I was asked to write an article about death from a Heathen perspective. There is rather a lot written about the esoteric nature of death, about the soul, our conception of mortality in heathenry, and much of it has been done by far more skilled authors and priests than myself. I have little to contribute in those discussions beyond recommending the words of some others that I have found useful and worthy.
What I needed and did not find when it was my time to first deal with this particular aspect of priest craft, was the knowledge of how to counsel a Heathen who is dying. There are most likely experts out there who have done this dozens of times. Any who are reading this and either disagree with me, or have the ability to take it both further and deeper, please do so. I would have benefitted at the beginning with even as little information as I can provide you now. Such as I have learned, I will share. Those heretofore silent experts may feel free to do their duty as well and provide better information, but what I have earned, I will share with you now.
The misconceptions that I had about dealing with the dying are legion. Most of my experience hands on had been with traumatic deaths, casualties whose time to appreciate what was happening to them was either short on non-existent. End of life care is a much different experience, and far more difficult than I was prepared for because it was decidedly non-linear.
What I mean by non-linear is simply this, in a traumatic injury situation, a person who perceives that their injuries are quite likely going to kill them undergoes a spectrum of responses as they struggle to deal with this realization. The spectrum from denial to acceptance, defiance to ignorance, fear to fatalism is expressed, but generally only in one direction of change. This is not the case in end of life care at all.
Heathen world view puts a great deal of emphasis on struggle, on meeting your challenges, on fighting. To this date, most of my experience has been with men, and most of them military in background, so this particular predilection to view life as a struggle or battle has implications that bleed into all aspects of the death counselling process.
Fear is a strange beast in the slow onset of death. Fear is not as constant and unchanging as I had expected, rather it is a slippery shapeshifter that is always in the room, but not always in the same form, and not always as a foe.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote in her seminal On Death and Dying (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/781844.On_Death_and_Dying) about the five stages of dying. I am going to reiterate what she points out, because people generally tune it out, and then make avoidable and costly mistakes because of that. These are not linear stages. You or the person you are working with may or may not pass through all of them, if they do it will be in any sequence, and there is a great possibility ( a probability in my experience) that you will pass through some of the stages repeatedly, and with differing results.
Kubler-Ross defines the stages as denial, anger, bargaining, anticipatory grief and acceptance. Presented in this order it makes a tidy map and implies that your job is to help a person transition through these stages from one end to the other and great the final passage out of life with quiet acceptance and dignity. This may happen, but this is not actually a map, nor a plan. These stages may or may not occur in this order, will frequently repeat, and will be experienced quite differently as your person passes through changes in both their physical state, and mental capacity. I will not lie to you, if the death proceeds long enough, where the physical state supplies a maximum of pain, and the mental capacity is degraded far enough, the gains that had been made towards acceptance will be lost as the capacity to understand and accept is stripped away by the very process of dying.
Let us have a look at the phases, and how they relate to our own theology, world view, and tool set. We are not given faith, the gods don’t actually come out and tell us what awaits us when our thread is cut, so we don’t have a whole lot of promises to give save this one;
Cattle die, kinsmen die
You too will die
One thing alone will not die
The fame of a good persons deeds
As far as emotional anchors go in the storm that attends the death of a human being who is aware of the oncoming end, this is a powerful tool not only for the care giver but for the one cared for.
Denial is the first stage described, but you will see some form of denial recur again and again. It is not your job to crush their hope, what it is your job to do if asked to provide end of life care and support is to focus that hope on what they may still win, what may still be done. Denial first comes as denial of the disease state that is the proximal cause of their death, whatever it may be. This is the idea that the doctors made a mistake, and, as previously experienced, this is something they may survive. As heathens we understand that it is within us to survive every battle, every foe, except our wyrd. Against everything but our wyrd we can will, battle or cheat our way to victory. We have literally lived our entire lives amassing a body of evidence that proves we cannot be killed, that everything can be survived, and after all, we can only be proved wrong once. When you are facing your wyrd, the lifetime of experience surviving anything makes it easy to seek a reason that this is simply another in a long line of challenges you have surmounted, and one you can beat. Understanding that it is their wyrd is hard, and requires support. You do not shove this thought down their throat, you are not there to fight them over hope, but you are there to help them to find real targets for their hopes, real matters they may struggle towards. You cannot promise them life, what you can do is work with them to define victory conditions for them that include death, but on their own terms.
Along with denial that the doctors have identified the threat, comes frequently the “miracle” clause, where by the person who is facing death will cling to anecdotal stories of miracle cures or misdiagnoses to open the phantom of a second door at the end of the road they are facing, one that leads miraculously to health, rather than the grave. The emotional need for hope is one that is real, and your job is not to take hope away, but to guide them towards pinning their hopes on those things that are still possible, and focusing on those victory conditions; the set of conditions by which their control of their own passage out of life constitutes a win, an outcome of their finals struggle they can claim with pride.
The second stage described is anger. In my experience (which I will be the first to admit is with a unique class of individuals to whom anger is as much a part as breathing), anger, hope and acceptance are three blades of the propeller driving them forward each day. All three are present in some form at all times, with one dominant, one rising, and one falling. Sometimes you get a steady predictable cycle, but as the physical and mental state changes, the sequence can reverse many times.
Anger is important. Anger is a power source. Anger is to be cherished and cared for at the guttering flame of life, but as with any flame, directed properly it lights and warms, and directed poorly it scars and destroys. Anger will be at the world, the doctors, the gods, YOU. Remember, as the care giver or counsellor you are proximal and knowable, where as science, the medical system, the disease, fate, the gods are all far away, impersonal, uncaring, or inaccessible. You are not. You may expect to be the target of this anger many times.
Anger is not the enemy of acceptance, nor does it need to be the force that powers denial. Anger is the natural result of the understanding, both of the current physical state, and the emotional acceptance of the end state (death) which is approaching. Anger is the defender of life, you cannot flee from the sorts of death we deal with in this context, so that leaves only fight in the “fight or flight” mammalian tool box, and anger is the fuel and armory of the fight response. Your role in this stage is to support anger that is not directed against people, but against their physical state and approaching end. Anger at what is happening to them is valid. Anger at what awaits them, and at the fear/despair they feel welling inside is also valid. Be very careful not to be dismissive of feelings of the person you are caring for, it is neither just, nor helpful.
Bargaining is an interesting stage with Heathens. We do not have within our world view a great deal of evidence for an afterlife. There is conflicting information in the surviving lore about rebirth, not a lot of support for a general afterlife beyond Hel or the mound that accepts all of our dead, unless you happen to fall rather spectacularly in battle, which would put you outside the scope of our care at the end of life. We do have an understanding that this world is it, we share it; both the living and the dead. We understand that death can only take breath and pain from us, it can still our flesh, but it cannot touch our deeds or our words. Death has remarkably little power for a heathen, as it cannot undo what you have done in life, cannot take from all of those you have affected that which you gave them in life. Death is the period at the end of a sentence, the silence at the end of the song, but itself contributes nothing but the marking of the end of the passage. Bargaining is the most important stage for us as care givers and counsellors. This is where we look at the tafl board and define our victory conditions.
Life and Tafl are similar to chess in that there are two very clear opposing forces, and very different from chess in that both sides do not seek the same objective. In chess, both sides seek to capture each other’s king. If we were to look at end of life care in this model, both sides would be seeking to win by either taking the life, or preserving it. Clearly chess is not a useful model here as all you can do is lose. Tafl is a different game, and a much more interesting one for end of life care. In Tafl, one group seeks to take the king, the other to get the king free of the board. This is a useful model to use at end of life care, as both sides have different victory conditions. Death is a given. Losing is not.
Victory conditions can be defined by the person who is dying, and can be terribly important. One last birthday, to die in your own bed, to simply not give up, to fight to the end, to see a grandchild or any other milestone can be used to define their victory condition; the achievement of which will constitute their victory over death. We have to die, we do not have to lose. Very real victory conditions are to see that your loved ones are looked after when you pass, to see that family legacies are passed on, to see that responsibilities are taken up by others that your death is not “letting others down”. Death is very real, and so is victory. Death has one universal definition, but victory does not. You can work with your people to find their victory, and work to help them achieve it. This is the single most Heathen friendly stage of dying, and where our world view provides very real and measurable benefits. Get your person to establish meaningful victory conditions and help them to work towards them until death finally takes them.
Anticipatory Grief is hard, very hard. This is part of the acceptance, for as much as denial/anger/bargaining are a cycle, so too is anticipatory grief and acceptance.
Anticipatory grief is not something that will occur only once, it is something that will hit them again and again as they accept the inevitability and imminence of their own death. To accept these things is to accept the loss of everyone and everything they love. The emotional impact of this, the loss of all they love, is terrifying, and the courage to face this in no way lessens the pain. Here your job is really important, and potentially costly. You are there to witness their grief, to be with them while they grieve, to accept they will never hold their loved ones again, that they will never walk out onto the balcony and watch the sunrise again, never pass the horn at Yule, or hear their grandchild tell of their first goal or last report card. This is real, true, and not to be dismissed and trivialized. This is not for you to offer perspective or try to get them to see the positives. This is for them to feel, and you to be with them through.
This is hard. This hurts. This is frequently uglier than the fear or anger.
Acceptance is the last stage of dying, and because we like to think of this as being the state with which the people in our care face the end. We cannot know. Accept this, and try to limit the lies you tell yourself, as you limit the lies you tell those you care for.
As the physical and mental state deteriorates, the anticipatory grief/acceptance cycle may run several times, and with results that vary widely and terrifyingly. It is really important as caregivers and counsellors that we do not judge; as a person’s capacity diminishes, their ability to understand what is happening diminishes as well, and what was previously placed into context and accepted can be again strange and terrifying.
Acceptance when seen has a terrible and compelling beauty to it. I can understand why we have a goddess Hel, and why she bears for us two faces. In the early stages of dying we see the dark face of Hel, the blue-bloat terror face of death’s ugly reality. When your person passes from anticipatory grief into acceptance, you can see the physical letting go of tension, not the crushing of defeat, but the loss of fear. This is the bright face of the goddess, this is the merciful face. This is the release from pain, the release from fear. Hel is the goddess of the unbroken promise; the end of all pain and struggle, freedom from every bond. Acceptance is those times when the dying see the fair face of Hel, not the dark. Both faces are equally true and present, but the moment when the dying see the fair face of Hel is one of power and presence if you witness it.
These are not stages you pass through in order, necessarily. They may occupy minutes or weeks, depending on the person and time. They are exhausting for both you and the person you are aiding through the journey. This is their journey, you are present to assist, but in the end, they make the final steps alone, and it is ours to make sure this constitutes no defeat for them, but a victory they can claim before their ancestors, and that their decedents may face openly.
On corpses. They are no longer people. It is a strange thing to stand beside what was once a person known to you, and know without a shadow of a doubt that they are gone. What is left is smaller, somehow. Lessened in some non-material fashion even as materially it undergoes changes you need to be prepared for. The pallor and rigor are natural and not to be feared, they are not the “coming of death” but what is left behind when life has passed. Death is not a thing, life is a thing. Death is the awareness that a necessary part of the person is no longer there. The disturbing awareness that something is “not right” about a body is visceral and natural, as we see the physical shape that should contain life, but no longer does and on some level the cues that tell us this cause us to react.
I have known a lot of corpses, and they don’t bother me, but others have very deep issues with the bodies of the newly dead. There is no judgment attached to which reaction is yours, but be aware that the fact you have been working with this person on their end of life does not actually prepare you for your own reactions sitting next to a corpse that once housed one of your own. You must give yourself the freedom to react as a person, not as your idealized view of what a caregiver “should be”. You can get used to anything, but some things are a lot less fun to acclimatize to.
It may seem like you are making no progress at all. It may seem like you are actually “going backwards” as the physical and mental abilities decline and the stage that they are expressing moves back from the level they had achieved previously. As I said earlier, and as Kubler-Ross points out, these are not neat linear stages you pass through in order ending with dignified death, but a list of stages you may find your person experiencing some or all of, frequently cycling through repeatedly.
The last thing you have to accept is that if you are capable of this duty, you have the ability that successful soldiers do of “put it in a box, deal with it later”. This is a good skill, this is only a skill and not an immunity. You will need to allow yourself once the duty is done time to process. If you are doing this duty often, you will have to take responsibility for caring for yourself, and being aware of when the load of what you have not processed is beginning to impact your ability to function. You are no good to anyone if you break under a load you could have let someone else take up. Take the time needed to process, death is not something we were raised to accept as part of life as our ancestors were, and it takes more out of us to deal with it on an emotional level. For the record, those who are simply not bothered by it at all cannot help you emotionally process this, or anything, as it literally does not invoke in them any reaction at all. In dealing with the physical needs of the seriously injured or dying this is an advantage, but makes them largely blind to the emotional steps required to deal with a loss you do feel, or deal with the reality of your own impending death.