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Issue 258
January/February 2010
Liberty

Reviews

Do Not Be Afraid
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Cover: Common Starling flock, Dumfries, Scotland. Photograph: Paul Hobson/FLPA

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Do Not Be Afraid

Sophie Poklewski Koziell finds another world opening. The Art of Dying, Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick. Continuum, 2008. ISBN 9780826499233. Gentle Dying: The Simple Guide to Achieving a Peaceful Death, Felicity Warner.Hay House, 2008. ISBN 9781848500051.

Our culture has analysed and dissected childbirth. We know its processes and its phases. We know the outcome. There are numerous books and classes that help prepare for the birth of a new being. This doesn’t mean that it always goes smoothly or as one expects, but at least there is a sense that we embrace the experience. With the end of our lives it’s quite a different matter. Death is still mostly a taboo subject for the living to discuss and, of course, the dead can never reveal anything about the mysterious and final event of their lives. Meanwhile, in the medical arena, where death is commonplace, the focus is on keeping the patient alive – fighting death until the last minute with technology and drugs. Thus, death can be seen as a failure rather than a natural conclusion.

That is why The Art of Dying is all-important, timely and compelling reading. The authors have a long-term interest in this area: Peter Fenwick is a neurophyschiatrist and Britain’s leading clinical authority on near-death experiences; Elizabeth Fenwick has written widely on health and family issues. Together they tackle death from all angles and on all levels, with a very steady head and analytical scientific approach, but with their minds wide open. Thus, accounts of tunnels of light, wisps of smoke, a gust of air, and death-bed coincidences are examined carefully and honestly. The tone is not one of whispered magical mystery, however: the contrast between an extraordinary incident being recounted in a very matter-of-fact manner just serves to heighten the impact of the story. In short, there is a lot of spine-tingling.

This widespread gathering of information gives the book its strength. The accounts were not taken from people with an interest in the psychic, or occult, or from people who already believe in an afterlife. These were ‘ordinary’ people who had had experiences they couldn’t logically explain, and as a result had mainly kept these occurrences private for many years. Being given the opportunity to discuss them and, more importantly, realising that others have experienced similar inexplicable happenings, opened the floodgates. Strangely this taboo of discussing death and its processes even extends to those working close to the dying. The authors conducted studies with hospice and nursing-home carers and palliative care teams and found that there was an underlying feeling that these strange events did happen, but weren’t discussed.

So what are these mysterious happenings? There are deathbed visions where the dying ‘see’ dead friends or relatives coming to collect them. Sometimes those around them also ‘see’ these apparitions, which points to the fact that they aren’t drug-induced hallucinations or merely by-products of a dying brain. The dying might also experience a beautiful light, or a tunnel of light.

There are accounts of ‘deathbed coincidences’ reported by someone emotionally close to a dying person, of an awareness of that person’s imminent death, even though they may be some distance from them and not even aware they were ill. There are also reports from relatives and carers of something leaving the body at the moment of death. Some people describe a shape or form, others a brilliant light, or a wisp of smoke. These phenomena are often associated with love, light, compassion and purity.

The universal effect of all of these happenings is to leave the dying person calm, unafraid and even joyful, and, for the relatives, a dissolution of the fear of their own death, and a great reassurance that their loved one is at peace.

The first two-thirds of this book is taken up describing these various phenomena, using the many accounts sent to the authors by the public. This is quite a repetitive process, but fascinating in the striking similarity between a diverse collection of stories. Perhaps a little more editing would have helped the reader, but, with so many astonishing and moving accounts, it is easy to forgive the authors. Then, just when you wonder where all of this is leading, you reach a powerful seam of stories: the crux of the book, where the historic, cultural and religious concepts of ‘soul’ and the nature of consciousness are discussed.

Suddenly, the whole book and its findings draw together and rise up into a hugely powerful wave that seems sure to rearrange our worldview and our current scientific paradigm. This is the exciting part, where the experiences of death meet spirituality, transcendental philosophy and theories of consciousness. In brief, most religious traditions and ancient cultures have a notion of soul, and the belief that “something – whether we call it soul, or consciousness, or essence – survives the death of the body”. So how do our current theories of consciousness lie with this idea, and do they help in describing the various phenomena of near-death experiences?

This is where we hit a brick wall, because the majority of the science of consciousness is still tied up with a mechanical, Newtonian worldview, which is inadequate when dealing with subjective, conscious experience. However, there is interesting research in the field of quantum physics which suggests that the universe is highly interconnected and that particles interact with each other at a distance. This opens a realm of possibilities, which include telepathy, healing and even the strange mechanical phenomena described by many at time of death such as clocks stopping, alarms ringing, and other electrical malfunctions.

Meanwhile, dying continues around us, and our own immortality is definite. So how does this book help with the practical and spiritual aspects of ‘dying a good death’? Well, it addresses the issues such as choosing a place to die, aspects of terminal care, and the importance of reconciliation, as well as offering advice for carers. However, this all comes at the tail end of the book, after its energy has been spent. Luckily, there is a wonderful book, Gentle Dying, by Felicity Warner, which takes your hand and leads you in depth through the dying process – especially from a carer’s perspective. The subtitle is ‘The Simple Guide to Achieving a Peaceful Death’, and the book seems to deliver this promise in full. Warner has much experience to draw from as she is Founder of the Hospice of the Heart, a charity that promotes a holistic, compassionate and de-medicalised approach to end-of-life care.

It is an easy book to glide through, with a large font size and plenty of white space – literally, breathing space. It is obviously sensitively designed for those already dealing with their imminent death, or that of a loved one. It is calm and reassuring, practical and supporting, but happily devoid of meaningless platitudes. In fact, the advice it gives is almost elementary. But that is the point: it covers areas that are deep in our cultural and spiritual ancestory but are absent from today’s dying environment. Areas such as the power and effectiveness of touch, the human voice, music and smell in comforting the dying. Many of these ideas one might not instinctively reach for in the midst of losing a loved one, so it is very helpful to have them at hand. The detailed discussion of the stages of dying, and what to expect, is fascinating. The Art of Dying also indicates that death – like birth – is a process, with many stages and psychological and physical manifestations. Gentle Dying takes this further with the authority gained from the author’s presence at many deaths.

We are left with the feeling that death is an unfinished business. Unfinished in terms of research and understanding, and unfinished because all the subjective evidence points to death being part of a journey – not the end of the line. Perhaps it is a just a question of waiting until our theories of consciousness catch up with our subjective experiences. So my advice after the privilege of reading these two books is do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to talk about dying. Do not be afraid of dying. Death is not the end, and this is not the end of the discussion of death.

Sophie Poklewski Koziell is an Associate Editor of Resurgence.

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