Woody Allen, film director and eccentric, once quipped, ‘It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens’.
Allen captures the fear of dying that seems to infuse many of the arguments in favour of legalising physician-assisted suicide.
I have been a clinical nurse specialist in palliative care for most of the last 10 years. It was absolutely never my intention to work with the dying; in fact, my early nursing days were spent carefully avoiding ‘being there when it happens’.
I understood, if only as an observer, why people were afraid: the twitch of a woman who had just died, causing me to gasp and jump in front of her shocked family; the creeping silence of a darkened room in which a treasured, long-term patient had quietly passed away, unnoticed amidst the frantic business of the night shift; the anxious, angry weeping of a young mother as she lay dying in the arms of a nurse of about the same age, both grieving the injustice of the brevity of her life. These memories have been with me for more than a decade, and I suspect they will stay.
I became a Christian at about the same time as I started to work in a London hospice and community palliative care team. I thank God for the timing of these events. The discipline of palliative care is one I am immensely proud to be a part of and is steeped in Christian history.
Thanks to the likes of Dame Cicely Saunders (1918–2005), enormous progress has been made in the art and science of symptom control, and there are several, wonderful (and beautiful) in-patient hospices in the UK, staffed by skilled and compassionate doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, chaplains, caterers, gardeners, administrators and volunteers.
Many work hard to bring this care into people’s homes so that they can stay in the places that mean most to them. There is much that still needs development, and any argument against legalising assisted-suicide should include strong persuasion for ongoing improvements to hospital, nursing home and community-based palliative care.
But the principles of the speciality are ones which Christians and others can wholeheartedly support, as a means of promoting comfort, choice, dignity and compassion. I am absolutely opposed to any change to the current law, a law that rightly protects the sick, disturbed and vulnerable from harm at the hands of those who have been charged with helping them.
And yet, I am also sometimes frustrated at the glib presentation of palliative care as a cure-all, batting away the demands of campaigners acting on behalf of those who want to control the time and means of their death.
Palliative care is a wonderful thing and it makes an immense difference to people and their families at a time of great suffering, but it is not the ultimate solution to the gripping fear of death and dying that is choking modern society.
It can help; it does help; and, with further investment, it will help more and more, but it does not negate the sadness, loneliness and fear that people feel as death approaches.
Death remains a curse. It terminates marriages; it separates parents from their children; it hurts in hundreds of different ways. And there is no opioid that removes that kind of pain, no human care that numbs the acute sensation of loss.
From a Christian perspective, death is the consequence of a sinful, fallen world (Romans 5:12); Scripture speaks of it as our ‘last enemy’ (1 Corinthians 15:26). Jesus himself wept with wise sorrow at the death of his friend (John 11:35).
Even life’s happiest events are often invaded by the taint of grief. As I stood outside a jeweller’s shop last week with my fiancé, we both felt sad that our grandparents weren’t alive to see how things had turned out for the babies they’d cradled in the latter years of their lives.
Death ruins and destroys, and dying is simply the overture to loss. I thank God for the job that he has given me, and that we live in an age (and country) where careful titration of a variety of possible medications can mean that death approaches in relative physical comfort, and where psychological and spiritual support can increase feelings of peace.
I am so thankful for dedicated palliative care facilities, where families can spend safe and precious time together. But these things do not remove the sting of dying or of death itself.
Neither, of course, does a massive overdose of barbiturates.
There is only one way to truly salve the agony of death and of dying. And that is the pervasive ointment of hope. Not the empty promise of avoiding the pains and sorrows of dying by taking matters into one’s own hands, but true hope of a present where all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) and a future where pain and sorrow are no more, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).
In the incarnation, the Son of God came to take on human nature in a human body so that, ‘by his [own painful, physical] death, he might destroy him who holds the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery to their fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:14-15).
He did this ‘for the joy set before him’ (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus looked beyond death and so could face death.
Death and dying cannot be avoided. But those who are in Christ can proclaim with Paul, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
We Christians believe that the gospel is the surest cure for the fear of death and of dying. It is the best palliative care that there is and, if we are to treat people with the compassion and dignity they long for, we must make the most of every opportunity to communicate it to them before they find themselves at life’s end.
We must also remind one another as Christians of the magnificent love, hope and purpose that it brings to our lives.
And, while those campaigning against a change in the current law present these arguments in a way suited to that arena (see, for example, Tom Miller, ‘Compassion and dying’, KLICE comment, August 2014; Andrew Goddard, ‘False steps in the assisted suicide debate’, Fulcrum, July 2014; Nigel Biggar, ‘A case against intentional medical killing’, Ethics in brief, Autumn 2009), we must remember that the gospel is the central reason why we must carry on supporting them.
The author is Nurses Student Staff Worker at Christian Medical Fellowship and a clinical nurse specialist in palliative care. This article is used by kind permission of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (www.klice.co.uk).