A nurse friend recently finished six weeks in a COVID intensive care unit where she witnessed many deaths and always ensured that nobody died alone. She sat holding a hand, listening, reassuring. Now on leave, she is writing down some of her experiences with the dying.
A wise priest I knew said that no matter how strong your faith, your view of what happens at death and ‘the life of the world to come’ should be an agnostic one. But he still recounted some remarkable things he witnessed when sitting with the dying, and my nurse friend described similar experiences. Unbelievers, whose one certainty is that we are snuffed out like candles, will deny that these accounts have any meaning, attributing them to self-deception or hallucination — that is the atheist position, not the agnostic one, but many hold it and they will not have any truck with what follows. So be it.
My nurse friend said that when she sat with a dying patient, even in the bedlam of the intensive care unit, a palpable stillness and peace surrounded them, a bubble in which they rested. Dr Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist who has spent much of his medical life studying dying and experiences surrounding it, says the same and that, aside from the medical signs, at some point seconds or many minutes after a patient dies, there is a strong sense that they have now ‘left’ — the soul has finally parted from the body and gone on. It is the same sense a friend had after she came in from work one evening and found her husband dead in his armchair. He had not been ill, there had been no warning. She said: ‘I knew he was dead straight away, mainly because he wasn’t there any longer.’
I had the same experiences — of the leaving, and much later, of the empty body — when our infant daughter died. They were also completely unexpected and undeniable.
People used to open a window when someone died, to let the soul out. ‘Go forth on your journey, Christian soul,’ as the Anglican last rites have it. You can find millions of spiritualist and paranormal sites on the internet telling you what happens when you die (not the legitimate accounts of near-death experiences, which are widely recorded). These others are varying degrees of whacky though probably not deliberately written to deceive. Who would bother? But I am certainly agnostic about the likelihood of meeting my mother in her apron, she having baked a cake and put the kettle on for me.
My nurse friend and the priest talked not of the afterlife but of dying. Though you could say the latter had an agenda, the nurse didn’t, and she had had plenty of experiences around death in her working life. One COVID patient she sat with emerged from a deep coma, opened his eyes, his face suffused with amazement and joy, as he took a last breath — the easiest breath for weeks.
Many dangerously ill people enter hospital in pain and distress, but mainly in fear, parted from family and among strangers in alarming surroundings. Intensive care is a scary place, but even on an ordinary hospital ward, if you are dying you need comfort, human presence, attention and reassurance, never more than in these last hours. The dying do not need false cheeriness, and they certainly do not need a refusal to talk with them about their situation. Their deepest concerns ought be taken seriously — no dodging the issue.
A friend told me her husband kept asking medics what would happen to him, where he would go after death and how, what would it be like; questions repeated to each new doctor or nurse, who all pretended not to hear, or left quickly, with embarrassment and maybe: ‘You’ll be fine…’ Finally, a clergyman came: ‘You will go to God.’ ‘Yes, but how? What does that mean? Will I see things, will I know I’m there?’ No replies, just formal prayers — but he didn’t want those, he wanted a human conversation, the most important of his life.
Surely agnosticism has then to yield at least to talk of possibilities. Nobody, especially when young, really believes they will die (though everybody else will), but there comes a moment when death is close. I have been there, close to death — but perhaps not quite close enough, so I have no clear answers, though the experiences have given me an unwavering inner assurance that death is not the end but a new beginning. The Christian faith is the right one for me — though the reasons for that include the cultural one, and if I had been brought up as a Muslim, say, my beliefs would be framed differently.
You might turn to a 19th-century mathematical genius and logician, Augustus De Morgan, for a different sort of reassurance: ‘I am perfectly convinced that I have both seen and heard, in a manner which should make unbelief impossible, things called spiritual which cannot be taken by a rational being to be capable of explanation by imposture, coincidence or mistake.’
I have also had such experiences, so convincingly that they leave me in no doubt about immortality.
Yesterday I went to look at the sea. It was green as bottle glass, stirring deep down, the surface changing as the sun came and went, a wind blew, rain veiled the horizon. I felt a great peace, and an odd sense of lightness and freedom. Lockdown is over after the mass protests made nonsense of our own small attempts to isolate, but if/when COVID returns it will be familiar.
So this is my last column. I have been made to think about many things and tried to make sense of them by writing some of my thoughts down here. It has been a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.