A life & death matter: Stephen Jenkinson talks about dying wisely

Oct 6, 17 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

Stephen Jenkinson, courtesy image.

By Robert Blood

[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Stephen Jenkinson, teacher, author, and subject of the documentary “Griefwalker.” Jenkinson is in Prescott for three events. He’s speaking 3-4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10 at Peregrine Book Co., 219 N. Cortez St. He’ll be at a screening of “Griefwalker,” 7-9:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10 at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Davis Learning Center, 3700 Willow Creek Road, $25. He’s giving one of his signature talks, “Die Wise: Making meaning of the Ending of Days,” 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at the ERAU Davis Learning Center, 3700 Willow Creek Road, $115. Find out more and purchase tickets at OrphanWisdom.Com.]

You’re known for speaking and writing about dying and death. How did you get into that?

Well, I’m not employed by anybody; it’s an arbitrary call in that sense. I don’t have a job title or anything like that. The entire enterprise is self-appointed. The intention is to call into deep question the prevailing attitudes in the death trade. It’s a task I’ve given myself.

What can people expect from your talks?

You’re asking me about people’s expectations and that’s for them to answer, not me. The easiest way to say it is that I’m not in the customer satisfaction business. I’m not selling anything. What people’s expectations are, I couldn’t begin to guess. I could say that even if you don’t work in the death trade per se, that the work of caring for dying people — sooner or later someone in your life, and eventually you, will go through it. I proceed from that point. This is not a special interest group. Death is democratically distributed and the capacity to do it should be just as widely distributed.

From your days as the director of children’s grief and palliative care in Toronto to what you do now, how has your own view on death evolved?

I’m not aware that it’s evolved that much. I guess it comes down to this: One of the occupational hazards of working in the death trade is that seeing death, seeing it so many times, so many iterations of it, you could grow accustomed to it. People say to me, with all of this under your belt you must be OK with dying. I say get behind me, Satan. Why should anyone have the obligation to be OK with dying? When the time comes, I’m certainly going to have some objections. The more dying you see, the more fond you can grow for being alive, as I’ve found myself doing. … The longer I talk about these things, the more enamored I am of being around. I’m sure that will ebb if the bodily functions dictate, but as I stand here, I’ll tell you, I’m wildly fond of being alive.

Was there a precipitating incident in your own life that led to this calling?

I understand that, for most people, personal experience is the start. In my case, there was nothing in particular, though. I found myself, from the very beginning, to be a cultural worker, not really a psychological worker. I mean that in terms of death at the level of a society, not at the level of an individual psyche. I came to that conclusion because 95 percent of the people I worked with died badly by any sane measure of the word “badly.” Not the patient, not the family, not the practitioner — nobody chose that. So how do you account for this enormous pandemic? Death is no one’s idea of a good time, and almost no one benefits from it. Well, Big Pharma, to a degree, but I don’t consider that to be the conspiracy some people think it is. There’s something at the level of culture that’s detonated by dying but not created by it, that plays into the hand of personal autonomy, personal mastery, and the sanctity of the individual. It’s the mythic aspiration of the West and it comes to wreck and ruin when you’re dying. If your orientation in life doesn’t include your dying, then it’s no surprise that when it comes to your dying you become adversarial and fight it until you finally succumb to it. That’s the repertoire I saw. Nobody’s personal story delivers them from that. So, it seems to a tidal wave at the cultural level.

If that’s the primary conceit for where we’re at, what ideas, then, can people reexamine to change that?

I think one of them is that dying is something that happens to you. People refer to it like they’re talking about the weather. “What are you going to do?” At best, that’s what we’re working with. And, in truth, dying is only what you do, not what happens to you. English forces you to say “you die.” You can’t craft that sentence using the verb “to die” in the passive sense. It’s only an active verb in our language. And yet, for some things, they happen to you. With cancer, you “have cancer,” you don’t “do cancer.” But you “do die.” Our grammar is whispering to us that dying is something to be undertaken not endured. If there’s such a thing as doing it well, a skillfulness, then that’s something to explore. … I guess the second thing is that the language of coping permeates the death trade. They offer strategies like the famous five stages and so on. All of this comes from the presumption that dying is inherently traumatizing and therefore has to be coped with. If you’re intellectually honest with yourself, the only thing traumatizing about it is dying in a death-phobic culture. It’s not the dying process itself.

Where do you think these presumptions come from? You mentioned a grammatical basis, which speaks to pretty deep-seated ideas.

It’s from being in a culture predicated on spontaneous mass migration. As strange as that may sound, that’s the history of North America. There’s something in that sequence of events where people more or less left everything they knew and allegedly went seeking something. But what they actually were doing was fleeing. That’s the foundation story of North America. It’s flight. They left behind things. Yes, some things better left behind like feudalism and chronic poverty, but it’s a package deal, and they also left behind the old boneyard and all their associations with a homeland that’s never been reconstituted. I think that led to our current regime, our foundation of freedom, and of being self-determining.

It’s funny how discussions of death inexorably lead to discussions of life.

You employ the same language when you’re talking about either, and properly so, because dying is what you mean by life. It’s in there, too. I’m asked fairly routinely about the after-life, being no expert on the matter, but the phrase bears some scrutiny. The word “life” encompasses anything and everything. How could there be an “after” if “life” is the whole thing. That’s not just semantics; it’s a question of inclusivity. So, when you’re talking about your life, you certainly also include its end. Death is a condition of life that, in the matter of your living, is basically non-negotiable. The kind of person you were up to that point pretty much dictates how you’ll deal with your death. Dying doesn’t imbue some kind of revelatory insight. I really saw that in the death trade. Death magnifies and intensifies what’s already there. I’ve seen very few death bed conversions to wisdom or sanity that were heretofore unprecedented.

So, if you were in charge of one big switch, of changing people’s minds regarding death, what would it be?

First of all, if you just look at the phrase “changing your mind,” you’ll see how ludicrous the whole idea is. Who’s doing the changing if the mind is being changed? Is there some part of you not included in the “mind”? Where does that change take place? Is there some unchanged thing that’s dictating the changes? Under scrutiny, that whole thing breaks down. … The character of the modern era is that we’re in a time when we’d rather be defeated than persuaded. That’s a tragic, but a very accurate observation to make. I think, rarely did I see a circumstance in which people voluntarily changed their belief system for the sake of dying well. What I saw was that, under the pressure of the moment, retrenching became the order of the day. That’s how the old language seeps back in. Can it ever go otherwise? I guess — and I’m answering the question as I see it — is to make the case for how bad that is. That might be a mandatory prerequisite for things to ever change. Good luck selling that door to door. This is a solution-addicted time. If you don’t have five steps or 12 stages, or four pillars, or whatever, then you’re going to lose your audience. Well, I would say you lose the audience you never had. I guess my subtler purpose is to try to articulate things that could use some changing. Of course, I secretly have a few ideas about what I’m doing, and that’s one of them. Another is going all over the country and making the case for something no one is really seeking. It’s a strange enterprise and not all that promising. In a room of — you choose the number, whatever, really — I count on the possibility that there’s a quorum of people whose unhappiness about death is not personal. That’s my constituency. Those are people whose unhappiness is cultural at its root, and I think we can get somewhere, or die trying.

Well spoken! And, through that, we return to the idea about language surrounding death. What needs to change there?

Well, the principal business at hand seems to be to craft a language wherein the realities of dying appear. And, with some humility, I can say I’ve done that. Now, why did I even attempt to do such a thing? Because care of dying people is where euphemisms go to enjoy long, healthy lives. There are a lot of subtleties here, you see, and subtlety is all you really have. Broad strokes are great for demographers and politicians, but for the rest of us human beings who have to live as human live, god lives in the particulars. That’s attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, isn’t it? He meant it architecturally, though it applies to the architecture of life. The broad strokes don’t exist in life. The broad strokes don’t cover where you are this day and the next day, and those are the places where you properly act. It’s akin to that ’60s idea of thinking globally and acting locally.

You’re the subject of the documentary “Griefwalker,” the screening of which is one of the events while you’re in Prescott. How has that documentary changed things for you?

There are a couple of things that it does. It creates a little cult of personality. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the documentary treatment can tell you it confers you with a certain credibility you may be able to trade on to get people’s attention, as transient as that can be. Over and above that, though, you may have bad Chinese food for dinner on Thursday and then say something pointed on Friday that somehow becomes one of the 10 commandments of whatever it is you’re talking about. That’s the nature of the medium, I suspect. Those passing thoughts or ideas become placeholders for ideas with your face on them. They come up again and again. You have to keep addressing and dealing with them. But, having said that, I’m appreciative of the fact that the documentary can go places all over the world to places I’ll never go and reach people. I get correspondence from people routinely that say they found the documentary or it was given to them at either absolutely the right time or tragically too late to help with, say my father, but not for me, or something like that. To the extent that anyone can find something useful in it, that it can reach someone, it’s a good thing.

What’s the central premise or theme of your “Die Wise” talk?

Well, it’s the stuff we’ve been talking about. If you’ve got to put it in broad strokes, then I guess it’s about grief, and dying, and the great love of life.

Could you unpack that a bit?

Let’s start with death. It’s the deal. It’s not the cancelation of the deal. It’s what you said yes to when nobody asked you if it was OK. How you honor that deal is important. … It’s in the cards, though. It’s a given. Death is not an execution; it’s a reality of life, and it begs the question of how it’s approached. It’s, “What does it ask of me?” not “What is it doing to me?” Grief, then, you could say, is one way of articulating how unavoidable our deal with life is. You can imagine things otherwise, but that’s all you can do. Your life will come to an end, regardless. By the great love of life, I mean loving being alive. Your loving people in life does not extend their life or your life by even an hour. There’s grief in that. You have to find some reason to love being alive other than trying to extract more life as a consequence of that love. … There are so many things that add up to a great love of life. But that love minus grief, minus an understanding of how things end and the propriety of that ending — I’m not sure you could say that’s loving all of life. Something about being alive is that it’s granted with the condition of the ending of everything you hold dear. To the extent I’m selling anything, that’s probably it.


Stephen Jenkinson is in Prescott for three events. He’s speaking 3-4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10 at Peregrine Book Co., 219 N. Cortez St. He’ll be at a screening of “Griefwalker,” the documentary about him, 7-9:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10 at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Davis Learning Center, 3700 Willow Creek Road, $25. He’s giving one of his signature talks, “Die Wise: Making Meaning of the Ending of Days” 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at the ERAU Davis Learning Center, 3700 Willow Creek Road, $115. Find out more and purchase tickets at OrphanWisdom.Com.

Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.

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