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Home / 2016 Fall Magazine / Features / Building Responsive End of Life Experiences: Keynote by Alumna Vassar Byrd

Building Responsive End of Life Experiences: Keynote by Alumna Vassar Byrd

Earlier this year, Naropa alumna Vassar Byrd (MA, 01) presented the keynote at Naropa’s contemplative conference, “Reimagining Death and Dying: Changing the Way We Care.” A graduate of Naropa’s Gerontology program, Vassar is the CEO of Rose Villa, a community-focused senior living facility in Portland, Oregon. Following are some excerpts of her keynote address.

A Contemplative Conference Presented by Naropa's Master of Divinity Program & School of Extended Studies // January 8-9, 2016


Vassar Byrd
Vassar Byrd Photo by Jason Kaplan.

I feel strongly that death and dying is a community event, every bit as important an anchor for us all as birth is. I also believe strongly that the gifts Naropa has to offer in my field in particular—gerontology—are profound and are not found in many places. I know deep in my heart and from more than a decade now of experience that aging is a blessing and a gift and one that we ignore at our peril. I am completely excited to be part of an effort to better understand end of life, to further share the unique gifts of the Naropa educational perspective, and to be part of a practical, hands-on, multi-disciplinary, multi-faith, heterogeneous, unruly, and passionate mob who care about and value what I originally called way back when I decided to leave my well-paying job and go into the field of aging—the “filet mignon of life.”

I do understand that death and dying are not only something that happens to elders, but I believe that we can learn a lot from the lessons that our elders care to teach us… It looks as if we may be bringing death out of the closet. One of the last great taboos is starting to crumble. Moving from a very old school fear that talking about death might actually cause it to happen to a profound appreciation of death as part of life’s journey. Death is not a mistake. It is not a pathology. It is not a disease. It is a vital part of the whole with tremendous power to give meaning and purpose to all that has gone before. 

Hourglass Byrd integrated video and quotes from residents at Rose Villa, including Joanne, who challenged the definition of end of life. “When does it begin?” Joanne asked.

It seems almost everything in our Western way of life is consistently and furiously trying to force our experience into a straight line. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. … That question pulls on an important thread, which is simply that in the same way you are constantly beginning, you are also constantly preparing for endings and transitions. It is so hard for us to accept that we are all becoming.

But nothing is static. Everything is becoming. There is nothing like working with elders closely every day to make you understand that everything you think you know or have been taught about life’s trajectory is wrong. The real world—real life—is so much bigger, more complex, and more chaotic. Richer in every way than anything you can imagine. So the answer to that question, “When does the end of life begin?” is no. Let’s think of it as weaving our way into the world and out of it. Keep the beginning, middle, and end notions off to the side where they belong as an interesting philosophical construct. Although almost everyone has some experience of death or dying, in a certain sense we can say that we are all death novices as none of us have actually experienced it. And we are approaching it with the wide open curiosity of the beginner.

Taking the audience through some fascinat ing statistics about how death is experienced in the United States, Byrd gave some won derfully practical tips for making sure your wishes, and those of your loved ones, are known and respected.

There is a big gap between what people say they want and what actually happens. Ninety percent of people say that talking with their loved ones about end of life care is important and about 27 percent have actually done so. Sixty percent of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is extremely important but over half have not communicated their end of life wishes. Eighty percent of people say that if seriously ill they would want to talk to their doctor about wishes for medical treatment toward the end of their life. Seven percent report having had this conversation with their doctor. Eighty-two percent of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing and about 23 percent have actually done that.

Byrd recommended The Conversation Project, a sponsor of the conference, as an invaluable resource in planning for end of life care. The starter kit on their website,, is designed to help people talk about their wishes.

Vassar quoteWe are doing two things here tonight: we’re preparing for positive death experiences, your own and someone else’s, and we’re learning about sitting with death as it happens. They are not the same thing, but each informs the other.

Dying is a very dynamic event. It affects so much more than the dying person. There are many roles to play and those roles can shift among people and over time. As someone transitions out of the life they have lived, everyone connected to them also faces a change in their identity. This is part of death as a community event, and why the opportunity for community to support and engage with that transition is so important.

For the person who is dying, it can be frightening to let go of things that used to have great meaning, but also it can feel freeing. How can you support those you love and care for in their own internal journey and put your attachments to who they were aside? At the same time, how can you be with them in the moment on their journey of who they are right now? And who they are becoming. It means that you are also becoming. Right now.

Again, it is so helpful to remember that death is not binary. It’s not an on/off. This might be news to you—it really is not an on/off. It’s not good/bad. It’s a process. It’s a journey. It’s a becoming.

A nationally recognized speaker and visionary, Vassar Byrd, as CEO of Rose Villa, has created a new model for senior living that integrates a contemplative approach with stunning results—a richer, more nourishing experience for those facing end of life and for those who care for them.

In 2017, Vassar Byrd will be featured at “Compassionate Approaches to Living and Dying: Transforming the Paradigm,” a conference intended for anyone inter ested in aging well, or those who wish to develop caregiving tools for themselves or others, particularly during challenging times. Other presenters include author and teacher Judith Lief; Arlene Samen, RN, founder and CEO of One-Heart Worldwide; Dr. Elaine Yuen, chair of the Naropa’s Department of Wisdom Studies; Kirstin DeLeo, Senior International Trainer for Spiritual Care Program, as well as leaders from the rapidly growing contemplative caring movement. Learn more at