On Death and Dying


In recent weeks the topic of death and dying has been much on my mind.  Not because my own demise is imminent, but because my father died a few weeks ago, and I walked by his side during his final weeks.  I sat with him during that last morning of desperate struggle as he fought to retain the ability to breathe over the asbestos driven fluid that filled his lungs and slowly drowned him.  He was conscious until the last ten minutes or so and his dying was not in any way easy.  It was dreadful for him and was confronting and distressing for me.

To not be able to alleviate the suffering of another person is something truly distressing.   I should acknowledge at this point that my father had recently celebrated his 97th birthday and realistically he did not have a lot of time left with us.  He was relatively fit, aside from that disease and still had a current driver’s licence but his failing hearing and eyesight heralded the degeneration of life quality for him.  I am not meaning to in any way sound as though I am dictating the useful end of another person’s life when I say ‘It was time’ but in reality it was and I knew that as I sat with him that last morning.

Added to previous bereavements, my family is now halved with this recent death.  Understandably my own mortality is something that occupies my thoughts.  I have witnessed suffering, anger, grieving, indignities and depression in each of those deaths, though my mother’s cancer was rapid and saved her some of the prolonged physical distress.  I have also witnessed the loss of control over one’s life and the double edged sword on not only having to rely on others to a significant degree, but the impact on those who are relied upon.  Although not specifically relevant for me in this case, in many circumstances  the caring role impacts on the carer’s family life, social life, working patterns and even finances.  Is it surprising therefore that there can also be distress and resentment on the part of the carer at having their life subpoenaed in this fashion?

To be confronted with death at a time before you are either ready or accepting is a pain that I have not personally experienced.  I have seen how soul-destroyingly hard that is for the person who is facing that end when there is still so much they wish to do, or family that they do not wish to leave.  The unfairness of it all is indescribable.   Having said that, I do not wish to linger beyond my ability to exert self-control.  I hope that I will have the inner knowledge and resources to face that prospect and to make the most of the time that is left, and to plan the manner of my departure.  I don’t wish my life to be prolonged beyond what is reasonable or comfortable, simply because medical technology is able to delay the date of my death, nor do I want to be an imposition on my nearest and dearest. 

I fully appreciate that not everyone will feel this way about their personal circumstances but the quality of life is very important to me.  When I feel that can no longer be maintained at a reasonable level, I will take steps to control my circumstances.  Thinking about this now is important, as leaving it until the situation is dire may mean that control is no longer within my grasp.

Dying is not something that we do well in our society – we are scared and removed from it and are not able to talk about or plan for our own demise.   I support the concept of voluntary euthanasia.  Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a medical ethicist who is currently confronting his own terminal illness made an interesting comment.  

Rather than help to die, the cause of dignity would be more greatly helped if more was done to help people live more fully with the dying process.

I rarely agree with him but in this instance, I do endorse the second part of this statement – that we should help people live more fully with the dying process.  From what I have observed, death is skirted around, referred to in euphemisms, and the dying person is not encouraged to acknowledge their dying and what it means to them and their family.  That is to the detriment of all involved.

Tim Dunlop, writing for The Drum on the ABC website (11 April 2013) says that ‘Future generations won’t go quietly into that good night’.  I sincerely hope that they don’t.

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