Firstly a big thank you to Louise who stood in relatively last minute to take the place of the original speaker, who had a wonderful opportunity to go to India for 6 months at the time of this talk, lucky her! Louise opened by saying that talking about death won’t kill you, but it might make your life more meaningful.
Talking about death seems to be a taboo subject, although it hasn’t always been. Death cafes, brought to the UK in 2011 by the late Jon Underwood, have the objective ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. There is group discussion about death with no agenda. It seems people are desperate to talk – there is an unmet need, patients and families need support and guidance to navigate end of life, death and bereavement. Death café facilitators don’t express their own opinions, they just allow others to talk.
To hold space and sit with another in their experience is one of the greatest gifts we can give to each other, ourselves, and our community. It means we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they are on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome.
Louise then spoke about soul midwifery. Felicity Warner pioneered the idea of Soul Midwives more than 20 years ago after working with hundreds of dying patients. It combines holistic and spiritual approaches to honour the ‘whole’ person. Soul Midwives are companions to the dying providing care to soothe and reassure. They provide gentle touch, music and relaxation and end of life bedside vigil. Death can be a very profound and beautiful process and it is important to take time to talk about meaningful things as part of their journey.
Soul Midwives have confidence to ask clients difficult questions about dying and found people are relieved to be able to share honestly. It opens up the discussion on what they are thinking or worrying about. They can also talk about how the family are coping as Soul Midwives can support relatives when loved ones are gone. It is not all about the actual time of dying and death. Soul Midwives can also work at Home Funerals, Celebrants, Nursing Homes, Hospices and Acute Hospital settings (ICU). It is also important, however, to recognise when it’s appropriate to refer on to other services like counselling.
Louise then talked through some touching scenarios. In one she said she was able to visit the person in the hospital and ask if he had any worries/fears. This opened up the conversation about what he thought might happen when you die, they were able to have a light hearted discussion.
Finally, Louise asked what would be a good death, and asked us to reflect on what would a good death be like for us. She asked us to think about a death plan, which could include some of the following questions: Where you would prefer to die? Who would and wouldn’t you want with you? Any music playing? Dim lights/candles? Gentle scents/flowers? Would family like to assist in after death care? If you died at home would you want to remain there any length of time?
Felicity Warner said “A good death is an extraordinary, moving and sacred experience. It can also have a healing quality, not only for the person involved but their families, friends and the wider community.”
After the break Wendelien presented her thoughts and experiences on End of Life & Bereavement. At End of Life people may feel ‘I want to live’, ‘I don’t want unbearable pain’. When suffering bereavement, people may feel ‘I don’t want to live’, ‘I don’t want this unbearable pain’. When we can sit with the unbearable whilst holding the hope – we are able to hold someone in End of Life & Bereavement.
In her talk Wendelien used the metaphor of the Tsunami, taken from Katrina Taee and Wendelien’s forthcoming book, The Tsunami of Grief, which will be self- published in the New Year. Many bereaved people talk about feeling as if they are in a Tsunami of Grief. People can experience the Tsunami of Grief on a physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual or practical level.
- Physically – for example the bereaved may experience stomach pain if the deceased died of stomach cancer
- Emotional – denial “This can’t have happened”, anger, fear, perhaps guilt “If only I did this / did that…”
- Socially – “I’m a widow now”. Christmas can be a particularly difficult time
- Practically – e.g. each person in a couple did their own jobs, now the bereaved person has to do everything
- Identity – “now I’m single instead of part of a couple”
- Spiritual – searching for the deceased person, “I’m sure I saw him / her across the street…”
As time passes, the Tsunami of grief can begin to subside. Then the bereaved person can start to rebuild a new life, slowly moving forward. Starting to do things on your own, going back to work, there are good days and bad days. “I feel less raw now”, or “No one can tell me what to do now”.
The possibility of a new relationship opens up, perhaps feeling judged if starting a new relationship. It’s important to engage with memories and dreams, perhaps music is evocative. These memories can be particularly difficult, however, e.g. if the deceased person took their own life by suicide, or if there was abuse or trauma.
The experience of those working with bereavement is that the second year is often harder. Everyone else has moved on or forgotten, but not the bereaved person. As a counsellor, knowing this is very helpful and planning a few sessions in the 2nd year helps ease people into the understanding that indeed their loved one is never coming back and at the same time, show them how far they have come.
Thank you very much Louise and Wendelien for a very engaging and emotional evening.