Thought for the Week: Staying on

Peggy Heeks asks 'How do we deal with the end of life and how do we die with dignity?'

Friends have increasingly been addressing, at local and national level, a topical issue of our time – staying on. How do we deal with the end of life and how do we die with dignity? These questions have also prompted thoughtful and occasionally provocative correspondence in the Friend.

For most of us, dying is difficult. In the past, rich people wore a ring that held a dose of poison. In the time of John Keats and the English Romantic poets one could drug oneself with laudanum. Today, one can be given a fatal drug at Dignitas, the Swiss clinic, but such a venture is expensive, subject to clear health criteria and an emotional strain for all concerned.

Offsetting any wish to exit life early, our doctors work hard to keep us alive. There is no doubting their commitment. When I went to discuss my end-of-life wishes with my GP, he said: ‘I’ve got a form for that.’ Down the left-hand side of the form were the names of three likely causes of death: heart attack, stroke and pneumonia. For each there was a range of treatment options, ranging from maximum intervention to ‘just being kept comfortable’. I opted for being kept comfortable. ‘Oh, no,’ said the doctor, ‘I could easily cure pneumonia.’ Pneumonia is the illness known as the old person’s friend.

Someone told me recently that his wife had had ‘a good death’. She had starved herself to death, a ‘legal’ means in this country of ending one’s life. I wonder how many family members, watching a loved one waste away, would agree that this was a good death.

Given the problems of leaving life, perhaps it is time to acknowledge the advantages of staying on. Importantly, it diverts attention away from our own selves. Essentially, we move to ask what difference we make to the people we meet. We hope to make people feel better for the encounter. As the focus changes away from ourselves we become more generous in our affections, more ready to listen to others’ concerns than to tell our own.

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.