Last rites and plain talking

I live my life as a Humanist and get my spiritual highs from nature, loving relationships and the joy of being human, with all our frailties. I don’t feel any loss as a result of not having a religious practice.

That is, until recently, when I came across something for the first time that I thought I’d like to adapt and bring into my life. The practice of Last Rites.

Signalling the end

I overheard someone say, ‘they’re going to give her the last rites’ and suddenly thought what an amazing gift that might be to the family and friends who are sitting vigil with someone who is dying.

Just hearing that phrase ‘give the Last rites’ sounds like a clear signal that death is close. It gives family and friends the chance to assemble or avoid, depending on their preference. It means folks can say goodbyes, prepare themselves. It’s the best chance for folk to get the closure they want.

When confusion reigns

Without that signal, it’s a much more confused landscape.

Last month we had a family death. The person who had provided the most care and attention to her mum wasn’t with her when she died. She’d visited earlier that day and hadn’t suspected things were as dire as they turned out to be. She’d gone home to prepare a birthday tea. And just as the birthday girl rang the doorbell, the care home manager rang the phone to tell the two their mother had died.

It was gutting for the siblings not to be there; to miss the moment. No-one wants to live with the thought that they might have been absent just when they were most needed.

We talked about it later with the care home staff. We wanted to explore how that scenario could have played out differently, not as a criticism but in the spirit of doing death better.

Framing a tricky conversation

“We can’t be 100% sure of what’s going to happen, but if we suspect that death is near, do you want us to share that with you or not? Sometimes we get it wrong. We often get it right.

“Are there words that you’d prefer we use or avoid? We could say ‘we don’t think your mum has long’ or ‘we think your mum might die soon’. Would that be useful?

“Whatever time of day it is, if you want to stay by her side, you can. We can be there with you too if you want. And if, when it comes to it, you decide you don’t want to be there, that’s absolutely fine; one of us will sit with your mum.”

That sort of plain language with a bit of permission-giving would go a long way to guide and support family and friends at a stressful time.

Any ideas?

Do you have experiences or ideas to share about how to do death better? Please share.

Help others at end of life

  • Find out more about the growing national network of end of life companions – death doulas and soul midwives.
  • If you’re interested in growing your own skills and knowledge about supporting others at the end of life, find out more about death doula training with Living Well Dying Well. Our friends at the Humanist charity, A Quiet Revolution, are supporting LWDW to bring end of life planning training to Scotland for the first time in February.