Thoughts On Dying Well In A Death-Phobic Culture with Stephen Jenkinson

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What constitutes dying well in a death-phobic culture? Stephen Jenkinson looks squarely in the eye of death. It is his experience from working with hundreds and hundreds of people who are actively dying, that, for the most part, we are encouraged by those around us not to let our dying be a big part of our life. He points out that this death-phobic culture “…prescribes [that] our understanding of the best dying is the one that messes with you the least, and the only way you can achieve that is to establish some kind of firewall of awareness whereby the realities of dying don’t intrude, and when they do, you’re losing a positive outlook that you have to reinstate.” In other words, in a death-phobic environment you are not allowed to know that you are dying when you are dying. Families are besieged by arguments over whether or not to tell their loved ones they are dying. In this dense and profound dialogue, Jenkinson offers this perspective when asked about wrestling with death as opposed to fighting with it: “As you are dying you get an opportunity to live in a way that your normal life has not granted you… [you] answer the bell and testify deeply to how radically blessed you were to be able to live long enough to realize how fine it was to be alive… You’re under no obligation to accept that you’re dying when you are, which is the current mantra. Hopefully you’d be heartbroken about the fact that you don’t get to live a lot longer, hopefully you wish it were otherwise, and occasionally you demand that it be otherwise. This is in keeping with dying well.” He also adds that life is a time-limited offer and the “obligation is to obey. Obey doesn’t mean submit; obey means attend to. What is this asking of me now?”  There is much to ponder in this dialogue whether or not you are actively dying. (hosted by Justine Willis Toms)


Stephen Jenkinson is an activist, teacher, author, and farmer. He has a master’s degree in theology from Harvard University and a master’s degree in social work. He was formerly a program director at a major Canadian hospital and medical-school assistant professor. He has worked extensively with dying people and their families and is a consultant to palliative care and hospice organizations. He is the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Canada and is the subject of the documentary film, Griefwalker.

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Topics Explored in This Dialogue

  • How the whole medical system is technologically driven
  • How the acquisition of more time prompts the demand for euthanasia
  • How the timetable for dying is often dictated by the general readiness of the people around the dying person
  • How our dying can be a gift to life
  • What is the difference between fighting death and wrestling with death
  • How grief is the twin of love
  • How do we propose to love that which isn’t going to last no matter how much we love it

Host: Justine Willis Toms         Date: 3/14/2016       Program Number: 3582

Music Playlist

From Album: The Orphan's Lament
Artist: Huun-Huur-Tu
1994 Shanachie #SH-64058

Opening Essay: Track 05 The Orphan’s Lament
Music Break 1: Track 05 The Orphan’s Lament (reprise)
Music Break 2: Track 08 Borbanngadyr
Music Break 3: Track 01 Prayer