On Caring and Grieving for the Dying and the Dead
On Wednesday at 5:40PM, I prepared to attend Food for Thought, as usual. Only this time, I travelled from the kitchen to the living room, to attend Collegium’s first virtual Food for Thought seminar. The first part of the seminar was a casual check-in. We discussed our current feelings of helplessness, our coping mechanisms, and our concerns about the long term impact of COVID-19 on society. Dr. Lydia Dugdale, who led the seminar, shared her thoughts on how restricted public gatherings affected funeral services. I had not previously considered how current services being put on hold, or held online, would affect the in-person grieving process.
Dr. Dugdale drew parallels between COVID-19 and the Bubonic plague, which struck Europe and Asia in the mid 1300s, killing at least a third of the population. Due to the magnitude of death during this period, few people in general, let alone the clergy, remained to bury the dead, and so bodies were hastily thrown into mass graves. Years later, this shortage of clergy to attend to the death contributed to the creation of Ars moriendi (the Art of Dying), religious texts which offered advice on how to “die well.” According to this text, a dying person was instructed to accept death, while avoiding temptations such as impatience. In turn, their loved ones were instructed to offer consolation through the promise of redemption, say appropriate prayers for the dying man, and ease him into the next life. As seen, this practice meant that death was a community experience.
Ars moriendi and its notion that a goal of one’s life should be to practice and try and master the art of dying, has been largely abandoned with the secularization of society and the advancement of modern medicine. In today’s society, the contemplation and process of death has become something largely hidden from view. As one symptom of this, Dr. Dugdae notes in an interview with Rebecca Quiñones, “[o]ver the years more and more people have died in hospitals removed from family and friends and from society’s view.” This trend, as Dr. Dugdale notes, is deeply concerning because when we don’t think about death as a pressing issue, we struggle to cope with death as we are dying. The significance of tending to the dying can be further seen in MacFarquhar’s article, ‘A Tender Hand in the Presence of Death,’ which follows Heather Meyerend, a hospice nurse. What is most significant about her work is not the medical care she administers, but rather, the connection she has with her patients, through a hug, a prayer, or a conversation. This personal connection, as Dr. Dugdale stresses, is largely absent from the practise of dying today.
How then, can we usher in a new Ars moriendi for the 21st century? Dugdale believes that the healthcare system’s metric of success should consider the quality of life lived in addition to the prolongment of life. Furthermore, hospitals can do more to integrate a person’s spiritual beliefs and practises into the care of patients, to ensure a peaceful passage into death. On a more personal level, we should recognise the value in death being an intimate and vulnerable one shared between an individual and their loved ones. However, even before that moment, we need to be having those conversations about death, life, and meaning, so that when death does come, our passage is a much more peaceful one. This might sound like a lot of work, but we argued that it should be. It is, after all, your final performance.
You can soon find more of Sophie’s reflections on the Art of Dying Well, along with that of other peers, on the soon to launch Collegium Student Blog.