Over sterven… zonder verbinding komen we niet volledig tot bloei.

Lola Rus Hartland workshop over sterven

Not long ago, I met Lola Rus Hartland at Land aan Zee. No idea anymore how she ended up here, but there was an instant warm feeling between her and me and my curiosity to know more about her was instantaneous!  Lola is my age, turned 60, and like me, she left for faraway places in the 1980s to discover life and the world outside the Netherlands (in my case, Belgium). 

But unlike myself, she continued to live in Australia for many years and made her life in the bush there, on a large 80-ha piece of land. Now, due to circumstances, she is back in the Netherlands. She gives workshops on dying and on bereavement counselling. She makes death negotiable. How did she get there and what is special about her vision and approach? 

Hello Lola, 

You are back in the Netherlands after long years. What is it like to be back here? 
Terug zijn en blijven heeft wat voeten in aarde gehad …Ik had niet verwacht hier zo lang te zijn en dat het mijn ‘thuisland’ weer zou worden. Ik kwam hier om voor mijn moeder te zorgen , in de latere fase van haar leven en tot aan haar dood. Maar Moeder werd beter toen ik voor haar zorgen ging en leeft nu nog ! ☺️ Daarnaast kon ik niet terug naar Australië vanwege Corona, ik brak mijn been en was daar ook bijna een jaar mee in de weer, weer een Corona golf en toen een kanker diagnose. Maar daarin vervlochten ook meteen al weer werk, creëren van zingeving en de samenleving hier in Nederland iets willen bieden op hebt gebied van sterven, de dood en rouw. En, niet te vergeten, de connectie met mijn lief, met wie ik al 57 jaar verbonden ben. Nu met de extra dimensie van een relatie die verder gaat dan de vriendschap die we al sinds ons derde levensjaar hadden.

Can you talk a little about how you got stuck in Australia and what exactly this place on earth meant to you? 
After several years in Pakistan, India and Thailand - with forays into Laos and Myanmar (then Burma) - I was in dire need of a 'western society'. A country where I could make myself understood. Where there were fewer cultural differences. While I find those differences wonderful and hugely interesting, I also felt the 'being alone' that such differences create. And I did not want to join the large groups of Westerners living a 'Western' life in another country. So I left for New Zealand. I loved it there! And applied for a residence permit. I had all the points one could gain: money, qualifications that were popular and earned a lot of points, my age. I was sure I could stay. But what I didn't know is that having so many points, only yielded a 'draw ticket'. And to my shock, I was not one of the lucky ones in the first draw. I was given 72 hours to leave... And that's how I ended up in Australia!
I looked for a country where I could work while waiting for the 2nd draw. Even in the second draw, I was not one of the lucky ones and I moved from Melbourne to Sydney, eventually returning to the Netherlands. But it was there that I met my first husband! It was love at first sight. After 10 days he told me: "I think you should marry me" - instead of asking me to marry him, hihi. And 6 weeks later we got married. Even after his death, 3 years later and I was 1 month pregnant with our first child, it was Australia that I chose. The country, the nature, what I could offer our child, and the way of life that would be impossible in the Netherlands, made me stay. Australia for me is Freedom, Nature and also Danger. (But that kept me on my toes enormously). Above all, it is a way of life. Grounded and with Nature. I feel very much at home there. 

How did you come to discuss the topic of death? 
Death was a recurring thing from my teenage years onwards. My teenage - and also young adult - friends died in various ways: accident, suicide, illness and murder. It soon became clear that death was not just for old people. As a 21-year-old social worker, I had a client not much younger than myself who, due to gross errors by medical staff, gave birth to a healthy, perfect but dead baby. And I instinctively shot into the role I still have now and again: end-of-life doula. I don't know how I knew how to do it. But demanded that the child be brought back to her (NOW!) and for the three days that followed, I collected the baby from the 'cooling room' in the morning, brought the girl to my client and spent the day with her. We had washed her, rubbed her with oil, put on the clothes they had chosen for her, combed her hair. Wrapped in a blanket, her mum and dad could hold her. And family and friends could come and see and meet this little person. In 1984, not yet something that was done in a hospital. The three of us and a funeral director put her in a casket and buried her on the fourth day. When my husband died in Australia, it became very clear how differently people looked at being buried at home and doing a lot themselves in organising a funeral. And then I decided, that when I get space in the future (after raising our child) I want to change the landscape of death... Fortunately, at that time I still had a good number of years of life experiences to come. Because those too brought me a lot. Over the years, I learnt that life is stretched very long (too long) in many cases. And how fear makes people enter into very long agony. I experienced first-hand how it is that we all walk our path and that although we can walk beside one another and be supportive, we cannot take away the pain. But the role of 'Silent Witness' is very, very important. That 'living grief' is also deep, very profound and never-ending... And so on. And when I finally stepped into this work full-time in 2015, I felt 'ready' for this role. However, even since then, I have learned a lot more - and I don't think that will ever stop.

What does dying mean to you? 
I so imagine leaving my body, but a certain consciousness lives on. I don't know how. But that doesn't matter either. That will point itself out. Just as things in the forest, where I lived for several decades, pointed themselves, death too will unfold.

What is your message to people who are about to die? And to people close to them?
Talk about what concerns you - what you share becomes more bearable... But choose carefully who you talk to. Organise what you need and write down your wishes! Make it clear to your loved ones and the medics around you. Create some moments of happiness every day, no matter how small! And trust... Trust that your death too will just 'come right'. Because death is just going to happen. Broadly speaking, the same for everyone. And billions have gone before you. 

You also talk about 'interment'. To many people, that sounds sinister. We are not used to being here to look at our dead and keep them with us for a while longer. 

'Being' with our dead is very beneficial to our grieving process. All our senses are involved when we wash, dress and lift someone as we give them final care, and look at them for several days afterwards, when they are laid up at home. This allows our brains the opportunity and space to understand that this person is dead. If we keep it at a distance, are not involved and leave it all to the funeral director or don't even go and look at the body, this can have an impact on the grieving process that follows later.

In the past, we lived with older generations and sick relatives and even with our dead. Death was part of our lives in a way it is not today. Deceased people were laid out in the back room, on the table or the bed. Since funerals have become an industry, it has become much more distant from us. Everyone I work with to care for a deceased person and open them up at home (including children of all ages), are very positive about it afterwards and have not experienced any negative consequences. Even the adults and children who were anxious at first, later say how happy they are to have done it this way.

Today, it is no longer as natural as say 20 years ago for people to have a church funeral. There are already very beautiful and meaningful alternatives. 

That's right. People want more personal funerals, with room for some interpretation and, above all, something that is meaningful for the deceased and bereaved...And in many cases, religion turns out to be something that people grew up with, but have less to no connection to.

Wat is het mooiste ritueel dat jij ooit gezien hebt? 

I had the honour of accompanying a family in Australia whose husband, dad and grandfather had passed away. What I am about to describe is not just a ritual. But a sequence of actions that felt like it was an hours-long ritual that 'flowed'. As if it were a babbling river - gently rounding some bends, things floated along on it and towards its destination... Grandson, 16 and a carpenter by training had made the coffin himself and brought it to Grandpa's house. His sister, 18 and of drawing and painting, painted the coffin while much of the family was in and around the house, tidying up and making the garden beautiful, making decorations and gathering under the canopy of the terrace with cups of tea and coffee, where she worked on the coffin. In this way, it felt like a beehive, where people are very focused on working on something beautiful... Work was done in peace and everyone seemed to take on tasks very naturally. Everything was well prepared. The coffin was ready and waiting to dry. Later in the morning, others started coming in. Visitors visited Grandpa and spent some time with him. Laid a flower they brought from their garden or picked along the way.

Eventually, two of the children and 2 grandchildren gathered around Grandpa's body and we placed him in the coffin ourselves and carried him outside into the garden. His coffin stood under (his) rose arch, his daughter played the guitar, his son played the flute and two of his favourite songs were sung. There were speeches and beautiful memories were shared. Then came the moment when the immediate family performed a variation of the ribbon ritual: the 9 members of the family with grandchildren stood around husband/father and grandfather. I placed three ribbons in his hands which were also held by those close to him (three on each ribbon, with a distance of 70 cm). Hanging from the ribbons was a card for each family member, written by the deceased before he died. As a final word and gift to them.

After a final 'farewell poem', in which everyone present 'answered' with a 'fly now to your freedom!', I cut the ribbons next to each card that was for them and after standing for another minute or two Listening to music, we closed the coffin. This was carried to his own car and grandfather was slowly driven down the path. We walked along for a while and sang a song, all the way to the gate. Wife and daughter also got in, and we drove him to the fire (the crematorium) ourselves. All attendees received a bag of seeds from flowers and shrubs from Grandpa's garden when they left. Late in the afternoon I collected the ashes and brought them back to the family while still warm.

Right now, you are very sick yourself. Does that change anything in how you look at and talk about being sick and dying and how then?  

No, my ideas and feelings about death have not changed. So neither has how I talk about it in my workshops, classes and to my clients. I usually still feel very good and many of my clients don't know. Nor do I feel this is necessary. Is not relevant to them.

What would you like to give people who come to your workshop? And why is that so important to you? 

I hope to create an open mind and be comfortable with dying and death. To learn to dare to live with it again. To dare and want to be a faithful witness, without going under yourself. To trust the natural process and to know how and where to organise help for the one one accompanies (others or oneself). Dispel myths about what is and what is not allowed regarding home care, burial and self-organisation of a funeral. Inspire. And finally, daring to look mourning in the eye and feel it. There is also partly personal work during this workshop - it is hard to get away from that. But one is in good hands 

Recently, your children were here on a visit; for the first time in Europe. You had a great time together but still, saying goodbye must not have been easy. What goes through your mind then? 
After a good 4 years, during which I visited Australia once for several weeks, there was a lot we remembered that we didn't know we had forgotten... Feelings, heart connection, recognition, half a word, a look. We knew each other so well, having lived all the years as a close-knit family in the forest. But still - it was a long time of being separated. Parting was hard and sad. Not much goes through me at such a time. I can only feel it. Words I don't have then. I had to get into the car and drive back home in a storm. The weather suited my feelings at that moment. I cry at times and then like to be alone for at least 24 hours. Terrible to run into people. Occasionally, things strike me.

Am I touched by something that is there or no longer there and I write it down: 

All of December, until your arrival on boxing day, I woke with the excitement and in the knowledge of ‘not long now’.
Then, until yesterday, I rose with a feeling of joy for another day to come with two people so dear to me – two of my kin. More adventures and exploring, more walks, long talks, boardgames, laughter and togetherness, eating together, coffee and cake… Last night we said our goodbyes and a plane is taking you back home all day today and all night to come.
I feel your absence with every move I make. Everything I do seems to create an echo : they are gone now.  I clean the teapot with the remnants of our last hot drink together. As if I wipe your presence some more.
The largest pot in the house not needed now.
Your shelf in the bathroom empty.
No more wet Emmy feet on the bathmat when I enter the bathroom after you showered.
No heads poking around the door in the morning, the dog jumping for joy at that.
Finn’s coat not over the chair.
No boots at the door.
Last night, returning from dropping you at the hotel, I drank my Sleepytime Tea before bed, alone.

I can do this, I can do this, I can do this…


Wie Lola haar prachtige levenswijsheid, optimisme en diepgang wil meemaken, kan zich nog inschrijven op de derde en voorlopig laatste van de driedaagse workshops die ze komt geven op Land aan Zee.