Spiralled Edges – Looking at Death and Dying
A recent report released by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman highlights the tragic number of people who are dying without dignity here in the UK. Specifically mentioned were too many incidences of people not receiving adequate pain relief, poor communication between health teams and families leading to family members not being present at time of death, inadequate out-of-hours services, and people being wrongly denied the right to die at home.
One can only hope that the recommendations for improved palliative, end of life care are acted upon and improved. While not mentioned specifically, dying with dignity includes more than just tending to physical needs and communicating effectively and sensitively. It must also include providing for a dying person’s spiritual and/or religious needs, however that may be expressed.
Every major religion has rituals designed to ease a person’s spiritual transition between living and dying. There are prayers and rituals to be whispered in the dying person’s ear in the moments before death, rituals of atonement (sometimes called Last Rites), and prayers to ease a family’s grief.
In my studies I have found a small amount of very good resources for Pagans on the subject, but they are an exception rather than a rule. “The Pagan Book of Living and Dying” by Starhawk, M Macha Nightmare and The Reclaiming Collective is one of the only books currently available to give guidance to Pagans on the subject.
Death and dying is a subject which we, as Pagans, need to look at and address, and put into written form for future generations to look to for guidance. It would be impossible to sit down and say when someone is Pagan you do X, Y, and Z readings and rituals. As individuals though, we can say, “I am Pagan and this is what death means to me.”
As part of the written work to become a Soul Midwife I was asked to take a look at what I would want my own end of life to be like, both in the days and weeks before and after death occurred.
While reflecting on these questions, I discovered many things, some trivial and some major.
I would want time for quiet reflection and introspection. While I might at times want the comfort of having friends near me, I wouldn’t necessarily want conversation. I would not want people around me who insisted on filling silence with words. Silence and solitude are both very important to me.
While I love music, I do not like it to be played loudly so any music would need to be soothing and kept to a very low volume, if played at all.
I like things that are soft and textured, and feel calmer when I have something to keep my hands busy. Fiddle patches, prayer beads, and textures on blankets to trace work well for me if I am confined to bed or a chair.
I am particularly sensitive to smells, so would not want any strong scents around me. Many essential oil scents give me headaches including lavender so I would not want these around me, unless it was very subtle and in the background only.
In visualising what I would want to happen after death I realised one thing that is important to me, but would seem trivial to most anyone else. I don’t want my feet to be wrapped in shrouding or covered.
Given a choice I would rather die at home, surrounded by my life. I don’t know if I would want family and friends around or not. Perhaps I would be able to handle having one at a time, and only those who would be comfortable sitting in silence.
I do not fear death, and have not feared it for a very long time. Death is not an enemy to be fought off at any cost; it is a necessary part of life. Without death, nothing could live. Even the soil in which we grow our food in is made up of plant and animal life which has died and decomposed. Death is part of a great cycle we all must travel – birth, life, death, rebirth (whether one believes this to be the rebirth of the soul or the decomposition of the old life and birth of new life or both together).
I would ask my friends and family to hold a celebration of my life rather than a mourning of my death. I have already discussed with my eldest adult son some of my wishes with regards to organ and tissue donation and the disposal of my body (cremation) as well as my desires for a Pagan-centred memorial service.
I would want to know that my children were going to be okay when I was gone. And I would be more at peace if I had had the chance to make final plans for them. I would most want to be able to speak final words with my children. I wouldn’t necessarily want to say goodbye because I don’t believe that death means goodbye. While we may have a time of being apart from each other, in time we will be together whether after being reborn again in a new body or in the spirit realm.
I encourage you to spend a bit of time talking to your family and friends about your own death. What things would bring you comfort? What things would help you to have a “good” death? And have these conversations now because next year it may be too late.
For more help and information, and guidance on forming these discussions with friends and family, I would recommend these websites:
http://www.dyingmatters.org/ Dying Matters
https://www.finalfling.com/ Final Fling
http://deathcafe.com/ Death Café