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Death and Dying: preparing to support those encountering bereavement

How do we empathise with and support clients who are going through bereavement? Doug discussses Dr Kathryn Mannix’s book ‘With the End in Mind – How to Live and Die Well’ and how Mannix’s suggestions have contribued to his own practice.

Doug Montgomery
June 2nd 2020

With the UK death toll from Covid-19 passing 39,000 this week, I’d like to recommend a book to you. A book about how to support people facing death, dying and bereavement.

39,000 deaths is a shocking statistic, and behind each death lies a human story in which family, friends, colleagues, parents, children, and partners have lost a loved one.

It is also increasingly likely that, as coaches and supervisors, we will know personally a client who has suffered the loss of a loved one or has a loved one at serious risk. They may have their own clients or colleagues who are dealing with death or dying close to them.

How do we support clients who are faced with death and dying?

My own experience of death is limited and occurred when I was a lot younger, so I have felt significantly underprepared for dealing with clients going through bereavement. I notice myself projecting my own experiences, fears, and taboos into possible conversations with clients managing their grief in their close circles.

I was recommended a book, With the End in Mind – How to Live and Die Well, written by Dr Kathryn Mannix, a consultant palliative care physician and cognitive behavioural counsellor.

With the End in Mind is a beautifully written, compassionate, honest, and sensitive account of Dr Mannix’s experiences of supporting the terminally ill and their families as they face dying and death.

Through many case studies and commentary on the lessons she has learned, Dr Mannix shows why openness and honesty are both important and beneficial. She gives many examples of how to talk to the dying about what is to come, as well as to relatives about their own fears, and discusses how to contribute to a peaceful end. What emerges is a profound need for us all to accept that death, like birth, is a fundamental human event. This is not about heroism, although courage and professionalism shines through her work. 

This is a book about presence, love, compassion, care, relationships, and vulnerability.

For many of us, death is a taboo subject. We feel a need to protect others from even contemplating death. We resort to euphemism and, where possible, avoid the topic completely in the mistaken belief that we will prevent the other from suffering. Dr Kathryn Mannix provides examples of how to prepare for death and bereavement so that what needs to be said and shared can be said and shared. She describes how fear and loneliness can be replaced by peacefulness and loving accompaniment.

As a coach and coach supervisor, as well as husband, and parent, I found this book challenging to read. It made me reflect on how I myself have dealt with death in my limited experience of it. How it felt to be kept in the dark about what was really going on. It has made me reflect on my own life and death, and what I want when my time comes. My views of dying and death and how to talk about it with those I love has been seriously reframed. It has, I believe, better prepared me to sit with clients dealing with death and dying and find ways to support them.

I highly recommend this book to you. Expect to cry, expect to smile, expect to have your heart wrenched. Expect to come away better prepared when death and dying turns up in your practice.

With the End in Mind – How to Live and Die Well.  Kathryn Mannix, 2018, Harper Collins.

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