THE recent death of the Oxo Mum Lynda Bellingham has focused
attention on how we end our lives, particularly when facing a
terminal diagnosis. One of the disadvantages of the medicalisation
of so many aspects of our experience is that we can easily feel we
have no choice or agency in the way we die. Illness brings with it
diagnosis, and diagnosis produces treatment plans; and, however
sensitive and experienced the medics are, they rarely have the time
to walk gently with us through the choices that can and should be
I admired Ms Bellingham for refusing to continue chemotherapy.
She looked death in the face, and chose quality of life rather than
its extension. A former editor of the Church Times, John
Whale, made a similar choice when he was diagnosed with a brain
tumour. He had looked at the likely outcome of treatment - a few
more months, in his case - and decided that it was not for him.
Not all would make the same choice. Some need more time to come
to terms with what is going on, or to help their loved ones adjust.
The point is that in this ultimate choice we should exercise our
God-given selfhood. To refuse treatment is not the same as
And perhaps that exercise of choice is a form of prayer, a
prayer that calls out divine compassion. When I was in a parish
ministry, I visited an elderly woman who was longing to die. We
prayed for God to release her, which, in his time, he did. Praying
for a good death, a timely death, is a proper Christian thing to
do. Such a prayer is sometimes heard in ways we might not
Sylvanus Berry CR, a former Superior of the Community of the
Resurrection at Mirfield, once told me about the death of one of
the Brothers who had been diagnosed with a debilitating,
life-shortening condition. He was initially cared for within the
community; as he deteriorated, it became harder to manage his
needs. Eventually, it was decided that he must move into a home
where 24-hour care was available. He was deeply reluctant to go. He
dreaded the loss of companionship, the cycle of prayer, the
familiarity of his surroundings.
In the end, he never had to leave, but died the night before he
was due to go. Sylvanus saw this as the fruit of the Brother's
perfect resignation to God's will. "Into thy hands, O Lord, I
commend my spirit."
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church,
Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the
diocese of Oxford.