Every summer, Loretta Downs raises Monarch butterflies from eggs found in her Chicago garden. She uses their mysterious stages of metamorphosis as a metaphor for the miraculous cycle of life.
During that same time, and during the winter months she spends in Ajijic, she brings that same metaphor into her other passion: creating conversations about death and dying.
At 68 years old, Downs is a strong believer in having a responsible and spiritual death. As a death and dying advocate and end-of-life care practitioner, she says, “My mission in life is to create opportunities to talk about death and dying in positive terms. Anyone who has loved ones and/or assets and walks around in a human body has the responsibility to take care of their end-of-life business.”
For the past seven years, Downs has been on the Ethics Committee at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, the same hospital where she was born, where she sees the conflicts and hard deaths that are created by lack of preparation. “I’ve watched families being destroyed, people stop talking to one another. There’s no reason for that to happen.”
She continues: “Lingering deaths can be avoided by making decisions about the burdens and benefits of treatments. If we aren’t talking about this, the default is that we end up on a conveyer belt of healthcare with this treatment, that surgery. Most doctors aren’t trained about death; they’re trained to fix things. They don’t realize how much of a hardship it can be to prolong one’s dying process. Wouldn’t most of us rather choose quality of life versus longevity?”
Downs received her introduction to death and dying while working in decorative accessories sales in the Chicago Merchandise Mart – the largest wholesale facility in the world. There, she met plenty of creative men who worked in the industry, many who were gay and contracted AIDS.