In praise of going gently into that good night

31 October 2014

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 ours.

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 suicide.

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 expect.

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.

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