Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Nine hundred and ninety

I've been reading an excellent book, With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial, by Kathryn Mannix. 

I wholeheartedly recommend it provided you don't mind some memorably graphic descriptions of death that are likely to linger in your memory.

In particular I love her description of natural death as progressing over years, energy declining and need for rest and sleep increasing, until sleep gives way to unconsciousness and then to death.

This put me in mind of the natural life of an oak tree, which takes 300 years to grow, then rests for 300 years, then takes 300 years to die. It occurred to me there is a correlation with human longevity here. A human who lives into old age without being overtaken by a fatal disease, might expect to live to be ninety years old. Perhaps, like the oak tree (losing a nought for the corresponding human life span) they might grow and mature for 30 years, then maintain a level of vigour for another 30 years, then begin a 30-year decline to death. So death would begin at 60, but not be completed until 90. That makes sense to me.

I have seen numerous well-managed deaths (and a handful of markedly less well-managed deaths), but the most natural deaths I've had the chance to observe have been in animals.

In particular I remember the last year of our dog Mary, who lived to a good age. On her last summer we took her camping with us as usual. I'd noticed that in recent months she seemed especially content, but keen to really savour life, stopping for every interesting smell on her walks, enjoying being out in the garden.  Granddad was a Boys Brigade officer and though all our children were girls, we used to go with the BB to their camp every year. That year I was struck by how happily Mary entered into it, more than usual, making me conclude that a dog could have a holiday as much as a human. She loved that time away in the countryside.

On our return, I and my husband and children had to go away again, this time to a big Christian conference where we would be so highly participative that it seemed unwise to take Mary along (we were again under canvas, this time on a huge site, and the events were not appropriate for her). So she stayed with my husband's parents. She and my father-in-law Norman really loved each other.

On our return home, it was instantly apparent that she should not be moved again. She had been slowing down for some time, and was now spending her time just sleeping on a blanket in the sunny warmth of the conservatory. So we didn't make her get up and get into the car, we just let her stay there through that week, dozing.

At the end of her life, Norman was with her. He bent down to stroke her, and she lifted her head to greet him, wagged her tail, and that was the end.

In my own life, now I am in my 60s, I am noticing the downturn of strength and energy. It's come quicker and more insistently than I imagined from what I've known others say. I still have the drive and commitment to see through what I really care about and believe in, but I have to husband my strength judiciously; I can no longer cope with draining relationships or high-stress situations and longer walks are tiring now. I can't multi-task any more (I used to be able to run a large household and write a novel; I don't think I could do either now — certainly not both). I can no longer eat just anything, as I once could — I quickly get significantly ill if I stray from the path of good nutrition. For instance, if I had a sandwich today and a pizza tomorrow I'd enjoy them but it would take me about three weeks to get better; and I can drink tea (I love tea) provided I don't mind the tearing gut pains that follow, along with the swollen tongue and ankles so full of fluid it's hard to walk upstairs! The old girl ain't what she used to be, but if I live and eat carefully I am really very well.

It is the beginning of dying, that may continue its leisurely pace for as much as 30 years if no specific disease process accelerates it in the meantime. It's interesting and peaceful and it doesn't trouble me. I have no fear of death, but I feel the importance of preparing well and of supporting my body systems appropriately. Complementary therapies, inner healing, herbal remedies, essential oils and naturopathic pathways have all proved valuable for the various health problems I've encountered. 

My fervent prayer is to keep my hair, teeth, continence, hearing, eyesight, mental faculties (such as they are) and self-possession to the end, to live with an absolute minimum of medical interference, and to die quietly, unexceptionally and alone when the time comes, leaving nothing untidy or distressing for anyone to find; a quick, neat, unheralded and unremarked death, in my own room. That's what I'd like. And I don't mind when it is. Ha ha, in your dreams, you may think — but actually I've known quite a few old people who lived and died that way. So I have high (and determined) hopes.


Suzan W said...

I understand. Our society fights and hides the inevitable.

I am feeling the effects of ageing. My blood sugar is extremely difficult to control. I lost me hearing in my left ear at age 7 from the mumps. I now where hearing aids. My vision took longer than average to define but it has now. I have less energy too and fight to get through each day. I am a little younger than you.

God bless.

Jen Liminal Luminous said...

Gosh Pen, what a deep post, so thoughtful and reflective.

Due to my condition (which I think we overlap on), I have to now live a quiet life, much more than I would like. But I've come (coming) to terms with it. Everything is much easier if you live in flow, rather than fight.

Thank you for sharing your words and thoughts with such grace and thoughtfulness.

I love coffee oh so very much >>> but I think I am going to have to give it up. And processes sugar, although I've noticed that actual things I baked do not a) have a negative affect on me, and b) I don't want to eat so much, they are satiating and satisfying in a way that processed foods are not.

I;ve also noticed that above all else stress is what causes me pain and fatigue. But it seems to be an increasingly large part of life.I think I need to opt out and all that that entails. Lots to think about

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Suzan, hi Jen.

May you be well, friends. May you find you way to exactly what you need to support and sweeten your lives, so that you can live gladly in this beautiful and magnificent world, not weighed down unduly by troubles.


greta said...

i read this book last year and absolutely loved it. i wish that i'd had it as a resource when i was working with my clients. i'd been with several clients until they died, working alongside hospice and was also with both my parents when they died. it's such an honour to be with folks on that final journey. all those deaths were peaceful and painless. if i were younger (almost 70!) i'd go into hospice work myself. as it is, i'll probably be the beneficiary of hospice care at some point. knowing what i know now, i will welcome that.

Julie B. said...

This was a beautiful post, Ember. Thank you. I do feel as though I am slowly dying, in the best sense of the word...very similar to what you write. I feel the changes in my body, the slowing and the sometimes almost imperceptible waning of energy and (worst of all) mental sharpness. After watching Michael die, I have come to see the beauty of a believer's death like I'd never imagined. It was almost like a birth, where we were allowed the privilege of seeing him go from this womb/earth to his very real eternal home and life. And I want the same things as you for when the end comes.... xoxoxo

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Greta — yes, it's a brilliant book, isn't it! I'm loving it. I wondered, if you find the subject interesting, if you've come across my book on caring for people who are dying or bereaved? If you haven't you might enjoy it. There are two editions — the first I wrote back in the 1990s when AIDS still carried a big stigma and caused reactions of fear, so it included some material on that. I cut that material from the second edition, because attitudes in society had so changed, but I included the story of my husband's death, and some material about bereavement caused by other losses than physical dying.
Ist edition:
2nd edition:
Just for interest!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Julie B — What I find especially interesting and heartening about your comment, is that the echo/residue/legacy of Michael's death is the faith and love and beauty of it. At the time, there was such agonising decision-making, such uncertainty about the best place for him, such horrific experiences around the dementia etc. But over time, that seems to have slowly settled into the past (unless you're choosing resolutely to concentrate on the positive?) and the abiding memory is the loveliness that you and Jesus brought out of a very gruelling and drawn-out experience. You did so well in how you handled it; it truly became holy ground.

Buzzfloyd said...

I'm interested in why you would rather die alone, as lots of people want others with them.

Suzan W said...

Thank you for your kind words. I am working on creating a simple new normal. Last week my cousin died and her family knew she would die. They didn't address certain things and now have legal complications. I am so glad I addressed things like wills etc a long while ago. I guess my work wiht the ageing and caring for dad have mad eye aware that being prepared helps remove stress.

God bless.

Rebecca said...

I have high and determined hopes, too. And I nap alot....

Pen Wilcock said...

Buzz — I have very few in my close circle of trusted people, and I suspect that those few might be sad when I died (I could be deluding myself, of course). I think if I was just by myself, as dying doesn't bother me at all because I'm not frightened of it and don't mind when it happens, it would feel peaceful and welcome. If I was in any pain or discomfort, I wouldn't want those close to me to have to see it. If they were sad and upset I'd be worried about them and find it hard to go. And I wouldn't want medical staff doing things to me.

Suzan — yes, I think it's really helpful to have one's affairs in order, to keep one's belongings few and neat, and to simplify finances and paperwork.

Rebecca — I remember a monk in Devon sitting by the wood stove in his little cottage, telling me that as he got older he found he needed more rest but less sleep. That's been true for me as well. I do try to walk somewhere most days, or at least do some housework or something active, but I spend a lot of time sitting quietly too. I go to bed early, but I don't go to sleep early. If I have something on my mind I might even stay awake all night. I play Spider Solitaire.

Anonymous said...

I am 59. For the last 7 years ill health has affected me to the point where last year the Dept of Health recognised that I am disabled. At last I've come to terms with the worst aspects of my condition; pain, immobility and weakness.
However, as you mentioned, I know that 'it is well with my soul'.
I know of a very sick man who when he was asked how he was, would reply, 'Doing better than I deserve'. There was a man who truly acknowledged what Jesus had done for his soul.

Pen Wilcock said...

God bless you, Kay. May you flourish, may you be well. xx

greta said...

somehow i'd missed your book on end-of-life spiritual care. it is now ordered from amazon along with your lenten book (nothing like being prepared ahead of time.) there's a lovely review of your book on amazon (USA) from a professor who assigns it to her students every year. have you seen that? if not, i'll copy/paste/and send it along.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, thank you, Greta! Yes, that professor, I believe, teaches in a US seminary. During the years between the old edition going out of print and the new one being made ready, they used to apply for permission to print out the whole thing to give this year's intake of students. The first edition became something of a standard text in UK hospices, I think — not sure if the second has caught on in the same way. Though I had a lovely letter from someone who was appointed as a lay chaplain to a hospice, having never done such work before. She discovered that taking funerals was included in what they expected of her. She was using my Spiritual Care (the 2nd edition, which has a detailed chapter on taking funerals) as a kind of manual for finding her way in her new job. I was so pleased to know it was helping someone in their work.

greta said...

i wasn't quite sure from your response whether you'd been able to read the review so here it is again:

I have been using this book in its earlier edition as a textbook in my coursed "Introduction to Pastoral Care" and "Death, Dying & Bereavement" every year since I began teaching as a pastoral theologian in the 1990's. It is a gem, both theologically and practically. The author's sensitivity to each care recipient's unique spirituality and context provides a model for a thoughtful and compassionate ministry of presence. The writing is personal and accessible, yet full of professional wisdom. This is my favorite textbook for spiritual care of the dying and bereaved, and I recommend it most highly! ~ Prof. Pamela Cooper-White, Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY.

it certainly never hurts to revisit a glowing review, does it? my husband went to CTS (chicago theological seminary) and was able to take a class with elizabeth kubler-ross when the study of death and dying was a very new subject. it was most helpful during his years of ministry as small town churches in iowa are full of elderly folk in need of comfort and companionship on that last journey. that's probably what got me interested in hospice in the first place.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks, Greta — gosh, to have studied with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is a special privilege, isn't it! Here in England, Dame Cecily Saunders was also a revered name in the hospice movement, and it made me so proud that she wrote a commendation for the first edition of my Spiritual Care book.