Life-coaching may be Elizabeth Austin's calling. But in decades of working as a nurse and, more recently, easing several friends' passing, she's started to meditate more on death.
"At first glance, it's strange for a life coach to be talking about death," she says.
It only seems natural, however, that the 66-year-old Ashland resident who specializes in strategies for life would gravitate toward helping clients frame their final plans — outlines for putting their affairs in order.
"If this is prepared and available, then things move much more easily," Austin says.
Numerous models for putting one's affairs in order are available from various sources — even online. Yet Austin learned the art of meeting death gracefully from a friend known in Ashland simply by the name "Lupine."
"He approached it with such awareness and consciousness," she says. "It was just a real testament to life," she says.
A gardener and folk musician who helped Austin organize New Year's labyrinth walks at Ashland's Unitarian church, Lupine developed cancer from asbestos exposure, the life-coach says. Although Lupine didn't have much property to dispense, he went about preparing for death calmly and logically, planning his wake, building his own coffin and even, Austin says, carving out his body's last resting place.
"He dug his own grave."
Amid rituals some might have considered macabre, Austin found inspiration and an appreciation for living that she hopes to share in a series of classes titled "Getting Your Affairs in Order." A lecture on Oct. 6 at Ashland Food Co-op unveiled the program.
Austin plans reduced-price "pilot" workshops, starting Nov. 11, at the Jackson County Library system's Ashland branch. After completing five, two-hour classes, participants should have their affairs well in hand, she says. The $99 course is open to adults of all ages.
"The natural tendency of people is to wait," Austin says. "Even very young, healthy people should be prepared."
Some preparations, like assembling documents and listing contact information for family and friends to be notified, can be achieved with minimal effort and contemplation. Others, such as scripting a funeral and writing one's own obituary, require more emotional investment, but they ensure that one's wishes are clearly communicated and can be accurately carried out.
"It's extremely important to discuss this with the family," Austin says. "If there are any unresolved issues, they're going to really surface after a death."
While a legal will is indispensable, Austin encourages clients to craft an "ethical will," a document or other form of media that shares a person's values and can ease loved ones' feelings of loss.
"If you have a letter you have written, that can be such a source of solace," she says.
One popular mode for conveying an ethical will is by video, Austin says, citing the recorded lecture delivered by Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch as a farewell to his children that became an Internet sensation in the final year of his life. Pausch died in July of pancreatic cancer.
Even those who enjoy good health and expect to live for decades can benefit from drawing up an ethical will, which clarifies one's purpose and can provide a path to self-discovery, Austin says. Similar to work accomplished with a life coach, feeling confident in our ethics and values helps us live life to the fullest, she says.
"The feeling is one of peace of mind."
A different peace comes, Austin says, from simply feeling free to talk about death. She says she hopes her classes will create a comfortable venue for approaching the topic.
"A death is such a loaded subject," Austin says. "This culture has a fear of death."
Although there will be no particular religious tone to her course, Austin says she does plan on sharing her personal belief in the continuation of life after death in the context of affirming life's value. Head of the health ministry team at First United Methodist Church in Ashland, Austin says she'll invite discussion among participants about the afterlife and present a wide range of options for ceremonies to honor the deceased.
Workshop-goers will leave with documents for putting their affairs in order, a list of resources, including local businesses and groups, and practical tips, such as emptying safety-deposit boxes immediately before the bank is notified of a box-holder's death and subsequently blocks entry to the box. Don't store a will in a safety-deposit box, she says.
Following on the heels of research and work helping clients get their affairs in order, Austin says she plans to write a book on the topic by the end of the year.