Author: Julie Keon (page 1 of 2)

Protecting the Death Memory

I became a birth doula in 1998 and spent the next many years supporting women through labour, birth and the postnatal period as a birth and postpartum doula, prenatal educator and breastfeeding counsellor.

As a fledgling doula, I had my own ideas as to what made a positive birth experience and did my best to help women achieve that. When a birth unfolded in a low intervention, natural way, I deemed it a success. If a birth resulted in a cesarean birth, I would feel deflated and somewhat of a failure that I did not help my client achieve the birth she had hoped for. My training had not prepared me for the intricacies of true labour support and very quickly I knew that in order to support my clients, I needed to put my own expectations and judgements aside and have them lead the way.

Photo ©Brittany Lynne Gillman

Experience brings learning that cannot be achieved through a three-day training course nor the reading of books. After attending many births and observing the outcomes and reactions of couples in the postnatal period, I recognized that some births, that appeared to me to be amazing, were not perceived in the same way by the postnatal mother. And other births that seemed to go off the rails and that I might imagine as deeply disturbing, were perceived as positive by the new mother. It turned out that what was a positive birth ‘on paper’ was not necessarily reflective of the experience of the mother and her partner and vice versa. On top of that, everyone in attendance could have a variety of reactions and memories to what occurred. Oftentimes, the mother emerged on the other side feeling powerful and strong while her partner or other family members were left feeling traumatized by what they witnessed.

I began to observe a common thread in births that were perceived as difficult or even traumatic. It didn’t have a lot to do with what happened but instead, how it was experienced and perceived by the mother and her partner/ family or friends. We know that trauma in general is often caused by a sudden turn of events or anytime a person feels out of control or senses that they are in danger. In birth, if a mother perceives that her unborn baby could be in danger or at risk even if this isn’t the case, it can result in trauma.  You see, it was irrelevant what I, or anyone else for that matter, thought about the birth, it only mattered what the labouring mother and her partner experienced. It was not my role to express my feelings or perceptions at how the birth. My job was to support this family in having a positive birth experience however they defined that.

 In our postnatal visits, a debriefing of the birth was a valuable aspect of the care I provided. I would simply ask them to tell me the story of their birth. Although, I was present through all of it, it was crucial that they shared their memories of what occurred. One thing that was so important was that I listened and then adjusted my version to what theirs might be. For example, if I walked away from their birth feeling it was magnificent only to discover that the mother was now suffering with PTSD because the birth happened so incredibly fast (precipitous labour), I did not try to convince her that it was a wonderful birth and that she should be happy about it. Instead, I trusted and honoured her experience and gave her space to share her anger, fears, and thoughts about her birth. My role was to offer non-judgmental support and to refer her to other resources when I felt we exceeded my scope of practice. Most importantly, I validated her experience and then offered guidance in helping her to process and integrate what had happened.

After fifteen years, my birth work gradually came to an end. Now, twenty-one years after being trained as a birth doula, I now train end-of-life doulas. In my work with families going through the death of a loved one, I cannot help but compare my role as an end of life doula to that of a birth doula. It most cases, one only needs to replace the word “birth” with “death” to see the similarities. The transitions are different yet the ingredients in caregiving are remarkably similar.

Family Led Deathcare ©Julie Keon 2019

I came to this conclusion in 2010 as I helped my mother care for my paternal grandmother as she died at home. Long before the term “death doula” was appearing in the media on a regular basis, I wrote about it in my newspaper column. I didn’t have a name for it but wrote about my realization that caring for someone in their dying was akin to caring for someone in labour and birth. I learned that, like labour and birth, dying can be hard work. This very natural process takes time and a smoother transition often involves the loving support of trustworthy caregivers. As I spent time sitting with my Grandma, I reflected on how similar the care is when one helps to usher in a new soul as in birth and when one helps to send a soul on its’ way. The comfort measures, skills, support and caregiving that helped to make a birth experience more positive were the same in helping to make a death experience one that could be described as positive and good.

Like birth, death has the potential to not only be a profound experience for those witnessing and caring for the one who is dying but for the dying person themselves. We cannot ask the deceased what their experience of death was like but we can certainly provide a level of care that leads to a good death (however they define that) and leaves their loved ones feeling positive about the events that unfolded as their loved one was dying. Granted, the family may still feel shocked and bereaved after the death but their days, weeks and months following may be less complicated if they perceive the dying and death process as positive.

As in labour and birth, the end of life doula is a unique and valuable part of the care team. Yes, people will die whether there is an end of life doula present or not however the experience of the dying person and their caregivers can be enhanced by the specific role of the end of life doula.

There have been numerous studies performed on the positive outcomes of doula attended births. One in-depth study on normal births looked at aspects that were associated with childbirth satisfaction (Hodnett 2002). These can easily be applied to dying and death. The psycho social factors that emerged from this study include: personal expectations, caregivers attitudes and behaviour, and personal control and decision making. We are still so early on in providing this unique care in dying and death that it will take time before we begin to take note of the factors that influence satisfaction with a death experience.

Continuous support for the dying and their loved ones, especially in the last days and final hours of dying, can be lacking. The presence of the doula can fill gaps in care and by doing so, protect the death memory of those who are loving and caring for their family member or friend through their dying.

Photo ©Jacqueline Lane 2019

By offering informational support after a diagnosis, for example, and connecting families with community resources, a doula assists in helping the person who is dying along with their caregivers to feel more in control. The continuous, on-call support of the doula gives a sense of security and assurance that there is someone to call on at anytime with questions or worries. A doula provides guidance in choosing where to die (home, hospice or hospital) as well as preparing for end of life and offering after-death care options for the family, friends or caregivers. Acting as a guide through the normal process of dying can reduce anxiety and stress in all involved. The emotional, physical and comfort measures given to the person who is at end of life as well as those who are the primary caregivers and supporters is immeasurable in working towards a positive death experience.

Protecting the death memory can be a point of reference in guiding the end of life doula in the care she or he provides. Keeping this at the forefront of the doula’s mind can help in making suggestions, providing information and leaving one’s own ego out of the equation. By doing so, the doula puts the power back into the hands of the person who is dying as well as their family and friends where it belongs.

©Julie Keon 2019

Funerals Are for the Living

I attended a rural high school where all students were bussed in from neighbouring communities unless you were one of the cool kids and had your own car. The student and staff body was made up of farming families and small town folks. There was one memorable class that had a great impact on me. One teacher, who was clearly ahead of her time, offered a death education class. Thirty years ago, this was unheard of and the school board was not particularly fond of a teacher standing her ground and taking a bus load of 16 year olds on a field trip to a funeral home in the nearest city. She told me years later that she was often threatened with being fired but she persevered and had a very positive impact on her students as a result.

Recently I purged my home of everything unnecessary and I came upon an article that I had saved from that class. It was called: “Funerals are for the Living.” I remember reading that handout for the very first time as a young student and how a light bulb went off in my head. My interest in the value of meaningful ceremony was ignited and today I am a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant specializing in creating personalized, meaningful funeral ceremonies for a living.

When someone dies, we naturally gather as a family and community to pay our respects and honour their life which most often includes a funeral service. Funerals are for the living because they help those left behind cope with the loss, grief and separation experienced after death. A ceremony that is crafted to truly reflect the deceased using carefully chosen words, music and ritual helps those who have gathered to feel a sense of celebration. Oftentimes a deep shift occurs within which helps rather than stifles their grief.

There is a rising trend towards another kind of funeral for the living that can have a positive impact on not only the one being honoured but on the guests as well. Living funerals are celebrations of life that occur before the person dies. It is a time for people to gather with their loved one who is deemed palliative to, for example, say all of the beautiful things they might have said upon their death. In this way, their words are heard by their loved one. Living funerals also have a way of shining a big bright light on the fact that death is near, that death is a reality of life and that speaking about it and even celebrating, in spite of it, can be incredibly moving, healing and freeing.

“The Poet Greets the Sun” by Ted Harrison

I attended my first living funeral in Victoria, BC in 1998. I was working in an art gallery and one of our artists was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She hosted a birthday party at the Emily Carr House and friends and colleagues gathered on a sunny day to honour her life with her instead of without her. There was story-telling, laughter, artwork, beautiful poignant speeches, and the sharing of her favourite foods. I had never experienced anything like it and have never forgotten it either. Knowing that her time was short, she wanted to have a celebration to not only mark this last birthday but to celebrate this day and her life. It was a reminder to all of us that we take so much for granted and that all we really have is the present moment~ the future will one day not be ours. Renowned artist, Ted Harrison, presented her with a beautiful original painting called “The Poet Greets the Sun” and we were all gifted with a reproduction, a keepsake that I still have to this day.

Granted, living funerals might be perceived as narcissistic and egotistical considering you are gathering your favourite people who may want to talk about how great you are and how much you will be missed. I actually think of a living funeral as having a different purpose. If I knew my time was short, I would gather my most beloved friends and family in a celebratory feast/ dance party where I would tell each of them how they had contributed positively to my life. I wouldn’t be as comfortable with sitting down and listening to kind words being spoken. Putting people on pedestals is not my thing.

There is a way to thr­­­­ow a celebration of this kind that will positively impact the honouree and the attendees. Be clear on what the purpose of it is and then plan accordingly. People need to do what works best for them. If having a living funeral will contribute to a more positive death experience then I say, “Go for it!”

©Julie Keon 2017

***Originally published as a guest post on Exit: the Life & Death Planner website (March 2017)

 

 

 

 

Rising Up After Betrayal

“You have seen my descent. Now watch my rising.” ~Rumi

I like to think I have finely-tuned intuition. My close friends and family (especially my husband) would probably agree. I don’t have special powers, I just learned a long time ago that this deep knowing was not to be ignored………….EVER. Well, in the spring of 2015, I was presented with some “red flags” in a relationship where I had placed a tremendous amount of trust. Think of the trust you place in someone who is caring for you in labour and birth……..it was that level of trust. Regrettably, I chose to ignore the flags frantically waving all around me. Often, this is a result of believing that bad things don’t happen to good people, that if we just follow the rules and do everything right, the turnout will be positive and that if we trust people and give them the benefit of the doubt, they won’t do unspeakable things to us.
The circumstances of this relationship had gradually changed and morphed into something that created an underlying anxiety in me. I felt as though I had little control over what was happening. So, in an attempt at pacifying the one who ultimately betrayed me, I carefully walked on proverbial egg shells until sixteen months later when it finally came to an end. The ending came after months of mental abuse and the loss of thousands of dollars in legal fees in an attempt to get back what was rightfully mine. The unfortunate truth is that when you’re dealing with someone who possesses disordered thinking and personality traits, you recognize very quickly that using rationale, facts and intellect is as useless as using battery acid to bathe yourself.
Betrayal happens when trust is severed with someone you previously trusted wholeheartedly. It is  damaging because you have entrusted them with something meaningful like your heart, your secrets, your vulnerability and perhaps, something more concrete that you presume will be cared for on your behalf. If you have never been betrayed, it feels like a violation of your spirit and your core and depending on the depth  of the betrayal, it can be traumatic. Emotionally, you can be experiencing rage and grief almost simultaneously~ rage because someone could be so inexplicably cruel and grief because betrayal is a devastating loss. The really frustrating aspect of betrayal is that it is completely preventable. The betrayer makes a conscious choice to be cruel. They deliberately make decisions which ultimately lead to the betrayal. If you’re on the receiving end of these choices, it can be emotionally shattering.  At its worst, betrayal can cause serious, irreversible psychological damage. People can have mental breakdowns because of the realization that what they perceived as reality is just not the case.
When a betrayal occurs, the aftermath hits like a tsunami and you find yourself feeling tossed around as you try to find solid footing again.  You are plagued with questions like: “How could this happen?” and “Is this really happening?” and “Why is this happening to me?” In the darkest moments, you might even question your own sanity. The length of time it takes to recover from a betrayal depends on the circumstances. I recently caught someone I trusted in a lie. After offering opportunity for the truth to be told, this person, continued to blatantly lie to my face. This recovery period from this betrayal was short lived.  After what I have been through this past year, my instinct about these things is sharper than it’s ever been. Thankfully, I stopped that train in its tracks before the betrayal could have any lasting effects.
For the big, earth shattering betrayals, you will need to practice serious self-care. Surrounding yourself with people who love you and can help you sift through the aftermath is paramount.  The expression of the deep, primal emotions that are a part of this loss is extremely important in eventually moving past it.  Writing a letter to the betrayer and sending it (or not) can be cathartic in giving your pain a voice. Depending on the nature of the betrayal, therapy might be needed to really get you back on track in deciphering what was real and what was not.
I found the use of rituals to be particularly therapeutic in recovering from this betrayal. As much as I wanted to rush it, I 14518760_10157469687735007_1619694036_nknew that I needed to work through  a substantial amount of the emotions connected to this loss before the rituals could work their magic. Contrary to what others might think or want, a person can’t just “get on with it” after a betrayal. It takes time and energy to land on dry, solid ground again. I had to do a lot of talking aloud to process things and was surrounded by the patience, kindness and love of my husband and some carefully selected friends to do so.
The first ritual took place on September 30th. It seemed like the perfect evening to begin these rituals of letting go since there was a black moon rising that night in the fall sky. The black moon occurs when there are two new moons within the same month. It holds powerful energy to let go of that which is no longer needed and to set intentions for that which you hope to manifest. This ceremony set time aside for the release of stagnant energy of the past and acted as a stepping stone to ultimately freeing myself completely of the last two years and all that had been lost. For my release ritual, I burned a poem written for me by my betrayer many years ago. This ritual was laced in sadness as it was not the outcome I could have ever imagined or wanted.
While I purged emotionally, I was also purging “stuff” collected over my lifetime. My husband and I spent the summer upgrading our electrical in the second story of our 135 year old home. This included some renovations and a fresh coat of paint on every surface of our upstairs. I decided that with the upheaval of the last two years, it was time I rid myself of anyone and anything that no longer served me in a positive way. So began the Great Purge of 2016. My office was stripped down to a bare room before everything that needed to be sorted was piled back into it. I spent weeks and many hours sitting amongst boxes of ‘stuff’ and thousands of letters received over my lifetime. When I came across anything that was connected to my betrayer, I set it aside.
For me, an Aries, fire was a natural “go-to” in my rituals but you can also use other elements like water (dissolving paper in water or tossing stones that you have attached meaning to into a river, lake or the ocean), earth (burying something or planting a seed for renewal) or air (blowing out a candle). Actions like tearing or shredding paper items, breaking and smashing more concrete items or physically crossing a threshold like walking through a doorway or stepping over a rope are all rituals that can help you to achieve the intention of releasing and letting go of a person, situation or circumstance. What is most important is that your ritual is meaningful to you. The purpose of rituals of release is to pluck you out of ordinary time and give you space to use physical actions to bring some sort of healing to your heart.
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In October, I took this collection of items that I connected to my betrayer and sat before a roaring fire. By this time, I had little emotion left about this experience and felt as though this final burning ritual would be the closure I needed to move forward. Burning these last items which once held such meaning, was euphoric. I knew that I had recovered because I no longer felt the rage and sadness that plagued me for many months. Instead, as I watched the flames engulf these last items, I felt a shift within myself and I knew that I was finally free. And I knew, without a doubt, that I would  rise up from the ashes, as I always have.

 

So You Want Aunt Vera to Perform Your Marriage Ceremony ~Some Important Things You Should Know

The wedding ceremony is the kick off to the entire wedding day. Without it, there wouldn’t be anything to celebrate. Meaningful ceremonies can be simple and straightforward or they can be elaborate including elements like readings and rituals. Having family and friends take part in the ceremony is a wonderful way to include those who are most important to you.  There is even a trend towards having a family member or friend officiate the wedding ceremony.

Along with this trend, are requests from couples who wish to have me present to “just sign the papers” while their beloved Uncle Phil officiates the ceremony.  What they do not realize is that this is illegal in the Province of Ontario. Many couples (and sadly, uninformed officiants), believe that the legal part of the marriage ceremony boils down to the signatures on the marriage license but this is not true. It is illegal for anyone other than the person with the legal authority to perform certain components of the marriage. This includes  the Declaration of Intent (legal part of the ceremony where we have the couple state that they have come willingly and freely to be married), the Marriage Vows  and the Declaration of Marriage.

When I receive a request like this, I am happy to co-lead the ceremony with a family member who can share in the opening words, introduce the readings or rituals and who can give the closing words. They can even help with the exchanging of rings since this is not a legal part of the ceremony. However, having Aunt Beth pronounce you married is illegal.

Photo by Igor Pavlov http://www.pavlovstudios.com/

Photo by Igor Pavlov

I recently read on a public Facebook page that the bride’s officiant was “just there to sign the papers” and that the guests didn’t even know she was there. She essentially blended in with the background. The bride shared that this is totally okay as long as the officiant is present. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether your officiant is an ordained minister or a clerk designated officiant or a Judge or a justice of the peace, they have to perform the legal parts of the ceremony. This is non-negotiable.  Do not risk the validity of your marriage in order to have your cousin perform the ceremony.

Sadly, there are many people who think that the officiant’s role is to say a few words and sign some papers when in fact, your officiant should be familiar with the Marriage Act, should be designated by a reputable church, organization or township and should be in good standing. Choosing your officiant is so much more than surfing the net and picking someone off of Kijiji claiming to be a marriage officiant.

Here are my tips for brides and grooms seeking a reputable Officiant:

  • Contact the officiant’s governing body to make sure they are an officiant in good standing and have the legal authority to perform marriages in your province. An authorized officiant should have no issues with sharing the contact information of their governing body. If you are concerned, simply call the Office of the Registrar to inquire about the validity of the person performing your marriage.
  • If your officiant gives the option of ‘just being there to sign the papers’ while Aunt Vera performs the ceremony, get thee to another officiant fast. Do NOT engage with an officiant who is offering illegal services.
  • Your marriage license must be dated and signed at the time of the Declaration of Marriage. You cannot sign the papers ahead of time just to omit that “boring” part of the ceremony. This, too, is illegal. The legal documents must be signed after the couple has been declared married by the officiant and dated for the day the legal marriage took place. If I am asked to perform a marriage ceremony in Quebec, I will perform a legal marriage ceremony the day before in Ontario. The couples comes to me with their Ontario marriage license and two witnesses and the legal portions are completed. I am asked if I can date the papers with the date the ceremony in Quebec will take place. I cannot. The couple can then choose if they wish their anniversary to be the day they became legally married or the day they had the full ceremony and exchanged rings.
  • Who can perform marriages? An officiant who is technically an ordained minister CANNOT perform a civil, non-religious ceremony while clerk-designated officiants (like me), Humanists, judges and justices of the peace  CANNOT perform religious ceremonies. If your officiant has the authority to perform marriages by ordination, it is illegal for them to offer civil marriages. I am not legally allowed to use the word “God” for example in my ceremonies as religious/ spiritual ceremonies belong to those who are clergy. When a couple wants a religious ‘feel’ to their ceremony, I refer them to my colleagues who are ordained ministers.
  • Be wary of officiants who bend the law, find loop holes and do not respect the guidelines and legalities outlined by the Office of the Registrar and in The Marriage Act.
Photo by Igor Pavlov http://www.pavlovstudios.com/

Photo by Igor Pavlov

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. The ceremony should be one of the best parts of the day. There is more to creating and leading a beautiful ceremony than just getting up and reading  words pulled from the internet. I spent eight months studying to become certified as a Life-Cycle Celebrant and specialize in the creation and delivery of meaningful, personalized ceremonies.  Make sure you have an officiant who is qualified, authorized and skilled at providing a ceremony that not only fulfills the legal requirements but leaves you and your guests feeling as though a threshold has been crossed. Leave this part of your day in the hands of a professional so that you can rest assure your ceremony is legal and valid and so Aunt Vera can sit back and enjoy the celebrations with everyone else. However, if your loved one is your dream officiant, then have the legal part done ahead of time so that they can do whatever they wish for the ceremony knowing that they are not unintentionally performing tasks they are unauthorized to do.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me at julie@juliekeon.com or visit Service Ontario’s website for more information on getting married in Ontario HERE

 

Earth, Fire, Water, Air

Preface by Julie Keon: This past fall, I was notified of an inspirational article that had been published in International Doula magazine (Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2015) that was written by a woman I met many, many years ago in Victoria, BC during my birth doula training. At the time of its publication, I was experiencing a deep internal struggle as I left my birthing world behind and crossed over a threshold into unknown territory; that of death midwifery. I was in the midst of my hospice volunteer training and was about to embark on a 12-week course in death midwifery. I felt like a fledgling, ill-prepared, and I was feeling all of the insecurities and anxieties one feels when you have breathed in just enough courage to propel yourself off the cliff into the unknown. Reading Marty’s words was a gift to me in my time of need and although she thanks me for my “doula” love in a time that she needed it most, I share this story with everyone as a chance for me to thank you, Marty Sutmoller, for writing this piece. In my time of need, you doula-ed me, too. Your words validated that I do have what it takes to walk this new path I am on. XO

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Picture this: You are being cared for by some of the people you love most in the whole world.  The lights are low, and beautiful music is playing.  There are expert helpers present, normalizing the evolving process.  No one feels rushed, and time ceases to matter.  Moments are measured only in breaths.  Everyone present emanates gratitude for the great work you have done, and for your current intense efforts.  Your pain is manageable, and if it not, you can choose to have pain relief if you want.  You realize you cannot fight or change this process – it just is what it is.  You surrender, carefully supported by those you love.  You allow yourself to let go.  You are deeply loved.  You are dying, and this is your home death.

Providing bed-side hospice care is one area I have been trained in by our local hospice society.  Some might think it odd to work with both the beginning of life and the end, but the experiences can be strikingly similar in many ways.  I most often work with families deep in grief after the death of someone they love.  In hospice terms, it is called bereavement support.  The people I am with are immersed in grief, and are learning to cope through one unimaginably painful moment at at time; not so unlike labour — only the pain arises from a different place.

I recently facilitated a grief support workshop to train new hospice volunteers.  What struck me was the similarity between the content of this grief support training and that of the birth doula workshops I also facilitate.

As a hospice grief support volunteer:

  • you are essentially a listener
  • you place your heart forward first, and work next with your ears
  • you follow the family’s lead, and guide gently with open suggestions
  • you are intimately involved, and yet know this is not your experience
  • you ask open-ended questions, and don’t avoid difficult topics
  • you know local resources for further physical, mental, social, spiritual or emotional assistance
  • you carefully observe family dynamics
  • you always notice who in the group needs extra attention, a gentle touch, and/or a hot cup of tea
  • you realize there are moments when everyone is okay, and when everyone is not, and you try to restore the changing energies in the room
  • you align yourself next to the family, to buoy them should they go under
  • you know when it is the “right time” for you to leave, and you trust the family has the tools required to continue on their own
  • you create real and meaningful connections

And later, a family member might express to you, “I’m so glad you were there.”  Does any of this sound familiar?  I know that doulas everywhere have the skills to become grief support workers and hospice volunteers.  Whether people are “incoming” or “outgoing,” your heart-support and care is the same, and essential.

My doula career has been intimately tied to death from the onset.  My mom died four days before my birth doula training.  She died at home with family and hospice volunteers surrounding her.  After her passing, her body remained with us at home for two days.  My brother played low swoopy tones on his violin, we lit candles, told stories, sat with mom, and cried a lot.  We were lifted out of our regular life — time suspended for days.  I was registered for the birth doula workshop, and was very uncertain about attending.  My family encouraged me: “You’ve waited a long time to do this,” and “Mom was so happy you were going to become a doula.”  So, I decided to go.

I’m usually an extrovert, but at my birth doula workshop, I was quiet and withdrawn.  I sat at a back table, and observed this room full of beautiful women. They were dressed in bright swirling dresses, long hair tied up, all smiles and laughter — a positive vibe permeated the room.  Their life-filled vibrance could not have been in sharper contrast to the quiet, mournful, place of solitude I had surrounding my heart.  An engaging young woman, Julie, sat next to me, and we talked briefly before the session started.  She was concerned about becoming a doula because she wasn’t a mother yet herself.  Would clients take her seriously?  I began to re-assure her, and burst into tears.  Julie became my doula at that moment, and she doula-ed me through the whole workshop.

After introductions, our first exercise at the doula workshop was to share with one other person, the story of our own birth.  Describing my mom birthing me, thirty years earlier, was just so intense!  At times I couldn’t even breathe.  Julie mopped up a bucket of my tears.  She had her hand on my knee, asked me gentle questions, listened and stayed quietly present with me.  For the rest of the workshop, she stayed close by the whole time — through lunchtime, and even to the bus-stop afterwards.

She met me the next morning outside the classroom, hugged me and looked straight into my eyes to see how I was doing.  Later on, when the instructors asked us to switch partners, Julie didn’t — she just stayed with me.  And I never asked her to do this.  She simply tucked me, wounded, under her wing and kept me there.  During that two-day workshop, I learned, from Julie’s gentle care, how to be a doula.

Tibetan philosophy teaches that the dying process follows four natural elemental stages of outer dissolution.[1]  First, earth, as our body loses energy and strength, it becomes hard to stay up right.  Second, water, we lose control of our body fluids and begin a process of dehydration.  Third, fire, we lose the ability to regulate our temperature, and begin to get cold, at the extremities first.  And finally, air, we take fewer and fewer breaths.  In birth, the process is reversed.  The baby begins taking breaths (air), starts to regulate temperature (fire), seeks out breastmilk(water), and establishes musculature and skeletal coordination (earth).

Family support around these two deeply human experiences are very similar.  Privacy, respect, patience, and reverence are essential.  I believe all trained doulas “have what it takes” to provide exceptional care for families of the dying.  I encourage doulas everywhere to seek out community hospice centres and become involved.

In Gratitude

I’m ever grateful to my mom, my guiding light.  I am thankful to families who have invited me into their intimate circles during their huge life transitions — with all else stripped away, it is here I have glimpsed humanity’s glimmering core.  And to my dearest doula Julie, “I’m so glad you were there.”

[1] Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. p.255-257.

This appeared in the most recent issue of International Doula (Vol. 24, Issue 1, 2016) and was inspired by Marty’s piece.

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Reflections at 45

Stories……..they make up our life. Each one of us has a story and in my work as a Life-Cycle Celebrant, it is a big part of my job to listen to stories and then write the words I have absorbed into a meaningful ceremony. Celebrants are, in a nutshell, modern storytellers. Without the story, it is very difficult to create a meaningful ceremony. Here is some of my story………..

I was born at 12:18am on this day forty-five years ago. I don’t remember my grand entrance but according to my mother, it was long and challenging and she remembers it with remarkable detail. My dad wasn’t allowed in the hospital room so he did what most dads of that era did; he went to the bar down the street and shared “spirits” with crocuses-3hsome friends until he heard the news that I had been born. Each spring when the crocuses break ground, I remember the part of my birth story where my mom said they were all in bloom when she brought me home from the hospital a week after my birth.

I was their second born and my sister, Lana, who was 3 at the time, was being cared for by my dad’s parents who had traveled from southern Ontario to lend a hand.  My maternal grandfather had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer around the time of my birth but drove through a freak snowstorm to come and see his newest granddaughter. My mom recalls taking me to the hospital in the coming months when he was dying and how he would hold me against his old face and kiss me. He died when I was six months old and my mother says she would have died, too, (from a broken heart) if it weren’t for my older sister and I needing her care.

After waking up today with the knowledge that I have lived 45 years, a few thoughts came to mind. I don’t feel 45 and instead feel 26. One glance at my reflection in the mirror and I know I am definitely not 26. My 26 year old face did11951750_10155845706800467_6689512895882278010_nnot show the experience, wisdom and traces of adventures that my 45 year old face proudly displays. At 26, I hadn’t laughed or cried as much as I have at 45. My eyes have seen so much more and my heart has been stretched to lengths it only dreamt about at 26. My body has birthed a child and carried that child hours and hours per day for close to a decade and then some. I have accomplished so many things since 26……..a successful marriage, motherhood, published a book, travelled, reinvented myself, evolved, grown and expanded and have become increasingly aware of the fragility of this blessed gift of life.

When I decided to specialize in funerals and celebration-of-life ceremonies, I imagined the funerals of elderly people who had lived full lives. It turns out that I am most often called to assist a family in mourning and celebrating the life of a family member who died too young and often tragically. In the last ten months, I have led ceremonies for ten people who were around my age or younger and died oftentimes in a traumatic way.

It sure puts things in perspective when you tell a story that has such an abrupt ending. You can’t help but think of all the things that have been left unsaid and undone. A funeral I led recently was for a relatively young man who lived life fully. If he wanted to try something, he tried it and not in a half-assed way. Standing at his graveside, I 793799_221992647975502_658098297_oencouraged his friends and family to consider something they wanted to do; something they often referred to in this way: “One day I want to/ am going to……” Things like learning how to tango or cook french cuisine or to take up photography.  I urged them to pledge in that moment to actually do it. I have always wanted to play the drums………like the drums in a rock n’ roll band. And I know that the time is now. I am in the process of finding someone to teach me. Even the dead have profound lessons to teach us.

I recognize this deep privilege of celebrating my 45th birthday. There are so many who will never get the chance.

As I blow out my candles tonight, my wish is that today is the halfway mark of my life and that I get to continue to enjoy all of it…..the good, the bad, the easy, the tough, the glory, the hardship and the multitude of blessings. I carry with me the essence of all of those who didn’t get that chance to celebrate their 45th or next birthday and I raise my glass to them for, in their deaths, they brought deep meaning to my life.

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#No Perfect Victim~ One Survivor’s Thoughts About the Justice System

I was recently contacted by a woman who asked if I would be open to giving her space on my blog to share the following piece of writing. I firmly believe that the truth does set us free. Speaking out about things that many can only think about takes tremendous courage. Sometimes the desire to inform and educate outweighs the risk in putting it all out there and being vulnerable while standing firmly in your truth. This is one survivor’s truth and I encourage you to take the time to read it. Yes, it may make you uncomfortable but I don’t think that is a bad thing. ~Julie Keon

****TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains details that some readers might find disturbing and triggering.

Whenever sexual assault is in the news, it’s hard for me to sleep. Everyone weighs in with their opinions, statistics and arguments but I don’t see much on social media that is written by survivors.  Some survivors naturally try to avoid it altogether because it can bring up a lot of pain. When Rehtaeh Parsons’ tragic suicide after sexual assault was in the news about 3 years ago, it opened the floodgates for me and brought up a lot of suppressed memory, emotions, and PTSD symptoms.  The positive part of that public dialogue was that I finally started to talk about and truly process what had happened to me as a young woman.  The Ghomeshi trial has been similarly intense.  This time I’ve decided I need to write. It has helped me process my thoughts, my anger, and my experience with the whole concept of “justice.”

Many have been calling for new thinking about the justice system and how we handle sexual assault because of the overall picture due to the abysmally low reporting/ conviction rates and the difficulties with ‘evidence.’ I think it’s time to think outside the legal ‘box’ and look for a system that is designed to uncover the truth of both parties testimony. The behaviour of the witnesses is on trial and the accused’s version of events is not cross examined. There is no genuine search to uncover the truth in this adversarial system.  A shadow of doubt is easy to come up with when we throw in sexist questions like “What were you wearing?”  We must come up with a better, perhaps even separate, system for sexual assault cases.

My rapists got away with it because I was too afraid and ashamed to report them, and because I knew my experience did not match up with what the justice system considers ‘real rape.’

Calls for change predictably bring the alarmist response (‘but the accused won’t get a fair trial!’).   I want to make it clear that the accused must have a fair trial and we need to be concerned about wrongful conviction.  We also need to be concerned about making the wrong decision and letting sex offenders go free.  I believe we can find ways to bring more balance and some current science into the process.

Science and research have to replace outdated, often sexist beliefs, about what makes a victim’s story ‘credible’.  In my city, 40% of reported sexual assaults never even make it to trial because the police can decide whether or not the victim is credible and if not credible, then charges are not laid.  The reasons may include, agreeing to go on a date with the accused or having had a drink or two the night of the incident.  If the Crown thinks a case will be too difficult to prosecute, they just don’t.  That strikes me as a problem.

During High School, my law class attended court to sit in on a sexual assault trial.  I watched the young woman on the stand, who was also a high school student, be brutally cross-examined (‘whacked’).  She was badgered to tears about details like how many buttons were on your shirt?

You said there were four, now you say there were six?

I watched her extreme discomfort about having to give testimony in front of a class of high school students in her own city and she had to be the one to ask the judge for our class to leave. It was terrifying and I was discouraged from reporting what had recently happened to me. That was in the 80’s and it shocks me that nothing has changed in 30 years.

When I was raped at the young age of 15, by a man many years older than me, I didn’t know anything about the justice system. I was still drawing rainbows and unicorns on my schoolbooks until he ripped my childhood from me on that terrible night.  I didn’t know what kind of ‘evidence’ I would need and in the shock of the aftermath I certainly was not thinking about memorizing details or preserving the ‘crime scene’ on my body for forensics.

From what I’ve seen, if I had reported and assuming charges were even laid, my case wouldn’t have held up in court.  I know what happened to me but our justice system would not have protected me from my rapist. He preyed on vulnerable teens and he got into their heads.  I was bullied by my peers, which made me a target for predators because I was isolated and because I had low self-esteem. Looking through the lens of the justice system, my case would not have succeeded.  I wasn’t a ‘perfect victim’ with a ‘credible story’ and I would have been called a liar.   I’m going to share part of my story in the hope that you will understand a little of what is going on in the mind of a traumatized person, and why our evidence is seldom if ever perfect enough for proof beyond a shadow of doubt.

First flaw in my story:  I agreed to go on a date with him.  Incredibly, this alone seems to be enough to discredit a victim.  The police often ‘unfound’ a case; will not press charges, based on this.  Yet, statistically we know that the largest percent of sexual assaults is carried out by people known and trusted by the victim. This makes it deeply complicated. We know that most abusers are not green eyed monsters lurking in alleys. They are our friends, relatives, neighbors, fellow students, football stars, professionals, co-workers or our teen ‘crush’.  As a society we have a hard time imagining putting them behind bars.  It’s no wonder then, that victims also have a hard time seeing their perpetrators as monsters and often stay in contact or want to continue the relationship. Often we don’t want to call the police on someone we may still care about even though they hurt us. That doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt us. It’s confusing when you are betrayed and violated by someone who also has a ‘good side.’   Date rape and intimate partner violence are very real problems and we don’t seem to have the tools to prosecute.

Second flaw in my story:   I didn’t call the police. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone. My memory went very blank. I went to school and acted like nothing had happened.   This is called dissociation and it’s one tool the brain uses to survive trauma. This led people to say things like ‘it couldn’t have been that bad then. ’ This idea is entrenched in public attitudes and the justice system.  But we have research that shows many different responses to trauma, such as shock, numbing, minimizing to cope and memory problems.  Dissociation got me through high school. Sadly, I have known a number of women who dropped out of school because the aftermath of sexual violence was too much to cope with. Sexual violence is another obstacle to success for women.

Third flaw in my story:  My memory is fragmented.  Because I dissociated, it was as if my brain stored different parts of the memory in different places. For years, I could recall the event but there was no emotion attached. Anxiety and depression plagued me but seemed separate from what happened.  The emotional and physical parts of the memory only came back recently. Some details have never returned, such as what happened afterwards.  I remember him pulling me by the arm out of the back room he had put me in,  through the party and out to his car (and no,  I don’t remember the colour of his car).   I assume he drove me home but I can’t remember anything about how I felt or what I did afterwards, not that night or the next day or the next week.

I remember exactly what happened to me before he grabbed my arm to exit the party; in vivid details that still wake me at night, shaking, smelling him, years later.   But I couldn’t describe the room or what he was wearing. What I do remember, during the assault, was the confusion, the shock, that things were changing so quickly and violently, he was changing from the person I thought he was, into something else that made no sense. Date rape is always seen as a ‘lesser’ crime somehow.  Merely  unwanted or less enjoyable sex, not ‘real’ trauma, not violence.

The reality of date rape is that not only is it violent, it’s a major mind fuck.   He had been someone I liked and I had wanted him to like me. I had been so excited and flattered when he asked me out on a date…but out of nowhere, everything changed, the whole thing felt wrong and too fast and confusing.  My brain could not adapt to his transformation from ‘guy I have a crush on’ to ‘monster from hell’ and one moment I was paralyzed with fear and ….then it was nothing. I was blank.  It was as if my brain could not make sense of it. It shattered my sense of reality, so the brain, in an act of self-preservation, simply shut itself off.   Telling anyone was psychologically impossible in the aftermath, because I was just shut off.  Talking about it remains incredibly difficult.  To this day I have no sense of safety, because I know, as trauma survivors do, that my whole world could be shattered in an instant.

Fourth flaw in my story: I drank alcohol that night at a party with him.  I remember him pouring more vodka into my drink repeatedly.  I drank it.  That doesn’t mean I asked to be raped.

Fifth flaw in my story: I agreed, impossibly, to go on a second date with him, a week later, and for the life of me I don’t know what possessed me to do that. I can’t remember a single thing between events.  I know that it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t raped the first time or that I ‘wanted it.’ It was horrific. So I can’t explain why I went out with him again.  I can only speculate.   He said he’d take me to a movie. Maybe I thought that he was going to take me to a movie and that would somehow make things okay again.  Maybe I thought it would repair the fabric of reality and things would make sense. I could re-write history a different way.  Perhaps then I could comprehend, fix things, construct a narrative that would allow my mind to survive.

I’ve read that our subconscious, when traumatized, tries to recreate the scenario, like our brain wants a do-over.   I’ve read about soldiers re-enacting scenarios that reflect their trauma on the anniversary of a bad experience.  So again, we need to look at the research and try to understand, not use ‘post-incident contact’ as a weapon against a victim’s story.

As you can probably guess he didn’t take me to a movie on that ‘second date’.

If my case even made it to court, based on the outdated beliefs that underlie how we evaluate credibility, my story would be difficult to prosecute.  I likely would have been called a liar and accused of trying to ruin the life of a ‘decent man.’ The fact that despite considerable effort to heal and move on I still suffer with PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain and depression is probably not considered evidence.

How can cases like this get prosecuted? I know for a fact I was not his only victim and this guy is still out there.  It seems incredible that the onus would have been on a 15 year old traumatized kid to be able to prove guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt (keep in mind the age of consent back then was 14).  Statistics show that the most likely age for a woman to be sexually assaulted is between 15 and 24.

There are thousands of cases like this every year and an extremely low conviction rate. This is a serious problem. The tendency is to blame the victim for not doing a good enough job. She should have reported immediately. She shouldn’t have gone on a date with him (apparently?)  She shouldn’t have had a drink.  She should have put her clothing into paper, not plastic bags which damage the evidence. She shouldn’t have had contact with him after the assault.  If she was really raped she would remember it. She would have told someone.

When you are in the middle of being raped, trust me, you are really not thinking about how you can be the perfect witness by memorizing details. You are not thinking about running straight to the police so you can be interrogated.  You are not making certain you remember every single sordid detail because if you forget something it is called ‘changing the story’. You likely don’t even know that you shouldn’t take a shower or brush your teeth because then you won’t have any ‘evidence’ for the examination by a doctor with a speculum. (by the way a rape kit exam takes between 2-4 hours and involves photographing, as well as extensive physical  examination) Right.

Then there is the fact that even if you have all this ‘evidence’, the police can decide not to press charges regardless, as we saw recently in a story reported in Ottawa news.

I didn’t report any of my rapes. Yes, it happened several times (in a small town, word gets around between predators but that’s another story).  My decision was mainly out of fear: fear of the ruthlessness of lawyers, fear that I would be publicly dragged through the mud and called a liar, fear of my rapists, of what they might do if I ‘made them’ angry. I already knew what they were capable of.

Silence is painful. It meant I had no support in healing. Initially, the silence was due to shock and dissociation. Later on, it was about shame. Now, silence is a tool by which I retain control over my story and my reputation. I tell only those I trust.  Even so I’ve been minimized and invalidated by people I thought were friends.

There is another factor that maybe people who haven’t been raped just don’t get. From a survivor`s perspective, when you look at the abysmally low conviction rates, there is actually considerable personal risk in reporting. Even if you manage to psychologically survive the trial, if your rapist walks free, you have to face the consequences of a system that has not protected your safety and will not protect you if he decides on revenge. You will spend the rest of your life literally looking over your shoulder.   Thirty years of PTSD and silence, has been the life sentence I have served for his crimes.

-Anonymous Survivor

Warriors We Remember

Yesterday, December 6th, marked the 26th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre; the day Marc Lepine walked into Ecole Polytechnique and consciously chose to murder 14 women whom he despised simply because they were women and because he perceived them as feminists. Each year, on this day, people gather at monuments to reflect, to light a candle and to ignite that fire within that the violence perpetuated against women that continues to this day must be stopped. For many here in Renfrew County, yesterday was also a remembrance of the three women killed recently in Wilno, ON and surrounding area when a man who was out on parole and hell bent on revenge, walked into their homes in the morning of September 22nd 2015 and shot them. He was eventually captured outside of Ottawa later that day but three families and the community at large were left in a state of shock and asking the question, “How could something like this happen?”

Three days after the shootings, the tiny community of Wilno invited me to create and lead a candle light vigil ceremony to support those directly and indirectly affected by this violent act. Although my training as a Certified Life Cycle Celebrant includes the creation and benefits of community ceremonies, this was a first for me and one that I knew carried such importance. It was my intention to create something meaningful that would aid in the collective grief we were all experiencing.

I opened the ceremony with these words:

Good evening and thank you to each of you for coming out tonight to support one another, this community and most of all to remember Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton: three local women whose vibrant lives came to a tragic end this past Tuesday. We gather this evening in solidarity and in shared grief and shock in the events that unfolded here in Wilno and the surrounding area on the morning of September 22nd. Gathering together tonight eases the suffering that we have all felt since hearing the news that three beloved members of this community died prematurely in a tremendous act of violence.

Experiencing this type of trauma and sadness in isolation only intensifies it. By coming tonight and seeing the faces of your fellow community members and the faces of those who have travelled from afar to be here tonight in support, helps us to understand that every one of us has been deeply impacted and forever changed by this tragedy. It is my hope that this gathering tonight will ease some of the isolation you may have been feeling. I urge you in the days and weeks to come to reach out to your neighbours, your friends and family, your spiritual leaders or community professionals if you are having difficulty understanding or processing the very normal but complicated feelings that occur in the aftermath of a tragic event such as this one.

It is a natural response to try to place blame and to figure out how something so horrific could have been prevented. Tonight, I urge you to take a deep breath and set aside these feelings of rage and blame and instead reach down into your heart and bring forth compassion and love for one another and especially for the friends and families of Anastasia, Nathalie and Carol who suffer most deeply. I also ask that we keep the Borutski family in our hearts, understanding that they, too, suffer as they attempt to come to terms with what has happened.”

After the opening words, a local man and friend of one of the victims came up and sang a moving a Capella rendition of  “Tears in Heaven.” At this point, the 400+ attendees were instructed to keep their candles unlit. We stood together in semi-darkness until each slain woman was honoured by a personal friend. As each person got up and spoke, the candles were gradually lit until we stood together in the glow of hundreds of flames. Yes, we were engulfed in darkness with this tragedy and yet as each woman was honoured and her individual characteristics and personality were celebrated, we lit up that dark night with hundreds of little flames…….beacons of hope

Photo courtesy of Ryan Paulsen (Pembroke Daily Observer)

 Photo by Ryan Paulsen (Pembroke Daily Observer)

The moment of silence for private reflection was broken by a chilling and powerful song called “Warrior” by the Wyrd Sisters and sung by local musician and singer, Stephanie Pinkerton. I encourage you to listen to the song here. Following this song, everyone was invited to come forward and lay flowers at the makeshift altar. A local choir sang Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah” as mourners silently came forward. I closed the ceremony with the following words:  “Together as a community, we share in a collective grief, that will need time and tending to before healing will occur. Our lives have forever been changed and the memory of this day will be etched in the history of Wilno and the Madawaska Valley. It is my sincerest hope that in these sacred moments of remembering, we may come closer to accepting the unacceptable and we may find some meaning where there is no meaning. May we always remember our pain so that it can be transformed into action so that we will never see history repeating itself.

I presided over two more vigils that week; one after the annual Take Back the Night event and another community candlelight vigil in the town of Petawawa. By the time I did the Petawawa vigil, a week had passed since the shootings and the feeling in the community was one of anger. The shock was transforming and people were really furious at how this could happen: “As a community we can’t help but feel deep sadness and as the reality sets in, we are faced with a new challenge. How do we make sure this type of violence never happens again in Renfrew County? How do we begin to shift cultural perspectives and create lasting change? This issue belongs to all of us. We, as a community, can no longer turn away while women continue to be terrorized. We must be willing and vigilant in creating an environment of safety and one where women can seek assistance to feel safe and protected and actually achieve it. As the grief settles into your bones, your feelings may shift to that of anger and rage.This anger can fuel change; lasting change and tonight, I hope that as we come together and reflect on these three beautiful women, that we will all pledge to do whatever we can to prevent this from happening again. We all care about what has happened. We feel deeply about what has happened and we must now heed the call to end violence against women once and for all.”

I urged the crowd to “never forget the devastation and pain.” I talked about how we must take these raw emotions and transform them into action. It was clear to me then that in the not-so-distant future, we would resume our regular lives and so it was critical that we vow to keep the momentum going to find constructive, effective solutions.candlehand Not long after the shootings in Wilno, people did return to their normal daily lives and soon there were groups cropping up to begin fund raising for the wave of Syrian refugees who would be coming to Canada in the coming months. I had originally signed up to be a part of this grassroots group but I felt an internal struggle. I was amazed at how local people rallied together and came up with incredibly creative fundraisers and events to raise thousands of dollars in a relatively short amount of time to support new Canadians. Although I understood and supported their efforts, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the same amount of energy, creativity and support was shown for the women living in Renfrew County right now who live in terror every single day and night; terror bestowed upon them by their intimate partners. And I felt frustrated that, as I had predicted, we went back to our normal lives and nothing had been done or changed since the Wilno shootings. The Wilno shootings shed light on the insidious problem of violence against women and people were left with a deep need to help and yet not sure how to do so.

I recently met with JoAnne Brooks of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County and I asked her what people could do right now to support women in crisis. This is what she had to say: “Women who unexpectedly experience violence tell us that practical help makes a difference. Gas cards from the Canadian Tire gas bar means that lawyers appointments can be gotten to, medical advice can be sought – especially in our large geographical region where we have no buses. Walmart and Giant Tiger gift cards mean that women and children can get some food and items like underwear, socks, shoes, shampoo. When women are ‘matched’ with other folks kindness it often provides a ‘glimmer’ of light that a stranger cares. Especially the winter season when it is dark and cold a wee bit of ‘comfort & joy’ can go a long way to making a difference for a woman and her children.”

In this season of giving, as you make your way around to the various shops and stores in Ottawa and Renfrew County, please consider adding a gift card to your shopping list knowing that your generosity does make a difference in the lives of women who are in violent situations. JoAnne goes on to say: “Every holiday season WSAC distributes holiday gifts for women and children in Renfrew County. Though gifts are wonderful and we are extremely appreciative for your donations. The holidays are often a time when women feel that they don’t have many choices. Gift Cards provide them with the freedom to make choices specific to their families wants and needs for the holidays. We appreciate any and all offerings that can be shared with women and children. Gift Card Suggestions: Grocery Stores, Gas Stations, Walmart, Shoppers Drug Mart, Dollar Store, Giant Tiger.

If you want to contribute to the well being of women in Renfrew County consider sending a monetary donation or a gift card donation to: WSAC, PO Box 1274, Pembroke, ON K8A 6Y6

Sadly, there is a need to support women and children in our own communities. If you were devastated by the Wilno shootings and have wondered ever since how you can help, please consider JoAnne’s suggestions above and make a donation to your local women’s shelter and/ or women’s sexual assault centre.

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Renfrew County Women’s Monument which was created to honour and grieve all women in Renfrew County murdered or abused by men.

“I am an older woman now
And I will heed my own cries
And I will a fierce warrior be
’til not another woman dies

I can and will fight
I can and will a warrior be
It is my nature and my duty
It is the womanhood in me.”

I remember.

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There are seventeen names etched in this stone representing the women we have lost to violence and, sadly, three more names will be added. Let us do the work to bring about change so that Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton will be the final names engraved in this rock .

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