As we approach the first-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown on 23rd March, the Centre for the Art of Dying Well at St Mary’s University, Twickenham begins a major new partnership with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) to train members and volunteers as End of Life Companions.
The National Day of Reflection on 23rd March is an important moment for us all to remember the dead and the bereaved and poignantly, the partnership will serve to further the Centre’s vision that no one should die alone if that is not their wish.
The pandemic has raised awareness of the value of companionship in the last months, weeks and days of life. Our aim is that 500 trained Companions will journey alongside at least 1,500 people who are dying, and their loved ones, to provide hope and companionship. These may be family or friends; members of the local or parish community; or people in hospitals, hospices, or care homes.
Volunteer End of Life Companions, recruited from the SVP membership across England and Wales, will take part in training developed by the Centre for the Art of Dying Well.
Julie Etchingham, ITV News journalist and broadcaster, who worked with the Art of Dying Well to develop training content, said:
“If you're going to be an end-of-life companion, you're just walking that path with somebody. And sometimes that means they need practical help and sometimes it means they need spiritual uplift. Some people aren't religious and just need companionship. And the companionship in the end is what counts in all of those settings.
“And I suppose the thing that really impresses me most about those who do this work, is just the presence of a person, just to be there. Sometimes that's all it takes. You don't need to be a clinician. There are aspects of everybody's personalities that are valuable in people's last days and hours. And I was just really impressed by those who are already doing the work.”
Speaking in the latest Art of Dying Well podcast (Episode 23: End of Life Accompaniment and Lone Deaths), Dr Lynn Bassett, a former healthcare chaplain, who is heading up the Companion training, said:
“What is it like to be with somebody who is dying? How do we bridge the gap between what the medical professionals are doing; what the family members are doing; and what the person wants? …
Of course, due to the pandemic, the training will be online, and after there will be a period of discernment to see whether that they feel that this is something that they can undertake.”
Jon Cornwall, Director for Membership of the SVP in England and Wales said:
“This partnership between the Art of Dying Well and the St Vincent de Paul Society allows training, encouragement and support for members to feel best equipped to be companions at the end of a beneficiaries life when they are their most vulnerable and we are left with the fewest appropriate words of comfort.
“My thanks must go out to all of those from the Art of Dying Well who have been tirelessly supporting the SVP and also thanks to the members of the SVP for their generosity and courage in bringing love, hope and comfort to the darkest of moments.
“St Mary's University was formed and supported by the Congregation of the Mission, a Vincentian Order. We share the same spirit, a spirit which seeks to serve, to journey the extra mile together and to be trustworthy and faithful friends to all those who may wish for one."
The St Vincent de Paul Society, founded in 1833, was inspired by the life’s work of the saint. Part of an international Christian voluntary network, it is dedicated to tackling poverty by providing practical assistance to people in need. Its members, motivated by their faith, visit vulnerable or isolated people across England and Wales and offer them friendship and practical support. The essence of their work is person-to-person contact.
Born in 1581, St Vincent de Paul was profoundly affected by two events; after hearing the confession of a dying man, he resolved to preach the Good News of Christ’s promised redemption, and upon appealing for help for a poor sick family, he was inspired to found the Ladies of Charity when he saw how many local people brought them aid. Many other Vincentian organisations followed. The pivotal importance of the meeting between St Vincent and the dying man further underlines the shared aim of the partnership.
The SVP has 9,600 members in England and Wales, committed to meaningful and long-term befriending of people of all faiths and none. One of the key aims of the partnership with the Centre for the Art of Dying Well is to provide a hopeful presence for many more people as they draw closer to death.