A Good Death

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts around the theme of Death to our blog. Here, Angela Eden shares hers.

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© Photo Richard Helmer, Courtesy Maja Helmer, 1985.

Writing about Death in this digital age is different now than in the last few years. Then we had limited access to the business of dying and then only with our closest friends or family. Now, an endless stream of photos from around the world show us death and the dying. Invading our conscious world, we see barely covered corpses, limbs distorted, blurred outlines and human forms and ‘remains’. Death is everywhere and nowhere, in another place but not here.

I wrote this poem thirty years ago, after witnessing an excruciating death in a hospital. Full of mechanics and little time or culture for emotional care. Despite some experienced and skilful nursing we were left, bereft.

A death
Death’s a dirty business
At the worst of times
And this death took its time
While we waited
Wanting to be there
Wanting out

I had imagined dying
Peaceful, unblemished
Full of quiet moments
Gentle descent into sleep

This was full of rage
Full of disbelief
Eyes bewildered confused
Questioning the mess of it

Finally overstressed
A face stretched
A silent scream
Anger charging the body rigid
Till his heart broke

We the ones left
Fell into each other
Grateful for release
For him, too much too long
Enough

Thank god there is no god
That planned this
Disaster called
A blessed relief

I now hold that rage
That anger
That all our science
Had nothing for him
Only our hands and eyes
Buffering the violence
Of the cruelty of death

The poem is part of my experience of a ‘bad’ death which makes me think about how we defend ourselves from the experience of dying, and the fear of being part of that moment.

Apart from our intimate relationships we mostly experience death of the ‘other’ as it happens in other places, defended from that pain by distance. In our current multi-media world we can see grief held in a mother’s posture and so we can mourn for her, but not for ourselves .

It makes me reflect on a notion of the time when were we more intimate with death and dying. I assume there were fewer hospitals, no ambulances, or carefully muted wards; only practical deeds and words. Death was present, as integral to the family, and unavoidable,.

Our Unconscious builds a necessary defense to block the imagined pain, and helps us turn a blind eye to death. We are unwilling to let things die, and refuse to let death be alive in our conscious world.

Some of this can be raced to our reverence, a vestigial class reverence, for the medical industry. The professional training takes years to master the complexity of the subject, the level of detail and accuracy. The recognition of that skill and experience allows us to build an unconscious deification.

They are the ones that face death on our behalf. They cut out bits of our bodies, inject us with drugs anaesthetise us, and offer solutions to our body pain. No wonder we choose to respect their role and their power.

Only recently have we heard about the stress of the job. How the long hours and increasing budget restrictions increase illness and suicide, theirs and ours. Now we understand that they too are as frail as us. We are all defended against the reality of our own fragility.

Something in our current and defended western culture has lost a respect and a reverence for age. The really elderly are tucked away, sheltered by care into invisibility as we/they drift towards death.

As I write in October 2015, there is a flurry of news as UK is reported as having the best palliative care. It makes me re-think my perspective on how we face death, and rush to websites to re-examine my position.

“Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”  (World Health Organization)

Have we now delegated this conversation about a good death to a specialised group of professionals? The ordinary-ness of death has been cloaked into invisibility. Maybe even disguised by a white coat.

So how then can we ask what is a ‘good’ death and develop a culture that talks of death before it arrives. We need to build a practice that includes the ability to talk about and face the truth about the future?

I wonder if the defense is not against dying but mourning. The ‘best’ deaths are with people who find a way to make the transition, in full consciousness and with awareness. Dying slowly after a full life, without regrets, is the hoped for way to go. Dying – unexpectedly, young, accidentally, or in pain – is dreaded most by those who are left.

So what is the place for analytic forensic work? I hope that preparing for death is part of understanding our personal history of death and mourning. I hope that by digging into and past our defenses any future death will be contained. There is, I believe, an intimacy in being close to death and a consciousness of ending that can be full of living.

– Angela Eden

Angela Eden works as an organisation consultant using psychoanalytic ideas to inform her work with individuals, teams and organisations. She uses a relational model of work in a wide variety of sectors including health and social care. Her original training as an English and Drama teacher, led to community and economic development. She studied at LSE, the Tavistock Centre, the Institute of Group Analysis and is a Board member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations (ISPSO). She also uses writing and art as part of creative practice.

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