Grieving Mindfully with Michelle Peticolas

The East Bay filmmaker seeks out the spiritual side of death.

When someone you love is about to die, drop everything. “Don’t wait, and don’t worry about appearing foolish,” said sociologist Michelle Peticolas, producer/director of the award-winning “Secrets of Life and Death” film series. “Sing the song your mother loves even if you’re in the hospital and she’s in a coma and everyone will think you’re crazy. Listen to the person who is dying. It’s their death. Let them lead if they are able.

“Death trumps all other commitments,” Peticolas continued. “When a very close friend who was dying called me from her hospital bed and told me this was it, I left work and took three buses across San Francisco to be with her. … When she did finally pass, I was there.”

Peticolas learned this lesson the hard way when — in 1998, six months apart — her father died of Alzheimer’s Disease and her mother of cancer. Although she had cared for them in their final weeks, Peticolas was not present for their deaths.

“I made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of important moments” while tending to what she calls “the mundane, bedpan side of death.” Yet having studied Sufism since 1984, she knew that death is also imbued with what she calls “the sublimity of the divine.”

She sought to capture it on film. Facing Death … With Open Eyes featured stroke-afflicted spiritual teacher Baba Ram Dass, cancer-stricken Buddhist writer Rick Fields, and others speaking candidly about their fates. Caring for Dying: The Art of Being Present featured the founder of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, among others. At the First Congregational Church of Berkeley (2345 Channing Way, Berkeley) on Tuesday, October 19, Peticolas screens the series’ third film, The Heart of Grieving, which features — among others — a woman who assisted an AIDS-afflicted friend after his family abandoned him.

“There is something very arresting, almost sacred, about being in the presence of someone who is nearing death,” Peticolas said. “By being present, wholly present, I was able to connect to that sublimity while doing my interviews.”

She also felt it when interviewing caregivers who had accompanied others in their final moments. “Divinity is always available to us, not only at death,” Peticolas said. “But we are usually too caught up in everyday life to notice it. Death breaks the illusion of daily life and reminds us of who we really are and why we are here. That’s why I am so drawn to it. … You can’t have one side without the other: Death is both messy and exalted.”

That our culture ignores both aspects “has had sad consequences for many people at the ends of their lives,” she said. “We are often encouraged to fight illnesses long past the point of any life-enhancing benefits. … Doctors are reluctant to give their honest prognosis for fear of destroying hope. … As a result, important conversations do not take place. We experience suffering and pain in our final days and unknowingly forfeit a more conscious and peaceful passage.” 7 p.m., $8-$10.

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