Every day I’m involved with people who are receiving end of life care, some of them talk about the issues they are facing and some don’t. I’ve always thought it crucial that in order to be receptive to other people talking about their “stuff” I have an understanding of my stuff and how I got to where I am. I don’t force the deep, existential discussion on people but I don’t shy away from it when it comes up and I don’t change the subject to something safe and socially acceptable like the weather or Brexit.
The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, in talking about people who work in EOL care, asked the question, “what is it about these people that they can do this work?”
I don’t think there’s anything special about me in wanting to work with people who are dying, there are lots of fields of work I couldn’t work in and would at best shy away from and at worst run a mile from. My route into this work has not been direct and deliberate and whilst I’ve worked in social care for the majority of my working life I only “discovered” palliative care a few years ago during my work in a residential service. Throughout my career I’ve veered towards working with the groups of people who are marginalised or whose situations challenge people leaving them feeling uncomfortable, currently, in our society, the dying tend to fall into this group and there is something about the outsider or perhaps our social pariah’s that draws me in.
It would be hard to fully articulate how I feel about working with people who are dying but I have a sense of my being driven by compassion, and a sense of unity with people, a sense of the commonality of the experience of death, its one we will all go through but many of us live in a state of denial or avoidance about our own impending deaths.
In some ways I’m a spiritual person have a spiritual belief but not one which adheres to an organised religious structure. My spiritual beliefs often provide reassurance when I am faced with challenges and serve to underpin some of my day to day living, these beliefs interact with my political views about equality and social justice and drive my day to day interactions in my work but Im not a moral crusader, nor am I from the “smells and bells” school of spirituality, not that I think theres anything wrong with that but its not my bag. I think Im fairly average and run of the mill.
Some of my beliefs about life and death have been shaped by my having read Buddhist and Hindu texts and read texts on wider spirituality as part of my own journey in trying to answer the big questions of “why am I here?” or “what’s it all about?”. I can try to process this belief through “thinking” but this belief system resonates with me somewhere else within my being, it’s not a thing I can fully articulate, it is a thing I “know” in a deeper and more core aspect of who I am. This might be the part of me described as my soul, it’s the part my friend calls my “knower”.
When I am reduced to my most basic “being” I am energy and I believe I came from and will return to energy. There is no reward and punishment system and no afterlife in the sense of that described by more mainstream religions and so I approach my work and the people I encounter from this position. I don’t want to say this is my calling because that word has too many connotations which don’t resonate with me, I just feel right about this work and I go about it mostly in a quiet way.
Like everyone I have experienced loss and grief. My dad died when I was 14 years old, his death was sudden and accidental and not what would be described as a “good death”. My dad was young when he died and within weeks of his death my grandfather died. The two men who dominated our world were gone within in a short period of time. There seemed to be a sense of acceptance about my grandfathers death, he was in his 70s and died peacefully in his sleep one new years eve and my mother was devastated. My grandmother wore black for a year to externalise her mourning but my father was never spoken of. In hindsight I understand that they weren’t equipped to deal with both deaths and so poured their grief into the loss which was palatable to the rest of the world. The death of a 35 year old man with four young children makes people uncomfortable, the death of a 75 year old man reflects the order of things and people are comfortable with it. There are no implored “whys” about my grandfathers death. There was no fear or confusion about his death, my grandfather had a “good death”, my father didn’t.
My experiences of death, loss and grief have undoubtedly shaped my perspective and my work. My experiences of not talking about death and not fully grieving have possibly created in me a desire to be open about death and about the emotional experiences of the process of life but I don’t have a sense of trying to redress the imbalance or fix myself through my work. Daily in my work I talk about death and I am mindful of the fact that this isn’t readily transferrable to my personal life, many of those around me don’t want to talk about death whether mine, their own or in general and so I try to be sensitive to the feelings of others. I still grieve when people I’m working with die, some cases touch me deeply and I still experience shock and distress at the news of some deaths despite the fact that they were fully expected. I don’t claim to be any better equipped to deal with deaths in my personal life as a result of my work and I don’t have a “how to” guide on dealing with dying and death but I am happy to hear you talk about it without shifting the subject to the weather or the football.