Saturday, 17 October 2009

A good death ... ?

I had been going to spend part of these few days in Crete with a friend. At the beginning of September she took her own life.
Others have been writing about suicide recently and the weight of loss and helplessness it leaves behind. Rarely have I felt the weight of a friend's death so clearly as for my friend Suzanne, yet I wouldn't want to claim particular closeness, others were closer, knew her better. I sense it has hit many of us similarly and comes over us in waves. We just miss her dreadfully and we also realise that we are never really going to fully understand, even if some pieces of the puzzle are clearer.

As we met to remember and weep for Suzanne on that first day we learned of her death I offered the whole of this prayer by John Bell which I've posted before:

I will do it only once, Lord,
though my whole life moves towards it.
So I pray for a good death
when the time is right,
when I have finished my business,
when I have come to terms with my mortality.

A "good death" is a term that the founder of the hospice movement, Cicely Saunders, often spoke of. Sheila Cassidy who carries on Saunders' work speaks of "a good death feeding out into society".
Yet it is only some of us in a few privileged societies who will have access to such a good death. So much of what happens as a result of someone dying is desperately painful, messy and difficult, even when they have had good pain management of their final illness. Relationships that were already strained can reach fever pitch, people need time to even dare to find the space and courage to talk about their real feelings.
Yet even as some of the arguments on pain control and caring for the dying being a natural and good thing to do seem to at be being won, it is still hard to push resources towards care and treatment of depression and mental illness. In many ways that would also feed out into society and help to put the issue further up the public health agenda.
Writing about "a good death" also makes me uncomfortable at other levels. I know that if I died tonight my own life is far from in order and that the disorder will make things difficult for those who love me. I've written quite a bit in recent months about Grace Jantzen's idea of us being natal rather than mortal. I'm not sure how this translates into practical theological terms but perhaps it means preparing funerals, wills and writing letters a long time in advance ... though maybe that adds too much of a layer of Calvinistic guilt to everything. Perhaps being able to die a trusting death at whatever time, knowing that one is loved enough for such things to be dealt with is also a natal approach.
And it is such a privilege to even think about a good death as an ideal - for most human beings dying today this will not be the case as disaster, war, tyranny and famine rob them also of that last comfort as of life itself. Perhaps having a good death can never exactly be a human right but human physical and mental well-being and health are definitely questions of justice.

Others have been thinking about different themes linked to the issue of suicide and as a result Kurk Gayle (he is I am delighted to say back on the blog) left the following quote in a comment. It's an extraordinary example of palliative mental health care in extreme circumstance, in any other context I might issue a warning about suffering not being redemptive.

"... Victor Frankl [was] an Austrian neurologist and psychologist who in 1942 was deported to Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp that housed Jews in transit to Auschwitz. While in the camp, and later in Auschwitz, Frankl studied and journaled about his and others' conditions of despondency. He was separated from his wife and lost his parents in the ghetto, yet he still worked to prevent suicide among his fellow prisoners among fellow prisoners. Interfering with suicides was prohibited by Nazi guards, but Frankl whispered in people's ears all the same. The essence of his whispers were that life, even amid the absurdity of human suffering, still had meaning. Suffering, as absurd as it seemed, pointed to a greater story in which, if one would only construe himself [or herself] as a character within, [she or] he could find fulfillment in his [or her] tragic role, knowing the plot was headed toward redemption. Such an understanding would take immense humility and immeasurable faith, a perspective perhaps achieved only in the context of near hopelessness.
Frankl's papers, written after surviving the camps, and even after losing his wife to the Nazis, indicated a philosophical conclusion that misery, though seemingly ridiculous, indicates life itself has the potential of meaning, and therefore pain itself must also have meaning. Contrary to Freud's posit that man[kind]'s greatest pursuit is of pleasure ... For the prisoners Frankl helped in the concentration camps, a chance for survival was increased by a person's ability to dwell in a spiritual domain, a place where the SS could not intrude."
Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, pp 195-96


J. K. Gayle said...

"Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say?"

Jane - You move us deeply with this post. Many condolences to you in Suzanne's absence. Many. I've lost three close friends to suicide and still get come over by the waves.

Jane said...

Kurk thanks for this ... Sometimes I don't feel really entitled to my grief ... I was not special friends with Suzanne but we connected through work and worship and appreciated each other.
I am sorry too for your losses, it is very, very hard. One of the most difficult situations I have been in was on rural ministry exposure for a week in EAst Germany where the couple we stayed with for a week had lost son, daughter in law and two brothers to suicide ... the grand children we both under 10 and being brought up by the parents
There is a place where words and tears cease and even in that place we do not understand ... it is silence and pain, and the waves keep coming