Photo credit: Catherine Hedrich
Editor’s Note: I have previously written about this topic, but for those who may be new to Tide Change, I would recommend that you check out the previous columns at the following links below before continuing to read. Hopefully, they will reflect the heartfelt purpose behind the words of this article.
Why have a conversation about dying? Because it is the most important conversation that you and I will have in our lifetime. The content of our conversation literally defines the life that we have lived up to this present moment and that is worth talking about.
The Art of Dying is both the title of the first article in an exclusive series on Tide Change about transitioning and that of a book by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick. Both will attempt to shed some light, so to speak, on the ultimate mystery we will all, in the end, be experiencing.
Since the conversation has literally been a taboo subject in North America for more than 50 years, except for discussions regarding pre-paid funeral arrangements, we are now realizing, with many baby boomers facing their own mortality, that most of us now wish to address our fear of dying.
The Art of Dying is a contemporary version of the medieval Ars Moriendi-a manual on how to achieve a good death. Peter Fenwick is an eminent neuropsychiatrist, academic and expert on disorders of the brain. His most compelling and provocative research has been into the end of life phenomena, including near-death experiences and deathbed visions of the dying person, as well as the experiences of hospice and palliative care workers and relatives of dying people. Dr. Fenwick believes that consciousness may be independent of the brain and so able to survive the death of the brain, a theory which has divided the scientific community. The “problem with death” is deeply rooted in our culture and the social organization of death rituals. Fenwick believes that with serious engagement and through further investigation of these phenomena, he can help change attitudes so that we in the West can face up to death and embrace it as a significant and sacred part of life. We have become used to believing that we have to shield each other from the idea of death. Fear of death means we view it as something to be fought every step of the way.
As the website theartofdyingwell.org states on its landing page, “Dying well, or what constitutes a ‘good’ death will mean different things to us all. Our understanding is informed by a multitude of influences drawn from our individual journeys through life. But there are many universal questions.” (Important note: This is a Catholic website. Hospice palliative care is often incorrectly described as a church movement. Although, the Art of Dying Well is a Catholic course, hospice palliative care is non-denominational).
You may follow a more religious approach or prefer reviewing the latest scientific research to try to answer the question, “What is death like”? Many paths of inquiry, including ancient writings and cultural traditions, can easily be explored today, but we still hesitate to speak openly about the topic. Why?
One way to begin answering this question is by reviewing how we are currently addressing, where these services are available, the process of dying with hospice and palliative care. In January 2019, Karen McKinnon wrote a masters thesis entitled, Finding meaning in hospice palliative care: An interpretive phenomenological study and submitted it to the Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Professional Communication at the Royal Roads University in Victoria.
In her abstract, Ms. McKinnon states the following:
This interpretive phenomenological study examines five caregivers’ hospice palliative care experiences. The goal of this study was to find out how hospice palliative care became meaningful to these caregivers and what that meaning was. I conducted my research using one-on-one open-ended interviews, followed by thematic analysis of the interview content. Turning to the voice of caregivers provides an opportunity for hospice palliative care providers to gain an increased understanding of how their work resonates with others. The findings in my study suggest that hospice palliative care’s tangible services were an entry point to caregivers’ connection with hospice palliative care. Despite having now used hospice palliative care services, the co-participants in my study had limited confidence in their understanding of hospice palliative care. Interestingly, at the same time, every co-participant in my study reported that hospice palliative became profoundly meaningful as emotional support for the caregiver. My thesis discusses the role of communication in how they developed that meaning and makes corresponding recommendations.
It is clear today that a respectful and open dialogue about our journey into the unknown is welcomed by many caregivers, even if only to have their feelings, emotions and fears respectfully heard and validated. It is also important to increase the number of opportunities for hospice and palliative care staff, volunteers, clients and their families to freely ask questions and have a non-judgmental conversation about their own personal metaphysical experiences. These experiences can occur while they accompany the person who is dying.
Barbara Morningstar spent more than 20 years working in hospice settings before she accompanied her husband during his own journey. Her book, Honoring the Mystery: Uplifting Insights from the Language, Visions and Dreams of the Dying is described as follows:
This heartfelt collection of stories celebrates the mystery of death and the changing awareness of the dying from Barbara’s many years of work in hospice and her personal life. Visual, kinaesthetic, auditory experiences, changing language and dreams of the dying and bereaved will be explored. Acknowledging these experiences can aid in healing and more peaceful end of life transitions.
The possibility of having a more peaceful end of life transition is exactly why speaking about this chapter of life is so important. In my opinion, as a modern society, we may be doing great damage to our collective psyche by prolonging life at any cost, while unconsciously disallowing the individual involved a more compassionate, respectful and gentle celebration of life in their final weeks.
Please feel free to begin a conversation with your loved ones and attend events organized by your local hospice society. Here is the link to the Vancouver Island Federation of Hospices for a list of the 10 hospice societies currently operating on Vancouver Island with links to their websites.
For those curious and ready to explore some of the research and findings, the following videos are only two examples of the conversations taking place worldwide: