Last week The Beloved went to an end-of-life workshop with Stephen Jenkinson. This being so far ahead of the curve that wikipedia reports The page "Stephen Jenkinson" does not exist. Because you can be sure that wikipedia and the rest of the world will hear about this man soon. Why? Because we in The West are ignoring the one thing which all life shares - that it ends. Jenkinson uses the phrase death-phobic which is clunky and awkward - much as we all are in approaching the subject: either as Principal or in a supporting role. Before the workshop, there was a showing of Griefwalker, a documentary about Jenkinson's work which doesn't feature on IMDB [cue Twilight Zone theme], although you can watch the whole 70 minutes of at the Canadian National Film Board.
Jenkinson looks like a Native North American, but that's mostly the braids and the buckskin shirts and a predilection for canoes; he spent many more years than was good for him at the helm of Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital palliative care unit. There he saw hundreds and hundreds of people over The Threshold and learned from the multiplicity of these experiences that pretty much everyone has the same fears; although they articulate a rather different set of anxieties. One of the triumphs of late 20th century medicine was to do away with pain-in-death; if the agony gets too much then you ask the palliative care people to crank up the opiates. This, with one leap, frees most people from their spoken fears. But when we come to the abyss, present but not hurtin', another terror is in our eyes. Fear of the unknown and a huge anxiety that we will be forgotten by those we hold closest to our hearts. If you want a more direct view of Jenkinson's message you can hear his address to the American Palliative Care Association The Skill of Brokenheartedness: Euthanasia, Palliative Care and Power. He left Toronto and his day job several years ago and now lives on a small-holding on the edge of the wilderness running workshops and consulting in the business and process of dying. His Home Page.
St Augustine of Hippo famously wrote "da mihi castitatem et continentiam sed noli modo" - O God give me chastity . . . but not yet! Now, intellectual-me has sorted the end-of-life issues with my advanced health care directive. When the time comes, the hard-headed by kindly Dau.II will have the pillow ready. This is tosh because of the purple passage: when the time comes . . . we'll all be asking to extend the contract a little more. Fit young people often say that when they can't wipe their own bottom that's when it will be time to go. But when that comes to pass we realise that there's much much more to life than obsessing about incontinence and not smelling of anything except after-shave. Leaky people can still kiss their grand-children.
The film Griefwalker was made in 2008 by Tim Wilson, a long-time friend of Stephen Jenkinson's. He made the film because both he and later his infant son had spent critical time in ICU fluttering between worlds and Jenkinson had been present for him. Wilson has been there . . . and back but still he finds it hard to understand what his friend "the angel of death" is saying. It's a foreign language and you need to listen really carefully as the words are spoken really slowly and the meaning will still run through your grasping fingers like water. "if you have to get the news of your death from somebody else, how firmly in your life are you?" and "you don't look like someone who's been given his life back". Maybe you have to sit at a thousand death-beds to begin to understand? For most of us the first time we do this we will be the star but the audience will be effectively absent.