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  • Writer's pictureCayla Townes

How Stephen Jenkinson's 'Die Wise' Challenges Modern Views of Death and Dying

In the heart of modern society's complex relationship with mortality, Stephen Jenkinson's "Die Wise" emerges as a beacon, challenging prevailing attitudes toward death and dying.


dying rose on black background

Stephen Jenkinson, a distinguished voice in the realms of death education and end-of-life care, posits a profound critique of the death phobia permeating contemporary culture. His work, deeply rooted in spiritual care, invites a radical shift in perspective: from viewing death as an ultimate defeat to embracing it as an intrinsic aspect of life, imparting essential lessons on dying well. Through "Die Wise," Jenkinson offers not just a philosophy but a call to cultivate death literacy and awareness, providing a much-needed counterpoint to the prevailing denial of mortality's inevitability.


This article delves into Stephen Jenkinson's revolutionary approach to end-of-life care, underscoring the importance of community, grief, and bereavement in the process of dying wise. It will explore how Jenkinson's insights can integrate into modern healthcare, offering alternatives to the often impersonal and sterile experiences surrounding death in contemporary society. By examining the role of community in caring for the dying and addressing the natural process of grief and bereavement, this article seeks to illuminate pathways for incorporating "Die Wise" principles into the fabric of everyday healthcare practices. In doing so, it aims to foster a deeper understanding and acceptance of death, echoing Jenkinson's vision of a society where death is not shunned but acknowledged as a profound teacher.


Stephen Jenkinson’s Approach to End-of-Life Care

Personal Philosophy and Influence

Stephen Jenkinson, with his academic background in theology and social work, served as the director of counselling services in palliative care at a major Canadian hospital. Here, he witnessed firsthand the prevalent "death phobia" and "grief illiteracy" that many patients and their families exhibited. His experiences shaped his belief that modern society suffers from a "culture failure," characterized by a forgotten ancestry and a lack of meaningful rites of passage. Jenkinson views death as a gift, emphasizing that the awareness of mortality enriches the value of each day.


Unique Perspectives on Death

Jenkinson challenges the conventional fear of death, suggesting that in cultures where death is embraced, it allows for the fullest expression of humanity. He criticizes the modern approach to death, which often involves denial and avoidance, advocating for a more integrated understanding of death as a natural and essential part of life. By rejecting the common language of "loss" and instead using direct terms like "die" and "death," Jenkinson promotes a perspective that sees death not as an end but as a continuation of life's cycle. His teachings encourage embracing the "ordinariness" of life and death, moving away from the heroism and individualism that often color Western attitudes towards dying.


large campfire with many people sitting around together

The Role of Community in Caring for the Dying

Building a Supportive Environment

In the journey toward a less contentious end-of-life experience, the role of community cannot be understated. As seen in the personal narrative Jenkinson shares of a family grappling with a health crisis, the shock and reality of mortality often bring communities closer, fostering a supportive environment that is crucial during such vulnerable times. This shared experience not only strengthens communal bonds but also highlights the significant impact of collective support in managing life's challenging phases.


Community-Based Practices

Community-based palliative care, as emphasized by the World Health Organization, integrates care across various settings, making it accessible and sustainable. This model not only addresses the physical needs but also the psychosocial and spiritual well-being of individuals facing life-limiting conditions. Studies suggest that such holistic approaches not only enhance the quality of life but also allow for a more cost-effective management of end-of-life care. Furthermore, compassionate communities play a pivotal role by engaging in early conversations about death and dying, which fosters a culture of openness and preparedness that is essential for wise dying.


By nurturing compassionate connectors within communities, we can ensure that individuals receive the support they need from a network of caring volunteers, thereby enhancing the integration of professional and informal care. This approach not only alleviates the burden on healthcare systems but also empowers individuals and their families to face end-of-life challenges with resilience and support from their community.


Addressing Grief and Bereavement

Jenkinson articulates that grief is not merely an affliction to be managed but a profound skill to be cultivated. He challenges the conventional view that sees grief as something to be overcome or resolved, suggesting instead that it is an integral part of life's fabric, deserving of deep understanding and acceptance. This perspective shifts the narrative from grief as a disturbance to recognizing it as a natural and essential aspect of human experience.


Effective Grief Counseling Techniques

In addressing grief, it is crucial to transform the language used around it from one of affliction to one of capacity and engagement. Jenkinson advocates for a view of grief as a form of negotiation with life, a kind of hospitality towards an inevitable stranger. This approach encourages individuals to integrate grief into their lives as a constant companion rather than an unwanted intruder. By redefining grief as an ongoing relationship rather than a hurdle to be cleared, we open ourselves to the lessons it has to teach us about living fully and appreciating the transient nature of existence.


Navigating Emotional Turmoil

Jenkinson's insights suggest that engaging with grief can serve as a crucial educational process, one that disillusions us in the most literal and necessary sense. Understanding grief in this way allows us to embrace life's limitations and endings as opportunities to learn, grow, and ultimately, to live well. This perspective does not diminish the pain of loss but invites us to see it as a pathway to deeper connection with the cycles of life and death. By acknowledging grief as a natural and ongoing element of life, we can begin to see it not as something to fear or avoid but as something that enriches our understanding of what it means to be alive.


close-up of mushrooms and green plants growing in the sun

Integrating Die Wise into Modern Healthcare

Adapting Principles to Medical Practices

Jenkinson's critique of the modern medical system highlights its failure to adequately address death phobia, urging a shift towards a dying-centred approach rather than a relief-centred one. This perspective challenges the prevailing "fighting illness" mentality, which often overlooks the patient's holistic end-of-life needs. By integrating the principles of "Die Wise," healthcare systems can foster environments where death is acknowledged as a natural part of life, thereby enriching the care provided to patients at the end of their lives.


Potential Benefits and Challenges

Adopting Jenkinson's approach could lead to more compassionate and person-centred care, aligning medical practices with the emotional, spiritual, and psychological dimensions of dying. However, this integration faces challenges, such as restructuring existing medical frameworks that are predominantly designed to combat illness rather than facilitate wise dying. The transformation requires not only changes in healthcare policies but also a cultural shift within society towards death literacy and acceptance of mortality.


Conclusion

Through "Die Wise," Stephen Jenkinson navigates the depths of death and dying, urging a cultural pivot from denial and fear to acceptance and wisdom. Jenkinson's philosophy invites us to confront mortality with open hearts and minds, challenging the societal norms that isolate death as an unwelcome truth. By integrating these principles into modern healthcare and community support, we not only enhance the end-of-life experience but also enrich our collective understanding of living fully. Embracing death as an integral part of life encourages a broader appreciation for each moment and fosters a culture where death teaches us about the depths of love, connection, and the value of each day.


The implications of adopting Jenkinson's teachings are profound, suggesting a path toward more compassionate, holistic care and a society that holds space for grief and dying as natural and meaningful aspects of the human experience. As we reflect on the lessons of "Die Wise," let us consider how we can individually and collectively cultivate a deeper engagement with the truths it reveals. By fostering communities that support wise dying and embracing our own mortality, we challenge the prevailing fears and embrace a wisdom-filled approach to the inevitable. This reorientation towards death and dying not only honours those at the end of their journey but enriches the lives of those who remain, calling us to live with intention, compassion, and a fuller awareness of our transient existence.

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