Martin Hawes went along to one of Christianne’s workshops

Together with 24 individuals I have just been on a journey towards some dark thing I’ve always feared: my death. Death is a frightening thing: you cannot “know” death and I was hoping that perhaps this weekend would magically tear away some veil and show a glimpse of the unknowable. But I found that by the end of the weekend I felt quite happy with death’s unknownness, having looked and cried and laughed at all my fears, Christianne led us with great care through a series of powerful exercises, most of the done in pairs, some in small groups, with regular opportunity to go back to the group as a whole.

We sat in pairs, with eyes shut and we took it in turns to be each other’s death. ‘Hello Ruth, I am your death, I have know you all your life and now it is time for you to know me, do not be scared, I am nothing to fear’. It required great imagination for the speaker to feel what death might say if it could speak. After 10 minutes it was my turn to have my death speak; it was uncanny and this effect is heightened when you realise of course that not only do you hear your own death talking to you, but in the silences you hear all the other deaths in the room quietly talking to their partners. I was amazed at how the universality of death drew us closer as a group; we listened, and supported each other.

Christianne asked us to draw a ‘map’, to place ourselves in the centre of the page, and to make around us all the people who are important to us, living or dead. The we worked in pairs, one partner listened, while the other had half an hour to say goodbye to all the people he or she had placed on the ‘map’. I found this very painful, I think everyone did. There is so much we never say, especially to those who mean most to us and it is surely one of life’s tragedies that we so often are parted without saying these heartfelt things. It is also beautiful to listen to your partner talking to their friends and family in such a loving and powerful way, expressing feelings at their very core. Where else would we get the space to say these things to our loved ones, especially those who have died? Funerals only serve this function up to a point and not at all when it comes to expressing the anger which often accompanies bereavement.

We danced a ‘dance of death’ to beautiful music with our eyes shut, improvising, imagining death, gently moving amongst each other. It felt to me as if we were like benevolent but faceless energies drifting in space, touching yet distant. We painted death, fascinated by how different all the pictures were and how some people started by drawing only black, bu then there had to be colour and light there too.

We had the opportunity to write our own obituary and were given the freedom to fantasise about the life we would like to be remembered for. Having written this we passed it to the person on our right who then read it to the whole group. Once again the differences in people’s aspiration, both in detail and scale was quite lovely: from one person who had built his own chicken shed to another whose assassination at a political rally precipitated world revolution (her funeral was attended by her 15 children and their 7 fathers). This session, although a lot of fun, in reality was an exercise to look at (yes it’s the BIG one) what we want to do with our lives. This question was further explored by an exercise on: ‘what would you do if you had only six months to live?’ Try it sometime, take it seriously and you may be surprised at what you reveal to yourself.

We also talked about religious beliefs and the ‘teachings’ we had received in childhood, we planned our funeral, we share near death experiences and our own feelings of bereavement. Perhaps ‘Exploring Our Own Life’ would be a more accurate title as during this weekend we certainly spent more time talking about life than about death. After all, how else could it be? At the end one person said: “I’ve never laughed so much in a weekend…”

Christianne Heal is a psychotherapist and counsellor and one of her interests is Bereavement counselling and End of Life counselling.