896, in that rural farming village just off of what is now known as Interstate 94 was born Walter Breuning, “the world’s oldest man” as officially declared by the 2011 Guinness Book of World Records. He died on Thursday in Great Falls, Montana at the age of 114.

Breuning started working for the Great Northern Railway in 1913 and retired when he was 66. The railroad man, whose life spanned three centuries, leaves some sage advice to the rest of us:

"Tell the truth from the go" (it works out better and doesn’t kill you).

Walter Breuning, the "World's Oldest Man"

Eat only two meals per day (breakfast and lunch).

Walter Breuning, the "World's Oldest Man"

Pay cash for everything (you’ll spend more if you charge).

Walter Breuning, the "World's Oldest Man"

Embrace change (even the computer).

Walter Breuning, the "World's Oldest Man"

Keep the body busy (even strolling the halls with your walker).

Walter Breuning, the "World's Oldest Man"

And be kind to others:

"Everybody learns from life what’s going on. And if they pay attention to everything that people do, especially helping people, that’s one big thing. A lot of people think they’re born for themselves; I don’t think that. I believe that we’re here to help other people all the way through."

Walter Breuning, the "World's Oldest Man"

Oh, and one other important piece of advice, don’t fear death:

"So many people are afraid to die, and there’s no use being afraid. You’re born to die — everybody. Eventually that’s what happens, and maybe it’s good, maybe bad. It depends on what you did during your life. If you take care of your life, God will take care of you. Amen."

Walter Breuning, the "World's Oldest Man"

All photos by John Moore/Getty Images

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Completely Free to Be Vulnerable: Martha Depp on Art and Cancer

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

This afternoon we received the following email from Ben Depp, a photographer whose sister Martha, an artist and art teacher, was diagnosed with an advanced form of ovarian cancer:

"I put together a six-minute film on her art, life, and cancer. I think this is a good fit for your blog because of her spiritual journey through her cancer process, and it’s very interesting because of how she illustrated the process with painting and drawing. Her blog has touched thousands including many with terminal cancer.”

I don’t know why, but I started watching Ben’s quietly touching video, half expecting an against all odds type of story. It wasn’t to be.

Martha died this past Thursday at the age of 33. May she rest in peace with that brand new body she was awaiting:

"Physically, healing hasn’t happened. I mean, obviously, I still have cancer, and I’m obviously going to die from it. And it’s all over my body. But I’m kind of happy about that because I get to go to heaven sooner and be healed and get a new body and be from pain and suffering, and tears. No more tears."

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Live Video: In the Room with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish "I Shall Not Hate"when: Thursday, February 10th, 2011
time: 2-2:30 pm CST
where: Being LIVE

Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor who first came to our attention when shells hit his home in the Gaza Strip and killed his three daughters and niece, will sit down with Kate Moos, executive producer of On Being, for a one-on-one interview about his experiences growing up in a refugee camp and his hopes for a new road to peace.

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Charles Wright Reads “Together” (video)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The PBS NewsHour's “weekly poem” on their Art Beat blog is a favorite of mine. And Charles Wright's recitation while sitting in his study during the depth of winter resonates deep within. And, although the reading is nice, seeing the poem laid out on the page truly brings the poem to life.

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"Sorrowful Songs" Composer Henryk Górecki‎ Left This World Today

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Henryk Mikolaj GoreckiHenryk Górecki‎ died today. He was 76 years old. Like many others, I’ll be forever moved by the second movement of the Polish composer’s masterful Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — a glint of beauty that is ours to keep forever. NPR’s Thomas Huizenga writes:

"The symphony, which Gorecki wrote in 1976, is centered on three texts — including a prayer inscribed by a teenager on a cell wall of a Gestapo headquarters — which the composer turned into haunting laments, backed by simple, slowly churning surges of beautiful music."

The excerpt above features soprano Isabel Bayrakdaraian and Sinfonietta Cracovia, conducted by John Axelrod, performing Górecki’s masterpiece for Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz. And, if you haven’t heard Dawn Upshaw’s 1992 version that catapulted his work to international fame, I recommend purchasing the recording right away.

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If you were the one who had metastatic cancer—or, for that matter, a similarly advanced case of emphysema or congestive heart failure—what would you want your doctors to do?
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-Atul Gawande in "Letting Go", New Yorker

Ever since I joined Speaking of Faith, there has been editorial talk about wanting wise voices on death, or more specifically, end-of-life.  Recently we came across this insightful article in the New Yorker, and a follow-up interview on Fresh Air, that have bumped this up on our priority list.  In Krista’s words - “it is time for us to take this on.” 

What are your stories about approaching end-of-life, or end-of-life medical care?

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

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