Books reviewed by James Woodward

Ways of handling death

Living with Dying by Grace Sheppard
DLT, 141pp (978-0-232-52783-4)

Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian practices for end-of-life care edited by John Swinton and Richard Payne
Eerdmans, 281pp (978-0-8028-6339-3)

The D-Word: Talking about dying (a guide for relatives, friends and carers) by Sue Brayne
Continuum, 162pp (978-1-4411-8679-9)

Living with Dying by Grace SheppardHere are three contrasting ways of handling death. All have their wisdom and distinctive features. The D word is a ‘how to’ book as it attempts to take the reader through the complex geography of those who inhabit the precious and frightening territory of death. Advice and resources are key feature of this text. It is offered in conjunction with a web page ( as we are challenged to face our awkwardness’s, fears and embarrassments.

The book is well organised, the reader is engaged at every level. It represents a balance of personal experience, wider theory and persistent engagement with the reader. The text is well laid out and clearly printed.

Grace Sheppard offers us a personal biographical account of the experience of caring for her dying husband, David Sheppard, England cricket captain and later Bishop of Liverpool. The quality of this text emerges from her attention to the emotional and spiritual dimensions of her living. Grace opens her heart with some vulnerability and honesty. She allows us into the rooms of her pain and joy which are the basis of the wisdom she shares about death. Winter and summer belong together in creative tension as we are reminded that there is no pain free existence. To love is too loose and the journey to acceptance one full of darkness and doubt. In all of this God is present holding the friendships and struggles.

Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian practices for end-of-life care edited by John Swinton and Richard PayneLiving Well and Dying Faithfully is the result of a three day conversation between scholars about the significance of Christian presence in this particular area of health care. In a foreword Stanley Hauerwas reminds the reader that theology is the hard won wisdom of Christian people across time and as such it is a Christian imperative that all experience particularly dying should be determined by our confidence in the love of God (p xii). The core experience therefore is that dying is a spiritual event with medical implications and for the Christian death should be shaped by the language of faith. So the book proceeds to offer a multi-layered perspective on various forms of Christian practices as they relate to end of life care. These include forgiveness (chapters 2 and 4); sacraments (chapter 4); love (chapter 1); compassion (chapter 7 and 9); hope (chapter 10); dignity (chapter 11); justice (chapter 12); spiritual formation (chapter 1) and healing (chapter 10).

The D-Word: Talking about dying (a guide for relatives, friends and carers) by Sue BrayneThree different texts that address death from the perspective of the need for practical assistance (Brayne); the necessity for us all to mine our own experience (Sheppard) and the importance of theology as a tool for the building of lives built upon the creative reality of our befriending death (Swinton and Payne). All are useful and succeed in their aim to inform and challenge.

At a recent conference I was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for theology as having any practical place in the consideration of the issues that are posed by death. Inevitably medicine continues to dominate the text of death. Theology can offer richer narrative that transforms stories told by medicine by placing them in a different context and engaging them in forms of conversation that draw out fresh perspectives and new promises. Critical in this process is the place of imagination and compassion. It is the work of both theorists and practitioners to re-fund our imagination so that challenges us to ask what needs to change: what needs to be different in order that we might live well and die faithfully.

This is only possible if we are prepared to face death in self and others. The Church has a role to play in all this – in enabling conversations where our needs, our experiences and our faith can be opened up in dialogue for an imaginative and transformative embrace of our lives as they are and might be. All these three books have something to offer in this process.

James Woodward

Published in Church Times Summer 2010