Books reviewed by James Woodward

Embracing our humanity and mortality

Dying, Bereavement and the Healing Arts, ed. Gillie Bolton Dying, Bereavement and the Healing Arts, ed. Gillie Bolton (Jessica Kingsley), 2008, 216pp; 978-1-84310-516-9; £19.99

Gillie Bolton has been an inspirational voice and practitioner in the involvement which has stimulated a ‘wider’ appreciation of what makes health. In particular her own expertise in reflective practice writing has brought her into contact with a range of individuals who share a passion for ‘person-centred’ and ‘whole person’ care.

This volume of twenty essays is a delight – rather like a well prepared buffet – something to nourish those seeking deeper food for thought and practice.

The aim of the volume is to describe a range of successful programmes pioneered by artists, writers, nurses, musicians, therapists and social workers in palliative care settings. They range from simple painting and writing activities to other organised communal work. The purpose of this is to help us all embrace our humanity and mortality by reflecting on memories, fears, hopes and anxieties. In other word; what might best help us understand the self and the condition of being human and limited.

The diversity of essays does not evade the complexity of this agenda. The reader is taken in to the difficult geography of feelings that surround death, loss, change and bereavement. This geography is mapped through photography, theatre, visual art, healing arts, the use of imagination and music, health writing, spiritual rituals and the meaning of care. Each essay is carefully referenced and the subject and author indexes are comprehensive.

Bolton sets out the agenda in the introduction writing with persuasive force about the power and possibilities of Art. There is one reflection which deserves further consideration
‘Ours is an age of anxiety, tension, hyperactivity (multi-tasking, hot-desking, hitting the ground running), an era of inflated public emotion (a sea of flowers for a dead princess, road rage, televised devastated war-torn victims). There is little reflective, reflexive or simply mentally absent space allowed’ (p 20-21)

There is much further work to be done in this world of seeing, reflection, interpretation and communication.

Collections of essays are always uneven and this volume is no exception. It would have benefited from more editorial reflection. Some of the writing would have been developed if there had been some opportunity for dialogue between the contributors. The spiritual funding of these range of therapies in all health care settings presents problems for the development of any approach to palliative care that is not dominated and controlled by medicine. Any broader approach has radical social, organisational and economic implications for how best we organize for quality palliative care.

It will be interesting to see how these areas develop in the future. Part of this will depend on the customer voice demanding a different and more humane approach to care. Some of it may rest in those practitioners being able to demonstrate the qualitative and quantatative effects of their interventions on our experience of care and pain. Who will decide what enables us to befriend death?

This both will feed any reader who wishes to be enriched by listening to experience and find a way to express what is humane in the face of human frailty.

Published in The Christian Parapsychologist, December 2008

James Woodward