Friday 18 June 2010

Sacred Dying

Megory Anderson of the Sacred Dying Foundation brought the following piece from the New York Times to the attention of her Facebook friends: Making Sure Patients Don’t Die Alone. The article demonstrates how enlightened young doctors can be but it also throws light onto the way we perceive death and dying: a failure to cure, an opportunity for litigation, perhaps something rather shameful. It is extraordinary that something as basic as someone being around when a person dies makes the news.

Paganism has an uneasy relationship with death. We talk about life, death and rebirth, celebrate Samhain, honour deities Who deal out death as well as Those from Whom life flows knowing that They’re often one and the same. But when it comes to the reality of the end of life we are, unsurprisingly, products of our societies. Fragmented, isolated, we can perform endless ritual and still find ourselves helpless in the determinedly real and unromantic event of death.

So many of our rites of passage are organised to be performed at seasonal gatherings but of course when we begin actively dying we’re unlikely to be able to travel, to be away from the things that make living and sleeping less uncomfortable, to have time between medical appointments or simply to have enough energy. The Pagan dying, like everyone else’s dying, disappear.

It doesn’t help that, like giving birth, dying happens in its own time. I like the analogy of midwifery for both birth and death but there are important differences: if a labouring woman encounters difficulties the midwife needs to be technically skilled because things can go very wrong very quickly. There is nothing to go wrong in the physical processes of death. Many physical symptoms can be relieved, many psychological processes can be facilitated but the outcome will always and inevitably be the same. It can even be (whisper it low) tedious to be with a person who is dying when they just don't die. Birth midwives learn to sit on their hands, be attentive and act swiftly when it's needed. People attending the dying learn to be attentive and do very little, actively.

Dying is a high energy event, it draws people to it, we all want to be in some way connected to this ultimate drama. Being involved with death brings out the worst as well as the best in people perhaps because there’s no set way to ‘do’ it. As the dying person becomes less connected to the everyday world there's a risk that they become a means for others to take a little limelight. All that  unfocused energy around death and dying has to ground somewhere, and when doing nothing is the most important thing to do we can all get frustrated.

You’ll know by now that I trip up over the word ‘Healing’. I don’t like it because it’s routinely abused, particularly so around the dying. The only healing for death is death itself and it’s self evident that this hasn’t been thought through or even thought about by a great majority. People offering candle lighting, prayers, ritual and so on for the ‘healing’ of a person who is actively dying would be horrified to think they were actively working towards someone death, or conversely that they were holding a person unnaturally in a life that is finished.

The Sacred Dying Foundation is one of the premier resources around death and dying, offering ways in which to focus some of that instinctive anxiety and interest, to be helpfully involved. The following is reproduced with kind permission.

10 Tips for Vigiling and Establishing Sacred Presence
Megory Anderson

Reclaim Grace and Dignity for Your Dying Loved One
10 ideas to engage family and friends in “Spiritual Presence” for your loved-one.

1: De-clutter the bedside area. 
  Set the space apart using candles, music, etc., to create a calm, peaceful atmosphere.  This will be the “sacred space” around your dying loved-one.

2: Within this physical sacred space, keep the focus of any conversation on the dying person.   
   Allow intentional conversation with or about the person, but no idle chatter among visitors: keep that outside.

3: Take cues from your loved-one regarding practical matters.
    If there is no indication that s/he would like to discuss or handle practical things, keep these things well away from the sacred space.  If you know the person’s wishes regarding privacy, make sure they are respected.

4: Take turns or assign someone as “door keeper” to shepherd the transition from the outside hubbub to the sacred space.
It can often be helpful to establish a daily or weekly schedule with family members.

5: Take cues from your loved-one regarding not only physical needs, but emotional and spiritual as well.
Don’t take center stage with your own emotions.  While your own needs are certainly valid, if all eyes are on you and the comfort you need, consider stepping outside the sacred space to allow the focus to re-shift to the loved-one.

6: When s/he begins actively dying, the most important element of vigiling is your calm presence.  It is a solemn gift.
To hold this quiet space so your loved-one can transition as easily as possible, use tools that you have already gathered in a “vigiling toolkit”.  Items to include: special objects to hold that have personal or religious meaning (a prayer shawl, a favorite scarf, a rosary), reflective readings or books or prayers, music, candles (flame or battery).  Traditional prayers are often used, but other favorite readings can be appropriate, too.  The idea is to personalize these items for your loved-one.

7: If you are at home, don’t be surprised if family pets want to participate. 
If possible, let them behave naturally: on the bed or on your lap, etc. 

8: Friends/family who can’t physically be there during this time can still be involved from afar.
For example, someone long-distance could be in charge of mass communications, informational emails, etc.  There are many online choices such as candle-lighting websites, creating a Facebook page with updates, and other internet options.

9: Ask absent friends/family to vigil with you at a designated time once or twice daily.
They could do this from anywhere in the world, simply taking a few minutes in shared thought/prayer, listening to music, lighting a candle, etc.

10: Don’t worry about making practical calls immediately after s/he passes.
Spending some time in silence can be profound and meaningful.  Then, consider designating one person to go do practical things while one continues to sit quietly for as long as possible.

© Megory Anderson 2010  

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Thank you so much for this. I really needed to read it right now. Much to think about.