When we unite as community we are stronger, healthier and happier – compassion is in our DNA
The pandemic revealed just how deeply linked we all are; how we need each other to thrive. The old adage, ‘When one suffers, we all suffer’ has been brutally proven, but also our power when we work together as communities. It was community, kindness and compassion that got us through some of the darkest moments of recent times and will continue to help us navigate a rapidly transforming world.
One of the greatest difficulties we faced during the pandemic was being unable to care for loved ones and members of our communities at the end of their lives. Instead we experienced the horror of seeing our fellow humans alone and scared, surrounded by masked healthcare staff in overburdened hospitals, working beyond the limits of what it is compassionate to expect. It was the kind of death few of us would wish for and the healthcare system now faces the consequences of the demands made of those who work within it, with an exodus of staff, burnt out by their experiences.
It’s the picture shared in the Report of the Lancet Commission into the Value of Death: Bringing Death Back into Life, which outlines the unbalanced, contradictory situation of end-of-life care in Britain in 2023 and proposes some principles on which to found the ‘realistic utopia’ we might create instead, namely:
The social determinants of death, dying, and grieving are tackled.
Dying is understood to be a relational and spiritual process rather than simply a physiological event.
Networks of care lead support for people dying, caring, and grieving.
Conversations and stories about everyday death, dying, and grief become common.
Death is recognised as having value.
Compassionate Sheffield is already in the process of working to achieve these principles in partnership with Sheffield’s people and communities. We have taken an asset-based, community development approach towards helping the city build its death literacy, increasing the confidence of communities and thereby reducing reliance on statutory services. Based on the work of Professor Allan Kellehear, this social model of palliative care embodies the person-centred, partnership focused, holistic route that is espoused by the NHS and evidence-based health practice. It directly addresses the sixth national Ambition for Palliative and End of Life Care of ensuring each community is prepared to help and also has implications for the other ambitions, whether that is by enhancing compassion in practice for healthcare staff, or helping people to regain autonomy in how they live and die.
Our interconnectedness and the importance of that is borne out by the longest running study into human happiness, The Harvard Study of Adult Development. This identified good relationships as the key to our health, wellbeing and happiness. Humans who are better connected whether to family, friends, community or even themselves are happier and physically healthier. Thus this approach is two pronged. A compassionate community approach has the potential to reduce reliance on services by building capacity in communities but also enhances the wellbeing of us all through enabling better relationships to be built between us and reducing the inequality we witness around us.
Reciprocity, kindness and compassion is in our DNA. Neuroevolutionary biology suggests compassion and its associated neurone transmitter, oxytocin, is key to our development as a species. We have survived and thrived because of our capacity for compassion. Kindness makes us feel good, and living truly to this essential part of ourselves is the key to us living happily and in harmony with our world.
Sheffield’s proud heritage of community and cooperatives forms the basis of the strengths-based approach Compassionate Sheffield takes. The resources, the people and the will are there, putting the city in the position of being able to pioneer a public health, community-based approach to death and dying. And the potential is there for this way of living and dying to feed through to many other areas of our lives, from mental and physical health support to protecting and restoring nature and creating a place in which we can all thrive. The compassionate approach places people at the centre of creating the world that they want to live in.
For futher details:
Harvard Study of Adult Development
Report of the Lancet Commission on the Value of Death: bringing death back into life
The neuroevolution of empathy
Ambitions for Palliative and End of Life Care: A national framework for local action 2021-2026
"When we are dying or grieving 95% of our time will be spent with family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, including our pets and online communities."