Monday, 31 October 2011

My experience of Death

What is manifestly the case is that I am not dead (though readers of this blog may have the right to question that assertion). Through my work as a priest I am granted an almost unique place in the moment of the bereaved relatives' lives who have only just lost loved ones, or in the last moments of life for those who have gone before us. It is part of my job to listen as they describe the last moments, and part of my duty, as I see it, is to know how the 'end' was for the one now gone.

These encounters now number many dozen (and in many circumstances and under the auspices of many 'causes'), so I feel qualified to write this, and also in a position to make some observations about some of the frequent consistencies in the accounts that I hear. I place them here because these accounts, in their overwhelming similarity, are interesting - and I think that these words may even give comfort in future times.

1. Seeing the dead - now this may seem like an account taken from a film, but I am struck how often those who  are within hours of their own death seem to see, hear and communicate with long-dead relatives (at times, the 'other' is presumed, and in other cases, conversations between the person dying with "mother" etc are overheard). Very often, this is 'end of the bed' encounters where the dying person engages with those in proximity when the room seems otherwise empty. I am convinced that people do not pass into death alone, and it is through this particular phenomenon that I find my 'evidence'.

2. Choosing - I have listened to the stories of many deaths and a common thread seems to me that we choose when we go, even when we seem beyond consciousness. Accounts of people dying in the scarce moments when loved-ones leave the bedside; accounts of people finishing unfinished business with relatives - these and so many more tell me that whilst we may not choose the year or the month, we can choose the hour and the day. An aspect of this that surprised me was the need that some have had for specific permission to die. I have known people live out of duty when their bodies are struggling on, and in cases where death is the best outcome, not more life. I have had to 'grant permission' on a number of occasions, enabling that person to go with a sense that they are not being a nuisance or failing even. 

3. Being alone - in addition to the above, the overwhelming majority of those who have died have done so when they were alone (and in some cases when vigils of many days length is suspended for a quick visit for the loo or to get food). This often causes great anxiety for relatives who chastise themselves for abandoning someone at precisely the wrong moment. 

4. Peace - I have sat and listened to many people who are confronting their own imminent death. In most cases, a fear of the transition from life to death has been a source of fear and anxiety, with the inevitable questions about what may follow life. Even in cases where this has been most acute and the fears most pronounced, I have noticed that a sense of calm and peace descend upon those who are drawing to their end, before they lose consciousness. In short, the vast majority of the recently departed found a sense that 'everything will be alright' before their end.

These observations are from my own perspective, based on accounts of many families. I accept, freely, that there are many painful, difficult and tortuous deaths, and that I have been fortunate not to have witnessed or ministered to such situations. However, I also believe that the moment of death is, on the whole, gentle. I offer this for those who may be confronting their own death or that of someone close. 


  1. thank you - I can relate to alot of this x.

  2. In some sense, what you write strikes a chord. The recent death of an elderly relative seemed premature, despite his great age. He'd been in hospital for several months, while waiting for a place in a care home. But shortly before he was due to move, he fell, broke a hip and complications set in. After a few days he lost consciousness, but just before he passed away, he reached out and squeezed the hand of his partner - which she now knows was his good bye to her - he died minutes later.

    In my limited experience of death, particularly in the last few years of my spouse's parents, were that after long illness, both seemed relieved to depart. But chose the time to be in the early hours of the morning, when relatives could not be present. Talking to a Doctor, she said that most of their patients, who suffering terminal illness seem to go at dawn. Perhaps it's something about the new light shining, and they move towards it?

    It can be a frustration if you have missed their passing, but perhaps a blessing if you can feel that they actually chose when it was, so not to get you too upset. It gives a small time to adjust, to get used to the news, before you have to get on with arrangements. Grief seems to hit a little later in these cases.

  3. Your paragraph on choosing, rang many bells with me.
    My father having been admitted to hospital with my mother and two friend in attendance, talked with them all until finally too weary to stay longer they said their 'goodbyes' and drove home the 25 miles from the hospital.
    On their arrival they were greeted with the news that he had died shortly after they left.
    The second instance which you mentioned was that of being given permission to go.
    When my mother was in hospital, with no hope of recovery and we were all waiting for the end, she seemed to hang on for days. Seldom conscious but at 103 years of age still 'there'.
    I phoned the ward sister every morning of the last 2 or 3 days to ask whether she was still with us, and finally said to her, desperately,"Is she waiting for something?"
    We had all been to see her and said our farewells in previous days and could think of little else than,will it be today?
    The ward sister said, "I hesitate to ask you this. you will think I'm mad, but has anyone told her she can go?"
    When I said that none of us would have thought to do so, she asked if I would like her to do it for me (us). I agreed and she promised to say, "Marion, your children say it's ok for you to go now".
    That afternoon (Christmas Eve 2008), she rang me and said your mother has just passed away.
    My response which may have surprised her, was, "thank God" and "thankyou for giving her permission".
    Life (and death) really is stranger than fiction.

  4. Yes....completely agree with your observations, though I have to say that I was somewhat unnerved at the 1st deathbed I was present at as a priest, when the response to "Go forth upon thy journey" as exactly and instantly that the Christian soul did indeed do just that.

    Holy ground, without a doubt

  5. Good observations
    Having served as a part time hospice chaplain in the past I recognise all those things you describe

  6. Agree with all your points - I gave my father "permission to leave", and shortly thereafter he did.

  7. Reading this knowing my grandmother-in-law is at this very stage of 'almost but not quite' left, might make for an interesting conversation with my hospice-home-care-sister of a mother in law.

    I remember my Mother making what appeared to be a concious decision to leave this world having received communion, and before we could back at the hospice after attending our usual service at her request!

    I also know of those who have actually needed to space to die without being watched. Permission may indeed be needed, but possibly also the space to go to their rest in peace?



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