Celebration illuminates end-of-life lessons

Denise Carson greets guests at her book release celebration on May 21. She has written a book titled “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” Guests lit candles in remembrance of loved ones and were able to share memories at the Reminiscing Corner. There was also a video, a living eulogy and a moment of prayer. CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

At the book launch for “Parting Ways”, the community learned how to celebrate life at any stage. Read more in the  Orange County Register column…

I brought the pages of my book “Parting Ways” alive by lighting a candle for my mother, and then one for my father. I wasn’t in a church or a funeral home.

I was in a candlelit lounge at AnQi Restaurant, where my brother, Ryan Carson is the chef. Most people wait until after their death for family, friends and colleagues to gather to celebrate a life mission accomplished. But I wanted to use the rituals I learned when researching “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.”

The book is a culmination of my personal journey: First with my father’s passing in a hospital and later with my mother participating in a living wake among friends and family at home in the last week of her life. I was 26 when Mom died; my brother was 19. These experiences led me as a journalist to explore how American families and communities are reinventing their roles at the deathbed. We are learning ways to change the wrenching hours at the end of life with a new set of rituals that give us a way to participate. This brings back intimacy, dignity and celebration to what has become an isolated, institutionalized occasion.

Ryan Carson, left, listens as his sister Denise, right, reads from her new book “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” Ryan is the chef at AnQi Restaurant in Costa Mesa where the book release gathering was held. CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Nine out of 10 Americans wish to die at home. Few do because we don’t know how.

Since we’re often uncomfortable talking about death, I’ve created “Parting Ways” as a map into the unknown territory, filled with stories to inspire you to prepare yourself, your parent, your spouse, your sibling, your child, your friend or your colleague for the journey.

In the book and at the celebration, I asked people to move from passive observers to active participants in life’s last chapter.

I opened the door to the Q Lounge at AnQi to greet my family, lifelong friends, colleagues, college professors, and some of the individuals and families I met while writing the book. Included were: Donna Miller, who video-records patients sharing their life stories at Hospice Care of the West; Juanita Marquez Kelley’s family, who had a vigil after she died at home: and Ron Wikstrom who invited me to capture how his wife, Carol Ann prepared for her funeral at home like a wedding with the help of a death midwife in Santa Ana.

Candle Light of Remembrance

I asked each guest to take a moment to light a candle for someone they love. One by one, the flames danced above the candles evoking the physical presence of those absent. I learned from death midwives and death doulas that any space can be hallowed — even the deathbed — using simple elements such as candlelight, music and prayer.

Gina Calderone lights a candle as she arrives at author Denise Carson’s book release celebration at AnQi restaurant on May 21. Carson has written a book titled “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Reminiscing Corner

At the Reminiscing Corner, Jay Gianukos, a life-story documentary filmmaker, who I interviewed in the book, recorded guests’ reflections of loved ones who have died. Like he does at many life celebrations, Jay used the camera as a focusing lens to give guests permission to express their thoughts and feelings.

Leading the ceremony

With the candles lit, reflections recorded, as the Master of Ceremony at my own celebration, I took the microphone to introduce my book and thank my brother Chef Ryan Carson for creating his molecular gastronomy delights, like champagne caviar cubes. I basked in the warmth of finally sharing the book.

Life Story Video

Video is becoming a staple of life celebrations, so I played a clip from my life video “Coming Full Circle” created by Jay Gianukos. The guests were transported back to The Corner Bookstore in New York City, where Samuel Freedman, a Columbia University professor, introduced “Parting Ways” as “the definitive book on subject of end of life.” On a reminiscing pilgrimage, I returned to the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University, where the book started. And just as we’re leaving to catch a taxi back home, I read a text from my brother that set the tone for the evening:

“You are the matriarch that shall lead this family into the next generation. You’re much more powerful and wise than you think. I love you more than I can express and I’m thankful to have you as a sister and a “mother”…Mom would be proud.”

“Coming Full Circle” by Jay Gianukos is shown at her book release party at AnQi restaurant. The book is titled “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.” CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER


In the dimmed lights, Ken and Buffy Daignault, elders from my mother’s church and family friends, led a prayer saying: “I ask that you bless and favor the fruit of Denise’s mind, heart and hands and the book Parting Ways, let this book be a blessing to many others.”

Living Eulogy

In the book, I explain the importance of a living eulogy. We decided to show our guests what one looks like. Denise Noble Allen retraced my footsteps from the moment we met at 14 — when I shared that my father had recently died — to the day she received the call that I was returning from Paris at age 24 to care for my mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. That led me to record her life story.

“Denise didn’t want to lose this opportunity like she had with her father. She always talked about writing a travel book, but I knew now it was going to be something different, something special.”

Jolene Arambula, told stories of our childhood from age 4 on. She recalled holidays, birthdays and how my father, Richard, always amazed “whether he was cooking crab straight from the ocean or a full-size pig on a stick in the front yard…. Richard’s death rocked our childhood.”

She said reading the book took her back to the day when her father gave my father’s eulogy and to my mother’s life-celebration.

Gina Calderone joined the toast, saying she witnessed me “overpower the darkness” by interviewing my mother and documenting our last years together.

“I truly believe that she was more intimate and loving with her mother during this period than most are in a lifetime,” she said.

Jeff Brody, my professor and former advisor of the Daily Titan, the student newspaper at Cal State Fullerton, recalled starting a literary journalism class with just me and one other student. “When I think about this book,” Jeff said. “We’ve spoken many times over the years, calls in the night…I feel like I was a physician, the OBGYN, as this book was being born.”

Then I opened my book and read a passage that segued into a visual montage to the song “Somewhere Only We Know,” that brought my parents and the birth of my book “Parting Ways” to life on the screen. The final video clip was of me dancing in our family room and falling into my mother’s arms on the day I asked her to have a celebration of her life. That dance stops, and that moment becomes the picture on the cover of the book.

I want people to realize that you don’t have to wait until your life is over to do this.

Contact the writer: denise@denisecarson.com

Denise Carson wrote the book “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing” and blogs. The book is available at University of California Press oramazon.com.

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  1. Vanessa Shaffer

    After working with many families, and hearing stories from the bereaved family members of our patients I have taken on a whole new perspective of “living life”. I have been working on finding my meaning of life and of those around me; and finding new ways to express my gratitude, love and appreciation for those who have raised me and walked into my life.

    I was thinking of my mother’s upcoming 60th birthday and what our family might do to celebrate it; but then I thought let’s celebrate her! How will we celebrate my mother? The idea came in the form of a four page magazine type newsletter sent to me from one our grieving widowers. His family put together a beautiful compilation of his wife’s life and legacy in a colorful magazine. Photos and memories shared, poems, song lyrics, short stories and comments all contributed from her woman’s family. It was a lovely representation of who she was and what she contributed while she was here on Earth. My first thought was of joy and happiness for how lovely this lady was and how I wished I had known her. She looked to be a good time! My second thought was, How sad they waited til after she died to do this for her.

    So there it was! I would corral family and friends and get them to submit letters, poems, music, photos, jokes, commentaries, roasts all about my mom. We will put together a montage of mom. Something we can give to her, in full color and humor. Something she can sit down with in her spare time and revel in the love and legacy she has given to her family and friends.

    We will celebrate her life while she’s still here to celebrate it with us.

  2. Post author

    Bravo Vanessa! Celebrate your Mom now before it’s too late! You got it. You can create a magazine or a legacy book at one of those online photo collection sites such as Shutterfly. Also, if you have video clips of your mother and a collection of her favorite songs you could have a short video of her life created to play at her 60th Birthday celebration. The most important thing is that you’re creating a legacy that in some way records the memories of her life and reminiscences from her family into a tangible memento that like you said “she can revel” in. I look forward to hearing about your Mom’s celebration. Now is the time to celebrate the ones we love so they can celebrate with us! Don’t wait.
    Thanks for sharing such inspirational insight with us!

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