Lack of faith is no impediment to a decent death – or to helping another through theirs
By Johannes Klabbers
In the secular age you don’t need special authorisation to console a dying person. Just learning what it means to be there for someone is enough.
“Death literacy” is officially a thing. People go to death cafés; books about death are in demand… and around 55 million people worldwide do it every year. But how do you actually do dying well? And who can dying people turn to for support?
Although I know exceptional doctors and nurses who can and do talk with patients about their looming demise, it is something that many don’t feel qualified to do.
Traditionally, expertise in dying was thought to be the remit of religion. The Catholic church recently revived their medieval handbook for dying people, Ars Moriendi, now illustrated with drawings of happy families rather than demons, like the original, and handily available in the form of a website: artofdyingwell.org.
But what are the options for atheists or agnostics today? When it comes to thinking about what it means to be mortal, many people find themselves in a kind of secular vacuum. But living a life without religion doesn’t mean that you have to be alone at the end.
As a secular pastoral carer, I learned that consoling a seriously ill and dying person is something that almost anyone can do, whatever their faith – or lack thereof. You don’t need a special qualification, or a badge, or permission from an authority figure, supernatural or otherwise, just your humanity and determination – and for the suffering person to want someone to be there with them.
The first crucial step is turning up. Too often, our anxiety about saying or doing the “wrong thing” leads us to decide not to visit someone. Offering to be there for someone, even if they decline – and they might – is never wrong. Being there for someone means giving your attention to the person not to their illness, and concentrating on listening, not on worrying about what to say.
You will need to accept that the dying person may not want to discuss their sadness and fears – at least at first. They may want to talk about the football or the latest episode of Bake Off. Or they may just need someone to sit with them in silence.
Remember that it is not unreasonable to feel awkward. You might feel uneasy in the setting, or be distressed by their appearance. But your job is to accept your discomfort and think beyond it. You can show sadness, but do not burden them with your grief. You may need to be supported and comforted yourself afterwards.
While there might not be any formal qualifications in death literacy with which you can arm yourself, there are a number of wonderful, entirely secular, books by brilliant writers who are in the process of dying or supporting dying people, from Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude (to Tom Lubbock) and Marion Coutt’s memoirs, which together form an awe-inspiring document of courage, humility and humanity.
There is a moment which perfectly illustrates how to console a dying person in the Dutch author Connie Palmen’s moving memoir Logbook, when her husband, a leading Dutch politician, lies dying. In a moment of lucidity he sits upright and exclaims, “I am sorry for my sins!”
“I absolve you,” Connie tells him.
Ultimately, our humanity is all the authority we need to offer consolation to dying people.
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