15 minutes

As we all know, the alphabet starts with 15…

Today, we’re talking with Dr Caroline Hewson (The Pet Loss Vet) and Professor Scott Murray (The University of Edinburgh) all about death- how we talk about it, why we should talk about it and how much our experiences of death might differ.

Scott and Caroline will be performing their show ‘Never Say Die?’ on the 23rd August at 1:30pm at the New Town Theatre.

Who would you spend 15 minutes with (living or dead) if you could?

CH: The late Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donohue.

What would you talk about?

John wrote and spoke with great insight about the traditional “Celtic” understanding and experiences of living and dying. He died unexpectedly in his sleep, in his fifties.  I’d like to talk about his experience of dying and where he’s been since, and if his insights and beliefs were realised.

Where would you go?

We would walk in some wild but dwelt-in landscape like his native Burren in the west of Ireland or the many lovely wild places here in Scotland.

What about you Scott, who would you spend 15 minutes with?

SM: JESUS as historically he died and I believe is now living.

What would you talk about?

He has personal experience…and a whole lot more. I know it was painful for him.  But as a Christian …as with people of many faiths…. I do believe that death is not the end.  So would like to explore that.  How can I die well..as well as possible for me and my relatives.

We always formulate that question with ‘living or dead’, it seems humans are comfortable talking about death in some situations, but why are we not comfortable asking the questions you mention such as “What frightens you most about dying?” and “What happens on the road to death”?

CH: I don’t know exactly why we’re not comfortable with asking those questions. Recent national research found most participants of middle-age and up were comfortable discussing their own deaths, but felt the people around them would not be comfortable with that. So, we’re close to having those conversations, yet don’t. In my experience, some people don’t want to talk about death—their own or other people’s—which is understandable, especially if they have difficult memories of a bereavement. I think it’s probably different for different people.

I would imagine each of us may have our own deeper reasons for not wanting to discuss our fears and questions about death. We might not even know what those are until we took time with ourselves and in conversations with each other, to recognise—and befriend—our catalogue of reasons.

Meanwhile the more general societal reasons for reticence probably have to do with, for example: our much longer lifespans, so death seems remote and can be put off; in line with more heroic approaches and a focus on prolonging life, people don’t necessarily die at home—or even know neighbours, who might otherwise be coming and going to the house in support and farewell. Thus, human death is very hidden. Also, grief for animals is not accepted in society either, and increasingly we may expect our animals to endure too much veterinary treatment when their bodies really are worn out by disease or frailty.

What do you think Scott, why do those questions make us uncomfortable?

SM: Answer: Birth and death are universal. 100% of people what are currently alive have been born, and 100% of us will die. I have a chart I show medical students. These rates will continue despite rescue helicopters and lots of dramatic operations.  But most deaths now occur in hospitals and hospices and care homes out of the public ken.  And society has stopped talking about it.

Caroline, how do you want to change the relationship we have with death?

CH: I wouldn’t want to intrude on anyone’s relationship to their own death or force a conversation about death generally. It is deeply personal and uniquely important, and while I know a few scientific facts about death in the veterinary context, and about public attitudes to mortality etc, I don’t have any neat answers to the deeper questions. What it is to be dead has always been a mystery. Our own mortality—and that of our family members, furry, feathered and human–is something each of us has to make her or his own peace with. Add to that our lack of familiarity with what the approach to death looks like and the whole business can become reduced to its more frightening aspects, with the aspects such as meaning etc staying out of reach. Speaking only for myself, I would welcome greater open-ness to everyday exchanges about death—not only our practical planning. However, I am all for those too and the peace of mind they can bring–like the aids that Scott and his team here in Edinburgh have developed. They also help open up the space for pondering less cut-and-dried things like death’s irreducible mysteries, how we want our own deaths to be, what we’re dreading or not dreading, how our views have changed or not changed—where we’ve got to, personally, with it all.

What about you Scott?

SM: We need to have death and dying back talked about and discussed in the public domain. We need as shows such as “Strictly come dying”*  on the TV to let people know what it is like to die from different conditions.

Then when they get ill, they have a better idea of what to do! In fact I have produced a video called “ living and dying well: what you need to know before you are ill so can make a plan, if you wish See  ….

https://www.ed.ac.uk/usher/primary-palliative-care/videos/patients-and-family-carers-individual

https://www.ed.ac.uk/usher/primary-palliative-care/videos/strictly-come-dying 

Finally, Caroline, as a vet how would you say our relationship with death differ from humans to animals?

As the guardians of non-human animals, especially animal companions (“pets”), I think our own fears about death are sometimes reflected in our wishes and fears for them. The available data indicate most or all non-human animals probably do not know that death is in all biological scripts. They don’t have the mental development to think about it either. It is their great freedom, and their brains enable them to do other remarkable things (–when’s the last time you went on a self-powered, non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight?! Or fell off a tall building and landed on your feet?). One of the founding members of the UK veterinary profession, William Youatt, summed it up in 1839:

Every animal—the horse, the dog, the ox, the sheep, the wasp and the bee– is perfect in its kind; and there are certain faculties belonging to each of them which would laugh our boasted intellect to scorn.

As a vet, I’m increasingly aware just how much I am, simply, one among many kinds of animal. The emerging research in fields like comparative neuroscience indicates we are more like other species than we are different from them. So, when I reflect on mortality, including my own, I am reassured by other animals’ apparent ease with the Life-Death cycle—it need not be feared or fought. The great American poet Mary Oliver puts that beautifully in her poem Wild Geese, where she talks about the natural world, with the calls of its critters “[…] announcing your place in the family of things.”