Emotional Will: Leave more than your jewellery & junk

Emotional Will

Yesterday I started writing my Emotional Will at the inaugural workshop created and hosted by my friend, Rhonda Smedley and her wonderful Walkerville Connect & Thrive with Age team. What’s an Emotional Will? It records the essence of you: your memories, special moments, favourite things and letters you write to the special people in your life to be given to them after your death. It’s handwritten which I found hard (is my writing even legible?) yet adds so much to the creative making process and to the reading by future generations. I know this to be true from reading handwritten letters on beautiful paper and on those thin-papered blue airmail letters from past generations in my family. A friend also shared on facebook that “I still read my Grandmother’s letters to give me comfort”.  Am thinking I might also make a digital copy so my writing can be deciphered by my great great great grandkids and some photos and videos added to give it more life.

Emotional Will peeking out in the flap on inside back cover of the book; Dying To Know: Bringing death to life.

I first came across the concept of an Emotional Will a few years ago in the beautiful Australian book Dying To Know: Bringing death to life. It’s a cute little folded sheet of grey paper invitingly tucked into a red envelope flap on the inside back cover. Unfolded, the page draws you in to hand write, in the lined space provided, “some personal thoughts and messages to those close to you” under the prompts:

  • Your favourite recipe. It was Grandmas’s. Now you are its guardian
  • This is a book I am going to really miss. Think of me if ever you read it.
  • Here’s my favourite joke. Dad left it to me, now you must keep it alive.
  • Thank you for this memory. I treasure it.
  • I always wanted to tell you this but was too shy/afraid/embarrassed.
  • I cant remember whether I’ve told you this before but …
  • There is something I have learned that I would like you to know.
  • If you watch this film, think of me. It was my favourite.
  • Have you ever thought about trying …. I reckon you’d be great at it.

I remember thinking this was such a special, important, good thing to do. Answers to those prompts flooded into my head. That was several years ago and I have done nothing about it. I always feel like I have plenty of time to do this end-of-life stuff, but what if I don’t and my final breath is unexpectedly my next one. That is why this workshop yesterday was so powerful. It creates a space in our busy lives to actually put pen to paper and get something written. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just write from the heart in the moment. We know our memories, our fav things and the things we want to and need to say to those we love. The workshop was 3 hours in the morning and we will repeat this for the next 2 Mondays.

A few years ago The Groundswell Project was inspired by the Dying To Know: Bringing death to life book and created the annual Dying To Know Day on the 8th of August every year. They also created the 10 Things To Know Before You Go workshop which introduced Emotional Wills, with their starting point prompts:

  • ” Describe a time in your life that you showed great courage
  • Describe a time when you experienced joy
  • Do you have any regrets? How have these shaped your life?
  • What do you remember about your grandparents?
  • What were your parents like?
  • Who were your mentors and how did they help shape you?
  • What is your first memory?
  • What is your most memorable childhood experience?
  • What was school like for you?
  • What was your first paid job?
  • Did you have a childhood sweetheart? Share a story about this.
  • Where is your most favourite place? Describe it as vividly as you can.

Inspired by these people and ideas, I explain with excitement and encourage attendees in my Pushing Up Daisies workshop to write their Emotional Will. Now I am enjoying practicing what I facilitate others to do and am actually completing my own end-of-life planning.

Pushing Up Daisies Workshop

It was a nurturing experience being part of the group for a change rather than the facilitator out the front. We are an intimate group of 10. We were welcomed with a hot cuppa and a clear folder with a blank white sticker on the front and several good quality stock white A4 pages inside accompanied by one of those pens that are just a joy to write with. Our facilitator, Viviana Diaz (also a friend), gently guided us through the process. She explained what an Emotional Will is, how the workshop would work and we briefly introduced ourselves to the group. Then the tactile creative making began. We wrote our name on the blank white sticker and took our the first page – the title page – where we again wrote our name and the date. The rest of the morning whizzed by as we fell back into a featherbed of childhood, teenage and adulthood experiences that threw up the memories like feathers floating through the air. Which ones to grab hold of and write about before they disappear again? There are just so many and with them … emotions; the full range, expressed as tears – happy tears, sad tears and everything in between. The little packs of tissues on the table were greatly appreciated by a few of us as we muffled our quiet sobs, blotted our runny noses and dabbed our weeping eyes. Beautiful acoustic guitar music played quietly in the background. The page headings offered us places to land and start writing:

  • Memories about my grandparents
  • Memories about my parents
  • A special mentor/teacher in my life
  • Grateful about our relationship
  • Special people in my life

We stopped for a break and a cuppa after sharing some of the memories with the group. It was wonderful to see each person light up as they were transported back in time to those wonderful moments with their dearly loved Grandparents and parents; who sadly many are now dead. The little details and sensory descriptions of the place and time brought the stories to life for those who listened. Our memories bounced off each other, triggering even more to come floating by. When one person shared a story about food and her grandparents I remembered Pop’s cheese in our family – so I jotted down a note to remind myself to write that into my Emotional Will. Mum made sure we always had Pop’s cheese in our fridge. So when I was about 8ish-9ish (I think) I remember walking up the hill to the corner grocery store and confidently asking for Pop’s cheese. The shopkeeper was very kind and tried so hard to work out what cheese I was actually after but to no avail. Turns our Pop’s cheese is blue vein cheese which was my Pop’s fav. The memory I shared with the group was about my Pop who I adored and he adored me; my Mum’s Dad – the only Grandparent I knew. He lived in New Zealand, originally from Wales, “Butcher-by-trade” as he would introduce himself suffering chronic breathing problems from working in the coal mines and being gassed in the war. He didn’t have much money but would always send me the most gorgeous ‘baby-doll pyjamas’ (as Mum would call them) and would save up and travel to visit us in Sydney every few years. Our ritual was to walk up the hill to the bus stop hand-in-hand (which he found so hard with his breathing but never complained), catch the bus into the city, see a musical theatre show – always in a box seat, letting us be up close to the action, seeing the expressions and the colourful costumes in detail. I remember Fiddler on the Roof as a sensory standout. Afterwards, we would walk to the fish markets and buy fresh cooked prawns and travel back home by bus. Sitting across from each other on our small, white and grey-flecked, laminated kitchen table we would peel the prawns, putting the shells and guts into the white paper they came in and the peeled prawns into a bowl, with every other prawn popped straight into our mouths with a shared wink and a giggle. Mum would be there preparing dinner, peeling the veges, and listening to our adventure. Then we would eat the prawns with salt and white vinegar with fresh soft brown bread with lashings of butter. I can still taste it. Happy times.

A special reflective quiet space had been created by one of the team, Helen, from flowers in her garden. Each element represented something meaningful to support our morning such as rosemary for remembrance and lavendar to caress our emotions with beautiful roses and their perfume triggering all sorts of memories. In the morning tea break I spent some time there enjoying the moment and coming back into the present moment.

After the break Viviana handed out more sheets with more headings to jog our memories:

  • My first paid job
  • School for me was …
  • My top 10 movies
  • My top 10 songs
  • My top 10 books
  • My favourite recipe

I didn’t finish many of the sheets, in fact I asked for more pages on the Grandparents and Parents sections and still have more to write. We have the rest of this week to write what comes to mind and then we will no doubt have additional topics next week to work with. The end result will be a bound book. My writing feels and looks atrocious to me! I have not handwritten for years and it feels like my writing cannot keep up with my thoughts – also it looks illegible in places. I am trusting in the making process knowing research (in the beautiful book: The Thinking Hand) supports that the gesture of handwriting has a different impact on the brain and creativity than typing on a keyboard.

Sample of my hand writing

Am also keen to write individual letters to special people in my life. These will be written on beautiful paper, sealed in colourful envelopes and stored in a pocket in the Emotional Will book. I already know that some letters will be for people who are hopefully still living after my death and they will be given my letter. Other letters will be written to people close to me who have died; the process letting me bring to life what remains left unsaid in my heart. Those letters will remain in my Emotional Will for future generations to read after my death. And interestingly, I sense I want to write letters to a couple of dear friends who I unthinkingly hurt deeply many years ago by my inconsiderate actions and as a result they are sadly no longer in my life. I do not want these letters given to them because I do not want them to have to relive times that caused them pain; in fact I will probably have a ritual and burn them. It is more the act of writing what needs to be let loose from my heart, to forgive myself, as I never expect or will ask them to forgive me. So this Emotional Will handwriting exercise seems to offers a powerful releasing process that will hopefully allow peace, joy and love to reign in my heart.

My family know where they can find the folder with my will, advance care directive, enduring power of attorney and other legal and personal documents that I have created and brought together in one place. But there is more to to do and to add. Next edition to my end-of-life folder will be my completed Emotional Will. I hope some of the prompts in this post encourage you to pick up a pen and start writing. What a gift from you to future generations in your family!

What is the current mortality rate in Australia?

Mortality rates remains at 100% - Things To Know Before You Go workshop

Despite huge advances in modern medicine the mortality rate in Australia continues to be 100%. Shock? Yes, the one thing we all have in common is that … we are going to die. Yet 60% of us here in Australia think we don’t talk enough about death.

To overcome this, over the last 5 years I have been facilitating community conversations and events that raise our death literacy and capacity for end-of-life planning. Hundreds of people have generously shared their stories and insights at Death Cafes, Death Over Dinner, Dying To Know Day, speaking engagements and on my pop-up Before I Die Wall.

Launch of Pushing Up Daisies Workshop

A few days ago I launched a values-based workshop – Pushing Up Daisies: Building your death literacy and capacity for practical and creative end-of-life planning – with a pilot group of 14 wonderful, courageous people as part of the Connect and Thrive with Age program funded by SA Health. The workshop explores death in Australia in the 21st century and how you can creatively, practically and cost-effectively respond. I have incorporated all I have been experiencing and learning in this space over the last 7 years into the workshop, supported by the latest research. In a welcoming safe space, we explore answers to questions such as:

  • What is death?
  • How long will I live?
  • What will I die of?
  • Where will I die?
  • Do I need a funeral director?
  • Bury or burn or … ?
  • What’s important to me?
  • How to communicate my wishes?
  • Can I grow with grief?

We do this by looking at what’s happening in Australia right now in each of these areas and then think about what that means for us and what we would like to do in-line with our beliefs and values. So it’s a very personal, hands-on, practical experience and you walk away with resources and a doable action plan.

The workshop was hosted by the Connect and Thrive With Age team, headed up by Rhonda Smedley; at the Uniting Church hall at Walkerville last Friday 9th August. The light lunch and refreshments were mouth-wateringly delicious as always! Homemade everything from generous-sized mugs of pumpkin soup with think crusty fresh bread to an array of slices with nuts and fruit. In fact one of the feedback suggestions was a longer break to enjoy more of that scrumptious food!

The top values when thinking about death were:

  • Not being alone
  • Not being a burden on family and friends
  • Being able to say goodbye to loved ones
  • Staying active and independent for as long as possible
  • Being able to have fresh air
  • Being an advocate for someone who is dying
  • Being informed about my illness and treatment
  • Quality of life over length of life

Some of the insights gained by the group were:

  • The importance of getting on with my Advanced Care Directive and Enduring Power of Attorney and that they can be uploaded to My Health Record.
  • I was pleased that the research that I have conducted, was affirmed by your event. This gives me the confidence to continue with my checklist and to be bold in conducting conversations.
  • The need to talk to my children about end of life plans.
  • Keep all important documents and information in one, easy to find, folder.
  • It is so important to discuss death/funeral wishes with your family as when you ask them what they would like, they haven’t even thought about it and therefore don’t even know what they want.

Kind words …

And some lovely kind words were shared about the workshop:

  • Death is not an easy topic to discuss but Abby made each and everyone of us feel comfortable, enabling us to talk openly and honestly.
  • It was interesting, interactive, the right length of time and compassionate. Well done.
  • Attending the workshop has created much interesting discussion with my family and also work colleagues.
  • The workshop has empowered me with knowledge and resources that I may one day need to use and has allowed me to think about what I would really like when I die.
  • Great to receive information about many end of life issues and a safe environment to discuss these in.
  • Loved how you started the workshop as it got us all thinking and talking. I was interested in the reactions and interpretations from each member of the group.
  • Attending the workshop was time very well spent. Much good practical advice associated with death, bereavement and funeral planning was dispensed. Many myths associated with the funeral industry were dispelled.
  • Abby’s caring and thoughtful facilitation brought together a diverse group of participants creating a safe learning space to explore death, dying and getting organised. To consider, plan and not be afraid. I felt blessed to share this time with my sister as we share life, living and the inevitably of leaving this place.
  • Thank you for a professional, entertaining and informative workshop. Talking about Death and Dying is clearly a topic that you are comfortable talking with and about to others. During the workshop a few members of the group had difficulty in speaking; were overwhelmed by their grief and loss. Your knowledge, confidence, experiences, understanding and compassion were clearly demonstrated, enabling them to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Book a workshop

I would love to facilitate this important workshop for your workplace, community group or family and friends. We need this information back in our communities. Call me on 0409 830 927 or email me on abby@ourfamilycelebrant.com.au to make it happen for you and your group.

What does a girl wear … to her grave?

natural burial shrouded body in natural fibre

I am keen on a natural burial where I can be buried in either a shroud or a coffin. Whatever I am cocooned in needs to be organic and biodegradable as per the SA Burial & Cremation Act 2013. For this post I am musing about my perfect shroud. So what does a girl wear to her natural burial grave?

In deciding what to wear I will be guided by my social ecological values which are based around kindness and connection with all. I also LOVE crocheting. So how cool would it be to crochet my own shroud that decomposes to compost quickly and looks beautiful!!

Paper – the perfect fibre for the grave

The perfect fibre would of course be paper. “Paper garments for the grave” was an arts based project in Burnie Tasmania in 2015. Ten Tasmanian paper artists designed and made paper garments following six months of conversations, exploring community, death, dying loss and grief. The exhibit that grabbed my attention was the crocheted shroud made of paper called Fibre of my Being by Pam Thorne. Another was Anzara Clark’s poignant bitter-sweet exhibit “Christening shroud” made of paper in honour of her grandson, Cody, who died in utero 10 years ago .

Pia Interlandi and Pam Thorne beneath Pam’s shroud titled Fibre of my Being
paper Christening-Shroud - Anzara Clark 2015
Christening-Shroud | paper | Anzara Clark | 2015

To be kind and connect with the earth, my accoutrements and adornments need to fall away from my body quickly and alchemise as fast as possible into compost. So beside paper, what materials does that include? Am thinking animal and plant fibres. I found comprehensive lists here which I have copied below.

Animal fibres

AlpacaAlpacaSoft, warmth, lightweight
Angora woolAngora rabbitSoftness, blends well with other fibres
AzlonSyntheticSoft, silky, hygroscopic, also known as Aralac
ByssusPinna nobilisWarmth, lightweight
Camel hairArabian ña / Guanaco / South America camelid varietiesSoftness, warmth
Cashmere woolIndian cashmere goatSoftness
ChiengoraDogFluffy, lightweight
LambswoolLambsSoftness, elasticity, warmth
LlamaLlamaLightweight, insulating
Mohair woolNorth African angora goatDyes well, lightweight
QiviutMuskoxenSoftness, warmth
SilkSilk wormSmooth fabric finish with high shine
VicuñaVicuñaExpensive, luxurious, soft
YakWild YakHeavy, warmth

Plant fibres

AbacáAbaca plantThin, lightweight
AcetateWood PulpLustrous, thermoplastic
BambooGrass pulpLightweight, pliable fibre
BananaBanana plant pseudostem/leavesWarm, thick, durable
KapokPentandra treeFluffy
CoirCoconutStrength, durability
CottonShrubLightweight, absorbent
FlaxHerbaceous plantLightweight, absorbent, used to make linen
HempCannabisStrength, durability
JuteVegetable plant in linden familyStrength,durability
KenafHibiscus cannabinusRough
LyocellEucalyptus TreeSoft, lightweight, absorbent
ModalBeech treeSoftness, lightweight
PiñaPineapple leafSoft, lightweight
RaffiaRaffia palmCarpet/rough
RamieFlowering plant in nettle familyHeavy, tough
RayonWood PulpSoft, lightweight, absorbent
SisalAgave sisalanaStrength, durability
Soy proteinTofu-manufacturing wasteWooly, lightweight

My eye was drawn to the “attribute” column. mmmm thinking comfort attributes like warm, wooly, insulating, soft, rough, silky, fluffy are not really relevant to this decision from a practical viewpoint – my body won’t care if its cosy and warm in its eternal yet ephemeral wrap. However these attributes add to the aesthetic quality that is important to me – both for the sensual enjoyment of the making process and for the sensual feel for the people wrapping my body. The fibre needs to decompose quickly so attributes of strength, heavy, durability, tough, thick do not apply. So my choice is from the fibres with attributes of lightweight, absorbent and thin plus the comfort attributes. Am thinking that animal fibres would be more durable than plant fibres plus using animals would have suffered in some way to provide me their yarn. The attribute “absorbent” seems to jump out at me as important – in case my body is leaking anywhere an absorbent garment would be beneficial. So that leaves lightweight, absorbent plant fibers to choose from.

My revised list looks like this:

Fibre Source Attribute
Abacá Abaca plant Thin, lightweight
Bamboo Grass pulp Lightweight, pliable fibre
Cotton Shrub Lightweight, absorbent
Flax Herbaceous plant Lightweight, absorbent, used to make linen
Lyocell Eucalyptus Tree Soft, lightweight, absorbent
Modal Beech tree Softness, lightweight
Piña Pineapple leaf Soft, lightweight
Rayon Wood Pulp Soft, lightweight, absorbent
Soy protein Tofu-manufacturing waste Wooly, lightweight

When researching these fibres I came across the concept of sustainable vegan fibres – it turns out some plant fibres are more sustainable than others..

What is Abaca? Abaca is similar to banana leaf, native to the Phillipines and is labour intensive to harvest and process. It is used mainly for paper production. Finding out about Abaca made me think I would like a fibre that is produced as close to where I live as possible to reduce distribution transport environmental costs.

I also then started thinking about the other production chain costs/impacts of growing, harvesting, manufacturing and end-of-life biodegradablity of each fibre.

It turns out modal, rayon, bamboo and lyocell are semi-synthetic fibers because they are not natural fibres produced straight from the plant, they go through an intensive chemical manufacturing process that breaks down the cellulose so it can be “regenerated” into a fiber from the original pulp. So they are now off my list.

Pina from pineapples is luxurious, expensive and is from the Phillipines so that is also off the list.

Soy protein caught my interest: “The first use of soy in textiles was in the 1930s, when Henry Ford produced car-seat upholstery with a blend of soybean and sheep’s wool. Soy yarn fiber comes from the byproducts of the tofu and soy-food industry. The useable soybean leftovers are called okara, which is in liquid form. Through a process called wet-spinning, soy proteins are extracted from the okara and dried. The dried proteins are then spun into yarn, either the dried soy protein by itself or with other fibers such as wool or cotton. The operation is eco-friendly and leaves little to no waste.” (source). I was unable to find any Australian made soy fibre so this fibre is also off my list as I cannot source it locally.

That leaves cotton and flax. Both of which are grown in Australia. The modern process has reduced the amount of water and chemicals needed during growing, harvesting and processing stages. Here is a list of Australian companies that sell Australian cotton yarn, but not all of them sell organic cotton it seems.

It was interesting to learn that cotton takes about 5 months to biodegrade and wool takes about 1-5 years.

Biodegradable Textiles:

  • Cotton: Cotton is one of the most biodegradable fabrics you can have, especially if it is 100% cotton. In a compost, cotton may biodegrade within as little as a week but usually takes about 5 months.[iv]
  • Linen: This very fine material can decompose in as little as two weeks if it is all natural.[v]It is recommended that you cut fabric into small pieces to allow it to decompose better and faster.
  • Wool: Wool (including our cruelty-free alpaca wool) clothing will decompose in about one year but can take as long as five depending on the blend.[vi]
  • Bamboo: Bamboo clothing is becoming more and more popular and is similar to wool in that it takes one year and sometimes longer to biodegrade.[vii]
  • Hemp: Since hemp is derived from plants and is not processed excessively, it is highly biodegradable, breaking down in a short period of time.
  • Silk: This textile is created from the cocoons of silk worms and is also very biodegradable.
  • Rayon: Rayon, modal and lyocell are produced from renewable cellulosic plants such as beech trees, pine trees, and bamboo. All three fibers are biodegradable.  Specifically, Lenzing Viscose® and Lenzing Modal® are produced from sustainably harvested beech trees and Tencel® from sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees.
  • Other biodegradable fashion materials: Textiles such as jute, leaf fibers, and abaca fiber, as well as cork, seeds, shells, nuts, and wood are all compostable.

Then I got side tracked as I was googling Australian organic cotton and found all these wonderful free crochet patterns for market tote bags – which I have been wanting to make one for awhile. Serendipitously the 3 patterns I saved are each made from one of plant fibres I am contemplating using for my shroud – cotton, jute, linen (flax).

Making a tote bag is a relatively short project. By making these 3 bags it will give me an idea of what its like to work with the fibres and what the end result feels like. I will then have more of an idea which fibre will work best for my shroud.

Crocheting my shroud

I have not been able to find a pattern for a crocheted shroud so will also think about the stitch I want to use and make my own pattern. Each of the 3 tote bags has an interesting stitch pattern that could be adapted for a shroud.

Here are the tote bag links:

I am also keen to experiment with paper yarn. On googling paper yarn I learned that the best paper to use is soft and thin like newspaper, toilet paper or tissue paper. I have a lot of newspapers about Robbie’s death – have been looking for a project that will upcycle them into something of meaning for me. Will experiment making a ball of newspaper yarn and crochet that into something. I have a packet of red tissue paper that has sat in my drawer for years so will process that into a ball of paper yarn and crochet a bowl to get an idea of what it’s like to work with. I found a wonderful and hilariously innovative idea of how to quickly create a ball of loo paper yarn by using an electric drill.