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by Flavia Brakling, Etcetc editor

Murphy is the founder of a pioneering hospice in Albany, NY and a clinical professor in both the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Family Practice at Albany Medical College in Albany. The 75-years-old author of Wisdom of Dying: Practices for Living has run soul-searching workshops and lectures in the United States, Belgium, Holland, France, and Ireland.

Murphy said that workshops with students are different, because younger people have their soul and spirit more visible than older people. He flew from Ireland, where he lives, to Hawai‘i, for a week, to help students on the production of a documentary about artist Peggy Chun.

Producer-instructor for Advanced Video Jacqueline Langley said, “The workshop gave us a chance to empathize with our subject, the dying artist Peggy Chun and her family. If we can walk in their shoes, we’ll do a better job at getting their message across.”

Chun was diagnosed in 2002 with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” It attacks the nervous system and the voluntary muscles of the patient’s body slowly degenerates. Chun is today totally paralyzed, able to move only her eyes. Without treatment support, she would die within minutes.

The six-hour reflective workshop on death and dying made students engage in a couple of exercises.
First, students formed a circle and took turns holding a Native American talking stick. Whoever held the talking stick was supposed to share an experience with the group and then pass the stick to the next person, until it made a full circle. Everybody listened in silence to each person’s confession.
Student Mike Carreiro, graphic supervisor for the documentary said: “I think that the things we expressed helped [the individuals in] our group to connect on a deeper level.”

Student Harry Buerkle, director of the documentary, said: “I found the workshop interesting in a sense that young people like us usually don’t think about death. It seems too far away.”

The second exercise involved three people who had to alternate being the “Mortal,” the “Witness,” and the “Spirit.” The Mortal had to talk to the Witness as if he or she was a loved one, and it was the last time the Mortal was going to see him or her. The Witness was supposed to listen without any reaction. The Spirit is there to control time and guide the Mortal, if needed.

Carreiro said, “I think, if anything, the workshop helped me take a moment to sit back and reflect on myself and those who mean the most to me.”

Murphy said that by looking at their own losses, students become less afraid to look at Chun’s losses.

He also said, “What makes a spectacular moviemaker is this personal touch acquired in the workshops. If you got it, you will be able to take better photographs.”

Buerkle acknowledged Murphy’s contribution to the project. “Our goal is to create a film with deep meaningful levels. Dr. Murphy’s extensive experience in the field of death and dying did certainly help in the production,” he said. “[Murphy] was able to see what [Chun] needed in her precarious situation, and he gave us suggestions on how to incorporate those ideas in the film,” he added.

Langley said that in the advanced video class her goal is to teach students more than how to get a job. “I want them to learn how to use this medium to gain knowledge about life.”

She said that the workshop helped the class to get a deeper understanding about the documentary’s subject.

“ I just hope the students don’t forget the powerful lessons he taught us,” Langley said. “Sometimes we go through these things and then we fall right back into our day-to-day routine and forget about it. That would be a shame.”
 

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