It takes a village to take care of the dying

The expression ‘it takes a village’ became well known as the title of Hilary Clinton’s 1996 best-seller about the lessons that children can teach us. Originally an African proverb ‘it  takes a village to raise a child’ refers to the importance of a community (or ‘village’) to provide a safe and secure environment that enable vulnerable babies to develop into grown adults.


Care for the dying
We may apply this concept to people living with advanced illness and frailty, people who are in their final years, months and days of life.  As the functions of human body start to decline increased vulnerability is inevitable; the spiritual pulse quickens while the need for connection and support grows.  Healthcare providers may come and go while 95% of a person’s time is spent in their community.  This is a place of collective responsibility, a place where we all have to role to play, where social support impacts emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Social and practical support

Sometimes it can be difficult to see our role, or fear gets in the way of offering support.  Let’s look at the first challenge; what can I do to help?  Think practically, what tasks still need attention?  Meals need to be prepared, dogs need walked, the children need to go to school, the bins need to go each week and the list goes on.  Small acts of practical help make a big difference in lightening the load for carers and family and the social support relieves feelings of social isolation.

The second challenge is our fear; fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, fear of making things worse, or fear of intruding.  Fear keeps us stuck so we don’t reach out which in turn isolate the dying person.  We live right up to the moment that we die, which means we need connection and inclusion in simple everyday things.  Keeping up with news of who is getting married, who got promoted and where the neighbours went on holiday.  Taking a trip to a favourite beach, even if it’s just to sit in the car to watch the waves ebb and flow, can brighten a person’s day; it might brighten your day.

The company of the dying is a privileged place, it can be a beautiful and peaceful experience.  Day-to-day pretences becomes irrelevant, time is spent enjoying tender moments; and love helps to soothe the heartbreak, for now.  There is so much learning in dying if we can only get over our fear and develop capacity to sit alongside it.

Compassion in action

An elderly neighbour remarked the other day, “in a city where everyone asks ‘how are you doing’? only a few stop to hear the answer”. The comment made me think because I hadn’t considered this before. We are often in a hurry with our day-to-day tasks that we don’t realise just how meaningful a short conversation could be to someone who is feeling isolated.

In the recent BBC hit-show ‘Blue Lights’, Season 2 shows an elderly lady who prepares ‘a spread’ of traybakes and sandwiches when the police service visits her, hoping that they will keep her company for a while. In the scene one officer is eager to continue with his police work, while his colleague identifies the loneliness in the lady and pauses to offer some compassion. It is just a cup of tea and a chat but it means the world to this lady.

via GIPHY

The poignant and powerful scene demonstrates our choice to offer our time. We can make the decision to be active citizens and build compassionate relationships in our community that respond to the needs of people impacted by dying, death and bereavement.

Maybe next time when you see the nurse leave your neighbours house after a palliative care call you might knock on the door and offer to walk the dog.  And when you see a recently bereaved work colleague coming towards you, you won’t cross the street to avoid them but you will ask them how they are doing today. 

Individually and collectively we can improve quality of life at end of life in our neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and places of worship. It is our business and we all have a role to play.

Below, we have linked various resources and information available on our website which may be beneficial to help you better understand our shared social responsibility and to find small ways to improve our communities via our day to day lives.

We understand that people impacted by death, dying and loss often suffer a social death caused by social isolation and loneliness before the biological death. 

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Lost connection with normal routines, paid work, inability to leave the home coupled with people’s uncomfortableness and lack of confidence to offer support, leave people suffering alone.

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Death and dying is a human experience we all share, just as we are born we will die. And yet culturally, we are uncomfortable talking about death, dying and bereavement. Talking with others helps to ease feelings of overwhelm, social isolation and loneliness.  Conversations validate our feelings and we can share information and ways of accessing support.

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Family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, parishioners, coaches and team comrades all have an important role; when the time comes that their friend can no longer reach them, they can reach out. Small acts of kindness offer compassionate care, keeping a person involved in their community through storytelling, news and updates helps them still feel involved.  Practical support such as shopping, gardening or cooking help to lighten the burden. Social support is priceless and yet costs nothing but time.

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Small acts of kindness and compassion can make the biggest difference. To understand our responsibility in supporting those who are suffering can change the lives of the dying and those they leave behind.

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