Transcending the Fear of Death

by M-Gillies

Death reminds us of our own mortality and so we tend to run from it. We prefer that our loved ones spend the end of their lives in a hospital rather than embracing alternatives offered by hospices where we can enjoy our last moments with them in a peaceful setting.

There is a medical clinic in the US that boasts it is an “all-inclusive, one price, full-service luxury spa medical health and wellness resort,” which specializes in providing not only “cutting-edge therapies” but “knowledge, information and tools on how to live well, particularly in today’s aging and disease-ridden society.”

The focus here should be on the word aging. In fact, when you type in the words “revering (to venerate) aging” in google, we are now prompted because of our supposed error with a question asking if what we really meant was “reversing aging” and so begins the mentality of western societies fear of aging and with it, the disease known as death.

Once, not long ago, but rather during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, death was a family and community undertaking where the dying remained at their homes. Families handled the funeral arrangements; washing the body, building the coffin, preparing the grave site. Lying-in-state and wakes were arranged by close friends, and children were present along with everyone else throughout the dying process.

Death was not a phenomenon swept under the rug and ignored, but a phenomenon that was seen as a rite of passage.

At the turn of the century, death was commonplace in Britain as many died of incurable diseases, while few reached old age. However, with the advancement of the health care field, patients soon became protected against the defeat of death. Medical professionals took over the family’s role of caring for the dying and altered the way people died, soon spawning the culture of death-denial.

It was during this time of medical improvements that postponing death became the heroic intervention led by the use of advanced technologies and doctors, who in turn would soon become viewed as divine harbingers of good fortune. Death grew to be seen as treatable, because if it wasn’t, it would be considered a defeat.

Fitness centres, alternative medicines, diets and luxury medical health spas have now become the Fountain of Youth used to delay death. But as death grew to be seen as a curable disease, the focus drifted away from the quality of one’s death to that of preventing death by any means possible. This in turn led to the patient no longer being able to set the scene of their own death.

What it means to set the scene or envision one’s own death before death is the ability to open one’s own conscious awareness and view oneself as a mortal being. It allows that individual to be influenced by the natural rhythms of life and death, including the understanding that neither loved ones nor oneself are destined to live forever.

Perhaps the most infamous person involved in this kind of rationale is one Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who began her multidisciplinary seminars on the care of the dying patient during the mid-60s. It was during this time that Kubler-Ross proved that with unconditional love and a more enlightened attitude, dying can be a peaceful, if not transformative experience.

It was Kubler-Ross’ belief that as a culture, we lived in a death-denying society where we isolated and institutionalized the dying and the elderly because they reminded us of our own mortality. Because of this belief, Kubler-Ross soon became a strong advocate for the hospice care movement pioneered by Cicely Saunders, who attempted to address the inadequacies and difficulties encountered by patients, relatives and staff caring for the terminally ill.

In 1967, the world’s first purpose-built hospice was established. Founded on the principles of combining teaching and clinical research, expert pain and symptom relief with holistic care to meet the physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs of its patients and those of their family and friends, St. Christopher’s Hospice took a step toward changing the negative effects of the hushed reverence normally associated with death.

However, as Mary Catharine O’Connor, author of The Art of Dying Well once wrote, “We live in a death-defying society. We fight and resist death; we hurry through our mourning and rush to get back to normal.” And in modern society, normal is not dying, a discovery Kubler-Ross noted when medical health professionals identified a patient as dying, would withdraw from the bedside because they were unable to cope with the process of death themselves, let alone support the patient in their final moments.

As the palliative care lead for the Central East Local Health Integration Network, Kristen Schmidt-Chamberlain suggested in the 2011article A Death Denying Society: Why Aren’t More Ontarians Using Palliative Care? “One essential piece that is often missing is a person who can provide psychosocial support – such as a social worker or chaplain. This person can take the time to sit with the patient and their caregivers and talk to them, listen to their fears and remind them that what they are going through is a normal part of life. Without this, the experience of the patient and the health of the family are compromised.”

This now begs the question as to which individual can provide the kind of psychosocial support that Schmidt-Chamberlain proposed. This is where a particular new brand of skilled and trained practitioners will arise in the years to come. While they are few in numbers, this particular profession is as old as ancient human civilization, and for the last decade has only seen a steady growth in its resurgence – it is the movement of the death midwife and as the baby boomers continue to reach their golden age, the demand of death midwives will only increase.


Photo credit: squishband / / CC BY-NC-SA


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