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A hand in the darkness

12 June 2020

Tom Lusty concludes his practical suggestions for making spiritual preparation for death


HOSPICE chaplains have developed a repertoire of material that enables people to prepare spiritually for their own dying. A group of Sue Ryder hospice chaplains adopted the HEALER mnemonic as a way into a conversation about dying.

H is for Hope : what takes people in a trajectory away from despair? E is for Exploring feelings: encouraging people to articulate their feelings. A is for Adjustment to loss: exploring how significant loss is transcended. L is for Looking back : doing a life review — is anything significant left unresolved? E is for Existential issues: some people are terrified of death for reasons that go beyond fear of the physical process of dying. R is for Religion.

Religion comes last of all. That is healthy, because it says not all our needs are religious ones. We may, for instance, choose to express our grounds for hope in religious terms, but never exclusively so.

As we address the prospect of our own mortality in the light of Covid-19, it might be helpful to face our fears, explore our feelings, and conduct a life review.

The theological underpinning of an exploration of feelings and emotions is the incarnation. In his Passion, Jesus was humiliated and isolated, and knew anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. David Ford (in his Lent book The Shape of Living) reminds us that a key characteristic of Jesus’s ministry is that he was frequently overwhelmed by the needs of others.


WHEN I worked in a hospice setting, I was strongly influenced by an elderly nun who came and led a Capacitar workshop. The training is intended for people who have experienced severe trauma. There is much, however, that maps over into the palliative-care setting -— where people are overwhelmed by, say, the rapid progression of aggressive cancer — and the “fingerholds” technique quickly became integrated into my practice.

Where people are awash with different emotions, it can be helpful to process each feeling in turn. The thumb represents emotional pain — easy to remember if you think of what we tended to do with our thumbs as young children. When we see the index finger pointed at us, it can induce panic; it represents fear. The middle finger may be raised in traffic situations when we are angry (not, I hope, when wearing a clerical collar); this finger represents rage. The ring finger is the worry finger: we hold it subconsciously when we are nervous. The little finger represents low self-esteem, for when we feel small.

The fingerholds practice works as follows:

Sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed for ten minutes. Take three deep breaths, then breathe evenly and gently. Beginning with the thumb, followed by the index finger, hold each finger with the opposite hand. You can work with either hand.

Hold each finger for around two minutes. Reflect on the feeling that each finger presents. Recognise and acknowledge the strong or disturbing feelings you hold inside yourself. Breathe out slowly and let go. Imagine the feelings draining out from your finger into the earth. As you hold each finger, you may feel a pulsing sensation as the energy moves and becomes balanced.

If we discern the pulsing is stronger in particular fingers, these represent the areas we can give our attention to and work on. For me, at the moment, it is the index finger — I am occasionally overwhelmed at the thought of losing my wife or elder son, who have compromised immune systems. For most of the time, we are coping well. I am conscious, however, of a significant amount of panic being repressed.


THE Beguines were a lay religious order, mainly women, who had a particular care of the sick and the dying. In Beguine spirituality, we see an identification with Christ in his suffering; a desire not to back away, but to draw closer; to be in the difficult place in focusing on the humanity of the man Jesus Christ.

One of them, Mechtild of Hackeborn, explains the significance of each finger in a mystical sense. The ring finger signifies “the fidelity of his heart, caring for us like a devoted mother. . . Join this finger with his and acknowledge your great debt of fidelity to this faithful lover of your soul. . . The lover of your soul holds your hand in his, his fingers entwining yours, that he may show you how you ought to follow him by imitating his example.”

If you express yourself through how you feel, the five fingerholds may be the incarnational approach that you need.


TO PREPARE spiritually for our own dying, it can also help to do a life review.

Allow at least an hour both for thinking about your life and reflecting back, either with a friend or on your own. For this exercise, a labyrinth can help. If you don’t have a labyrinth handy, a long walk will do (or, if self-isolating, a walk round your garden, or different rooms of your home). Mark out in your mind’s eye the “stages” in the labyrinth/journey. These might be demarcated by your working career, or places you have lived. You might wish to include your marriage, or the birth of children.

Work out how many stages will get you into the centre of the labyrinth (or half way through the journey) and out again. Stop, for a moment, wherever you happen to end up halfway through your life — hopefully in a happy place, half a lifetime ago; have a breather, and then continue on the journey.

What are the rules? Being honest. And that’s about it. At the end, the key thing that will usually emerge is gratitude — for people: friends, family, colleagues, and all those who have helped along the way. A chance to filter out what has been of less value, and to see the true friend. To identify the significant breakthroughs, the randomness, and the common threads running through. For key insights into oneself: I really didn’t think I could be a hospice chaplain, and I loved it. I wish I had kept going with the breadmaking . . . or whatever it happens to be.

Is there anything unresolved? If I knew I had three days to live, is there anything I could do between now and that moment? Write a letter. Pick up the phone. Get in the car. Tell someone that you love them. Tell someone that you are sorry for what happened.


THE Benedictine tradition of “keeping everything in balance” is the driver for much of this, recognising that we are all somewhere on the continuum between despair and hope. We can’t make anyone supremely hopeful, but, in a modest way, we can move someone a bit further away from despair, and help them to be a little less terrified of death. Facing our fears and broaching our shadow side can be liberating and life-giving.


The Revd Tom Lusty is Vicar of St Giles’s, Bramhope, in the diocese of Leeds.

The HEALER mnemonic was devised by the Revd Linda Elliott, sometime Chaplain at Thorpe Hall Hospice, Peterborough.

Fingerholds to manage emotions (© Capacitar International) can be viewed on www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zC7PSJSoCwI.

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