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The Four Last Things:Death – Tom Lusty

At a Lent lunch a few years ago I was given the remit “Jesus, anguished and forsaken”.  When the publicity came out, however, the flyer read “Revd Tom Lusty, Chaplain at Wheatfields Hospice: Anguished and forsaken”.  The thing about death is that it can be seen as so much anguish and forsakenness and something that one would rather avoid if at all possible, rather like a few of the other last things.

Given that I’ve spent the last five years inhabiting a hospice on a more or less daily basis I now know that death isn’t all that bad.  It can sometimes be protracted and exhausting for all concerned.  Even in such circumstances, however, a good death is possible.  With a good death there is a tangible sense of completeness, of dying with integrity.

To be honest I did not spend a great deal of time talking about heaven and hell or indeed judgment, beyond speaking with the nurses for some of whom heaven was their favourite euphemism for death: “Gladys has gone to heaven now – God help them all up there”.  I did speak about death, however, and the opportunities that came my way to speak about my Christian faith (when invited to do so) were considerable.

I remember reading what Norman Autton, the founding father of healthcare chaplaincy, had written on the matter of preparing for a good death.  The advice has dated now.  Hospice chaplains are currently a very small group of healthcare professionals with a unique specialism.  Within our tiny world we have developed a repertoire of material that hopefully enables people to prepare spiritually for their own dying.

The three resources that have been most helpful in preparing me for this task of hospice chaplain are Mud and Stars, which gave me the theology, Tom Gordon’s A Need for Living which gave me the metaphors, and John O’Donohue’s Benedictus which gave me everything else – when there is nothing else you can do, you can always bless.  That is a powerful thing to be left with.  If you can bless sublimely, even better.

Dying is not about so much anguish and forsakenness.  A good death is a movement towards integration, from “dislocation to relocation, disorientation to re-orientation, disintegration to re-integration” as Mud and Stars puts it – part of a wider crucifixion/resurrection dynamic, and one where we are always on the look out for resurrection.

The above photo is from the cover of another book by Tom Gordon entitled New Journeys Now Begin.  It depicts the access path to north beach on the Island of Iona, and the inscription reads “No bikes beyond this point”.  For each of us there will come a point where we have to relinquish the bicycle to go on the next stage of the journey.  Getting off the bike can be painful because we get used to cycling everywhere.  The more in life we can put the bicycle down and enjoy the view, the better prepared we will be for that moment in life when we will each have to say goodbye to the bike.

As a group of Sue Ryder hospice chaplains we adopted a mnemonic devised by one of our number, Linda Elliott, as a helpful way into conversations about dying.  The HEALER model goes like this:

H is for Hope (and / or Peace) – what lifts people’s spirits and enables people to be at peace?

E is for Exploring Feelings – encouraging people to articulate their feelings.

A is for Adjustment to Loss – exploring how people cope, how significant loss is transcended.

L is for Looking back – doing a Life review – also asking if there is anything left unresolved?

E and the R stand for Existential and Religious issues.

Some people can be terrified about death for reasons that go beyond the physical process of dying – we put that under “Existential”.  Religion comes last of all.  I think that is healthy: it says that not all our needs are religious ones.  We may choose to express our grounds for hope (indeed all of the above) in religious terms, but for no one is this exclusively so.  We sometimes leave off the E and the R where these do not apply and are left with the more Franciscan “HEAL” model.

Elliott’s mnemonic provides us with a helpful way in to a conversation about dying: six different prompts for starting a dialogue.  The prompts are not to be tackled exhaustively in chronological order – more as a way of focussing on some of the ways in which the conversation might go.

I would contend that this mnemonic is a helpful exercise for us all in the season of Advent when we reflect on our own mortality.  In doing so we will be more open to engage with others who may be starting out on the process of the end of life’s journey.  When someone asks “What hymns are you having for your funeral?” the response “Goodness, I have never thought of that” may not be adequate.  An open response will always be better when it comes to talking about dying, at that point when you are given the cue to ‘go for it’.

In any model of spiritual preparation for dying you can’t really leave out the letting go …and the leaping.  John O’Donohue describes the daily handing over of one’s life as the act of awakening and surrender.  The possibility of this daily practising of such a hand over, however we may choose to do it, of our lives into the life of God may well be what makes us most Christlike.

Each morning we awaken to the light…

each night we surrender to the dark…

Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life;

between them the journey where anything can happen.

(John O’Donohue, Anam Cara)

 References

Mud and Stars: The Report of a Working Party on the impact of Hospice Experience on the Church’s Ministry of Healing (Sobell Publications, 1991)

A Need for Living: Signposts on the Journey of Life and Beyond, Tom Gordon (Wild Goose Publications, 2001)

Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, John O’Donohue (Transworld Publications, 2007)

The HEAL(ER) mnemonic was devised by Revd Linda Elliott, formerly chaplain at Thorpe Hall Hospice in Peterborough.  f

Revd Tom Lusty

Revd Tom Lusty

Revd Tom Lusty is Priest in Charge at St Chad’s Church, Far Headingley, in Leeds.  He also ministers at the nearby Wheatfields Hospice.