Father Jonathan Rowe doesn’t like to say he’s seen death, because of the morbid, grim reaper image that it conjures. There was one time, though, when he remembers definitely being aware of death’s presence.
Rowe had been called to the death bed of a parishioner; a gentleman he didn’t really know too well, who had been ill for a while and was intent on dying at home. Rowe had been sitting with the man and his family in his bedroom for some time, and eventually decided to leave and take a quick supper. By the time he returned, the man had died.
“If I ever was to say that I was aware of death as almost a tangible presence in a room, it was that time,” Rowe said. “There was something in that room beforehand that was an oppressive presence, but immediately after, there was peace and a calm. It was powerful, that one time when death was definitely a release; when death stopped being a harsh, oppressive, cruel thing and became calm and much more sympathetic.
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Rowe, as curate at the Anglican Cathedral in St. John’s, does much more than comfort families facing a loss, of course. But he’s seen his fair share of funerals, once presiding over five of them in a span of two weeks.
His role in the face of death has always been clear to him.
“I have always worked on the assumption that I’m more there to listen than I am to talk,” he said. “I’lI answer questions if it comes to that. I have always understood that my role in dealing with folks who are dying is to be there, to be a calm person who is there to listen, who’s there to pray with them as they like. I will take my lead from them, rather than push my own way into their grieving process.”
When someone is dying, a non-anxious presence is one of the things their loved ones need most, Rowe believes; someone who is empathetic but removed from the close connection of the family, and who can be calm. Clergy, nurses and funeral directors all fit the bill, he said.
Giving loved ones the space and opportunity to share their story is, in fact, the single most important approach to helping them overcome their grief, said Dr. Rick Singleton, regional director of pastoral care and ethics with Eastern Health. A former Roman Catholic priest, Singleton oversees the delivery of pastoral services and spiritual care within the local health-care system, as well as ethics services (including education, policy development and the resolution of moral dilemmas among healthcare workers). A significant part of his job includes grief and bereavement support and counselling.
“To me, of all the things that are done and all the things that anyone can do, the most powerful and more effective intervention is allowing someone to openly and honestly tell their story,” Singleton said. “The only way you can get past a strong feeling, particularly a strong negative feeling, is to put it into words. For most people, the most effective thing is allowing them to have a conversation where they can easily and gently and gracefully and at their own pace talk about anger. The story eventually moves on from being a story about the facts to focusing on the feelings, to starting to focus on the future.
“It’s in the future that we start to find new meaning for things. In fact, that’s what hope is about, isn’t it? Hope is about focusing on the future.”
Many people struck by grief — which Singleton defines as “a bewildering cluster of emotions” — come into Singleton’s office, having not had the opportunity to work through their feelings. The first thing he does is ask them how they’re feeling; he’ll often get “I don’t know how I am” or a simple shrug in response. It’s normal, he said, and the result of so many emotions being processed at once.
The “Five Stages of Grief” we often hear about are part of a theory developed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. Kubler-Ross, through her speciality, working with the terminally ill, hypothesized that grieving people go through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Singleton said this is true, though there’s plenty of room for variation.
“Grief isn’t a very rigid process that everyone goes through, but at the same time, there’s a typical process that the vast majority of people will go through when something abnormal happens to them and that’s the grieving process,” he explained. The process is similar in cases of death, divorce, job loss, and other significant losses, he added. “When it’s all said and done, you can give a checklist to the majority of people and they’ll say, ‘Yep, I remember feeling that way, I remember feeling that way.’ Sometimes it’s helpful to be able to verify that just about everybody feels that way.”
Through grants from Eastern Health, Singleton has put together a resource kit to help people in the community start bereavement groups, providing an opportunity for those experiencing typical grief to meet others in their situation, share their stories and receive support in an environment that feels safe to them. A number of groups have been established and are going strong, he said.
Neither Singleton nor Rowe feel their chosen career has lead them down a path that can be depressing or draining, even when surrounded by death on a regular basis. The perspective they take has a lot to do with it: they both feel the service and care they provide to others who are going through one of the most difficult times of their life is something that encourages them.
“There’s never a day that passes or a client that I spend time with that I don’t come away enriched,” Singleton said. “Being able to facilitate people to make connections that can offer some sense of hope and some reason to go on after tragedy is very exciting and very fulfilling.”