What does dying feel like? 3

Charles Cowling

In general it’s irresponsible, contemptible, to adopt the role of helpless bystander. We don’t like helpless bystanders. Their body language is all wrong, so are their faces.

Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to be one. When the plumber calls I serenade him with cups of coffee and ingratiating solicitude, then vamoose, trusting and helpless. What more can I do?

Expertise tends to be exclusive. Helping hands are clumsy hands. Leaving it all to the expert is not always the same thing as abdication.

There’s a rule of thumb here. Where inanimate objects are concerned, helpless bystanding is cool. Let the experts get on with it. You don’t need to be there for your toilet when it discovers it’s got to have a new flush mechanism. You don’t need to explore with it how it feels about that.

Animate or recently-animate creatures are different. We wouldn’t drop Nan off at A & E and say, “Call us when she’s fixed.” She needs us. We need, too: we need to do what we can for her. We can’t do anything medical, but we can do lots emotionally and spiritually.

The well and the sick and the dying and the dead need us. When they fall into the hands of experts, the body mechanics, we can find ourselves relegated to the role of helpless bystanders, powerless petitioners for information. Expertise bigs itself up by doing this to us.

There’s a lot of it about. We need to reclaim our complementary role; re-empower ourselves.

Just published is Gentle Dying by Felicity Warner, a book which tells us exactly how we can do that with the dying.

She talks about the loneliness of dying people, disconnected from their family and friends by their lack of engagement, which manifests as denial. She talks about “switching the focus from trying to make them [the dying] better to making them feel comfortable and safe”, and the undesirability of “the heavy-handed use of drugs” which “may mask the dying experience”.

Once, communities knew how to help people die. As dying became medicalised, communities lost that knowledge. Ms Warner wants, in this book, to return this knowledge to the community and create a modern paradigm.

There is a new-ageiness about this book which is likely to deter a good many potential readers. There’s a lot about essential oils and crystals. As we lie dying, Ms Warner tells us, we are likely to feel “a chill spreading up through the chakras”. No. Only those who are in touch with their chakras. What % of the population are they?

My recommendation: suspend your scepticism, if any. In so many ways this is an excellent book. Ms Warner has worked with the dying. She offers much very sound practical advice about preparing ourselves for our own deaths, and for helping others to die a death which is “Beautiful, dignified and inspiring.” Her “Ten very simple tips if you are sitting with anyone who is dying”, for example, are utterly down to earth.

Ms Warner heads up the Hospice of the Heart, where she teaches healthcare professionals and carers her gentle dying method. She also trains “midwives to the dying” – people who work alongside the body mechanics on the unquestionably far more important areas of the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs. It’s good to see. This blog extends its best wishes and its admiration.

It’s an interesting irony that, as our own Natural Death Centre lies dying, the natural death movement in the US, inspired by the NDC, has already taken Ms Warner’s pioneering work further and joined up death midwifery to home funerals. If you’re interested, check out the work of Jerri Lyons and Beth Knox, and Jennifer Bingham and Donna Larsen. There are others.

It’s women who are leading the way – of course. And, yes, there’s a danger it’s all getting too feminised and exclusive of blokey men. If this work is to prevail, each needs to move closer to the other.

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