November 2017

The mystery of death and life

We need more help in assisted living, rather than assisted dying, writes Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

Death and dying have been in my thoughts. Not only in November when the Christian tradition especially remembers the dead. Not only since July when my mother died. But constantly throughout the year because of two books which offered me wisdom and insight into the mystery of death and life.

Atul Gawande’s best-selling book, Being Mortal, acknowledges the wonder and achievements of modern medicine. Yet Gawande, himself a practicing surgeon, believes that modern medicine has over-reached itself when faced with the realities of ageing and death. For the modern health professional, death is seen as a failure, and surgeons, uncomfortable talking with their patients about death, fall back on “medicalising” the ageing process by offering more drugs, more procedures, more institutional care, a new therapy.

Expensive remedies are wrapped up in false hopes. And when all hopes are spent, many conversations about assisted dying see that the answer once more lies in a medical approach, that of a lethal pill or injection.

Gawande’s book title says it all. The challenge of life is in the quality of our being (not only our physical condition) in the face of our mortality. It is not only medical care we need as we age and decline, but a life with meaning, a life as rich and full as possible, given the limitations of our condition and what medicine can offer. Death is not a failure. Death is normal. We live. We die. But let us not be romantically naïve. Death can be tragic, unwarranted, untimely and vicious, even though inevitable for all of us.

St Benedict would have us “live every day with death constantly before our eyes”. So how do we approach the question of our own dying?

A second book, A Matter of Life and Death, edited by Rosalind Bradley, offers helpful reflection to this very question. Bradley brings together international contributors from diverse cultural, professional and faith backgrounds to explore perspectives on death.

The names of some of the contributors may be familiar: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Gail O’Brien, Professor Patrick McGorry AO, Laurence Freeman OSB, and Dom Christian de Chergé. There are medicos, male and female religious leaders, a holocaust survivor, a death row inmate, a funeral celebrant and more – 60 voices in all, sharing their wisdom.

What stayed with me from this collection is that death teaches us invaluable lessons on how we live our lives. “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one,” writes Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet.

Those who know that they are dying re-prioritise their lives and deal with what is ultimately important. And what is important? It is not closing off the next deal, gaining the next qualification, making the next million or buying the latest fashion. Possessions, achievements and status become insignificant. What is ultimately important is love, friendship and relationship.

Atul Gawande quotes from surveys which show that those who are aware of impending death do not simply wish to prolong their life, and relieve their suffering. More urgently, they wish to strengthen their relationships with family and friends; they wish to live more authentically and with greater integrity; they wish to feel that their life has been of value. Death is reminding them not to put off until tomorrow the love that must be shared today. As one of the contributors, a Brazilian oncologist, in Bradley’s collection says, “You can only live fully once you accept your own death”.

The poet Raymond Carver captures the essence of a meaningful life.

“And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.”

A meaningful life is one where I know that I am loved and one where I can still love, no matter how frail, no matter how much pain, no matter how much dependence I experience. “To feel myself Beloved” will not magically appear at the end of life if loving relationships are not nourished and sustained now.

It occurs to me that we need more help in assisted living, rather than assisted dying. Reflecting on our mortality can assist us in living our life now so that we truly prioritise our relationships and ensure that our hearts are full of love, forgiveness and gratitude.

And when death encroaches, we need more help in prioritising quality of life rather than prolonging life by extraordinary medical means. We need better palliative care with the ultimate goal of, not so much a good death, but living a good life to the very end.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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