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Coming to terms with death

Humanist pastoral carer Monica Watt writes about how humanists deal with the end of life
‘I find that people who have thought through what’s important in their lives from a non-religious perspective are not afraid of dying. They may be afraid of the pain that is involved or the details of the operations that they are going through, but not death itself. They are much more concerned with how they live their lives even though their remaining life period may be quite short.’
David Savage, Chair of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (2016-2018)

Monica Watt

I trained to become a non-religious pastoral carer with Humanists UK over three years ago. As a volunteer at a local hospice, I visit in-patients and their families on a weekly basis.

Pastoral support at the end of life can provide an opportunity for patients to talk, express concerns and fears, and confidentially discuss feelings that may otherwise upset family and friends. Throughout the course of the conversation, a pastoral carer might become aware of a patient’s wishes and beliefs, and if required, direct the patient to specialist advice. The patient may, for example, need help planning a funeral.

In my experience, the presence of a pastoral carer provides comfort and companionship. Shared beliefs offer an opportunity to discuss emotions and anxieties felt at the end of life. I have become very aware, however, that there appears to be only a small window of opportunity to support an end-of-life patient and that this opportunity may only occur once. This is not only because death may be imminent, but that other issues take priority. For example, a patient might be receiving medical treatment, have demands from family and friends, or be transferred to a hospital, home, or a care home. As a pastoral carer, I have learnt to value and appreciate any time, however limited, spent with a patient.

Family and friends also benefit from pastoral care when their loved one is very ill or close to death. It affords an opportunity to express concerns and fears, without upsetting the patient. They share memories and positive experiences and explore beliefs, especially if they differ from the patient’s. Some choose to discuss the future after their loved one has died.

In my experience, non-religious people tend to accept death and the causes of death. There is, of course, grief when a loved one will die in the near future. However, both patients and relatives will try to fill their lives with new life experiences to create special memories, or patients may try to ensure that family members are aware of important occasions in their past. There can be jokes and laughter as they remember amusing episodes in their lives. I have experienced many joyous occasions; listening to wonderful memories, viewing treasured photographs, and sharing positive life experiences.

In response to those who say ‘surely the non-religious can feel no hope, only despair, at the end of life’. I would say that death comes to all and, although a non-religious person may not have the expectation of life after death, they can get contentment from the here and now by sharing time and experiences with loved ones.

Humanism has made me aware that, though I do not believe in a god to determine the way I should lead my life, I do believe in a fair, caring, and moral society. This has motivated me, in retirement, to make a contribution by helping others. I feel that by visiting the hospice regularly, I am able to empathise and relate to others and provide support and comfort to patients, their friends, and families. In this way, I have been able to contribute to a caring local community.

Question: How might a humanist approach to life support people at the end of their lives or support people coming to terms with the impending loss of a loved one?

© Humanists UK
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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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