And then the first thing I saw on Facebook was this update from a friend about our age:
Two contemporaries facing the end of their lives. Much need for helpful reflection about how we prepare others and ourselves for this critical stage of our journey.
I hope you don’t mind my second Sunday Collection being on the topic of death and dying. It’s not a comfortable subject for everyone, but, as whoever it was said, death is the only thing certain about life, along with taxes.
The reason I woke up thinking about death was because of the shocking news that came my way on Friday of a former colleague’s death from cancer at the age of 27.
This was unusually young, but one of the normal markers of our lives as we grow older is that we begin to lose our friends, life partners and contemporary family. Sometimes it’s much too soon, sometimes death comes at the right time, even when it’s still difficult for those of us left behind.
And perhaps some of you reading this are yourselves in the process of loosening your hold on life.
And yet we still don’t seem to have enough by way of mechanisms to cope. Our society still prefers to have death take place neatly around the corner out of sight.
There are some practicalities which makes it easier for loved ones to cope with our deaths, like making a Will and letting people know what funeral arrangements to make. These things are important and we know we should do them. (I haven’t, yet.)
For those in the UK, Amnesty is holding Make a Will Fortnight, which means you can make a Will free of charge or for a donation to Amnesty. So no more excuses.
An added complication today for those of us who have rather large online footprints is what happens to all those blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, emails etc. Does your social media life live on after you do? Will Facebook friends be wishing you a happy birthday years after you’ve kicked the bucket? (Not such a bad thing, I guess.)
There’s a good article about this in New Scientist, and there are also services such as Legacy Locker which can help. For a fee. Or you could simply leave a document with usernames and passwords for all your online services. Keep it up to date though, and keep it safe.
But the practical considerations are not the main things I want to talk about today.
Medical care for the dying has come a long way in the last couple of decades, although there are still terrible experiences and people dying alone on trolleys in hospital corridors or collapsing in the street.
The Hospice movement has transformed the experience of those nearing the end of life for countless thousands of people, with excellent palliative care and, just as important, the acknowledgement that death is coming, no pretences.
Hospice and hospital chaplains of all faiths work with those nearing death.
Meanwhile new ways of accompanying the dying are appearing.
One of the most beautiful, I think, is music.
A few years ago, as I sat by the bed of my 84 year old aunt on the last night of her life, I was moved suddenly to begin singing to her. She had been unresponsive and apparently unaware of my presence, but as I began to sing the Salve Regina (she was a lifelong Catholic, and lover of music of all kinds), she turned her bony face slowly in my direction, an expression crossing her face of a sort of peaceful yearning. I knew then that she was ready.
There are many a capella groups now who sing in hospices as part of a ministry to the dying. The Threshold Singers are based in Boston, the Harbour Singers in Maine, and the Hallowell Singers in Vermont/New Hampshire. (I doubt this is a phenomenon only of the Eastern Seaboard, but these are the groups I know of.)
Hallowell have this to say of the beginning of their ministry:
In March 2003, during the final week of Dinah Breunig’s life, a group of friends from church and community surrounded her bed to sing for and with her while she lay dying. On two different evenings, over 30 people came to help Dinah pass over on the wings of the songs she so loved in her life. It was during those evenings, our voices joined in harmony, our hearts open with grief and love, that Hallowell was born. We have been singing this way ever since, in groups anywhere from 4 to 35, quiet reverent songs over a person in their last hours, or songs of joy and spirit for someone in hospice care but still fully alive in their dying weeks.
And Soul Midwives are non-medical people who accompany and support the dying. What do they do?
They keep a loving vigil.
They create and hold a sacred and healing space for the dying person
They recognise and support the individual needs of the departing soul to enable a tranquil death.
They use sound, touch, colour and smell and other gentle techniques to help alleviate pain and anxiety.
They support families and loved ones.
And there’s also the organisation from whose name I took the title of this post: the Sacred Dying Foundation. Here’s what they say about their ministry:
The Sacred Dying Philosophy is concerned with bringing spirituality, through presence and ritual, into the physical act of dying. Sacred Dying facilitates the creation of a setting where death is experienced with honor, respect, and sacredness. This can be as simple as being present with a loved member of your family and as complicated as transforming the vision of our entire society.
Afterlife or not?
Perhaps here would be an appropriate place to tackle the question of whether this life is all there is.
Does it matter? Well on some levels, profoundly, but on others perhaps not so much.
Do people who believe that death is the end approach it with more fear than those whose religious belief makes them feel sinful? Or more resignation. I’m not sure. (I’d love to hear what you think about this.)
But surely ritual and sacramental approaches to dying are the practices to which we should aspire, whatever our beliefs.
Personally, I don’t believe this life is the end, although I have no idea what might come next. Here’s what Gandalf told Pippin:
Born like a dream
In this dream of a world
How easy in mind I am
I who will fade away
like the morning dew
We’re all amateurs at dying. And we may not have the luxury of preparation. Some of us may prefer the idea of a quick and sudden end. Personally, I would prefer not to “take a header” into death without some warning, but the choice is not mine.
We lie down at night, all of us, even the most healthy, not quite knowing if we will get up tomorrow. There’s a surrender in Sojun’s words above which would be wonderful to live by.
My final recommendation is a book called The Grace in Dying, by Kathleen Dowling Singh. Offering insights from spirituality, transpersonal psychology and her experience over many years accompanying the dying, this book is full of treasures.
So I leave you – and I hope that in spite of all this talk of death and dying you have a wonderful week – with the words of C.S. Lewis and The Last Battle:
It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you might get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking-glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different – deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story – in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.
Farther up, and farther in…
Image credits Alice Popkorn