We need to talk about dying. About dying with dignity
Recently, two very close friends of mine lost relatives to cancer. One lost their mother and the other her sister. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone who has a read of this hasn’t lost someone to cancer, Covid-19, or in some other devastatingly tragic circumstances.
As we all go about our lives, we never really stop to think that death is happening right now. And again. And again. Someone somewhere has just lost a loved one.
A life has been cut short, or has reached its natural end, a family has been broken and the process of grief is kicked off on its eternal journey.
It can be a very sobering thought when you eventually grasp that your wee adventure on this mad merry-go-round is not perpetual; we all have to get off at some point and give up our seat to someone else. But that thought would be so much less chilling if we knew, if we were absolutely certain that our demise and eventual disappearance would be a dignified one.
One where our loved ones and families were not forced to endure unbearable sadness and despair at the helplessness of a situation that, at times, is taken completely out of their control. We need to talk about dying. About dying with dignity.
Whenever the subject of our deaths is brought up (and at my age it comes up a lot), the general consensus appears to be that everyone wants to die in their sleep.
This tends to mean that people would prefer to drop off, slip into that REM sleep phase when consciousness is just barely registering, and then simply stop breathing. No trauma, no thrashing around or gasping for breath; just a gradual slip into eternal dreamtime.
I’ve absolutely no idea if that’s how dying in your sleep actually works, but if that’s the way it pans out, then fine by me. Far more preferable than being found on the sofa with your trousers at your ankles, your face contorted into a panic-stricken rictus, and Nigella Lawson on the telly smearing honey onto her pancakes.
But seriously, the way in which some people spend their last days and hours in our company can be not only traumatic, but also absolutely inhumane. And it needs to stop.
If I could, I would sign a form right now that would confirm that if I was to become so seriously ill, or wracked with untreatable pain, or trapped inside my own body, perfectly able to think for myself but unable to do anything else, then I should be given medication to allow me to die peacefully at a time of my own choosing.
Put simply, to make my death in such circumstances a decision for me with my family’s full knowledge and support. Not a decision to be left to others who are bound by laws which are not only archaic but as I’ve said previously, inhumane. Call it assisted suicide if you like, call it whatever you like, or let’s just call it human decency.
Now, I want you to imagine a body. Lying on a bed, rocking and writhing in agony as cancer takes an ever-firmer hold. There is no cure for the cancer, and while pain relief has been given regularly, the pain resulting from the body contorting into rigid agony simply keeps on coming.
To scream would make the pain worse, so a constant chorus of barely audible whimpers are all the family surrounding the bed have to let them know that their loved one is still clinging, against their will, to life.
It’s agonising and heart breaking for everyone concerned. And now imagine that the body belongs to a dog. A doctor appears, having consulted the family, and the animal is gently put to sleep, it’s suffering ended through a combination of medication and human kindness.
And then imagine the same scenario in which a human body is at the mercy of an incurable, agonising disease. Or where a human body lies in a constant state of unconsciousness brought about by pain-relieving drugs. Only being kept alive to satisfy a morbid legal, ethical and quasi-religious doctrine that clings rigidly to a ‘sanctity of life’ mantra.
A situation in which families have to watch and suffer their own intolerable pain as their loved one is forced to slip away in ever darker instalments. It’s inhumane on every level.
This needs to change.
We’re not animals.
Unbelievably, as things stand, our deaths would be so much better if we were.