Death - facing up to mortality
“I want you to remember that these are the last four hours of your life.” Not something you are likely to forget if it was true, but certainly a novel beginning to a workshop which aimed to help individuals to explore their own deaths .
I had been invited to attend the workshop by its creator, Christianne Heal, and curiosity, plus an element of morbid fascination, had brought me to her home.
After the initial round of introductions, we were asked to tell the rest of the group why we had come. I was fairly sure I had no particular qualms about my own death - except perhaps the mode (like most people, I do fear a violent or protracted exit) - so I simply admitted to curiosity. There were no other surprises: ‘I'm nearly 50 and I'm seeking a meaning in my life’; ‘I'm an AIDS counsellor and for myself and my clients I want to understand more about death’; ‘Two close friends have just died’; and so on. But then, why should there have been special reasons for attending? There are those like the AIDS counsellor and, I would argue, nurses who could benefit professionally from such a workshop, but we are all going to die - which is surely a strong enough motivation to participate.
To start with, we paired off and tried to remember how death had been dealt with as a child. As far as I can remember, for me it wasn't. Not that death was taboo, just that the subject never came up. Later on, I started to fear death - I couldn't conceive of what it would be like not to be, although it was not until I was 15 that anyone close to me died. I was away at the time and when I returned they were dead, buried and gone.
No time was put aside to grieve, and although I cried when I was told, the next day life just went on. After a brief involvement with Christianity - no doubt a reaction to my earlier fear of death, I settled down to a rather unthinking acceptance of my own mortality.
The breadth of experiences during childhood related by the group was enormous, but the common feature was that death had never been satisfactorily explained, or faced, during our childhoods. Clearly children have had less exposure to death in the past 50 years than at the beginning of the last century, but this suggests we should be talking much more about death with our children, helping them to incorporate it into their picture of life.
Christianne used guided imagery to take us back through our lives, stopping to look at important places and events. I felt rather impartial throughout these exercises, as if I was reading someone else's biography. I wondered if that would be how I felt if I was indeed dying?
After reviewing our lives, Christianne changed tack and red is a piece on the decomposition of a dead body and asked us to imagine that the body was ours. Some of the participants found this very distressing. For my part, I objected to the author’s insistence on describing the process as corruption - implying that the process is bad. I find the way a body decomposes quite awe-inspiring.
The invitation to design a ‘celebration of my life’ was enticing, an opinion shared by the rest of the group. It certainly motivated me to discuss my funeral with my partner after the workshop. Christianne told us the celebration could take place when we were dead or alive and in any way we chose. Interestingly, most people wanted to be alive for theirs. Most of the celebrations entailed a party of all the people they had ever know and an opportunity to say goodbye. This made me think of the gathering of the clans that used to occur around a deathbed and how they must have fulfilled that need. So many people today die alone in unfamiliar surroundings, and have no time to say goodbye.
My celebration was to take place after my death, and I was surprised that I had quite strong preferences, right down to the choice of music to be played. I found I wanted to be cremated - something I had never thought about before - and I knew where I wanted my ashes to be scattered. In fact, everyone had clear ideas and it seemed a shame that we do not, in our society, take more time for making plans for our funerals.
Marriages can take a year to organise, so why should funerals be done in a few days by strangers or grieving relatives who are still in a state of shock? This exercise underlined my conviction that people who are dying should be told that they're dying, unless there is an extremely good reason for not doing so. Perhaps nurses could bring up the subject of funerals with terminally ill patients. Their patients may well feel reassured, and their relatives in turn will not be left wondering: ‘What would he have wanted?’
We also had to write our obituary, covering all the things we have done and would like to do. Mine was quite telling, although I had not thought too deeply about what to write. (It was a self-congratulatory piece about successfully combining motherhood and a glittering career as a writer.) What was interesting was that most people concentrated on how they were perceived by others rather than listing great deeds. When faced with death, our material success finally takes second place to the quality of relationships we have had with others.
Saying goodbye to those close to us was another topic discussed. Earlier in the evening we had arranged their names around ourselves as the central point. Those closest to us were put nearest to the centre and so on. This exercise gave us all an insight into our relationships with our families, and several people found this very helpful. Saying goodbye turned out to be fairly straightforward for most of us, and I was left feeling that if I didn't make it home, I would not leave behind too much ‘unfinished business’.
Finally, Christianne provided paints, pens and pastels for us to draw what we could not describe about our death. Two pictures sprang into mind. One was of liberation: the idea of my spirit (whatever that is) being free when I die, and the other was of isolation and sadness. In this picture I drew my partner sitting at home with a woman he had met after my death. All that was left of me was a photograph on the mantlepiece. Life, of course, goes on without us.
This article originally appeared in Nursing Times
Christianne Heal’s next Death Workshop is on Saturday 30th October 2021 in Waterbeach near Cambridge