by Deirdre Pike
Despite growing up in a death-denying culture, place and time in Canada, pretty long past the days where dead bodies were openly displayed and waked at a family home instead of a funeral home, I have come as far as my 57th year (starting this week) with an openness to conversations about death and dying not normally heard among my peers.
There are many experiences that may have contributed to this. Perhaps being born in November, the Month of the Dead, just two days after Remembrance Day, had an impact. Being named after Ireland’s Deirdre of the Sorrows (not intentionally, my mom assures me) who is said to have died by suicide, perhaps by having her head smashed on a rock by the passing royal chariot (nice touch), may have played a part in my ability to banter about death more freely than others.
Becoming a Catholic, when I was 15, introduced me to ways of ritualizing death and praying for the dead just in time to help me cope with the deaths of seven of my high school peers in three separate car accidents and my stepbrother’s death by suicide a year later.
I also credit my love of excellent rock music for giving me a healthy outlook on death. Take Pink Floyd, for instance.
“And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.”
Lying in bed (just like Brian Wilson did) as a teenager, falling asleep, high, with giant headphones blasting these lyrics into my brain, coupled with Trooper’s, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” has pretty much described my approach to death, and therefore life, or my approach to life, and therefore death.
It’s that approach, 14 years of parish ministry and more that I have been bringing to what’s called a “Social Innovation Lab.” In this case, the laboratory includes 25 or so palliative care clinicians, social activists, consumers, policy and system leaders, health care leaders and change agents from across Canada to concentrate for six solid days on one question: “How can we change the culture of our health system so the palliative approach, which creates a truly person-centred system, becomes the norm across the whole system?”
This “Palliative Care and Complexity Science Laboratory” is what brought me to be sitting in a circle of a dozen or so residents from a local seniors’ apartment building with three palliative care doctors, discussing monothanatophobia — the fear of dying alone. Although the word itself was brand new to me and all of the people who accepted our invitation to come and discuss it, the concept wasn’t.
We chose our topic after reading about the man who died alone in Hamilton’s social housing recently and went undiscovered for a couple of days before a woman below found some of his remains leaking into her apartment. Nobody wants that to be the story of their last days alive — or dead — on Earth.
There is strong evidence to show why we need to be more intentional about building community now and in the days ahead. Data about living situations from the 2016 Canadian census show for the first time that the number of one-person households has surpassed all other types of living situations. More than a quarter of all households were people living alone.
Applying the principles of palliative care means having conversations about living, not dying. It’s more than making sure community exists to support people in their final days of life. It’s also making sure people are connected while they’re living in a way that respects privacy yet decreases social isolation so no one dies alone.
One great read I recommend on the topic of death and dying is “Talking About Death Won’t Kill You,” by Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller.
With an essential chapter for anyone on social media called, “Posting, Tweeting and Texting: Dying in a Digital World,” I urge you to make this a holiday gift to your family so you can “out” the conversation of death and dying to make it, as Kortes-Miller says, a logical extension of our living.”
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