Next week from the 10th to the 16th May the Demystifying Death festival takes place. Its purpose is to ‘shine a light on death, dying and bereavement in Scotland’ by bringing dying into the limelight.
Before the pandemic hit our shores last spring a group of individuals and organisations had been preparing for the launch of what is Scotland’s first Bereavement Charter for Adults and Children. This happened in April just at the time when the sad litany of Covid19 deaths were filling our consciousness.
The aim of the Charter is quite simply to increase awareness of the importance of bereavement support especially for those who may require that additional support after the loss of someone in their lives, and to make Scotland a nation more confident about preparing for, talking about and dealing with death, dying and bereavement. A big aim and the work to achieve it, I hope will be a key part of the shared commitment of the new Scottish Parliament, which is being formed as the election results come in as I write this.
At the heart of the Demystifying Death week is the presumption that for many people death, dying and bereavement have become detached and distant, surrounded by whisper and silence, pushed away from prominence and priority. There is I think a real truth in that.
The dictionary defines ‘demystifying’ as ‘to make (a difficult subject) clearer and easier to understand.’ There is probably no more difficult subject than death because it raises fundamental questions about our humanity, our self-identity and purpose and indeed the nature of life as a whole. For most of the last few decades, both personally and professionally, it has been a taboo subject, little talked about and frequently side-stepped. It has not always been like that.
I grew up in an environment where death and dying were very much part of the seasons of life. My extended family were linked to the land and the sea and facing up to the sad reality of unforeseen and unexpected loss was part and parcel of what for generations had been a precarious existence. Even living in the seclusion of a city I was aware of the sense in which death and dying were viewed as something normal, natural and entwined into the fabric of living and loving. Not least I saw the life-long impact of loss on those who were left behind. I learned early on that it is only when you have endured the loss of someone close that you really understand the all-consuming nature of grief which freezes you inside and out. But for so many in our society death really has become a taboo.
To some extent that changed a bit during the pandemic as the prominence of dying became a daily subject of debate and media report. But in all honesty despite the plethora of on-line supports and the social media chatter around death and dying, I wonder if this positivity about ‘mainstreaming death’ will outlive the rush back to the familiarity of ‘normality.’ Even the way in which the media is reporting the still not insignificant number of people dying from Covid19 is sadly illustrative of a continued dis-ease with death and dying.
I have written before of the impact of the pandemic upon those who have lost loved ones. The inability to mourn as we want, to be present at time of death, the loss of communal support and ritual are undeniably having an effect on thousands of our fellow citizens. We are facing the saddening damage of what one writer has called the ‘tsunami of grief’. I see little collective, political and cultural desire to systematically address this societal and health challenge. Whether politician or policy maker folks remain very uncomfortable around death.
A key part of the work of the Demystifying Death week is to help people to start to hold conversations with those important to them about what they might want in their care and support at the end of life or when their health, perhaps as a result of a long-term disease or condition, begins to deteriorate. It is equally important should we be unfortunate enough to be the victim of an accident or sudden, unexpected and traumatic death. Those of us privileged to have become parents will be very familiar with the concept of a ‘birth-plan’ – a detailed description of how the pregnancy and birth of a child will be supported in accordance with the wishes and desires of the mother and the resource and systems available. I think that the concept of ‘death planning’ should have equal priority and importance. How we die not only impacts on our very self, but its handling has a profound significance for those we love and surround our lives with.
I have said before that death is the most person-centred act we will ever engage in. Those of us who work in health and social care can do so much to ensure that the process is indeed ‘owned’ by the person, be that the choice of location, the nature of the end, and the support of those who remain. But there is a demand upon all of us and that is to start talking about death and our own death with those we love. This is not a morbid obsessiveness but part and parcel of our gift to others. It is ironic that we probably spend more time talking about the car we might buy than about what we want at the end of our lives. It is indeed time to start talking about dying.
All this talk of course becomes much easier if we become more confident about being open about our feelings and fears, our hopes and aspirations in relation to the end of life and dying. Too often we feel awkward or uncomfortable about the subject and we fear if we know someone close who is experiencing serious illness of making the situation worse by our conversation. But it is a self-evident truth that making plans when we are healthy means that we have much more time to focus on the important things when we become ill.
I do hope you might look at some of the amazing events which are taking place as part of the Demystifying Death Week and start having conversations with those who love you and matter to you.
An intrinsic part of living is our ending, planning and dreaming, working and organising, preparing and nurturing that end is a gift not only to our self but to those we leave behind. For me the poet Donald Smith has given me a sense of that time:
When this body comes to die,
Set me on the headland high,
Where sun and rain go marching by,
Raven lord of wave and sky.
Eilean Mor Sgiathach
When I free my final breath,
Lay me down on gentle earth,
Where the dove shades holy garth,
And rivers run to meet the firth.
Eilean Mor Sgiathach
When my spirit passes over,
Float me on air’s mountain floor,
Where the feathered ramparts soar,
And the eagles golden hover,
Eilean Mor Sgiathach