- Associated Press - Monday, August 25, 2014

WOODBURY, Minn. (AP) - When the sign of death appeared at the door, Morida Tinucci wasn’t alarmed.

The sign was a butterfly card, a signal that her cancer-ridden mother was dying. Tinucci saw it as the start of a pre-funeral funeral, in which her mother could hear her own eulogies.

“It was an open invitation to the staff and relatives to say goodbye,” said Tinucci, whose mother, Sandra Rabe, died July 24 at age 75.

The butterfly’s message is one aspect of chaplain Basil Owen’s innovative approach to death at Woodbury Senior Living, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1roqgVg ) reported.

Owen drags death out of the dark corners and into the daylight, where people can see it, talk with the dying person and grieve in a positive way. It’s a mentally healthful way for family, friends, staffers and even the dying people themselves to find peace.

“This is how we do death,” said Owen, between his rounds at the 300-resident facility.

Owen worked for years as a counselor for the dying, and he didn’t like what he saw.

He saw that most senior care facilities treated death as if it were shameful. People who run the facilities were worried, he said, about residents being shocked by death.

So death would be kept as inconspicuous as possible. When a resident died, the body would be slipped out quietly, often during the night, often through a back door.

Then, the next day, visitors would show up to find an empty room. People simply vanished.

Other residents could imagine their own demise happening the same way — dying alone, suddenly, and being hauled out without so much as a “rest in peace.”

“What I saw was actually harming people,” Owen said.

Like any business, the centers want to please their customers and don’t like to see them, for example, bursting into tears.

“It makes you uncomfortable,” Owen said. “We are in the health care business. We are not in the death and dying business.”

The death-denying approach was also painful for staff.

“You have been caring for this person for years, and they are dying and you are grieving, but you are not supposed to — that’s what they are taught,” Owen said. “Well, that was just wrong.”

Owen developed an alternative. “The Eternal Butterfly” is his program and philosophy of dealing with death.

When a resident is dying at Woodbury Senior Living, Owen places the butterfly card by the door. The butterfly makes the person’s status public. Neighbors see the card and come in to pay last respects. The family is notified.

“That sets the tone in the room. That is a signal,” Owen said.

The program reduces stress.

Normally, Owen said, family members who rush to a dying parent feel guilty, especially if they live far away and haven’t visited in a long time.

They overreact with displays of concern. “They pounce on any of the little things the staff does wrong. If they see a little bit of scrambled egg on an outfit, they pounce on that,” he said.

But with the butterfly program, relatives know that even if they can’t be present, their loved ones will most likely not die alone and ignored.

“It’s a whole different spin for family members than if you just didn’t care,” Owen said.

After death, the process continues. An announcement is made that the deceased person will be taken out of the building at a certain time.

The body is taken out on a gurney. At the front door, residents and staff gather for a short ceremony that includes a blessing and a prayer.

The “butterfly send-off” at the door serves as a kind of on-site mini-funeral, which accommodates residents who are unable to get to a funeral service.

The same is true for the staff, who often have cared for the dying people for years. The facility has about 100 deaths a year, so staffers can’t be expected to go to every funeral. The doorway ceremonies give them a chance to grieve.

“It sends a powerful message — we are all in this together,” Owen said.

Tinucci said her mother died at 12:35 a.m. July 24, but Owen said he would wait until the next morning to wheel out her body to give others a chance to participate in the send-off.

That morning, Tinucci, exhausted and grief-stricken, followed her mother’s body as it was wheeled out of the building.

Instead of slipping away invisibly, her mother was honored — passing through hallways lined with staff and residents.

At the doorway, she said, “there was a wonderful little blessing.” Her mother’s body was draped in a “beautiful quilt.”

“To be treated with such respect and honored in that way,” Tinucci said, “was a very powerful experience.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com



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