This work is freely given and has particular value for those travelling through the end of life.
A scan of four thousand years of extant literature reveals that the emotional experiences of dying individuals has always been and continues to be the poetic expression of the human body itself. This project showcases the wisdom literature found in the collective voices of our human ancestors.
Story telling by the dying moves us. When those who lay dying tell their stories and speak their truths, those of us at the bedside are called to pay attention and to listen with our hearts. It would seem that words spoken with the last sacred breaths of life are imbued with a quality that transcends ordinary speech. From the earliest literary treasures of humanity, these sacred moments are extolled by our common human ancestors as an extraordinary gift for those of us left behind. Our deepest places tell us that these spoken treasures may be the last time we hear the voice of our loved one, may be the last time we hear this story, told in this way...with that funny cocked eyebrow, or that glimmer in the eye of the story teller. These gifts are perhaps greater than any we could imagine.
In many ways, our modern culture has lost its awareness of both the importance of accompanying fellow humans through the dying process. If we learn nothing else from our common human ancestors, we must learn the importance of taking the time out of our busy schedules, the time out of our overbooked lives, to be with those who are dying. To witness for them and to learn from them.
The motif of storying by the dying recurs from the earliest known cultural mythologies and literature to the present day. King Gilgamesh, for instance, suffers the loss of his best friend Enkidu in an ancient Sumerian story inscribed in clay sometime between 2750 and 2500 BCE (Tablet VII). As Enkidu approaches his death, Gilgamesh sits by his side and listens to the narration of his friend. In ancient religious literature, the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy is traditionally understood to be composed of stories told by Moses to the Israelites after God had informed him that he would die without ever setting foot in the Promised Land (Num. 27.13). In more modern times, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy, is one of literature's great examples of a man storying towards his death.
Gilgamesh bears witness to the dying Enkidu, the nation of Israel hears the words of Moses, and Gerasim attends to and witnesses Ivan's journey through the landscape of dying. Many works of literature focus on the wisdom found in the words of the dying, yet little research focuses on seeing through the stories to the depth psychological themes which emerge from the dying body in this physiologically unique state.
At the end of the life trajectory, the entire human being, both psyche and soma, are engaged in the dying process. In The Psychoanalytic Century, researcher Allan Schore explains: “From the beginning Freud posited that affective stimuli also arise ‘from within the organism and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind in consequence of its connection with the body’” (65). In his essay “Psychological Factors Determining Human Behavior,” C. G. Jung writes, “The separation of psychology from the basic assumptions of biology is purely artificial because the human psyche lives in indissoluble union with the body” (CW 8: 232-262). In 1998, University of California researchers Marta Kutas and Kara Federmeier published an article in the Journal of Psychophysiology titled “Minding the Body” in which they claim:
Throughout human history, people in many cultures have sought to more fully understand the mind by understanding its relationship to the body. In so doing, philosophers and scientists have associated the mind with nearly every major internal organ. (135)
Kutas and Federmeier discuss the problem created when one begins to study the mind as a part of the brain without acknowledging that the brain itself is a part of the greater whole of the entire body. They write: “In the process of landing the mind in the brain, however, we sometimes appear to have forgotten that the brain is both responsive to and responsible for the body in which it is housed” (135). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET scans), these researchers and others have demonstrated how “we take in information and interact with the world through our bodies, and our bodies change with - and in some cases change - cognitive and emotional processing” (135).