This article first appeared in the March 2019 edition of Itchen Valley News
“You are the best granny a girl could want. I love you so much”. These were the last words that my mother in law, Cherry Slater, read from her youngest granddaughter a few minutes before she died peacefully in an arm chair last Autumn. After she moved to Hampshire from Surrey, where she had lived for much of her life, her daughter Lucy went through her address book and sent out change of address cards with an update on her declining health. So Cherry spent her last few months being visited daily by all her friends, relations and godchildren.
Cherry’s death has been painful for all of us but, particularly, of course, for Lucy and her brothers. Death is always painful. It is so difficult to comprehend that that person, who has been so well loved, who has been so much a part of our lives and who has been such a great character and personality, is just no longer there. But we have reflected that, whichever way we look at it, Cherry’s was about as good a death as it can ever be. She died well.
Of course, this is not always the case. Death can so often be accompanied by anger, fear, loneliness and pain. Sometimes there are circumstances which can overcome the situation, taking all decision making and power to achieve a good death out of our hands. And we often hear horror stories about the chaos which can be left behind by a deceased: from broken relationships to debt, which then taints our impression of the person we have lost. This has caused me to reflect recently that it might be worth us spending some time now considering how we ourselves will die. How might we try to follow a path towards the inevitable for all of us, which is the least upsetting for those we leave behind? Can we do this better, if we are fortunate enough to be given some time between diagnosis and death?
I have been helped in thinking about this subject by reading John Wyatt’s excellent book Dying Well.
Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London. He is a leading expert in medical ethics and a Christian. Wyatt points out something which might not sit terribly easily with many of us – that dying can bring wonderful opportunities if we make an effort to do it well. He expresses concern about what he calls the ‘over medicalization’ of death due to, in some cases, inexperience and fear of litigation. He affirms the wonderful work done in the area of palliative care in the management of pain. But his main focus is on the spiritual and emotional aspects of dying.
He points in particular to the ‘internal growth, healing of relationships, gratitude, laughter, finding forgiveness and fulfilling dreams’ which can characterize the final months of life. He says, ‘dying is not all loss and it need not all be doom and gloom’. But we need to prepare for it long before we receive that terminal diagnosis. Indeed, it could be argued that living well means preparing to die well. In the Middle Ages, when the Black Death stalked Europe and so early death was frequently encountered, theologians wrote books on the Ars Moriendi ‘the Art of Death’ to guide those who might at any time, at any age, succumb to the Plague. It is from these documents that Wyatt has drawn some of his ideas.
Wyatt sees imminent death as providing a number of opportunities: for internal spiritual growth (the weakness of illness can lead to serious repentance and strengthening of faith – we sometimes can only really encounter God when we have finally lost all hope of relying on ourselves); for being thankful for the things which in the normal run of our lives we so often take for granted; for healing, building, celebrating and completing relationships (as one of my friends found the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer enabled him to settle some long standing family issues, as he summoned his relations to his hospital bed); for finding forgiveness from God for the things in our lives that we regret (particularly where it is too late to obtain forgiveness from those directly affected); for leaving a legacy (for example, in the form of an autobiography or letters to our friends or family to say the things that we always wanted to say, but never got round to saying); for fulfilling dreams (so we can ‘live until we die’ in the words of the hospice movement); and, finally, for preparing to meet our Lord and Saviour.
Wyatt also recognizes that there are serious spiritual and emotional challenges that those who are dying may encounter: doubt, despair, impatience, pride, greed, denial of death, and the temptation of self-reliance, to all of which he suggests approaches, to help lift the darkness. In all of this, Wyatt emphasizes the importance for the person dying of focusing on the needs of those to whom we are closest and making their needs paramount, rather than ours. This may be in the courteous way we treat nurses, doctors, and other staff we encounter, but will certainly include the way we treat our spouse, children, siblings and parents whose suffering, although vicarious, is as great, if not greater than, ours and, of course, will continue for a long time after our death. What a comfort it is to the bereaved when the person we loved has died well!
In October of last year I conducted a wedding at Pembroke College Chapel in Cambridge for a young couple in their twenties, Gigi and Oli, who were friends of my youngest daughter. In January, I went to Oli’s funeral.
I was so struck by what was said in the tribute: days before he died he told his family “I’m so lucky. I have a wonderful life’. His best man continued how: ‘During his fight [with cancer], not once did he question why. To face such uncertainty and still maintain the courage to support those around him was remarkable, while his humility in both accepting and defying the monumental challenge was truly stirring. In short, Oli put life and living into a context that we can learn from’.
Dying well means that our family and friends, our bereaved, can say something at our funeral about how we loved, not just what we achieved. And in doing so we are building a legacy in the minds of those who remain. A legacy of love which has a permanent effect and will help them to find something sweet in all the pain.
During the Summer Itchen Valley Parish is hoping to hold a workshop on Dying Well for Valley Visitors and others interested in this subject – further announcements will follow.
If you have been affected by anything in this article and you would like to discuss with me please do not hesitate to contact me on 01962 779845.