Josefine Speyer

JOSEFINE SPEYER

Psychotherapist; death education specialist; co-founder, Natural Death Centre, UK

Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come – to them, their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair! …

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us … let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death … We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.

–Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays[1]

I believe we should be making friends with death and embracing death as part of life, as all the great religions try to teach us. To lead a good and meaningful life we need to remember that we are mortal. This is my daily practice and it helps me to appreciate all aspects of my life: my health, family, friends, the people I work with, as well as nature, animals and the environment. Life is so fragile and we are all here for such a brief period of time.

I know how trauma affects people. I was born in Germany six years after the end of the war and spent my formative years there. Trauma silences people; it creates isolation. People are in shock and feel numb without necessarily knowing that this is what is happening to them. Feelings get buried to protect pain and loss. It is a form of survival but it is not much of a life. I believe we all long to be alive before we die. Everyone wants to experience happiness. The ‘trotting and dancing and never a thought about death’ which de Montaigne talks about is a denial of death, an attempt to avoid pain and suffering for fear that it will be overwhelming.

To me making friends with death means facing past trauma and loss as well as learning to recognize death in its daily and mundane appearances: the small losses, the disappointments and the failures we suffer. We hurt people and get hurt; we must not hide that we are vulnerable. We need to talk to each other with a greater degree of openness and honesty. Then when death comes, we are ready to talk to each other and to give and receive support. This is what we need now, whilst we are in the midst of life.

My husband Nicholas Albery died in a car crash in June 2001. His best friend Nicholas Saunders died in the same way just three years earlier. I was shocked at our friend’s death and I was even more shocked at my husband’s death. My husband and I had founded the Natural Death Centre and through our work, we had become experts in family-organised ‘green’ funerals. Working together with family and friends, we were able to create truly unique natural burials for both of them on our own woodland. These funerals were beautiful and deeply meaningful and gave us all great satisfaction. It also helped us regain a sense of power at a time when these untimely deaths left us feeling helpless.

While nothing can shield us from the pain of loss, discussing funeral wishes is one way we can take death ‘out of the closet’ and make it part of a normal conversation. This is best done when everyone is well and healthy. In essence, we need to live life in a meaningful and loving way, practising good communication.

At the end of their lives people want to feel that they are loved, that their work is done, that they can forgive themselves and others. They want to feel at peace. That is part of a ‘good death.’ It is also what we need to have a good life. So in the end, making friends with death is making friends with life!

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Josefine Speyer is a psychotherapist based in London with a special interest in death education. She was co-founder of the Natural Death Centre charity and the Befriending Network. Josefine has been a supervisor at a bereavement service for many years and holds death education workshops, Natural Death Salons and death cafés.

[1] Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, translated by M.A. Screech. London: Allen lane The Penguin Press, Penguin Classics 1993. (Original version published in 1580).