Death, Be Not Proud:

Literary Lessons on Death and Dying

Rituals like funerals, now less common, used to help us deal with death.

By Jeff Minick

For over three decades, Reverend F. Washington Jarvis served as headmaster of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School, the oldest school in continuous existence in North America. During this time, Jarvis delivered a series of addresses to the student body, the best of which were collected in “With Love and Prayers: A Headmaster Speaks to the Next Generation.” For a number of years, I taught “With Love and Prayers” to high schoolers and found that both parents and students valued the book for its wisdom, wit, and moral lessons.

In his chapter “The Spiritual Dimension,” Jarvis relates this anecdote to the young men in his charge:

The celebrated headmaster of Eton College, Cyril Alington, was once approached by an aggressive mother. He did not suffer fools gladly.
“Are you preparing Henry for a political career?” she asked Alington.
“No,” he said.
“Well, for a professional career?
“No,” he replied.
“For a business career, then?”
“No,” he repeated.
“Well, in a word, Dr. Alington, what are you here at Eton preparing Henry for?”
“In a word, madam? Death.”

As Jarvis then points out, the principal mission of Roxbury Latin is to prepare its students for life. “And,” he goes on, “the starting point of that preparation is the reality that life is short and ends in death.”

These few lines bring much to consider. Do we aim at getting our young people into “good” schools while neglecting to instill in them the classical virtues? Do we recognize that “life is short and ends in death”? If so, what outlook on the world should such a truth inculcate?

Before seeking answers to these questions, we must recognize that our ancestors were more familiar with death than we moderns. They lived among the sick and dying in ways we do not, and were forced to deal with circumstances that today are the domain of our health professionals. Victorian poetry, for example, is a thicket of verse about death and dying.

We are more distant from the dying. Low infant mortality rates have thankfully removed many of us from witnessing those tragedies, and though a majority of Americans want to die at home, only 20 percent do so.

Lacking this intimacy with the death of earlier generations, we may, if we wish greater familiarity, turn to literature, Victorian or otherwise. Stories and poems can give us intimate portraits of the hope and the despair, the joy and the sorrow, the courage and fear of the dying and those who surround them.

Let’s look at four novels in which the characters exit this earth in dramatically different ways. Each of them offers a lesson on death.

‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1887, by Ilya Repin. Oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Leo Tolstoy’s novella and perhaps the greatest of all fictional meditations on the debt we owe to nature, Ivan Ilyich lies on his deathbed wondering whether he has lived a good life.

As doubts fill him, and as death creeps ever closer, he suddenly realizes that “though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” In his last hours, he is flooded with sorrow and pity for the son and wife he has neglected, and though they cannot understand him when he begs their forgiveness, he dies “knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.”

Ivan Ilyich goes to his grave in peace, knowing the truth of Katharine Tynan’s lines from “The Great Mercy”: “Betwixt the saddle and the ground/was mercy sought and mercy found.”

Here Tolstoy reminds us that even on our deathbed, we may yet clear our conscience and set right those things that we have done or failed to do.

‘Kristin Lavransdatter’

Sigrid Undset as a girl. The Noble Prize-winning novelist wrote a trilogy called “Kristen Lavransdatter.”

In Sigrid Undset’s trilogy of medieval Norway, “Kristin Lavransdatter,” we discover the importance of ritual in death. The Christian injunction “To bury the dead” means more than tumbling a corpse into a grave, covering it over with earth, and moving on. During the long death of Kristin’s father, Lavrans, the neighbors visit, the priest performs the last rites, a vigil is held after Lavrans breathes his last, and later there is a feast to celebrate his memory.

From Kristin and her kin, we moderns might learn once again how to “bury the dead.” More and more, I hear of people and know a few of them who when a loved one dies, conduct no ritual of passage, no funeral, no memorial service. An obituary may appear in the paper, or not, but otherwise the survivors put the deceased into the grave or columbarium without ceremony.

With this practice, we fail to realize that we have cheated ourselves of the comfort of a formal farewell and have tarnished our humanity in the bargain.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’

In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens puts Sydney Carton, a barrister, an alcoholic, and a cynic, onto the platform of a guillotine after Carton nobly takes the place of another man sentenced to die by execution. Carton’s thoughts before the fall of the blade bring him solace: “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

From Carton, we receive a lesson in courage when faced with death.

‘Little Women’

Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” wrote one of the most heartrending death scenes in all of English literature. In the story, based on her own life, she describes the death of her dear sister Beth.

Of course, as Louisa May Alcott notes in “Little Women,” “Seldom except in books do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances …”

In describing the passing of young Beth March, whose “end comes as naturally and simply as sleep,” Alcott shows her readers that, like Sydney Carton, those who die possess the power to bequeath gifts to the living. Before she slips into the shadows, Beth reads some lines written by her beloved sister Jo. And she realizes that her illness and impending death have caused Jo, her caretaker, to grow and mature, and to take from her lessons in bravery and her “cheerful, uncomplaining spirit in its prison-house of pain.”

Like in these novels, the loved ones with whom I have sat while they closed their eyes and faded away have given me instruction. Perhaps the best of these teachers was my mother, who died from cancer 30 years ago. In her final lesson—perhaps her greatest lesson—she taught me and my brothers and sisters by way of example how to die with grace and courage.

If I find myself in my mother’s circumstances, with time to bid goodbye to those I love, and if I possess even half of her strength, I will die a fortunate man.

Complete Article HERE!

Working Too Hard For A Good Death

Has Competitive Dying Become A Thing?

By Howard Gleckman

We Americans love to compete. We bet in March Madness office pools on who will win the annual college basketball championship. We pay a pretty penny for the best manicured lawn in the neighborhood or the biggest flat screen in the condo.  Some of us will pay bribes to get our kids into the best colleges.

And, now it seems, there is a growing need to compete over who will have the best death. You know, the one where we are at home, pain-free but alert, surrounded by our loving families, singing our favorite songs, fully at ease with our last moments of mortal life.

For many of us, the reality will be quite different. Despite everyone’s best efforts, we may die in a hospital. The kids may not make it in time from their homes in LA or Chicago. The medications that relieve our pain may also slow our thinking. And we may not have resolved all those family issues that lingered inexplicably for decades.

More guilt

What’s troubling about this drive for a good death (or, perhaps in our competitive world, the best death) is that many of us never will achieve it—often for reasons out of our control. And that may leave our surviving loved ones with an even bigger sense of guilt than they already have. And paradoxically, those who cared the most may end up feeling the most guilty and depressed.

Failing at some ideal of death may even make dying more difficult. Dr. Andreas Laupacis, a palliative care physician and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, shared this concern in a wise 2018 essay about the idea of good death: “I worry that the term makes people who die with pain or psychological distress think that it is partially their fault…. They haven’t tried hard enough or aren’t tough enough.”

He even suggests it may add to the psychological burden of their doctors: “I worry that health care practitioners who have provided their best possible care will feel inadequate.”

A good life

Just as troubling: An excessive focus on the last hours of life shifts attention from the months or even years before that. Many older adults will die after living a long time with chronic conditions. It would be nice, as we focus on a good death, if we also think about a good life, especially during the time when it may include some level of disability.

The idea of competitive dying may be counterproductive in part because there is no true good death. Or rather, there are millions of them. For decades, clinicians have tried, and largely failed, to establish some agreed-upon norms. And researchers have no real idea how many people do in fact die a good death, by whatever measure.

Physicians and surviving family members, it turns out, often have different ideas of a good death than those who are doing the dying. For example, family members are much more likely than patients to say that maintaining dignity is important at the end of life.

But this uncertainty isn’t slowing us down. Google “good death” and you’ll get 1.97 million hits. Search Amazon, and you’ll find dozens of books. Bloggers blog on their own impending deaths or that of their relatives. A 2016 literature review turned about three dozen peer reviewed articles on what constitutes “successful dying.”

Better to watch a sunset

One Amazon reviewer wrote that she had read 60 books on a good death to prepare for her own passing. I don’t know if she was living with a terminal disease or just thinking way ahead. But I can’t help but wonder if her time would have been better spent watching a sunset, going to a concert, or having dinner with friends instead of being so focused on how to do death right.

This trend is by no means all bad. We are thinking—and talking—about a topic that for too long has been taboo in the US. But like those parents who were bribing college officials to get their children into the best schools, we may be going overboard. And we may be setting unrealistic, and counterproductive, expectations for ourselves and our families.

We absolutely should be proactive when it comes to preparing advanced directives, choosing health care proxies, and talking to one another about death. Especially talking. But we also need to recognize that, sometimes, circumstances mean that many of us will die alone, or in some pain, or with unresolved family issues. All we can do is our best. And nobody should be keeping score.

Complete Article HERE!

Obituaries are the only redemptive news anymore

By Philip Kennicott

Toni Morrison is dead. So are D.A. Pennebaker and Aretha Franklin, and Philip Roth, Stephen Hawking, Ursula K. Le Guin, Milos Forman and too many others to name, even when limited to artists and writers who have perished in the past few years alone. By some accounts, two people die every second, thousands every hour, tens of millions every year. But at this moment in American life, the death of our best people has become a collective lifeline and refuge for our anxieties. It sometimes seems that the obituary is the only news that makes us feel whole.

Morrison was our essential conscience, a writer of narrative brilliance and moral clarity. The magnitude of her loss, at this moment in our descent into barbarism, is incalculable. But to spend time today with her work, with memories of her life and the testimony of those who knew her, is infinitely more rewarding than reading about all the other terrible things that have happened in the past few days. The deaths of artists and other creators make us reflective, and we live at a moment when looking back is much easier than looking forward.

We also crave the reassurance that we are not, as a species, entirely spent. Morrison died only days after two mass shootings, which are not only a regular fixture of American life, but also a recurring reminder of our political paralysis and the corruption of our democracy. We are in the midst of a trade war, markets have plunged, Greenland is hemorrhaging ice and our president tweets racism to inflame a hungry audience of white nationalists who dream of a world without people like Morrison in it.

Death and remembrance, at least, come with the customs and norms that have been shredded in most of the rest of public life. If nothing else, death still inspires a pause in ordinary life and, in the case of artists, a respectful consideration of their habitually ignored accomplishments. The reflective look back on a life and a body of work such as Morrison’s is ultimately celebratory, a chance to think the best of another person and, by extension, ourselves. Artists, performers, scientists, writers and other creators rarely “make news” in the same way politicians do, even though their influence on our culture is greater, deeper and more meaningful. The obituary is a belated observation and acknowledgment that people like Morrison, in fact, made news every day through their work. They formed the deeper part of the minds that our pollsters seek to measure and quantify in the frenzied haste of the news cycle. They are the atmosphere of American culture, while all else is merely weather.

Obituaries are a paradox of sorts, a distraction toward meaningfulness, a diversion to what really matters. The response to the rest of the news is often an impulse to escapism, a turning away. But while Morrison shares space with the usual firehouse of bad news, her passing offers at least one impulse to go deeper, to read more, dig in, think more critically and disconnect from the ephemera. Obituaries like the ones that have been written about her in the past day are even better than the usual “good” news, which is often little more than a reminder that somewhere, somehow, someone has done an unnecessary kindness; obituaries are redemptive on a grander scale.

We seem capable of only two modes of existence: panic and sadness, the former fast-paced and full of collateral damage to the world around us, the latter at least sometimes constructive and reflective. America has experienced periods of intense reflection around death in the past, as when the last remaining veterans of the Revolutionary War were dying in the middle of the 19th century, leaving people to wonder whether there were any steady voices and clear heads to steer us away from, or through, the accumulation of civil strife and political violence. The deaths of those who fought in World War II offered an occasion to think about the fraying of the old 20th-century social contract, the dissolution of the bond between the generations enshrined in key social-welfare programs, and the extinction of American optimism — that we might live in a society without poverty, without unnecessary suffering, with genuine opportunity and social mobility.

But the death of an artist is different from the loss of political leaders, no matter how wise or benevolent, or the larger passing of a generation, which has continued since the beginning of time. Morrison’s work remains with us, intractable, urgent and uncompromising, and it is no less effective today than it was on Monday. It is curious to listen to people on television debating the effectiveness of this policy or that plan, often arguing themselves into the absurdity that because nothing has yet worked, therefore nothing new should be attempted.

Meanwhile, the work of artists outlives them, operating on minds too young to be cynical. Politicians die and, if they’re lucky, are memorialized for having fixed something in the broken world they inherited. Artists die, and we flock to what they left behind, reanimating it, refreshing its meaning and reincorporating it into the body politic.

If you want to change the world, authentically and for the better, would you live your life like a politician, or a businessman, or a pharmaceutical executive or Donald Trump? Or would you live it like Toni Morrison?

When your time is up, I hope you drop like the dead donkey

The sooner we realise we are all going to die the better – it gives us time to get used to the idea

‘It took the death of a neighbour down the road when I was in my 20s to make me realise that one day I myself would die.’

by Padraig O’Morain

The first time I experienced death as real was when I watched a donkey being put down at the crossroads beside the farm I grew up in.

I was probably about seven or eight at the time. The donkey had been around for a few days and nobody knew where she had come from.

Somebody got in touch with somebody and a man came out from Naas to deal with the situation. He must have come to our house first because I remember following him up to the crossroads.

He stopped in front of the donkey and quietly took the humane killer, as it is called, out of a bag. This instrument is like a gun that drives a spike into the brain. He patted the donkey’s head, put the humane killer against her forehead, and killed her.

I’ve always remembered that the donkey was dead when she hit the ground.

I don’t know what happened next. I suppose the man went off, that I inspected the donkey, that the kennels of the Kildare Hunt took her away to feed hounds. That was how we got rid of dead cattle and other large animals.

Spread a tablecloth by the graveside, bring a picnic basket with the cucumber sandwiches, the homemade apple tart, the wine and the lemonade and enjoy

I was no stranger to animals dying, and every year we killed turkeys for the Christmas market. I was able to approach these deaths in a pragmatic manner.

What had really struck me about the donkey was that she died as she fell. I had never realised how quickly life could disappear.

Shortly after the death of the donkey, I found two white candles wrapped up inside a drawer in a sideboard in our gloomy sitting room.

I immediately assumed the candles were for use when either of my parents died.

In all probability, the candles had been put aside for a power cut but, as I say, the room was gloomy. Also, the sideboard has come from a priest’s house in Allenwood where, some years previously, a maidservant was possessed by the Devil. She had had to be exorcised to stop her breaking plates and furniture and terrifying the priest. We called the sideboard “the Devil’s sideboard” and we imagined Satan was inside.

Gloomiest possible conclusion

So it’s understandable I came to the gloomiest possible conclusion.

But that realisation – and I still recall the chill of it – was about the death of other people. It took the death of a neighbour down the road when I was in my 20s to make me realise that one day I myself would die.

This realisation comes to everybody sooner or later and I think sooner is better than later. It gives you time to get used to the idea. It becomes like a shadow, sometimes behind you and sometimes in front of you but you get used to it. I suspect if it comes too late in life it can hit hard, shattering your protective illusion that death happens to the rest of humanity but not to you.

I was led to these thoughts by Laura Kennedy’s recent article in The Irish Times in which she advised that the inevitability of death should motivate us to get on (within reason) with what we want to do.

I agree with her and I would add two points. First, it’s okay to be afraid of dying because to be unafraid of dying is not natural.

Second, if you want to get more out of life, remember that you don’t have to go skydiving, mountain-climbing or jet-skiing unless you want to. For some, going to the movies once a week would make a really big difference to their quality of life. For others, to make a difference, they might have to sail around the world. One type of person is not better than another type of person.

So spread a tablecloth by the graveside, bring a picnic basket with the cucumber sandwiches, the homemade apple tart, the wine and the lemonade and enjoy. And when the time comes I wish you as quick a step out of this world as the donkey had.

Complete Article HERE!

What Death Should Teach Us About Life and Living

Death is not a counterpoint or contradiction to life, but a profound teacher about the meaning of human existence.

By

One of the great Jewish spiritual teachers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that facing death gives life meaning; that life and death are both part of a greater mystery; that by virtue of being created in no less than God’s image, we can imagine an afterlife for humanity — yet at the same time death itself is an antidote to human arrogance; and that in death we pay gratitude for the wonder and gift of our existence. 

Death as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Life

Our first question is to what end and upon what right do we think about the strange and totally inaccessible subject of death? The answer is because of the supreme certainty we have about the existence of man: that it cannot endure without a sense of meaning. But existence embraces both life and death, and in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.

The fact of dying must be a major factor in our understand­ing of living. Yet only few of us have come face to face with death as a problem or a challenge. There is a slowness, a delay, a neglect on our part to think about it. For the subject is not exciting, but rather strange and shocking.

What characterizes modern man’s attitude toward death is escapism, disregard of its harsh reality, even a tendency to ob­literate grief. He is entering, however, a new age of search for meaning of existence, and all cardinal issues will have to be faced.

Life as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Death

Death is grim, harsh, cruel, a source of infinite grief. Our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly, our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly, a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence, and a sense of awe.

Is death nothing but an obliteration, an absolute negation? The view of death is affected by our understanding of life. If life is sensed as a surprise, as a gift, defying explanation, then death ceases to be a radical, absolute negation of what life stands for. For both life and death are aspects of a greater mys­tery, the mystery of being, the mystery of creation. Over and above the preciousness of particular existence stands the mar­vel of its being related to the infinite mystery of being or creation.

Death, then, is not simply man’s coming to an end. It is also entering a beginning.

Our Greatness: The Question of an Afterlife and the “Image of God”

There is, furthermore, the mystery of my personal exis­tence. The problem of how and whether I am going to be after I die is profoundly related to the problem of who and how I was before I was born. The mystery of an afterlife is related to the mystery of preexistence. A soul does not grow out of nothing. Does it, then, perish and dissolve in nothing?

Human life is on its way from a great distance; it has gone through ages of experience, of growing, suffering, insight, ac­tion. We are what we are by what we come from. There is a vast continuum preceding individual existence, and it is a legitimate surmise to assume that there is a continuum follow­ing individual existence. Human living is always being under way, and death is not the final destination.

In the language of the Bible to die, to be buried, is said to be “gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). They “were gathered to their fathers” (Judges 2:10). “When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your fathers” (I Chronicles 17:11).

Do souls become dust? Does spirit turn to ashes? How can souls, capable of creating immortal words, immortal works of thought and art, be completely dissolved, vanish forever?

Others may counter: The belief that man may have a share in eternal life is not only beyond proof; it is even presumptu­ous. Who could seriously maintain that members of the human species, a class of mammals, will attain eternity? What image of humanity is presupposed by the belief in immortality? Indeed, man’s hope for eternal life presupposes that there is something about man that is worthy of eternity, that has some affinity to what is divine, that is made in the likeness of the divine…

[T]he likeness of God means the likeness of Him who is unlike man. The likeness of God means the likeness of Him compared with whom all else is like nothing.

Indeed, the words “image and likeness of God” [in the biblical creation story] conceal more than they reveal. They signify something which we can neither comprehend nor verify. For what is our image? What is our likeness? Is there anything about man that may be com­pared with God? Our eyes do not see it; our minds cannot grasp it. Taken literally, these words are absurd, if not blas­phemous. And still they hold the most important truth about the meaning of man.

Obscure as the meaning of these terms is, they undoubtedly denote something unearthly, something that belongs to the sphere of God. Demut [likeness]and tzelem [image]are of a higher sort of being than the things created in the six days. This, it seems, is what the verse intends to convey: Man partakes of an unearthly di­vine sort of being.

Our Smallness: Death Teaches Humility

Death is the radical refutation of man’s power and a stark reminder of the necessity to relate to a meaning which lies beyond the dimension of human time. Humanity without death would be arrogance without end. Nobility has its root in hu­manity, and humanity derived much of its power from the thought of death.

Death refutes the deification and distorts the arrogance of man.

He is God; what he does is right, for all his ways are just; God of faithfulness and without wrong, just and right is he.

Just art thou, O Lord, in causing death and life; thou in whose hand all living beings and kept, far be it from thee to blot out our remembrance; let thy eyes be open to us in mercy; for thine, O Lord, is mercy and forgiveness.

We know, O Lord, that thy judgment is just; thou art right when thou speakest, and justified when thou givest sentence; one must not find fault with thy manner of judging. Thou art righte­ous, O Lord, and thy judgment is right.

True and righteous judge, blessed art thou, all whose judg­ments are righteous and true.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

— Daily Prayer Book, from the Burial Service

Death as Gratitude for Existence

If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last word should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace, gratitude.

We have been given so much. Why is the outcome of our lives, the sum of our achievements, so little?

Our embarrassment is like an abyss. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the mean­ing of dying: to give one’s whole self away.

Death is not seen as mere ruin and disaster. It is felt to be a loss of further possibilities to experience and to enhance the glory and goodness of God here and now. It is not a liquidation but a summation, the end of a prelude to a symphony of which we only have a vague inkling of hope. The prelude is infinitely rich in possibilities of either enhancing or frustrating God’s pa­tient, ongoing efforts to redeem the world.

Death is the end of what we can do in being partners to redemption. The life that follows must be earned while we are here. It does not come out of nothing; it is an ingathering, the harvest of eternal moments achieved while on earth.

Unless we cultivate sensitivity to the glory while here, unless we learn how to experience a foretaste of heaven while on earth, what can there be in store for us in life to come? The seed of life eternal is planted within us here and now. But a seed is wasted when placed on stone, into souls that die while the body is still alive.

The greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave is pre­sumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our de­scending to the grave. Eternity is not perpetual future but per­petual presence. He has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a herenow.

Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to return. “How can I repay unto the Lord all his bountiful deal­ings with m?” (Psalms 116:12). When life is an answer, death is a homecoming. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:14). For our greatest problem is but a resonance of God’s concern: How can I repay unto man all his bountiful dealings with me? “For the mercy of God endureth forever.”

This is the meaning of existence: to reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the threads of temporality into the fabric of eternity.

The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his des­tiny is to aid, to serve. We have to conquer in order to suc­cumb; we have to acquire in order to give away; we have to triumph in order to be overwhelmed. Man has to understand in order to believe, to know in order to accept. The aspiration is to obtain; the perfection is to dispense. This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine. Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for this act of giving away is reciprocity on man’s part for God’s gift of life. For the pious man it is a privilege to die.

Complete Article HERE!

End of Life Mitzvahs

by Rabbi Ron Isaacs

In recent months, I read a very powerful piece in The New York Times that detailed the last day in the life of President George H. W. Bush. It described how in the last week of the president’s life he had stopped eating and was mostly sleeping.

His longtime friend and colleague, James Baker visited him frequently in his last days, and was there when he passed away. Baker described how, at the end, he held Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet.

The former president died in his home, surrounded by several friends, family members, doctors and a minister. As the end neared, his son George W. Bush, also a former president, who was at his own home in Dallas, Texas, was put on speaker phone to say goodbye.

He told his father that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you too,” Bush told his son. And those were his final words.

Bush’s doctor described how everyone present knelt around the president and placed their hands on him and prayed for him. It was a very graceful and gentle death, accompanied by loved ones who gathered in the intimacy of his home in Houston.

For almost four years now, I have been privileged to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities and private homes to sing and play music for people in hospice under the title of my role as “Chords of Comfort.” I also make visits as a hospice chaplain.

On some days, my patients are alert and able to converse with me. On others, they lie in bed unable to speak and sometimes sleep.

On such occasions, I sit by their bedside and just keep them company. Sometimes a family member or two is present when I visit.

Several years ago when I arrived to visit a certain patient, I was surprised to find members of her family singing and playing guitar while the patient, who could not speak, moved her head rhythmically back and forth.

One of her youngest grandchildren had flown all the way from San Francisco, Calif. to New Jersey just to sing for her great grandmother. It was obvious that the singing and playing brought great comfort and pleasure to her.

When the family asked me to join in with my guitar, it became clear to me that we all were feeling spiritually uplifted by the beautiful music that we created together.

There is a rabbi who directs a Jewish-end-of-life care/hospice volunteer program. As part of his training program, the rabbi asks the volunteers to reflect on a moment when they were in need of someone to be present for them.

One man related the story of his bicycle accident when a stranger sat silently with him on the curb until the ambulance arrived. Another volunteer described how her grandmother sat knitting in the corner of the hospital’s delivery room throughout her three-day-long labor.

What both of these stories have in common is the power of someone simply being present for another person.

Chaplaincy – spiritual care – is all about accompanying another person while being fully present. It is all about trying to ensure that there will be times during the day when a patient is not left alone and has someone by their side.

Even when someone’s life is transitioning, healing of spirit is possible until the very last breath. It is especially at these times when our very presence can raise their spirits, which not only benefits them, but also us.

Being present and ensuring that no one is left alone is an incredible act of kindness and a supreme act of holiness. In the Jewish faith, it is considered a “mitzvah,” a religious obligation. 

I hope that you will consider ways that you can help reduce isolation for those who are alone and provide them with “accompaniment.” Let us continue to find ways to be fully present for members of our own family and for those in the wider community who will benefit from our companionship and just “being there for them.”

Perhaps you may wish to consider committing to one specific act of accompaniment each month that will lift the heart and brighten the spirit of someone else – and probably do the same for us.

Complete Article HERE!

Welcome to the Departure Lounge.

Destination: death

Ricky Gervais with Penelope Wilton in the Netflix series After Life.

By

Images of sandy beaches, sun-kissed swimming pools and azure blue skies gleam from the window and walls of what appears to be a new travel agent opening in a London shopping centre. But browsers may be surprised by the destination, for it is a journey every one of us will one day take: death.

Look more closely at the posters and it becomes clear that the words are all about “passing away” (half of British adults prefer to avoid the word “death”, apparently). The Departure Lounge, in Lewisham, south London, is the brainchild of the Academy of Medical Sciences, whose mission is to promote biomedical and health research. Death, it turns out, is one of the most under-researched areas in healthcare, accounting for less than half of 1% of money spent.

The idea of the Departure Lounge, explains the academy’s president Professor Sir Robert Lechler, is to enable visitors to ask any questions they might have about the dying process, and also to collect ideas and experiences that could inform future research. “The best time to have conversations about death probably isn’t when you’re confronting it, but well before,” he said. Which is why a shopping centre was deemed an appropriate location – the hope is that the Departure Lounge will attract people who might not be regular visitors to science museums.

Death has been a zeitgeist subject for some years now – witness the Death Café phenomenon, the growth of conferences and books on dying and TV series like the recent Ricky Gervais Netflix comedy After Life. But, says Lechler, the conversation is becoming more urgent. Put simply, there’s more of it about. “Between now and 2040 we’ll see an increase of 25% in the number of deaths per year,” he said. And it’s more than numbers: the run-up to dying is different. “We’re living longer, and the context of death is changing. Longer life means we accumulate more long-term conditions, and people tend to be frail for longer,” he said. “The risk is that people are going to die badly, as opposed to dying well.”

Dr Katherine Sleeman, a palliative care consultant at the Cicely Saunders Institute at King’s College London and a member of the advisory group behind the Departure Lounge, says patients often want to talk about death. “People call it the last taboo, but that’s not my experience. Healthcare professionals can be fearful about raising the subject, but I find patients are often relieved when it’s mentioned. They know they’re dying, and they want to talk about it.”

Also much misunderstood, she says, is that palliative care, far from spelling the end, can mean much better outcomes. “Research shows that when provided early, palliative care is associated with fewer hospital admissions, better pain relief and lower financial costs to the NHS,” she said. “I always say that my aim isn’t to help you live longer, it’s to help you live better.”

On hand will be guides including Yvonne Oakes, a former palliative care nurse who now works as a “soul midwife” or end-of-life doula, supporting patients and their families. In her experience, many people have had negative experiences of death with relatives, and assume that when their time comes isolation, pain and discomfort will be inevitable. That, she says, simply isn’t true. “There is definitely such a thing as a good death. It comes mostly, I believe, from accepting death rather than struggling against it.” And The Departure Lounge, she hopes, will enable people to start to think about acceptance of death, “in a non-threatening, and unforced, way.”

Research into dying, says Sleeman, really matters and can make a real difference. “Many people, and that includes doctors and academics, say: what’s the point of research if it’s not going to prolong life? But that isn’t the point. Quality is crucial: research is quite clear that most people would choose quality of life over length of life.”

The Departure Lounge is supported by the Health Foundation and Wellcome Trust; more information at departure-lounge.org

Top tips for a good death

Remember this is your death: it’s OK to think about what you really want and don’t want, and be clear about it.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and to accept help if it’s offered and you want it. You don’t have to struggle on alone.

Make amends for past hurts and disappointments. Some people write letters – you don’t have to post them.

Consider making a death plan, which is the life-end equivalent of a birth plan. Where would you like to die? Who do you want with you – and who do you not want there? Would you like music to be playing? Do you want to avoid attempts to resuscitate you?

Be aware that death involves loss, so there is inevitably going to be emotional pain, both for you and for those you love. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look for the joys in life, even as your health deteriorates. Life can have meaning and enjoyment right up to the end.

Yvonne Oakes

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