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.