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Christianne Heal
Counselling and Psychotherapy
Cambridge/London

Lessening the crisis of death

Mention death or dying, says Christianne Heal and the chances are that someone will swiftly suggest that it is a morbid subject for a nice sunny day and why don't we talk about something more cheerful.

Which is a problem if you are having difficulty handling the subject and you want to explore your feelings. It is also the reason that the Natural Death Centre was founded in 1991.

The Natural Death Centre is intended as a resource not merely for the elderly but for people of all ages who are intrigued by the subject or who want information about what is possible and available - from advice on organising your own alternative funeral to the lowest prices in coffins. Christianne Heal, who runs workshops for the Natural Death Centre with titles such as ‘Opening up to Life through Facing up to Death’ and ‘Exploring Our Own Death’ encourages people to address the whole subject from handling the process of dying through to making sure someone knows any express wishes they might have about the funeral or disposal of their body.

By far the largest group of people attending workshops are in their thirties to fifties who want to examine the issue of death from every viewpoint.

“Death is a crisis, but some view it as a crisis with a point to it” said Christianne Heal. We complete exercises in the workshops that enable people to work out at what stage in the process towards death they are and how they can feel more comfortable about it. It is the airing of the subject that is important to a lot of people. Just being able to talk about it."

She said: “The courses are not popular, because it is not a popular subject, but those who come get a great deal out of it. Some people come because they simply want the opportunity to discuss their fears, worries and concerns without someone cutting them because it is a difficult subject. Some people come because they are dying, others because they have been or are nursing someone who is dying and they don't know how to handle the issue, and others because they are old and probably near their own death experience. I even had a boy of 13 come, whom I had refused twice because I didn't feel he was old enough whose father had died before he was born. He needed to talk about this and we gave him the opportunity. I was surprised at just how positive the workshop was for him.”

Said Christianne Heal: “We work on everything from discussing who has made a will to planning what in fact will be a ceremony of the celebration of their life - the funeral. We do have a choice about what type of funeral we have, whether it is going to have a religious element and what form it is going to take. We are also able to leave instructions along these lines for others to carry out on our behalf. I was very grateful for example when my Mother died to find all her papers and important documents, bank books etc together in one file. It was so thoughtful of her to do that.”

For her mother's funeral, Christianne Heal arranged, after consultation with other family members, for gas-filled balloons to be released at the graveside to signify the spirit moving off, and letting go of painful attachments. There was a Catholic priest at the ceremony, but he simply completed his part of the ceremony while everyone stood in a circle with the coffin as part of it. It was the family who planned and led the celebration and family members and friends who contributed to the service.

Christianne Heal always stresses that funerals do not have to be organised in a rush. It takes time to contact people and for them to travel, possibly across the world. It isn't possible to relax and go through the grieving process when there is an urgency to complete the funeral arrangements in a matter of two or three days.

Says Christianne Heal, “Death is so natural, it is strange we view it with such fear.”

Nicholas Albery, the founder of the Natural Death Centre suggests there should be midwives for dying. People who are comfortable with the subject and experienced in dealing with the dying. Hospices do a lot for the terminally ill, midwives can do the same for those about to experience death itself.

Said Christianne Heal: “One of our most important tasks is enabling people to explore their feelings. It is necessary for counsellors who work with the dying to have confronted their own feelings on the subject. It is interesting to find how many failed to do this.”

This article originally appeared in Counselling News

Christianne Heal’s next Death Workshop is on Saturday 30th October 2021 in Waterbeach near Cambridge

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