‘It’s as natural to die as it is to be born’- Francis Bacon
Today is the first anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death. I think of Michael every day and we all miss him terribly. Michael had an impact on everyone he ever met and most folks I know who met him have an affectionate story to tell. My wife’s parents (both in their late-eighties )were devastated, not just to lose someone younger than themselves but because Michael’s death made them feel fragile and vulnerable. They couldn’t bear to see Michael suffer as the cancer slowly but surely destroyed him to a mere shadow of the erudite, articulate, intelligent man they knew and loved. It was a terrible day when he finally surrendered to the inevitable, but there was some low-level consolation that he was not suffering any more and that he had been released from the grip of an aggressive illness which had ravaged him in a few short months. Cancer robbed us of a guy we loved and gave us unbearable pain and sorrow. Linda had shared his love, passion, joys and achievements over the past 22 years and she was there by his bedside to see his last breath and hold his hand as his passed from our reach but not our memory.
It’s probably not good for me but I have been dipping into John Humphrys’ excellent book The Welcome Visitor– living well, dying well. The author Terry Pratchett wrote about it, “The baby boomers have tried to jog away from death and are learning that whatever you do you still end up out of breath. Yet what we dread is not death, but the prospect of an agonising time dying. We should not have to fear it. Thank heavens John is talking about it.”
In his book Humphrys explores the case for assisted dying for those who have no hope of recovery from their suffering and pain. It’s something I find hard to come to terms with or confront in terms of the ethical issues it raises, but when I think of what Michael suffered and what he became, I am no longer cast-iron certain. I appreciate what John has to say about what makes life worth living;” Ask doctors or nurses to define the life force and they cannot, any more than an astro-physicist can define the dark matter that makes up most of the universe. But they know when it is there. They have seen it in the chaotic A&E department of a district hospital when the victims of an accident are being brought in; on a cancer ward for the terminally ill; in the hush o fan intensive care unit where a patient fights for life. And they have heard it in the howling cacophony of a maternity hospital where new life is coming into being. They know when it is present and when it begins to fade. And so do those of us who have no medical knowledge or experience but who have witnessed a life nearing its end.”
If you have the privilege to hold the hand of someone who will breathe their last in whatever circumstances I pray that you will be able to tell them they are loved and that you will remember these words of Sophocles ; ‘Death is not the greatest of evils; it is worse to want to die and not be able to.’
This post is dedicated to Michael and to Paul