The attractions this time of the year in Sydney are numerous. The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes are being shown at the Art Gallery of NSW, the Sydney Film Festival is in full swing and VIVID is brightening our skies during this incredibly cold start to winter.
While I am a massive supporter of the arts and like to keep abreast of the contemporary scene, I was also drawn to Sydney due a presentation from the Vivid Ideas Exchange, titled Dying Well.
It might seem strange for this article to be placed in a week that is focused on the World Meeting of Families, but we all know that the bodily presence of all living beings on this earth will inevitably cease. What is important is that a person’s spirit is kept alive, so memories are not lost.
The attraction for attending this presentation has come from several months of encountering stories about death, dying and how the human person manages those situations.
Several weeks ago, I was privileged to have participated in volunteer companion training through a Sydney Catholic Care, Living Well, Dying Well. It brought to light the need to start a conversation to remove the stigma around, and normalise death and dying as a natural part of the cycle of life.
This was further highlighted at the recent Dying to Know Day held on Sunday 8 June at James Murray Funerals. Dying to Know Day is an annual campaign that empowers Australians at all stages of life to live and die well. The Grounds Swell Project encourage Australians to ‘get death set’ on end-of-life death and dying. Part of this day included a tour of James Murray Funeral; it came to light how parishes and the church in general are not called on as they were in the past to organise funeral services. Death and dying have become a business with services including death doulas and eulogy specialists who can customise your loved one’s life in a 30-minute speech with a 24 hour turn around.
Our western culture simply avoids conversations about death and dying and one thing that stood out to me at the Dying to Know Day was, make sure conversations are had before loved ones are gone. This will ensure they have the send off that they want, not one that the remaining family want.
Reflecting on Vivid Ideas Exchange presentation Dying Well, I recall a conversation that I have recently had with a much-loved parishioner, Margaret. It was several months ago now that I visited the sprightly 93 year old, who is always elegantly dressed and has a cheeky sense of humour.
Margaret has always had a deep faith and now days when she leaves the house, she always illuminates her sacred space with a battery-operated candle and prays for her safe return home. Believing in the power of communication through prayer Margaret says to God, ‘You are old, make sure you turn up your hearing aids so you can hear me.’
Margaret invited me to her home to speak to me about several events which occurred years ago at times in her life when she was alone, or that is what she thought. Having lost her dear husband Harold 38 years ago she was left to care for her mother-in-law and brother-in-law who lived next door. Trouble brewed after they both died, and the house was sold to a man who caused Margaret much distress. On different occasions Margaret prayed for support and to her surprise an image of her mother-in-law fell to the ground. At the time Margaret approached her parish priest about this and he told her, that she was being looked after and listened to.
When Margaret’s brother-in-law died after a long battle with a stroke, she dreamt of him standing outside the family home. He looked radiant and well and not long after that a plant began growing in the exact place. When I speak to Margaret about these occurrences, she has said in a humorous way she is being haunted or is being trained to haunt.
Much of what Margaret spoke to me about was in forefront of my mind at the Dying Well presentation. Hosted by Emmy award-winning VR filmmaker and artist Lynette Wallworth with guests Dr Chris Kerr who is the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Executive Officer at Hospice and Palliative Care Buffalo, NY. His book Death is but a Dream describes his astounding research into the dreams of dying patients.
There was much discussion around making meaning of death and dying and how in different cultures this has always been such a normal practice and an entry to the next chapter. The connection was in regard to the living and dead and how at the end-of-life people often have experiences and dreams when they can see loved ones that have gone to the other side. Kerr’s research reveals that our loved ones are closer than what we think. Those that we physically don’t see are not gone for good, but watch over us.
There is a lost culture of the walking dead, angels and those who have crossed to the other side. It gives us comfort to know that death is not the end but rather an entry point to join the communion of saints.