Frontlines with Nigel Leaney

Death is one of the few facts of life. But social care practitioners are more acquainted with it than most. Not just in the care of older people but also in mental health care and learning difficulties there is a higher-than-average mortality rate.

Holding a dying person’s hand, talking to them, the last tasks of personal care: whatever we can do to make the process a little easier, we do. But all the while our empathy means facing our own greatest challenge. And the greatest mystery of life.

In our secular society fewer people than ever have a religion that may ease the passage. From time to time I do a bit of spiritual shopping and wander down various aisles of belief about what may happen when I die. Yet in the end it’s unknowable. All we have is each other.

Wet-shaving a man dying of cancer there were just two of us in his room. I took my time. He ran his palm over his face and announced: “That’s the best shave I’ve ever had.” We looked at each other’s reflections in the mirror and smiled. It wasn’t much but it was the best I could do. The morphine did the rest.

We live in a society embarrassed by death. It is shunned, not talked about unless you wear the badge of a religious faith. To talk about death is seen as morbid.

Our culture, as dictated by the media, obsesses on the right lifestyle, the best way to live. Oasis sang exuberantly that they were going to live for ever and we bought the album in shedloads.

Yet immortality would be the curse of the unlived. Paradoxically there is no life without death. You cannot learn to live well unless you know how to die well. Death is the backing on the mirror that allows us to see ourselves.

Dying is an art. And the art of life and the art of death are indivisible.

Social care must be holistic. It is up to all those around the person facing death to help develop and share the art of dying. After all, it’s going to be useful again – one day.

Art is what we have to express our suffering, our love and our joy. It is what makes us human and is, perhaps, our greatest achievement. Perhaps it is also that missing link. A precious connection to prepare ourselves and others for that final journey.

Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service

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