Lessons on the art of dying well

by
18 October 2019

Many clergy feel ill-equipped to help people prepare for death. There is now a resource to help, says Joanna Collicutt

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Preparing for death is an important part of life

Preparing for death is an important part of life

AT THE age of 55, I sat with my mother as she departed this life peacefully in a nursing home. This was the first time that I had lost someone close to me.

Her final days had been a steep learning curve, from the nursing-home manager’s phoning me and saying in a serious voice: “It’s just TLC now, love,” (it took me a while to translate this into “she’s going to die quite soon”); through the whispered conversations of her carers, one of whom said that “it” would be hours because her extremities were turning blue; to the astonishing experience of listening to her whispered accounts of the iridescent wings of the hosts of angels that she could see.

She said that she had been into a place of communion with God, and had come back for a while. Finally, when nobody was in the room, she went to that place and did not return. A carer opened the window “to speed her departing spirit”.

That was a transformative experience for me. I realised that, as a highly educated middle-aged woman, I knew nothing of death; that its agonising and glorious mysteries were well guarded by those who attend the dying, just as the agonising and glorious mysteries of childbirth were well guarded by mothers and midwives.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the heavenly vision that my mother had shared with me, and I found myself reflecting afresh on what the Bible says about body, spirit, and soul. I observed that my mother had seemed to be getting on with a piece of work that required her full attention, and, as is commonly the case, she needed to be alone to make that final push into the next world.

I started to wonder why nobody had ever talked about this stuff in church.

Seven years previously, my mother had suffered a major heart attack, and had been told that her days were numbered. Since then, she had developed a habit of going into her church to pray, to prepare herself for death. When I told this to a colleague, her response was: “Why do people have to do this themselves? Why can’t we help them as a church?”

Examples of things produced by participants on a Well Prepared course

I decided to have a go. I had run baptism and marriage-preparation sessions; so I thought “Why not a death-preparation course?” After testing the market by giving out a questionnaire to members of the congregation of my market-town-centre church, I designed and delivered a six-week course that looked at the practical, emotional, and spiritual and theological aspects of living well in the last period of life, and preparing for death.

The topics that we covered were based on the questionnaire, and included preparing spiritually for death; making a good ending to the story of my life; Christian teaching on “what comes next”; what I am learning now from living in the final phase of life; planning my funeral; passing my life wisdom on to others; the loneliness of being “the one left behind”; the physical process of dying; handling and healing family relationships; and making a will. I invited a funeral director, solicitor, and specialist palliative-care practitioners to contribute to some of the sessions.

 

THE course was more successful than I could ever have hoped. We had good numbers each week; an excellent degree of engagement, with wise and compassionate participant contributions; and much laughter over tea and home-made cake. The evaluations from participants were strongly positive — the most touching, if perhaps hyperbolic, comment being: “You have most lovingly and effectively removed my underlying fear of dying.”

Although the course was aimed at people of all ages, those who attended were all over 60, and most of them were in their seventies and eighties. In our subsequent research, we have found that it is older people who are most willing, if not eager, to talk about their mortality. We repeatedly come across the complaint by an older person that his or her children are reluctant to talk about such things with them (“You’ll go on for ever, Mum”).

We have also found it much more difficult to get takers for similar groups aimed at young adults. This seems to connect with the results of the Cooperative Funeral Service 2018 Survey, which suggest that the age group the least willing to talk about a personal bereavement is aged between 16 and 29, and that the age group 60-69 is the most likely.

Following on from this course, I ran three well-attended training days for clergy and pastoral leaders in Oxford diocese, setting out my findings, listening to their experiences of work in this area, and encouraging them to try similar initiatives appropriate to their contexts. These were fascinating events, because they revealed a strong desire to work in this area, but a lack of confidence in having the necessary pastoral skills and theological knowledge.

Well Prepared participants take part in a creative workshop on . . .

Clergy repeatedly reflected that their own uncertainties about the precise nature of resurrection hope, and their ambivalence around issues such as judgement and hell, made them cautious about leading others through this territory with authority and integrity.

This is, of course, paradoxical, because the ordination charge enjoins the clergy to “prepare the dying for their death”. In the Middle Ages, there was a whole industry of ars moriendi (“The art of dying”) mediated by the clergy; perhaps we need to reinvent this for our own time.

Despite the caution mentioned above, several people did go ahead with some imaginative and successful initiatives, some of which involved ecumenical partners. We were fortunate enough to receive funding from the Henry Smith Charity, in 2015, for a three-year project to research the impact of these initiatives, and to identify and produce any additional resources needed.

 

I WAS joined by the Revd Dr Victoria Slater, who carried out much of the research. We identified two aims. One focused on equipping: to support churches, especially pastoral teams, in being more confident and competent in helping people to explore issues relating to death, engage with their mortality, make appropriate preparations for their death, and live well in this light. The other focused on changing culture: to support churches in developing their own understandings of this area, so that death and life become part of the warp and weft of their everyday ministry rather than something set apart. In this way, they will be living more like a “resurrection people”.

Crucial to both of these has been the provision of resources to help us to listen well to each other across the generations, and to allow the visions of people like my mother to be received by the whole Church. So, we have produced a Messy Church publication, Seriously Messy: Making spaces for families to talk together about life and death (BRF, 2019), and a web-based resource (www.deathlife.org.uk) that provides downloadable materials for creative workshops where ordinary Christians can express their own theologies of life and death.

We have had a habit in the Church of telling people what they should believe in this area, and of “correcting” beliefs and practices that seem sub-Christian (such as the body-spirit dualism seemingly expressed in the action of opening a window at the time of death). We take a different approach: the aim is to listen attentively to sincere Christians; to recognise that, in St Paul’s words, we are all responding to “a mystery” beyond the limits of logic and present experience; and to bring the historic dogmatic theology of the Church into respectful and productive conversation with people’s heartfelt intuitive beliefs.

The website also offers resources for Bible studies, sermon series, and a prayer walk, supported by visual art, poetry, and recorded meditations on theological themes that link life now with issues that come into sharpest focus at death (for example, Christian hope).

Finally, we have produced a handbook, Well Prepared, which is based on the very first course that I ran. It can be purchased via the website.

 

 

WHAT are the most important findings thrown up by our research?

  • Death is terrible and frightening (Jesus’s victory would not be so stupendous if it wasn’t). We quite rightly get on with our lives by denying it for much of the time. Facing up to the prospect takes emotional and mental effort and energy. We need to take care in supporting others and tending to ourselves in this. (Our resources provide guidance here.)
  • Older people are, generally speaking, willing and eager to discuss their mortality and the big issues that are thrown up by it. Many have their own tacit theologies of death. This is an area where it is possible to do effective grass-roots, bottom-up theology.
  • Churches have not been particularly good at addressing this need in the past, but things are changing, and all the initiatives we evaluated had a significant positive impact on both leaders and participants, particularly in ameliorating loneliness — talking about big questions together establishes intimacy.
  • There can be a reluctance on the part of churches to grasp the theological nettle of eschatology that is so central to Jesus’s teaching and the whole of the New Testament, for fear of coming across as weird. Yet “end of the world” talk has become more prominent in secular discourse in the past year in relation to climate change, and churches need to find a meaningful way to speak into this from the perspectives of both creation and eschatology.
  • There is a significant and increasing cultural gap between the language and practice of the churches, and that of ordinary people, in relation to death.

On this last point, angels have the potential to form common currency between the churches and our surrounding culture. They come into their own at points of life and death — as they did for my mother — and they inhabit the thought-world of many unchurched people. As we enter this period of All Saints’, All Souls’, and Remembrancetide, we could do worse than rediscover their significance in our own tradition.

 

Canon Joanna Collicutt is Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality at Ripon College Cuddesdon, and until recently Oxford Diocesan Adviser for the Spiritual Care of Older People.

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