Johanna Lunn is a award-winning Canadian documentary film maker who I met back in 2015 when she invited me to take part in her documentary film on death and dying. Since then, Johanna has developed what was going to be one documentary into a series of fascinating films under the umbrella title of When We Die. These films involve personal stories of near-death experiences, deathbed visions and more, to explore the question, ‘Does consciousness continue after death, or is it lights out?’
Sue: Welcome Johanna. We will talk about your film projects, but first I am curious about when this interest in death and dying started for you.
Johanna: Well, it’s a funny thing to say ‘interested’ in death and dying because right off the top people go, ‘who is this weird lady!’ But it really started for me when I was nineteen and experienced three significant losses. My mother died followed shortly after by my best friend’s death who was like a sister to me growing up, and the third death was being a passenger in a car. We were driving in the country and we came over a blind spot and we hit an elderly man. He died in my arms on the roadside. Any of those things would have been enough, but all three together threw me into a deep grief state at a time when grief wasn’t acknowledged. It was a really rough period of my life and I had to face climbing out of this dark hole because as we know with grief, just as soon as you start feeling a little bit better, you can be thrust right back down into that sinkhole. It was a really rough ride, especially at that age where I hardly knew who I was, let alone knew how to deal with such strong emotions.
Sue: My goodness, that is a lot of death to experience at such an early age.
Johanna: It was. However, my first job out of University was as a researcher for a possible Public Broadcast Service (PBS) movie on death and dying in the context of community. It gave me a chance to talk to some of the early death pioneers like Elisabeth Kubler Ross and Steven Levine. It was a way of educating myself and learning and also really finally contextualising what was going on with me. We put together a fabulous movie, but PSB thought this was really too taboo. They didn’t think their audiences were ready for it yet.
After that I did other things in television but then I came to a gap in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up talking with a good friend who’s a mentor in many ways. She pushed me to think about what I really wanted to do, and I came back to this subject of death which had been with me all these years. I told her I wanted to popularise conversations about death and dying and make it normal. She said, ‘That’s it!’ So that’s how it all came about. I had made films about forgiveness and moving forward through grief in a healthy way – so this thing with death had always been there in the background really.
Sue: What has working in television given to you?
Johanna: I feel so blessed to have had many different roles in film and television, including being a festival programmer and director of festivals. And I have commissioned broadcast films and I’ve been an independent producer as well. All along the way, I feel like the gift of working in this industry is the gift of receiving stories, which I regard as a great responsibility. When somebody shares their story with me and shares their thoughts, wisdom and experience, I have this obligation to do this as faithfully as possible.
Sue: Has making these films changed your relationship with death and dying?
Johanna: Oh yeah, it definitely has. It’s helped me grow as a human being enormously. I had a pretty broad sense of death and dying, but I think that this process with In the Realm of Death and Dreaming, which is the title of the first of the four films under the When You Die project, has deepened this. I have discovered that human beings are more extraordinary than I could have possibly imagined. It’s the depth of our ability to perceive the world around us, to love deeply, to live more fully. I think to live more fully and more confidently has been a huge gift.
Sue: That’s really interesting. In my own experience of life, it is tough here and we do have the most extraordinary resilience. Actually, I think all of us need a bravery award for being here in the first place! It’s certainly been this sense that there’s something greater than me which has kept me going.
Johanna: This is part of what I was so curious about in the first film, In the Realm of Death and Dreaming, which explores what consciousness actually is. Is it generated by the brain? Is it free floating and we’re just little receptors plugging into it? I also explore this further in the second film, The Architecture of Death – what happens in the mind and body as we near death. Whatever side you’re on – and I’m definitely on the side that there is a greater consciousness – it is available, but, by nature of being embodied in a human body, we have a kind of heavy filter. Consciousness itself isn’t bound by a body or form of any sort and that’s outside our day-to-day experience. So, we don’t know how to access it. Personally, I think it helps to do meditation.
I loved talking to Anthony Bossis who did the psilocybin trials for The New York University Medical Centre to help reduce end-of-life fear with cancer patients. He talked about the body of literature around this subject and people like Abraham Maslow saying we’re wired for meaning. This is our nature. It’s all in there, but we’re just not trained to use it.
Sue: I understand towards the end of his life, Maslow started describing peak existential experiences which prepared him for his death. I found that really interesting.
Johanna: Yes, it’s fascinating. I attended the International Science of Consciousness Conference hosted by the University of Arizona one year. It was an amazing gathering of leading scientists, prestigious educational institutions, and Nobel Prize nominated scientists attending from around the world. It was a nerd fest of brilliant minds! At one point I did ask myself what I was doing there. But this was a chance to really talk to people about what they were researching. It was amazing to hear how so many said that when they started out as research scientists, they were total materialists – the brain generated everything and there was nothing outside of us. Then they progressed from, ‘well, maybe there is consciousness out there,’ to ‘consciousness is everywhere.’ So, over the course of a long career, many had found themselves moving from this materialistic point of view to becoming more spiritual people due to what they had discovered through their research.
Sue: Personally, I think consciousness is the glue that connects us all. However, as you said earlier, we don’t know how to access it. We have been taught to become so goal orientated and to put a label on ourselves to make ourselves happy, but it isn’t like that. I think a successful life is about linking to something greater than ourselves.
Johanna: I believe this stems from our parents’ experience of the war. It was horrible and they were stuffed with deep trauma and grief. They didn’t want to think about it and turned their minds to creating a better society. Agriculture became a business. You could buy things on credit – you couldn’t have a washing machine before, well, now you can. And then this became a slave to an economic model. Every step of the way was about valuing your wellbeing through having nice things – a nice little house, having children and the picket fence around the garden. I think there was a real shutting down into materialism because culturally we didn’t have a way of dealing with all that grief and loss. I also think right now we’re faced with a world that’s suffering tremendous loss. And I hope that we can do a better job of dealing with it.
Sue: I think the other thing that really changed society was the analgesics which arrived because of The Second World War where doctors were able to reduce pain and ease the end of life. Personally, I am really grateful for this because I don’t want to be in a world without them. But I believe this shifted how we perceived life and death.
Johanna: Well, with the global pandemic going on, we can’t avoid death. In fact, we are fed it every day in the media to such an extreme. So, it’s out there, you know, it’s out there. But let’s get off this fear campaign because it’s crushing. Yet, as weird as this may sound, we need to begin to see what grief is. When I went through all those losses in my early twenties, I didn’t even know what grief was. I don’t even think I knew the word ‘grief.’ It was years later when a therapist said to me, ‘You know, one of the hugest human emotions is grief.’ I looked at him like, ‘Grief is an emotion?’ I didn’t know.
Sue: I think grief is about getting down and dirty with yourself. In my experience of grief, it brings up everything that we haven’t resolved. I remember when I went through a huge grieving process, I felt like my body was going to break apart. It’s not a fun feeling, but at the same time it threw me into an existential space beyond who I was, and it profoundly changed me.
Johanna: Right. But grief isn’t just about death as in the big D. When my marriage of over twenty-four years ended and my daughter was taking a gap year in Mongolia before University, I ended up in a strange new place surrounded by boxes and went into a deep grief place. It isn’t pleasant. It isn’t pleasant at all, but it is powerful. It’s incredibly powerful, and there’s the opportunity for real transformation, because, if you’re brave enough and you can go into that space, you can shift things. By the way, I’m not saying grief is something ‘you get over.’ Instead of trying to hang on to the very thing that’s gone, my process led me to questioning, ‘Who am I now?’ ‘Who do I want to be now?’ That was a hugely transformational moment.
Many people have created extraordinary things during their grief process. They’ve written books, created sculptures, all kinds of artwork, and also non-profit organisations. It’s as if many are born out of a grief moment because it is a highly creative process. Although, if I had said this to myself while I was going through it, it would have gone beyond me.
Sue: For me, what came out of my own grieving process was how it stripped away all the nonsense, which cleared the way to think about what was really important.
Johanna: Definitely it did that to me too, because that’s when I left broadcasting. I blew everything up, and the role of my marriage and my role as a mother was gone. Yet it was really liberating in the sense that my tolerance for why I needed to live under all these rules that felt so restrictive to my basic nature had also gone. I found a whole new voice in a whole new way of being. And I’m certainly more fulfilled as a human being.
Sue: Do you like yourself better now?
Johanna: I love myself! I think that when you face yourself in the depths of despair and pain and all the stuff that goes with it, that’s when I started to like myself and meet myself. I don’t think I ever thought about genuine kindness to oneself. It was always about others and not recognising that when you are kind and loving to yourself, you are most able to be of benefit to other people. So that was a big shift.
Sue: I want to return to your series of films you are making, and the main themes you are addressing.
Johanna: Well, in the first film, In the Realm of Death & Dreaming I wanted to ask the big question, ‘Does consciousness continue after death?’ I have no judgement about what somebody feels about this, but I wanted to put it out there and I wanted it to be accessible to people who have never thought about that question. I feel it’s important because what you believe happens when you die affects the decisions you make about your end of life particularly as you approach death.
Sue: And, the second film?
Johanna: The Architecture of Death looks at death as a process. It’s a process we all have to pass through before we die, so it explores what happens physically and psychologically. For example, what goes on in the mind? This is where deathbed experiences, visions and dreams come in. But It’s not just about dead relatives coming. It’s the whole area where you have a premonition maybe about yourself or maybe it’s about someone else. For instance, you don’t get on that aeroplane [that crashes] or you’ve lost a loved one and you have extraordinary things happening around you such as light or the scent of roses filling a room. These are much more common than we imagine.
I think it’s important to understand that when someone is dying their consciousness relaxes and starts to expand out. The room of a person who’s dying becomes charged. And if you have had this experience, you certainly know what I’m talking about. The room is really, really charged. And when we enter that room it’s as if we are inside their consciousness. It becomes very intimate. How do we support these kinds of situation? How do we behave? I guess the other part of this is asking yourself how medicalised do you want to be in those last days, because you are alive until the minute you die.
Sue: Making those decisions are an important part of the dying process. It can be difficult one though.
Johanna: Yes, it is. And validating peoples’ experiences as they are dying is really important too. So, the third film is about saying goodbye. For the person who is dying, this is about making meaning of life. And if you are losing a loved one, your life is also changing. How can we say goodbye? How do we let go? How do we move through the grieving process, and what is healthy grieving anyway?
Sue: This is also a difficult one. Yet I have spoken to many people who are convinced that the person who died knew they were going to die. For example, one person whose husband tragically drowned in front of her is convinced he knew he was going to die because he spent the previous month making sure he saw everyone who meant something to him. This included putting all his financial affairs in order.
Johanna: In hindsight, I think this was true with my own mother as well. She’d been really sick, but I thought she was doing okay. She called me when I was at University and was saying, ‘I’m going to get the help that I need so you don’t need to worry about me. Things are going to be better.’ I thought she was crazy. I had no idea what she was talking about, but two days later she died. I don’t know how conscious she was, but she was moved by something to reach out. And that was a little out of character.
Sue: It’s as if the dying process takes us beyond ourselves. There seems to be a kind of calling to reconcile or put things in order for many people. It makes me really curious especially when people appear to be acting out of character.
Johanna: It seems like there is a big unseen world that we have a connection to but we’re often unconscious of it. It’s just like when you feel someone coming up behind you on a street, but you don’t hear anything, yet your body feels it. Your body gets the message that something’s going on.
Sue: It is fascinating. A couple of weeks ago, I ran a Death Café for a Christian retreat centre – I’m not Christian myself but I was very happy to do it. I was amazed that every person at the Death Café had experienced the ‘presence’ of someone who had died, whether it was a spouse or a much-loved parent or relative. One said she ‘saw’ three dead relatives walk through the door to say hello to her! Most of these participants had never met before and some had never spoken about it.
Johanna: Yes, the light switch doesn’t suddenly go off. I think we are more extraordinary than we realise.
Sue: With all you have experienced making your films, how has this impacted your own relationship with death?
Johanna: I’m not afraid of death but I also really like being alive. And I know, when it comes to my final days, if there are a lot of people in the room with me, I think I will have trouble letting go because it’ll be like, ‘Hey, the party’s on!’ So while I’m not afraid of death, I am hooked by life.
Sue: Do you think about your death a lot?
Johanna: I’m very attached to my body – so in that sense I think this is where there is a certain sort of grief or remorse or feelings of leaving something that’s sweet behind. However, because I work with death it’s something that doesn’t leave my consciousness for very long.
It’s spring right now in Nova Scotia and life is struggling to come forth. It reminds me that there’s a sweetness about how determined we all are to come into the world like a baby. So, I see the process more consciously in my day-to-day life. In that way, birth and death are always with me.
Sue: What’s your vision for yourself and your future work?
Johanna: My business partner and I joke that after all these years working on death we’re going to do something totally different – like a tour of single malt distilleries. But really, I’m not sure what the next step is because there’s still a lot of work to do to complete this project. I am very committed to it and still very much in the edit suite. I am also busy talking to different community groups and universities about screening In the Realm of Death & Dreaming. Getting this first film out there is really important to me because it can help start the conversation about death, which helps reduce fear at end of life.
There was a wonderful study done, I believe in the UK, where they looked at people who had grown up in households where death was a taboo subject and households where families talked about it. The study discovered that those who grew up unafraid to talk about death were funnier than people who didn’t. I like that because it means if you’ve got a great sense of humour, you have a fuller living experience. So, conversations around death and dying aren’t just about preparing for your own death, they are about living more fully.
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