Tasks for a person who is dying

Facing Death and Finding Hope - A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying by Christine Longacre (published by Century, 1997, ISBN 0 71 267757 7). Reviewed by Nicholas Albery.

Christine Longacre took up working at a hospice and studying the Tibetan approach to living and dying, as a result of the death of her husband from leukaemia at the age of 26, which left her with their four-year-old son. Those who train as volunteers with the Natural Death Centre's Befriending Network benefit from the insights and exercises described in this new book. Josefine Speyer, who helps run the Befriending Network trainings, has used Christine Longacre's work to develop the following themes that a person with a terminal illness might want to contemplate.


Four 'tasks' for a person who is dying

These are rudimentary notes towards thinking about four possible 'tasks' or important life issues for a person with a terminal illness:

'What was this life all about? What did I learn in my life?'

(1) The need to find meaning in life.

Life review. What was this life all about? What did I learn in my life? What did I do with it? What did I give to others and what did I receive from others? Did I live according to my beliefs and priorities? What are my priorities now?

(2) The need to heal relationships, to deal with unfinished business, make a deep connection and let go.

Acknowledging difficulties, joy, love, resentment, anger, good and bad, etc, aiming for forgiveness. Forgiveness and compassion towards self and others. Working through and sharing grief, reaching and sharing joy. Opening up to the present. Living in the moment. Settling practical affairs, making a will, etc.

(3) The need to understand the meaning of suffering and have a means to transcend the unavoidable suffering of dying.

A lot of the pain we experience is of psychological origin. What are you learning from this crisis? Can you see anything positive in this? Has this crisis become an opportunity for you (to let go of status, job, roles, hopes, etc)? Have you through this experience been able to make a deeper connection to life? Do you have a means to alleviate anxiety? Do you use meditation or prayer to help you in this process of letting go, of your body, of your life as it has been, etc?

(4) The need to understand what death is and to prepare for it in the best way possible.

What do you believe death is ? What do you believe happens at death? Do you have a spiritual belief and what is it? How can I or others help and support you in this? Prepare for death and let go. Make a living will, prepare a death plan and a funeral plan.


A visualisation exercise for unfinished business

Josefine Speyer finds that the following visualisation exercise for 'unfinished business' from Christine Longacre's book seems to be particularly helpful:

First sit quietly and find in your heart the willingness to communicate your problem one last time and let go of it. Also establish your willingness to really feel heard and to listen to and hear the other person's perspective on this problem.

Now visualise the person with whom you have unfinished business. Imagine this person is sitting in front of you looking exactly the way you remember her; but now with one very important difference: consider that she is more open and receptive than ever before, and this person can really hear everything you have to say.

Reflect on what has been the main difficulty for you, without rekindling the emotions attached to it. Imagine that you are now telling this problem to the person in front of you, remembering that she is very receptive and genuinely able to hear you. Once again reflect and see if you have any other unexpressed problems, and imagine telling them to the other person.

Next, take a pen and paper and write down what you have just considered saying. Write out the problem, as responsibly as possible, without attacking or defending. Remember that you are speaking to the other person's open heart and that she is receptive and can truly hear you.

'Visualise allowing the other person to express her side of the problem'

Now, visualise allowing the other person to express her side of the problem. Just begin writing and see what happens. Since you have been speaking to her 'best side' and your feelings have been heard, her response probably won't be what you expect. Next, write down any other problems - old angers, regrets, attachments, or fears - you may have had with the person. Again, allow her to respond to you with her perspective.

Continue writing both parts of this dialogue and expressing all the layers of your difficulties with the other person, until you feel you are no longer harbouring anything negative in your heart. If the other person had previously hurt you, see if you can now extend forgiveness to her. If you realise that you have hurt the other person, ask her forgiveness. You might reflect that the best part of the other person would understand your regret, and would not hesitate to extend her forgiveness to you. Allow yourself to receive the healing love of this forgiveness, and let go of any feelings of guilt or self-condemnation.

Finally, look into your heart once again and see if there is any appreciation and love for the other person - any positive feelings which you have been holding back. Communicate your love in writing, and, thanking the other person, say good-bye. You can even envision the person turning and leaving. As she leaves, ask yourself truthfully: Are you really letting go now and wishing her well?

- The Spiritual Care Education and Training Programme, with seminars by Christine Longacre and others, is co-ordinated from: Rigpa, 330 Caledonian Road, London N1 1BB (tel 0171 609 7010).
- The Befriending Network provides experiential workshops (from one half day to a series of days or weekends) anywhere in the UK, adapted to the particular needs of nurses, hospice and Crossroads workers or others who work with those who have a terminal illness. Contact Josefine Speyer, the Befriending Network, 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA, UK (tel 020 8830 8157; fax 0181 452 6434; e-mail: mailto:%20jspeyer@connectfree.co.uk; web: http://www.befriending.net/).

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