‘Death is psychologically as important as birth. Shrinking away from it is unhealthy and abnormal, which robs the second half of life of its purpose,’ C.G. Jung
Facing mortality and planning for the end of our own lives, whatever our age, is a vital foundation for working with patients and clients who suddenly experience major bereavement, receive diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, are caring for a dying partner or child, or who are themselves dying. Death isn’t always part of old age. It can arrive unexpectedly.
As psychotherapists it is vital we address these issues. Psychotherapy trainings focus on early attachment patterns and childhood experiences, how these shape our outlook on life and affect our relationships. These patterns also affect how we deal with endings and with dying, but there is much more to dying and facing death which therapists need to be aware of. By preparing for our own death, emotionally and practically, we develop the necessary emotional depth and knowledge needed to work with people during the later stages of life and facing death.
This is particularly important in light of the pandemic, the climate and economic crisis, and the war in Europe. It is unlikely that we will ever return to what we formerly considered normal life. A huge number of people have died in the pandemic and not all died of Covid. Even more have been bereaved. Many suffered multiple bereavements, unable to be with their dying loved ones or to attend funerals, all during a time of lockdown and isolation. Daily news reports told of rising numbers of deaths and a struggling health service. For people in the UK and western societies, when loved ones die outside of the home, hospices, hospitals or care homes and death is not very visible. The pandemic has been an unprecedented and traumatic time of more loss and a greater awareness of the fragility of life.
‘Death is the invisible presence in the psychotherapy room. When psychotherapy works, old patterns have to die, it is a dissolution of that which is familiar, it leads us to a new kind of consciousness and a deeper connection with ourselves, with life. This grieving process can be a homecoming that heals our broken bonds with nature, which we are very much part of, with our ancestors and the community,’ Robert Romanyshyn, Jungian therapist.
We are so used to death not being part of normal conversation that we forget to question why this should be so. If we considered death seriously, both personally and collectively, the cultural effects could be transformational. It might help us embrace the changes we need to make in response to the climate crisis. We might become a kinder and more compassionate society. Death is a great teacher. It can teach us to accept our vulnerability, our dependence on each other.
In 1991 my husband Nicholas Albery and I launched the Natural Death Centre (NDC), an educational charity. We recognised the need for somewhere to consider death before becoming ill, dying or a carer. We chose the name to resonate with ‘natural birth’: a natural process one needs to prepare for, to consider choices and to work with professionals rather than handing over to them. We were psychotherapists and no experts in the field. Following public interest, we soon became experts in environmentally friendly, family-organised, low-cost funerals and natural burials. The NDC has a helpline. The Natural Death Handbook, which you can find online, covers preparation for dying, practical care at home and funeral planning. This book is my primary recommendation for inspiration and practical advice. Other resources are listed below.
Start conversations about death. Attend a death café or set one up yourself. Learn about the physical dying process. Get your legal and practical affairs in order. Compassion in Dying provides useful forms and guidance which are helpful in this process. The Natural Death Centre website offers information on funerals. Discuss with those close to you how you wish to be cared for when you are dying and what kind of funeral you want. Make a will. You can update this as time goes by. Doing this won’t hasten your death, and it will make death more real.
Embracing death as part of your everyday awareness helps you to appreciate what is good in your life and where to focus your energies. Most people want to die at peace with how they have lived, what they leave behind and what they think happens after death, or not. Considering death may also bring a greater sense of spirituality.
Given ‘permission’, most people want to talk about death to share their experiences, ideas and fears. Such intimate conversations can reveal regrets, a painful past, wounds needing healing. To live meaningfully, it is important to seek this healing so that, one day, you can die with fewer regrets and greater ease. You will also be a better therapist who does not flinch from a patient or client who is dealing with death. You will be able to stay by their side, offering the best care possible within the constraints of your professional role. You will be a professional with heart, an understanding fellow human being and skilful companion at this difficult time.
All these books are available online and you may find them as helpful resources as you connect more with death:
Becvar, D. (2001) In the Presence of Grief: Helping Family Members Resolve Death, Dying, and Bereavement Issues, Guilford Publications
Callanan, M. and Kelley, P. (1992) Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying; Bantam Books New York
De Hennezel, M. (1998) Intimate Death: How the Dying Teach Us to Live; Sphere
LaGrand, L. (1999) Messages and Miracles: Extraordinary Experiences of the Bereaved; Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul Minnesota, USA
LeShan, L. (1989) Cancer as a Turning Point; Gateway Books Bath
Sanders, M. A. (2007) Nearing Death Awareness; Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia
Wienrich, S & Speyer, J. (2003) The Natural Death Handbook; Rider
Natural Death Handbook (2012)