SINCE all death — including those from Covid-19 — is associated with anguish and forsakenness, it is something that we tend to avoid thinking about. Having served as a hospice chaplain, I now know that thinking about death does not have to be too hard.
But there are particular difficulties at the present time, when death can catch us off guard: spiritual preparation for dying is one thing when there is time to process the knowledge of one’s imminent departure from this world — it is quite another, given the potential rapidity of the onset of acute respiratory distress. At the point of contracting the virus, we do not have the luxury of time; currently, however, many of us have more time than usual.
The point of spiritual preparation for our own dying is to enable us, “when the time comes to die, to make sure that all we have to do is die” (Jim Elliott, The Journals of Jim Elliott by Elisabeth Elliott; Fleming H. Revell Company, 1992). A good death is “a movement from dislocation to relocation, from disorientation to re-orientation, from disintegration to re-integration”: a movement towards integration (Mud and Stars: The report of a working party on the impact of hospice experience on the Church’s ministry of healing). Preparation involves working through the letting go and the laying down of burdens, so that we can travel light.
A GOOD place to start is by facing our fears. When I was a curate, I lived near a charterhouse and was delighted when permitted to join in prayer. Singing plainchant in Latin by candlelight, I was caught up in the experience, even if I didn’t always understand every word.
The allure of the Carthusians is strong. One standard Carthusian practice is to dig your own grave, and to do it joyfully, putting your heart and soul into it. It is about facing your fears, and having a good look at your shadow side without flinching.
While this may be too direct an approach for most of us, the idea of engaging with our shadow side opens us up to greater possibilities. I have been doing more than a few shadow-side things since Covid-19 began. On day two of lockdown, I began unwrapping a new phone capable of recording videos to post online. By sundown, galvanised at the thought of 100 people looking in, I had even tidied my study.
IT IS possible to integrate a rational facing of our fears, particularly our current preoccupation with dying alone. The following “loss exercise”, which helps us imaginatively to face the possibility of being on our own at the end of life’s journey, can be done alone, but is best done with someone we trust.
You need 16 small pieces of card or paper (a sheet of A4, folded in half four times). Write on each card one of the following: four parts you have played in life, four special people, four hobbies or pastimes, four things that bring you joy. Think about each of the things you have written, then shuffle the cards. Place the cards face down. Remove 14 cards, slowly and at random. You are left with two cards. Place them in an envelope. When you are ready, have a look at what you might be left with at the end of life. Reflect for a while.
Whittling the cards down to two is harsh: most trainers leave participants with four. But two cards offers the increased possibility that some people will be left on their own. In any movement towards death, our “circles of acquaintance” are going to be diminished, sometimes drastically. To imagine ourselves in that situation will be disconcerting, but it can be close to the arbitrariness of it all.
Ask yourself: if this was the case for me, would I really feel alone? We usually find — after processing what we have lost — that we are glad with what we are left with, even if that’s the Church Times and a gin and tonic. Most of the time, it doesn’t feel as if we have just finished reading Psalm 88 (“I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care”).
ALONG with writing our last will and testament, and finessing the hymns hat we want for our funeral, facing our fears can be one way in which we can enable both ourselves and others to have a good death when the time comes, even if we are isolated from those we love.
But no Christian model of spiritual preparation for dying can leave out the letting go. John O’Donohue describes life as taking place “between the act of awakening and the act of surrender”. “Each morning, we awaken to the light. . . Each night, we surrender to the dark”: a daily opportunity to practise entrusting our lives into God’s hands.
The Revd Tom Lusty is Vicar of St Giles’s, Bramhope, in the diocese of Leeds.