Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(1) February 2017
The Art of Dying Well
A Website, Launched on 1 Nov 2016
by The Catholic Bishops of
England and Wales
Oh that we all had the attitude to dying well that the mother and her seven sons had in the Second Book of Maccabees (First Reading for Sunday Week 32 Year C, 2 Mac 7:1-2 and 9-14). The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have recently launched a website “The Art of Dying Well” (artofdyingwell.org) which will help many Catholics, and hopefully many others seeking help, towards such an undaunted attitude when facing this perennially difficult subject.
We who are, as we could say, fortunate enough and well enough to be in a position to write reviews on such a topic are very likely NOT to be speaking from any first hand experience (yet), and can only offer a critique from what would seem to us at the moment to be the right way to approach dying if we were in the hot seat ourselves (and with a mind to the fact that the hot seat is unavoidable unless we are blessed with an instantly sudden death – even then our affairs should be in order and so the site is most relevant to the seemingly healthy as well as those facing death), and so any such critique is likely to be a limited one. However I hope this review will be as fair and as positive as possible.
“The Art of Dying Well” is (to me) a mammoth website (rather like a week’s course on dying with extra seminars popping up here and there when you think you have covered all the ground!) whose title is taken from the Ars Moriendi, a XV Century text written within the historical context of the Black Death, and was launched by the CBCEW on All Saints Day (the month of November traditionally associated with praying for the dead). It is extremely well constructed with major headings for the main sections: “What is dying well,” “Talking about death,” “Facing death personally,” “Losing a loved one,” and “Caring for the dying.” Within each main section are further headings with a host of short videos (all of which are a maximum of about 2 minutes) and texts with good references and footnotes. There is even an animation with the voice of Vanessa Redgrave (who has now revised her previously liberal thoughts on euthanasia) featuring a fictional family preparing for a peaceful death. It did take me a few visits to realise that the title / home page is also a heading opening a section that opens the main sections as well, although not quite in the same order. In fact I managed to get lost several times before I finally got the hang of things. It is wise to jot down the section or subsection that invokes particular interest in order to track it down again – just browsing can give you a feeling you are in a maze as it is tempting to open subsections that theoretically belong under another major heading! This is a reflection on its size and comprehensiveness and my own limitations rather than on its design. The final section “About this site” is excellent and explains why the CBCEW devised and commissioned “The Art of Dying Well.”
Overall the nitty-gritty of dying is dealt with in an honest, straightforward and sensitive way throughout, moving between standard help available for all in the secular field and that which many might like to explore in the Catholic Christian field. There are possibly a few little hiccups if you are looking for them, such as the mention of the option of “scattering of ashes” (which the Vatican and Pope Francis certainly now do not support, but there is a mention of a patient who spent much of his life on the ocean and wanted his ashes committed to it which can’t help but make some sense) and the erroneous notion that painkillers might hasten death (which is a hard nut to crack). The accumulated wisdom of several eminent Catholic thinkers, some of whom like Fr Timothy Radcliffe have been face to face with the diagnosis of very unpleasant cancers without any guarantee of a successful (in medical terms) outcome, is like pure balm anointing and soothing a subject which has become intensely troubled in Western secular society. “Uncertainty” about the future frequently accompanies a diagnosis of “Cancer”. This is very often bypassed or ignored by many doctors. We are encouraged to be increasingly honest with patients and end up giving a stack of data full of percentages and probabilities, which sometimes only leaves the poor patient muddled and uncertain. Fr Timothy Radcliffe found “Uncertainty” a steep mountain to climb, but later the uncertainty led to a particular kind of peace. Certainly the Seven Brothers in Maccabees had no uncertainty as to what they were facing! Elizabeth Wang, a Catholic artist and writer grappling her pancreatic tumour, explains what a relief it was to be given a definitive diagnosis and to know just where she stood. The achievement of the art of dying well can only begin when it is realised that every person and every patient is different and has needs completely particular to them.
There are many practical suggestions for those who feel they need help from the site such as writing blogs and exchanging thoughts on the social media, and carefully preparing questions to ask the doctors. However the site is not just aimed at those suffering but for those caring for them and even (as I intimated above) for those who are healthy to focus their thoughts on such an important subject.
Assorted highlights for me of the site include an interview with Dr Kathryn Mannix, a palliative care consultant, who describes the lifting of mood and the regaining of enjoyment by patients in the last weeks of life when they had expected to be miserable until they died. Sr. Anne Donockley from Boarbank Hall says that as a sufferer one can always be useful, even if inactive, as one can always listen to others, and listening is a rare commodity these days. Mr Adrian Forsey, a funeral director makes the thought of contacting “The undertakers,” something to be almost looked forward to! Dr Liz Toy from Exeter reminds us of the terribly important entity of “Spiritual Pain” which exacerbates ordinary physical and has to be gently brought to the surface. It can be very deeply rooted in soul sadness, often in the fear of death itself. Sr. Elizabeth Farmer who acted as a consultant for the site describes an ex-mountaineering atheist she helped in the very final stage of her life who when finally admitted to hospital where she died a few hours later announced that she was “about to do the most difficult climb of my life but at the top I am going to see the most wonderful sunrise!” Perhaps in our religious way we sometimes fail to get the language right! Sr. Elizabeth is multilingual when it comes to speaking about death.
I was delighted to find that among the great array of contributors to the almost tangible wisdom on the site were Adrian Treloar and Jim McManus. Adrian spoke of his professional experiences and Jim his personal ones. Much of this excellent accumulated wisdom will go a long way to all visitors to the site to restore that healthy balance, lost to our society, between death as the ultimate conversational taboo and the nonsensical fetish displayed over ghouls and ghosts in the retail and entertainment industries.
St Robert Bellarmine SJ writing on the same subject said that “he who lives well will die well.” In the section “Talking about Death” St John Fisher is mentioned as saying the same. Mercifully, however, we reminded too of the thief who was crucified next to Jesus who presumably had lived not so well but died very well. Hopefully it is never too late to die well. For the observing Catholic it would seem that if we live with the realisation that God is so near us that He is part of us (and part of everything), and come to understand from our life experiences (rather than just the theoretical side of “having Faith”) that He, in love, is always with us and one step ahead in preparing new ground for us to walk on (as King David recognised almost 3,000 years ago when he talked of God leading him “by still waters and restoring his soul” - Psalm 23 JB, as almost everyone attending funerals sings), then we soon come to the same place as Julian of Norwich who in the XIV Century wrote “All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Revelations of Divine Love). Timothy Radcliffe is quoted as saying “The best way to prepare for eternal life after death is to enjoy it now, for eternal life has begun, and it bubbles up every time that we love and live and forgive.”
From a personal perspective, I found it quite amazing, that, having thoroughly explored the site, I found that I was subconsciously taking note of the advice given from those dying and their advisers. I find myself treasuring much more each moment of life (like Jonathan Riley-Smith explains he did in his long illness) listening to bird song, looking deeply at autumn colours, even rejoicing in a helicopter flying low overhead and more so when our spaniel ran after it thinking it was a mechanical pheasant. This wake up call for me to my surroundings, thanks to this website, was, as another patient who had survived a Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma said, like a “reset button being pressed” on my life. Fr Neil McNicholas quoted from his book, “A Catholic Approach to Dying,” says, “The thought that each day you awaken could be the last you have, could sound very depressing, but it doesn’t need to be that way.” The playwright Dennis Potter, dying of Cancer, talked of the “Nowness” that evades us so often in our preoccupations, and allowed him to appreciate the “blossomiest blossom that there ever could be” under his window. I pray that my reset button has done the job for me for a good while, and hope that all others who visit “The Art of Dying” website (artofdying.org) will be similarly affected and remember “Memento Mori.” What a shame that every CMA member hasn’t been asked to critically write a review of it and explore it in depth, but at least they can visit it.
Former GP and President of the CMA.