A good death - an old idea that we all need to talk about

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Head of Community Engagement Warren Finney discusses the importance of a good death.

The Roman Catholic Church recently launched a new website, The Art of Dying Well, which explores a number of issues related to death and dying, focusing primarily on the concept of a good death. The website was picked up by the Guardian, BBC Radio and other media outlets – something which was good to see, but it was almost as if dying well was a new concept.

The notion of a good death isn’t a new one (the original Art of Dying is a Catholic Latin manuscript dating back to the 15th Century), but in modern society if feels like it’s lost its way. Though not entirely - I’m pleased to say that hospices across the UK and around the world are doing their best to champion the idea of a good death and to ensure a good death for all the people they support.

A good death can take an unlimited number of forms and is clearly personal to each and every one of us. Key elements of a good death might include the ability to plan for what you want and to get others to accept what this is, whilst recognising that this plan might change as death comes closer. This last part is very important because none of us have experience of dying ourselves, so the ideas of what we want might very well change. This is something we often witness at Prospect Hospice.

Alongside this is the ability to talk openly when you need to and having the choice to say ‘not now’ when you don’t want to. No one wants to feel like there’s an elephant in the room, so getting rid of the social stigma around death can be really important for someone who is actually dying.

No one wants to be in pain, or see their loved ones in pain, so the ability to manage pain is crucial. Managing pain and dying in the location of your choosing – often, but not always, in your own home – are often paramount to people at the end of their lives. Your choice of place to die might change closer to your death, so we need people and services to be flexible too.

Many of the issues that support a good death will only happen if we, as a community, break down the barriers and social taboos when it comes to talking about death and dying. Getting the support you want from your loved ones, friends, people in your neighbourhood and colleagues at work is often really important but will only happen if everyone feels comfortable in talking about death and dying.

At Prospect Hospice we recently held our first Death Café, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many people, from all walks of life in the local community, came together to share their views and personal experiences of death and dying. People were open, honest and supportive in what they wanted to say. I’m sure, for many of those who came, this would have been the first step in having an open, public conversation about death and dying. Many who went said how valuable an experience it had been for them.

At Prospect Hospice we’re also trying to help local organisations break down these barriers in the workplace, using something called the Dying Well Community Charter. We and a number of local partners are working with employers in Swindon and across Wiltshire to encourage more support, understanding and dialogue in the workplace to improve the experience of local people who have a life-limiting illness, who are carers, or who are recently bereaved.

It’s great that the Catholic Church has taken a proactive approach to raising the profile of talking about and planning for our death.  I applaud them and all organisations that take a visible role in this.

To those organisations that aren’t there yet, I have a plea: get in touch with your local hospice. They are likely to welcome your approach and be keen to support you in creating an open dialogue in the workplace and to help you support your employees to have a better experience of dying.

From my time working at a hospice, I have learned that the death of a loved one doesn’t always have to be the grim experience some people think it will inevitably be. Yes, losing a loved one is incredibly difficult for many reasons, but often the conversations and sharing of memories before and after the death can be filled with much love and happiness. However, these things will only happen if we’re open to having that conversation about what people want in the first place and are willing to help them explore what a good death means to them.