What is it about death?

I penned this reflection originally for a publication of Transforming Sydney. 

Every family experiences death at some time. More inevitable than taxes and the only thing apart from our births that we all genuinely have in common.

There's no blueprint for death; it is as individual as each of us. Having said that, if we were to receive bad news that a friend had been diagnosed with a particular terminal illness, many of us would be able to bring to mind some thought of what that might mean for our sick friend. Ill-informed or otherwise, it's simply human nature.

There's a great deal about the discussion on end-of-life and euthanasia and/or assisted suicide that, similarly, brings to mind concepts, ideas and even experience that forms our thinking.

Hardly surprising then, that when the spectre of impending death does insinuate itself, we think naturally back to earlier experiences.

Two recent deaths near to my family spring to mind. They may or may not reflect the experiences of others, but I hope they're instructive and thought provoking.

One, a relative of my wife, was a courageous death by any standard. An aging husband with an ailing wife, he trenchantly refused palliation for his condition because he did not want anything to put at risk his ability to care for his beloved. Some in the family counselled him to accept at least some intervention to relieve his significant pain. He refused.

There was and would be no risk that his wife would not be cared for; but that really wasn't the point. He had cared for his lifelong love and he simply couldn't bear to think it otherwise. No-one who knew him would have been in any doubt about his resolve, nor would anyone have doubted the clarity of his decision. His was an end-of-life 'choice' - and a heroic one.

The other involves the recent death of the father of a dear friend who pre-deceased him by about a year. He was in his 92nd year and, in his own words, had wished that he was gone.

He had, some years previously, been a member of a pro-euthanasia organisation. But in conversations over this past year it became clear that, though he was frustrated at his longevity, he was quietly resigned to a natural end.

It came a little more slowly than the doctors expected as his body began to wind down following a brief illness. His care and the provision of comfort at a local palliative care ward were exceptional. Friends, including my wife and I sat with him in turn.

Sitting with him one evening in the quiet of a dimly lit room, I found myself entertaining thoughts that took some time to resolve. His intermittent breathing had me wondering whether the next breath would be his last and wishing that it might be so; that he might be finally 'at rest'.

How do such thoughts sit with my opposition to euthanasia, I wondered? Is it right to think such thoughts and for what reason? Sure, attending to his care and support over the last year had meant changes to our family routine; his slow demise had intensified the attention. Was I subtlety and even unconsciously thinking of myself?

Death is as individual in its character as life itself. Even though the trajectories of particular ailments can be predicted to some degree, the very character of each person and of their relationships to others makes each situation unique.

In my own thinking while by our friend's bedside, I recalled a story once told to me by a palliative care expert. He didn't 'name names' of course, but the details struck me in a different light now.

He told of the relatives of a dying person flying in to be at their bedside and asking whether anything could be done to 'speed up the process' because they had an overseas trip booked in the very near future. This struck me as being very callous when I first heard it and it may well be that this was the case. But it might also have been of a different and less sinister character.

The impending death of a loved one is an emotional rollercoaster. The mind can easily move from the immediacy of care and support to thoughts of funeral arrangements, who needs to be told and, yes, how all of this affects our routines and even plans made earlier that may now need to be shelved or re-arranged. There's nothing in death that doesn't create some inconvenience.

The anecdote from my medical friend could easily have been an unguarded thought of someone who was struggling to process all of the above and maybe more. It may have had no more import than to articulate the reality that he or she was struggling in their grief and concern.

Another generic story that one often hears is of the last and distant relative that turns up at the deathbed when they hadn't been seen or heard of by their relative in sometime. It's easy to be caught up in the oft-heard judgement that they're only there because of a possible benefit from the estate. Real or not, the judgement is harsh. There may be many reasons why the relative was estranged; their 'turning up' may well be genuine.

In these last days and moments in the life of a loved one, things may be said that, outside of that situation, might appear harsh or malicious. Even the 'can we hurry this up' comment may not be a call for euthanasia but simply a clumsy expression in dealing with an uncomfortable emotion. But it does serve to show how fragile those moments are and to caution against legal euthanasia based simply on the fragility of human nature and the possibility of subtle coercion that is implied.

The death and dying of a loved one is a testing time for families. So much will be going through their minds. There will be those who simply want to sit, talk, and pray with the dying. Others will want to make sure that the necessary phone calls and arrangements are made. Ultimately, everyone deals with such situations differently.

Let's make space to allow us to focus on our loved one and space also that makes our outward expressions of love and grief - no matter what form they may take - accepted for what they are.

In our modern world we have a tendency to want to control everything about our lives. Death laughs at this and puts it in its place. Our demise is something that we cannot command totally. The slogan 'my life - my choice', for example, is empty and hollow. Defying and denying nature, it attempts to rob us of the complexities of death and dying and the necessary 'timeout' from the daily grind that is meant to provide space for love, caring, grief and resolve and a focus, ultimately, on the enduring nature of relationships and the fragility of our human condition.

When it comes, embrace it; sit with it. In all of its pain, grief and awkwardness it's not only inevitable it can also be a great teacher and healer. The measure of our grief is a measure of our love shared in death as it was in life.

Dylan Thomas expressed this wonderfully in his poem to his dying father. In Do not go gentle into that good night, he pleads with his father to continue to fight for his life while, at the same time, recognising the inevitability of death (the good night). His reflections seem also to be saying that his father has reason to live and no reason to die.

There's a deep and confronting honesty here in Thomas' clearly mixed emotions but something also in the reality that death defies reason in so many ways. We are often left to wonder at why. That such questions ultimately cannot be resolved or explained is simply how it is; it defies our emotions and challenges us to accept it for what it is: that good night.

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