Angela Tilby: Dying with grace but not with God

14 September 2018

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RACHAEL BLAND’s final tweet before she died of cancer at the age of 40 was a simple, “Au revoir, my friends.” It was a dignified farewell from a much-loved and admired broadcaster.

Throughout her final year, she had led a series of podcast conversations with two other cancer sufferers, Deborah James and Lauren Mahon. Together they had discussed myths about cancer, treatment options, beauty tips, family and friends, sex, pain, dealing with chemo, and, finally, facing death. The podcasts were defiantly upbeat, informal, and sometimes hilariously funny (“I love a good death joke!”).

The tone of the podcasts was also strikingly secular. In the episodes that I heard, faith was hardly mentioned. Once was when the actor Greg Wise, who had nursed his sister through the last three months of her life, spoke of the importance of using the final days well.

This might involve “reconnecting with some deity”, something or someone who might be known from childhood. It was a bizarre expression, as though we lived in a pagan world of household gods and nature spirits, or even ancestral figures who might or might not be available to accompany us at the point of our greatest need.

It reflected a worldview more pre-Christian than post-Christian; a world peopled by benign (and presumably also malign) influences, who interacted with our world somewhat in the manner of guardian angels. It made me realise afresh how distant from most people’s lives and deaths the Christian faith has become, and whether there are indeed alternative “deities” available in post-Christian Britain.

Mr Wise’s suggestion was not taken up. Lauren, Rachel, and Deborah, in looking at cancer and death in the eye, seemed to have no need for God or for the faith, though all hoped for a good, if not necessarily religious, funeral.

Yet the breezy exchanges preserved in the podcasts were not without a sense of what Christians might call grace. Very evident in the conversations between the three women were the virtues of courage, hope, and perseverance. There was a searing honesty, too, about the reality of fear and pain.

Above all, there was the testimony of genuine friendship. These three supported each other, laughed and cried with one another, and opened the circle of friendship to all who accompanied them through the podcasts. It made me think again about the way in which the Jesus of St John’s Gospel called his disciples “friends”. Not in a casual sense of “mates”; the disciples were not just those he happened to hang around with. Significantly, I think Jesus’s disciples were only addressed as friends on the night of his betrayal, at the point of deepest need.

The testimony of those facing terminal illness is important here; friendship is, perhaps, the grace above all which enables a good transition out of this life.

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