When death becomes a friend

I met my friend D. yesterday for coffee at the Holbourn Museum. But I nearly didn’t. I waited for him outside not realising that he had gone into the museum and settled himself at a table in the café. Confused at not finding me around, , he said when we met up eventually, ‘I was just thinking of asking the waitress if I’d got the right day; that it is Wednesday and not Thursday’. We agreed that in future we would do as he had done, and we mentally booked the table in the corner for next time.

We shared thoughts and memories, as we usually do. (raising our voices; neither of us have very good hearing, and the café was quite full with other people talking loudly.) After a pause D. said, ‘I was in the bathroom the other morning and I thought there’s no point in living anymore.’ He has led an interesting life, travelling in Europe as part of his job, had a happy marriage and, still grieving at the loss of his wife a few years ago, recognises that the future promises little to look forward to.

A neighbour died earlier this month and I took the funeral a week ago. T. had had major surgery, more recently was diagnosed with rampant cancer and although he was by temperament and trade a practical man, in the last few months the fight went out of him. I called in to see him a few times but then his wife said he found it difficult to receive visitors, and we kept in touch with how he was through her. ‘He has given up’ she said one day.

I know euthanasia is controversial. If it was ever to become legal there would have to be many caveats to prevent the permission being used by unscrupulous people for the wrong reasons. It would not have been appropriate for either D. or T. But I have known so many cases where prolonged life has become a punishment for the person, and whilst doctors can and do bend the rules and help very sick people to gently approach life’s ending, they do so by default.

Religion is one reason why this is a subject surrounded by taboos. There is the common idea that just as life is a gift of God, death is his province too. People say ‘it is not his/her time yet’ or more specifically, ‘ God’ hasn’t fixed the time. The implication is that we mustn’t interfere with divine purposes. I am some sort of Christian, but I think it is more important to end individual suffering or incapacity that cannot be cured, than to satisfy belief in an inscrutable deity.