When he was teaching a course on bereavement and death at a liberal arts college within the State University of New York system more than a quarter of a century ago, Dr. Louis LaGrand was euphemistically called the “death man” by some of his colleagues. It’s a label he still carries and does not shrink from.
The author of eight books and numerous articles, LaGrand is known world-wide for his research on the extraordinary experiences (EEs) of the bereaved, otherwise known as after-death communication.“ I’ve devoted my life to studying and supporting the presence of EEs in mourners’ lives because of the life-giving force of hope, optimism, and possibility they inspire,” he writes in his 2006 book, Love Lives On. “EEs are truly a reservoir of insight that can be available to anyone who is willing to accept them. They give us peace and hope for the future, and the spiritual strength to adapt to loss and accept the new routines demanded by the changes in our lives. They can give us a new perspective and awareness we never previously experienced. And the belief in the mystery surrounding them will give birth to inner healing, encouragement, and unspeakable awe.”
A distinguished service professor emeritus at State University of New York, LaGrand is a certified grief counselor and gives workshops on grief support and stress reduction in schools, hospices, and health agencies around the country and abroad.
LaGrand holds advanced degrees from Columbia University, the University of Notre Dame, and Florida State University. He is currently bereavement coordinator at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Venice, Florida.
I recently put some questions to Dr. LaGrand by e-mail:
How did you become interested in this whole area of dying, death, hospice, bereavement, and grief counseling?
“It all began for me about 40 years ago. I was a college basketball coach and teaching a course in the Health Sciences titled Critical Issues in Human Ecology at the State University of New York at Potsdam. I attended a conference along with several other colleagues, one who was a nurse at the local high school. On the way home, which was an eight-hour drive, she proceeded to tell me about a lecture she attended on dying and death. I realized how little I knew about the topic and decided I needed a crash course on the subject. The next semester, I included a short mini-course on the topic of death in the Human Ecology course and the students loved it. Within the space of a year I was able to get approval for the first full semester course on dying and death to be taught at the college. Of course, this meant I had to do a lot of study and preparation which brought me to joining the Association for Death Education and Counseling. There I learned much over the years from colleagues I befriended. I also ended up as one of the founders of Hospice of St Lawrence Valley, Inc. and the President of the board of directors.”
What is your general philosophy in dealing with the dying and the bereaved?
“I believe that most people who are mourning, as well as the dying (who are mourning all of their relationships to the world), have the innate inner wisdom to deal with the massive changes they face. What is most important for them is to have a friend or support system that realizes that their presence alone is crucial. They don’t have to try to fix them or have them mourn or die according to some fixed agenda. It is their dying and their mourning. Let them prepare for the transition as they see fit. This means having caregivers who are great listeners and very sensitive to nonverbal communication. There are probably as many mourning and dying styles as there are life styles. We are all different, even though we possess many similarities. Yet, being there with the person, being able to be around pain, says much about the love and concern that is needed. And, at some point, the dying person may very well want to be alone. I’m convinced that many people decide when they want to leave their body. Some people let go when all the caregivers (family in this case) have gone home. Some dying people wish to spare their loved ones the anguish of seeing them die and do so when they leave the room.”
I attended a hospice lecture two years ago in which the speaker said that the key to a good death is “making the most of each day,” or “living life to the fullest.” The objective of the hospice worker, it was said, was to make the patient comfortable and help him “smell the roses,” so to speak. Not one word was mentioned about what might come after death. Is that generally the philosophy in hospice work?
“Hospice philosophy does not push knowledge about an afterlife on its patients. This does not mean that the topic does not come up. Hospice personnel allow the dying person to take the lead in this regard. And, in some instances, depending on the nature of the relationship with the dying person and the caregiver, the latter might make an inquiry about these beliefs. Also, some dying people want to talk about it. Others do not. Again, if the person doesn’t wish to talk about an afterlife, the caregiver backs off. And keep in mind, hospices like hospitals, can be very different depending on who are in leadership positions as well as in the trenches. Their value systems, fears, and philosophy can impact the way the hospice operates. Generally, I would say that hospices assist in helping the dying person live their dying according to their style.”
Assuming you have read The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, I’m wondering if you can tell me what made that book a national bestseller. What did Oprah and others find so profound? He pretty much said the same thing as the speaker at the hospice conference, all common sense stuff. What did I miss?
“First, I believe most books on death or bereavement, if given the proper exposure in the media, can become bestsellers. Proper exposure simply means being pushed on national television and radio shows by a professional or an agent, if you have that kind of money to spend. If you or I could get Oprah to recommend our books we would be making our publishers extremely happy. On the other hand, I think that the willingness of Randy Pausch to talk about his death in such an open and fearless way attracts the attention of many people, especially in a society that is death denying such as ours. Not too many people would bare their souls as he did and he is to be greatly admired for all of the people he educated with his honesty and sincerity. Most important, and one of his major motivations for writing the book, was his children. He was able to teach them some worthy principles, not the least of which is the courage to face what life hands you, and help them know him better as they grew up without the physical presence of a father. Finally, I think most of the common sense things you heard at the hospice lecture are not verbalized enough or put in writing for the general public. When put in print by a dying person many are awed by what they read and wonder if they could be as courageous in opening up their feelings.”
Do you encounter conflicts with representatives of orthodox religion in discussing after-death communication and other spirit phenomena? If so, how do you deal with this?
“Yes, there are some denominations in orthodox religion who believe the devil is behind much of the communication that is claimed by mourners. However, Catholics and Episcopalians (and others) are open to the possibility by way of the Doctrine of the Communion of Saints. One of the most authoritative spokesmen of the Roman Catholic Church, The Rev. Gino Concetti, chief theological commentator for the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, raised eyebrows among the faithful by declaring that the Church believes in the feasibility of communication with the dead. Here is a quote from the Reverend: ‘Communication is possible between those who live on this earth and those who live in a state of eternal repose, in heaven or purgatory. It may even be that God lets our loved ones send us messages to guide us at certain moments in our life.’ However, this statement does not include the work of mediums. When I deal with a conflict, as I did once with a Baptist minister, I let the person do all the talking and make no attempt to change their views. Why? Because both sides hold extremely strong views and I believe it’s a waste of time to try to change the other.”
Do you see a very positive correlation between a belief in survival and acceptance of death, either to self or to loved ones?
“Without a doubt with mourners. Those who are strong believers in the survival hypotheses, in my experience are more open to accepting the death of a loved one. They believe the beloved is in a better place, out of pain, and most comforting, that there will be a reunion one day. There will always be a relationship and death cannot take it away. This also implies that they are still loved and have an advocate on the other side. Love lives on and never dies. Acceptance of the death does not mean they like the situation in any way, shape or form. Rather, acceptance means they acknowledge the death (or their dying) and are willing to live with the changes they are destined to face.”
Have you encountered many cases in which a hospice patient who does not believe in survival lived his final days without struggling or “hanging on”?
“In my experience, every dying person is unique, one of a kind. Or you could say, each individual dies as they have lived. I have seen little difference in how one dies if they believe in an afterlife or do not believe in one. Some are very accepting of their deaths and are more concerned about how their loved ones will get along. Others have some fear of the unknown. Still others will deny their deaths right up to the end. This can be very disturbing to family members. Yet, denial of one’s death may be the only coping mechanism a person possesses and can employ, and we have to be very careful about taking that away by trying to get the individual to understand that death is near. It would only greatly add to their anxiety. On the other hand, I have talked with hospice nurses who say that they feel that nonbelievers tend to be, as they put it, “more restless towards the end.” Again, there are wide variations in how people die and we need to respect individual choices; it is their dying, not ours. Also, most dying people want close family and friends around for a while so they can say their goodbyes. At some point, however, they do tend to go within and seek peace. The last words of my father, who I saw take his last breath, to his sister who was trying to keep him engaged with life was, ‘Please leave me alone.’ He died shortly after. He was a believer, and was ready to go.”
Dr. LaGrande’s website is at http://www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com/