Dying Well

I was immensely encouraged a couple of weeks ago when I attended a conference on Ethics and Palliative Care at Riddell Hall in Belfast. It was so good to sit and listen to people whose job it is to care for those who are dying, by compassionate application of their medical skills, mediated through a present human being. Patients were portrayed as burdens to be disposed of, of numbers and statistics to be whittled down or of sub-humans who no longer have value to society. But there was an emphasis on their value as individuals, their personalities and their whole natures, their culture and their ethos, their different societal death rites and their taboos. It was enlightening and heartwarming, even though the discussion was about dying people.

I felt that it would be appropriate, on the run up to this conference, to read a book by John Wyatt called Dying Well. This one has been on my radar for a while, and in my ‘to read’ pile for a couple of months, but the time was right. And I’m so glad I took the time to explore its pages.

John Wyatt is the Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London. He’s a Christian, and a member of the Christian Medical Foundation. He has an interest in Bioethics through his work in Neonatology, and he’s written other books on the ethical issues surrounding death.

Before you start reading a book, do you ever get into a certain frame of mind, in preparation for the subject matter? Well, I settled myself into my morose solemnity in preparation for being depressed by reading about death.

That was not appropriate. Through reading this book I was uplifted and encouraged, both as a lay person, as a human being, and as a doctor.

Prof Wyatt quite rightly opens with a critique of our current culture of death – “Dying has become a medical event.” Indeed. And Christians are no better than non-Christians when we come to life’s end – we want to cling on to those precious scraps of life by any means possible, if you believe the study quoted. This reveals our reliance on science to save us, and shows how we neglect both our view of our bodies, and our view of eternity. Wyatt takes a step back, and dips into Medieval era Christianity for wisdom and advice, looking at a brand of popular Christian literature of the day known as ars moriendi, the art of dying. In an era when child mortality was high, life expectancy short, plagues abounded, and mechanisms of disease were poorly understood, people were faced with death on a regular basis. They had more practice at it, and they were more prepared for it. We, however, like to pretend that it doesn’t happen, or that we can put death off until a more convenient time. We don’t talk about it, we don’t think seriously about it, and we certainly don’t prepare for it.

And that is why this book is so valuable.

John Wyatt gives us a framework for thinking about our own mortality, founded in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He draws out the opportunities for good that can come from dying, and especially from dying well, allowing us to take our minds off our immediate plight and recognise that we exist as part of a complex network of other people, and how one’s suffering can positively impact those around us. I’ve said it before, suffering may be redemptive. He looks at the opportunities to restore friendships, to find forgiveness, to leave a legacy, and to re-order priorities. Death can bring healing, as odd as that may sound.

But this is not a rose-tinted spectacles sort of book. He looks at the challenges that come in dying well, looking at ars moriendi literature which frame these challenges as temptations to the dying believer – the temptation to pride, or despair, or doubt, for example; and he carefully and warmly shows us from God’s Word where our confidence lies, and where to run for help.

Our own death is uncharted territory – we have never been there before, although we’ve heard about it, glimpsed it, and perhaps seen others who’ve departed to that destination. In a beautiful and poignant chapter, Prof Wyatt shows us how the example of how Jesus Christ spent his final hours, how he suffered, and how he died – and how this may guide us in our life and death.

But he doesn’t leave us in the grave on the Friday, but takes us to the empty tomb on Sunday morning, looking forward to our eternal hope, founded in the risen Christ. I found this a powerful and moving chapter, inspiring me to reconsider those deathbed conversations in light of a new dawn; as Wyatt poignantly says, “Even the hospice can be invaded… by the life-giving Spirit of Christ”.  He leaves us lingering at the end of the final chapter, looking for the blessed dawn that awaits God’s redeemed ones, from Proverbs 4:18:

“The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter til the full light of day.”

I must confess to being a morbid ex-Goth, but I loved this book, and it lifted me, in the way that some beautiful music can lift us beyond our mere mortality; it reminded me that there is part of every human being that transcends the grime and pain of our little lives and connects us to eternity, and that what we have now pales into insignificance compared with the “eternal weight of glory that awaits us”.

I would heartily recommend this book to all and sundry, docs and non-docs, pastors and ministers and priests, elders and deacons. In fact, I would positively foist it upon such people and ask, nay demand, that they read it and and meditate on it. Important book.

Appendix 1

As an appendix, I would heartily recommend the material in the appendices of this book, which give practical help for Christians considering Advance Directives (including the associated legalities, and example wording of an Advance Directive), how to help our loved ones in their dying and a number of pertinent prayers.

Appendix 2

I couldn’t help but be carried away to some particular pieces of literature and music while I was thinking on these subjects. They add to the richness of this subject.

  • Strauss, Richard – Four Last Songs; has to be Elizabeth Schwartzkopf
  • Mahler, Gustav – Symphony No. 2, 4th and 5th movements. [don’t look too closely at the theology of either of these works…]
  • Tolkien, JRR – The Return of the King, Chapter IX – The Grey Havens,

“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Brings tears to my eyes every time, that does.

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