There's a subject area in which I am very interested, but am failing to find my way to the work on this topic that's exactly what I'm looking for.
It's to do with dying well.
When I was a very young woman, I began to explore into how to live well. St Francis of Assisi and Mohandas Gandhi influenced me strongly, to the extent that I became convinced (I still am) that a life of disciplined simplicity lived in some form of community was key to human flourishing.
Also as a young woman I became interested in how nutrition fitted into the shalom of creation, and the part it played in the practice of compassion and pursuit of health.
I developed a strong preference for alternative therapies over mainstream medicine, and explored into healing herbs, naturopathy, homoeopathy and spiritual healing.
In keeping and caring for animals and looking after my home, I turned to the work of Juliette de Baïracli Levy, from which I learned a huge amount. Back in those days, she was still producing animal feeds, and I used to buy her muesli for our collie and wolfhound, and followed her advice on caring for our goats.
When I started to think about becoming a mother, I read the work of Ina May Gaskin, Frederick Leboyer, Sheila Kissinger and Michel Odent. Ina May Gaskin's book Spiritual Midwifery is one of the best books I've read in my life. I found her guidance immensely helpful in pregnancy, childbirth and the neo-natal period.
Once I had become a mother, the education of my children became the focus of my attention, and my teachers were the great educationalists John Holt and A.S.Neill.
Throughout all of this, in addition to constantly absorbing Christian teaching in person from a number of wise and inspiring leaders, I also found light and wisdom in Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching and in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. A few others — Stephen Gaskin, Carlos Castenada, Sheila Cassidy, Ursula le Guin, David Whiteland, and no doubt others I have forgotten, have also shaped and enriched my thinking.
During my middle years (my thirties, forties and fifties), I had a great deal to do with death. I spent some years working as the free-church chaplain in a hospice. As a pastor of, in all, ten churches, my work included time spent with chronically sick, dying and bereaved people. During these decades I took literally hundreds of funerals, specialising in working with bereaved people to craft liturgies that would express exactly what they needed to say in these deep and tender farewells. I also accompanied my second husband through his own dying, so that it could be — just as he had wished — in the peace and privacy of his own cottage in the woods, surrounded by birdsong and many wild creatures, blessed by music, touched by the night breeze and lit by dawn and dusk, by stars and moon and sun.
I have also worked as a care assistant in a palliative care context, with people dying or chronically ill. And I have worked as a care assistant with comprehensively disabled people as well.
As time has gone on I’ve encountered a variety of health challenges myself. I have two elves — my Mental Elf and my Physical Elf, and both require thought and attention to flourish.
I have learned a lot about natural remedies and nutrition, and have successfully addressed a variety of difficulties such that I am now very well.
But now that I am in my sixties, I want to begin learning about natural and peaceful death. So far, I have been unsuccessful in finding my way to exactly what I’m looking for.
There is a UK movement for natural death, which focuses mainly on funerals — but I have considerable experience in that area; it’s not that I’m looking for.
The Dalai Lama, and various other Buddhist teachers, address to some extent this subject area, but in general I have found their books (though no doubt wise and learned) boring and wordy, and I am not very interested in following religious methods and exercises.
I recently came across a book which I read eagerly — Katherine Mannix’s book With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial. It’s well written, and she is an engaging writer and delightful person, but it didn’t have the information I wanted. It was full of stories about people’s actual deaths — but I am very familiar with end of life care in a hospice, hospital, nursing home or home context. Also, it deals with dying after going through the terrible ravages of chemo and surgery etc; there isn't one truly natural death in the book.
I have on watch a book by Glen E. Miller called Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well: A Doctor Tells how to Make Death a Natural Part of Life. I’m going to investigate that.
I have been helped and supported in my own health journey by the work of Charlotte Gerson, Eric Berg, Tom Monte, Gerald Green and others — but their work is solely focused on curing diseases; they don’t address the questions I have about so managing life that the transition from living to dying to death is managed with dignity, understanding, intelligence, peace and simplicity. And I want to know about that, because all of us are mortal and must one day consider this carefully.
I have had plenty of opportunity to watch death and dying both well and badly accomplished, and I do have some definite ideas already, but I feel that now I am starting to grow old it is time to begin my education in this area.
What I really want is someone who has done for the subject area of dying what Ina May Gaskin, Frederic Leyoyer and Sheila Kitzinger did for the subject area of pregnancy and birth, and J.S.Neill and John Holt did for the subject area of the education of children.
At present I have no disease. I am very well — though I certainly feel the increasing slowness, weakness, quietness and detachment of ageing, which is not a problem to me. I have no desire to live a long life; I would prefer not to live to be very old (as in, eg, 90s), and I don’t mind if I die in my 80’s, 70’s or 60s — even next week is fine, though it would be irritating to my publishers who have just signed me for a new book to be delivered in the late spring of next year.
It’s not that I am sick and want to read up on the management of it. It’s more that I am looking for general advice/wisdom on the natural, nutritionally based management of growing old and entering death in a life committed to quietness and simplicity.
I have lots of thoughts of my own, but if there were only a writer like Ina May, who could supply lots of case studies of what ageing and dying looks like outside the interventionist medical model, supported by skilful means, wise practice and nutrition for optimum health, I’d be very interested to read it. And I like books with pictures.
I feel a profound distrust of Authority — whether educational, political, medical or religious; I've had some wise and helpful advice from health professionals, but also some that was inaccurate and lead away from shalom; and I cannot help feeling there are better paths to follow, in managing the decline of life and the beginning of dying, than the poison/cut/burn alternatives offered by mainstream medicine.
So, friends, if you know of a writer or speaker or teacher, whose style is lively and accessible, who addresses the specific area of how to manage the transition from living to dying as our ship turns homeward — with an emphasis on nutrition, natural lifestyle and simplicity, I’d be most interested to hear more.