What does dying ask of us? Notes from a friend’s death bed, and the words of Stephen Jenkinson
My friend had been under hospice care for weeks, in and out of consciousness for days. “I don’t know what my dying will look like,” he told an out-of-state caller as I held the phone by his pillow. “Maybe Holly knows.”
I was shocked, and dismayed. This beloved man was 20 years my elder. I had hoped to learn something about dying from him.
We know so little about endings, in the perpetually young, endless frontier culture of the West. The time that might be devoted to befriending the end of one’s days is so often expended on the hope agenda, on “not giving up”.
And so it was with my friend, still hoping for a reprieve, that the dying he was in the midst of was unrecognizable to him.
After the phone call, when he’d been pulled under in the arms of Sister Morphine and then resurfaced into lucidity, I made a gentle inquiry. “You know how you told your caller that you didn’t know what your dying would look like? Is that something you see happening in the future? Or is that something that’s maybe happening now?”
“Oh!” he said, with a tone of wonder. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe that’s what’s happening now.”
Despite the wide-eyed relief in his response and the careful mildness of my question, I felt like I’d delivered a walloping blow. I’d violated the hope conspiracy to which everyone around him had silently agreed. Making his dying recognizable: it carried the mighty weight of the heaviest of taboos.
Of the four deaths in my inner circle in two years time, all under hospice care, every one came as a surprise to many closest to the dying person. “It happened so fast. It happened so fast,” was the disbelieving refrain surrounding the death of two. Another who, like the friend described here, had lain dying for many weeks, gripped my hand less than 12 hours from her last exhale, and made me promise I would “be there for the long haul.”
“The question is not,” Stephen Jenkinson says, “What does dying do to you? The question is, What does it ask of you?”
In an interview earlier this year, Jenkinson offer this response: “Dying asks of you, the willingness to learn endings.” He uses the word befriend deliberately. “I do not mean domesticate. I mean befriend.
“When I say befriend death what I mean is, our obligation is to know death well, to be useful when it comes, to craft a language wherein your dying can recognize itself and is not groping for some kind of foothold.”
How might we develop the capacity to learn death well?
“You had a chance, in the fullness of your days, to practice,” Jenkinson says. “You could have practiced, with all the dying of all the people who died before you. But the only way you could have done it, is to attend to them – a kind of unvanquished alertness to the endings around you.”
In this time of “death positivity” and an exponentially exploding array of providers and programs devoted to “conscious dying,” our awareness is often directed inwards, to making peace with our own emotions, or to exercises to help you to fashion “my life, my death, my way.”
But as Jenkinson cautions in another recent interview, “The lion’s share of dying is not this internal, contemplative reality. The lion’s share of dying is a social and mediated proposition. That’s where the meaning of it actually arises. In other words, not only is your dying not your own, but its very meaning… is a consequence of the family and ultimately the social order in which it is occurring.”
Treating dying as an exercise in self-expression, Jenkinson says, has everything to do with the loneliness of our times.
“The hardest lesson for a North American to learn is that all the big deals of life, not one of them is personal. The more personal you get with these signal features of life, the more banal and constrained and throttled they are – and the less kinship you are able to deeply enjoy with fellow human beings and the made world around you…. It’s in the nature of endings of all kinds that they are the midwives of a human kinship with everything in the world that is other than human.”
When my dying-not-dying friend said that maybe I would know what his (future) death would look like, he could have been referencing the fact that despite my younger years, I’d made choices that had placed me at the bedsides of more dying people than he had. Or that I’d taken some courses. And had hung a shingle out encouraging such conversations.
But in answering the call to learn death as a mystery, as a wolf that won’t be domesticated into a poodle, I’ve found myself less certain, not more.
“It is in the nature of mystery that the more you learn about it, the more mysterious it becomes,” Jenkinson says. “What do we do in the face of this? And the answer is, take a knee. Find some humility. And know dying to be the god that it is.”
With thanks to Stephen Jenkinson and the Orphan Wisdom School, to which I’ve travelled for four years now. I highly recommend Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul (especially the audio version), and Stephen’s new audio recording, Nights of Grief and Mystery, with fellow troubadour Gregory Hoskins.