Unplated: An Interview with Narinder Bazen
Connecting food and play with end of life care
This conversation is part of the Unplated series, a collection of interviews with folks whose work intersects with food, but who work outside culinary spheres. My hope is that these conversations not only spark your curiosity, but help you think about how what you eat is connected to the world well beyond your plate.
(CW: This issue of Unplated contains conversations of death and dying)
I first met Narinder Bazen before the pandemic, and she has been a wonderful force in my life for bringing play and curiosity into spaces that can feel heavy and serious.
Narinder Bazen serves in these curious times as a death midwife, home funeral educator and holistic death care activist. She is attuned to the spirit of everything and enjoys supporting others as they navigate life and death by inspiring them to remember that everything is temporary and that we are not just our bodies. Narinder is an multi-disciplinary hobby artist and lover of all things whimsical.
Here, we talk about both the practical side of food in end of life care, but also the emotional and playful sides. Having done end of life care multiple times, I appreciate a conversation that allows for both to exist simultaneously.
JS: Over the years your work has touched on many aspects of the human experience, ranging from performance art to spiritual care to end of life care and death education. Can you tell me a bit about your journey? How did you come to where you are now, and how do you describe your current practice?
NB: What a great question, I’d like to answer honestly. I am an ever-unfolding creative force of love. My existence has always disrupted the status quo. I don’t know, I was just born with a unique Knowing – I can see the Truth. Performance Art is my favorite way to play. Spiritual Care is just who I am, my existence is that. And my Death Education is activism through and through.I get extreme amounts of pleasure by giving people an experience of the Divine. Not a lecture, not a theory, but an experience. All of my missions here coalesce in that one way.
I’m on this planet, at this time, to be a collective front worker. That means, I came here to lead others to their Truth, the Truth, Love. It’s not easy, don’t get me wrong. I usually have to make trips to dark spaces, so I can learn to navigate the, map them out and help others find their way through them. I love this wild life. It’s all temporary.
JS: I suspect many readers are not familiar with death education or with what death midwives do. Why is this work important, particularly in shifting our relationship with death in this culture? What starting points can you recommend for people to learn more?
NB: Death Care was always in the home until the turn of the century. And when I say always, I mean always. Death care was given by the family and others in the community. Children used to see death and dying in the home. They saw after-death care. There was no shock to the psyche about death. It was never hidden away. It was a part of life. After the Civil war, death care began to become outsourced. Casket makers took the care of the hands of the “shrouding women” and created the first funeral homes as we know them today. It is my fervent belief that outsourcing our death care has completely sickened our entire evolution as a society.
We do not know what to do with Grief, and grief is gratitude, it’s praise, it’s love. So, therefore we do not let those things have their fullest incarnation. Death Midwifery, or the Holistic Death Care Movement, as I’m calling it, is returning our death values. We are bringing death home. We are bringing grief home. Death Midwifery is my highest form of activism.
JS: Food and ritual (and here I mean ritual as a special or sacred activity, not necessarily spiritual or religious, though it can be) are deeply intertwined. In your work in death care and beyond, how has the ritual of preparing food been a part of your work with clients?
NB: I love this question. I love it because preparing food, with careful consideration, is an assignment I give to my apprentices. I ask them to make a nourishing warm soup that they would be able to take to a client’s home in the event of a death or caregiver needs. See, this is what holistic death care can look like.
Feeding our community members who are very busy caregiving for their dying loved one (Because: sidenote….hospice does not provide 24 hour care. Caregiving for dying people falls on the hands of the family.) The holistic death care movement will stay out of the bureaucracy that keeps us from supporting death and dying spaces with nourishment. We will be feeding our caregivers and the bereaved.
JS: Food is such a strong connector between people and across generations, and many times people regret not learning more about family food traditions when they had the chance. For those looking to have conversations before end of life about family traditions, how do you encourage people to go about it?
NB: There is such a thing in death midwifery called Legacy Projects. Your question here brings that to my mind. Most holistic death care workers would be very happy to support their clients with Legacy Projects. Those may be: culminating family photos and writing names and dates on them so these photos may be passed down, to gathering grandmother’s recipes to put into a book for her grandchildren. Most death midwives would offer this sort of conversation if they saw a window open for it.
JS: As someone who’s done round the clock caregiving at end of life, I found that food was a source of comfort, but also that a good meal often felt unattainable. I’m curious what your experiences are with your clients and their families around food.
Have you noticed any trends in how the dying or their caregivers tend to connect with food? And what can those of us not currently in caregiving roles do to support people at end of life, and their caregivers, when it comes to food?
NB: Another fabulous question! When we are dying, we no longer want food. Period. Our bodies are so amazing like this, they know how to die. I just learned recently that we are no longer drinking water at the end of life, our calcium levels rise so high that we are made very sleepy. When we are dying of natural causes, we sleep into death. The lack of food and water is a major part of this peaceful transition. Sometimes when we are still alert to our lives months/weeks before death, we may grieve our appetite, a favorite beverage like Root Beer or a bowl of mama’s pasta, but we don’t feel hungry for it. I find allowing conversations around those foods helps people to feel more comfortable and supported.
Now, caregivers, oh that’s another thing. Caregivers. The one thing I’ve seen in every household is that the caregivers who are very tired, grieving and under a lot of stress, tend to reach for small snacks and/or comfort foods. Not always do they reach for the healthiest thing. Take out, fast food, cookies etc. So, it’s VERY important that their community do the cooking and create simple, healthy, savory (so they’ll eat them) snacks for them. I like to see snacks on the kitchen counter. Easy to grab and munch on. And it would be wise for supporters to invite the caregiver to sit and eat with them. This way, the caregiver will find a pause of nourishment.
JS: One thing I’ve always found so powerful about you and your work is that, even though your work is serious stuff, you routinely point to the power of play and rest. What is the role of play in your work and life? And what new insights or perspectives, or just benefits in general do we experience when we make play a priority?
NB: Play is the quickest way to the essence of ourselves.It was where our brain space was hanging out the most in the days of our lives before stress. Play is non-linear. It’s imaginative. It’s expansive. For me personally, playing is the biggest part of my work.
If I do not go play, pretending great imaginative stories in the woods, or talking with butterflies and giving worms names, or scribbling with my eyes closed, or playing house at home, whistling while I ‘work’ then I will become so out of tune with my essence. And a person out of tune with their essence is like a rose that smells like cardboard.
JS: Time in nature is something you prioritize, and from what I have seen is part reset but also part sensory experience. As beings interconnected with the natural world, how can we spend time in nature that strengthens these connections? And are there ways that food, either growing or gathering, or even preparing or experiencing food, play into this?
NB: Food in my childhood was scarce. I was a malnourished child, to be honest. My childhood food consisted of a lot of junk food, processed meats and canned vegetables. My parents did not cook much. When I left home, I continued those habits until I became a nanny for a family who ate very healthy foods. Unlike what most people would think, I inhaled healthy fruits and vegetables immediately upon getting to really taste them and see them in their truth.
Today I keep my foods simple and balanced. I really enjoy simple foods at home. A few olives and some oil and rosemary on a baguette, some tossed greens in Julia Skinner's fermented seeds with an egg over-easy on a slice of toasted rye bread, or an orange peeled away from its skin with a handful of pistachio nuts. I’m a mover and shaker, so sitting down to eat is something I have to make myself do. Ever heard the phrase, “Your stomach doesn’t have teeth” before? I have to keep that in mind and slow down and really chew my food. My Uncle Boots says, “Enjoy your food.” But he says it like this, “Ennnnnnnnnnjooooooooooyyyyyyyy your foooooooooooood.”
JS: I want to end by asking about death care, death education, and food more broadly. What can those of us who work in food, or are avid home cooks, do you get involved in death education? How might we use our work to support agency and quality care at the end of life? What intersections do you see between both our areas of work?
NB: Thank you for asking. Do the dying and their loved ones a HUGE favor and explain to them that our bodies no longer need food when we are dying, and that not forcing your dying loved one to eat is actually a very kind thing to do. Tell your audiences that food keeps us in our bodies, it keeps us here, but it will become something we no longer want or need someday when it comes time to leave our bodies.
And, please help us holistic death workers come up with some ideas for quick healthy savory snacks for caregivers! I’d love that!
You can find Narinder on Instagram @narinder.bazen.death.life or at www.narinderbazen.com
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