Dying isn’t exactly an easy topic, and when you saw the subject of this article you may have been tempted to turn the page and find something less, well, morbid. But I want to persuade you that thinking about dying does not need to be all doom and gloom. In fact, dying can bring wonderful and unexpected opportunities; it can be a time for joy as well as tears, even a strange adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of discovery.
By Professor John Wyatt
If you ask people how they would like to die, the most common answer is:
“I want to die in my bed while I am asleep. I don’t want any warning; I don’t want any premonition or any awareness. I just want to go out suddenly, like a light…”
The strange thing about this is that if you were to go back 500 years and ask people the same question, you would generally find a consensus that sudden, unexpected death was the worst possible way to die. To be catapulted into eternity with no chance to prepare yourself, no chance of saying goodbye, no chance to ask forgiveness from those you have wronged, to ensure your loved ones are provided for, no chance to prepare yourself to meet your maker…what a terrible way to die.
A Medical Approach
Death and dying used to take place in the home. At the beginning of the 20th Century, fewer than 15 per cent of all deaths occurred in an institution, such as a hospital or nursing home. But now more than 50 per cent of people in the UK die in a NHS hospital, and it’s actually very unusual for people to die without warning in their sleep.
Death has become medicalised. When we become seriously ill, we expect to be admitted to hospital. It’s the medical team who tell us what treatments are available for our condition, and the natural assumption is that we will just accept whatever therapies are offered. The battle continues until the medics decide that further treatment is hopeless. And then we die. Death has become defined by what doctors can and cannot do.
Modern medicine can offer us the idea that death can be kept at bay indefinitely. Of course, we know that death cannot be held back forever, but we prefer to focus on the positive. Death is an enemy to be fought, and we will keep on fighting to the end.
Author Rob Moll quotes a funeral director in Wheaton, Illinois, who said that the most common Bible verse that families put on funeral announcements or read at services is: “I have fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7).“Except they are not talking about spiritual things,” says Moll. “They mean this person tried every medical option to stay alive.”
This medicalised view of death has only been around for the last few decades. At the beginning of life we are learning that intervention isn’t always the best way to go. There is now an increasing movement away from the medicalisation of childbirth and towards a more natural approach. But when it comes to dying, the medics are still very much in control.
I think we have a lot to learn from Christians of previous generations. Back in the 14th and 15th Centuries, there were a series of documents which were circulating among Christian people called ‘The Art of Dying’ (Ars Moriendi in Latin). They were self-help manuals for ordinary people. A modern equivalent title would be Dying for Dummies!
The great fear for many Christians of this era was that they might face death without the presence of a priest to guide them through the process. So these documents helped ordinary people prepare for death, with vivid woodcut images of a dying person on a bed, surrounded by angels and demons who were involved in protecting or attacking them.
It’s interesting that Christians of this era saw preparing for death as an important part of Christian living. As Christian physician John Dunlop put it:
“One thing I have learned is that dying well is rarely a coincidence. Rather it results from choices made throughout life. After all, dying well is nothing more than living well right up till the end.”
As an intensive care doctor, I have had the privilege of supporting people through the process of dying and bereavement for more than 30 years, and I have been able to see at first-hand the extraordinary opportunities of dying well. Here are some of the possibilities and opportunities:
An opportunity for finding forgiveness
An older woman, whom I shall call Mary, was diagnosed with a very advanced and rapidly progressing form of cancer. She’d had a difficult life and her daughter described her as “an intensely angry person” with a sharp and destructive tongue. Mary had always rejected and rebuffed any attempt to talk about God.
But then came the sudden news that she had advanced cancer and only weeks to live. Sitting in the radiotherapy outpatient department, she turned to her daughter:
“I’ve got three questions for you: How can I forgive? How can I be forgiven? What is heaven like?”
For the first time, Mary talked about her hidden secret of being abused as a child, and the shame, hurt and anger that had dominated her life. Mary’s daughter gently shared about Jesus and the forgiveness he offered. From that moment in the outpatient department, Mary’s life changed.
“My mum was remade two weeks before she died,” said her daughter. “I’ve never seen anything more radical in my life.”
Mary was admitted to a local nursing home for terminal care. In the place of previous bitterness and resentment there was thankfulness. Sitting with her grandchildren, she was weeping:
“You’ve got no idea what it feels like to pray for the first time.”
Mary died barely two weeks from that conversation in the outpatient department, with her daughter holding her hand and singing hymns to her.
Afterwards, the nurses gathered in her room.
“This was an amazing lady…She was so grateful for everything, so kind, so gentle. She had no fear about dying…We’ve never seen anyone die like this.”
And her daughter was able to share with them something of the grace and forgiveness that her mother had discovered in those precious last days of her life.
Dying well is an opportunity to find forgiveness, to be remade, to become a “new creation”, in the words of the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17).
An opportunity to be thankful
This may seem rather paradoxical but many people have found that the process of dying can teach them more about being thankful. Often it’s about learning to be thankful for the little things. Being thankful for the tiny gifts and graces of everyday life – a beautiful flower in a vase, a welcome cup of tea, the sound of birdsong, the smile of a friend. Most of the time we just don’t notice these things – our lives are too busy and we’re too preoccupied. But dying is an opportunity to learn.
Here are the words of a younger Christian, Ruth van den Broek, who was facing a life-threatening illness:
“When it comes to dying well, gratitude has been one of the most transformative things for me. Gratitude for my body despite its brokenness, for my medical team despite their limits, for the decay of my lungs because it makes me notice and appreciate most of my waking breaths. A while back I started praying before I took medications, the way I do before food: ‘Lord, thank you for these medications and for the people who invented, prescribed and prepared them.’ I began to see them as the blessings they are. Gratitude has changed so much for me, even though I’m still not great at it.”
An opportunity for rebuilding our relationships
In order to die well, we have to be at peace with God and at peace with the most important people in our lives. One of the strange and wonderful things is that a dying person can have a special influence on others – they are able to bless their loved ones by strengthening and, where necessary, healing their most significant relationships.
Dying well can be an opportunity for broken relationships to be healed and restored, even after many years of fracture and hostility. And it’s an opportunity for good relationships to be made stronger, more open and more honest. It’s a chance for sharing from the heart, and for saying sorry and thank you to those who are closest to us.
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