Dying With Dignity 2

Switzer spoke of the dying person’s need to express their feelings to others, but the man I was with had not yet been able to fully express his feelings to himself. Therefore, he needed and indeed had asked for the time and space to go and do that. At that moment, John was not able to personally come to terms with his situation, let alone begin to sit down and think through the consequences for him and his family.

As Switzer rightly said, ‘We are to move at their pace, not ours, with the degree of openness they desire.’ This is a difficult balance if, as Nuland says, the person does not want ‘to exercise their right to independent thought and self-determination – in other words, their control’ because they cannot yet face the truth of their own impending death and so they block out the news that they don’t want to hear and live in a world of make-believe that everything will be just fine.

John had spiritual needs, but, in specific terms, they were largely unknown to him then. He was still speaking of cards being dealt to him by the doctors and possibly, to some degree, holding the doctors responsible for what was happening to him. This deal had given him bad cards, and perhaps it was, for him, the doctors who caught the brunt of it, for the game had turned sour.

I think that it is good, though not easy, practice to be honest with people about what medical science can or cannot do for them but, when it comes to bad news, how they are told and by whom is of critical importance. In my view, junior staff should not give senior news and impersonal staff should not give personal news.

Switzer discusses the fact that some doctors refrain from being honest with their patients about their terminal illnesses because they do not want to ‘destroy their hope’ but my (very) limited experience causes me to dislike even a ‘temporary but needed denial’ because it suppresses the human instinct to face up to and fight what is happening to them. It also turns life into the embodiment of perception and God into the embodiment of theology.

Everybody wants a good God who gives only good news, and no doctor wants to be the ‘god’ who is the bearer of bad news. I have observed that many doctors are exceedingly uncomfortable with impending death and I can understand that because, as Oden points out, ‘their time-honored medical ethic centers upon sustaining life rather than dealing with death.’ Impending death spells out the fact that the doctor can do no more for the body.

Nuland asks why, when doctors can do no more, they keep up ‘the busy paraphernalia of scientific medicine, keeping a vague shadow of life flickering when all hope is gone.’? Yet Nuland himself acknowledged that avoiding this busy-ness was easier said than done when his own brother was found to have a massively invasive cancer.

Hope of a cure may be gone, but there is still hope; the human may be able to do no more doing, but they can still be a human being. As Nuland said, ‘A promise we can keep and a hope we can give is the certainty that no man or woman will be left to die alone.’ To be a human being is to be in relationship to other human beings, for we are a human race, not merely a collection of individuals. My friends are valuable to me for who they are, and what they do is seen and known by me in the light of who they are.

While Switzer does not explicitly say this, he does imply that what a terminally ill person needs most is a human being rather than a human doing; that a dying person needs someone who will be right alongside them and who will be very careful in their use of words and deeds. But isn’t that also true for every person in every minute of every day of their lives regardless of circumstances? Surely church has fallen into the trap of having members, but forgetting that the church is people – not institution. To paraphrase Switzer: The first absolutely critical issue in terms of willingness and ability to work helpfully with other people is who we are as persons.

Many factors have made me what I am, and many people have contributed to my person; whether good and bad, right or wrong I do not always know, for these things cannot always be clearly discerned. One thing only I know: I am me. But I know a second thing: God is God. And I have discovered what Wilcock has called ‘windsurfing on silence’ as God and I have been together, sometimes saying and doing nothing. I am a human being and God is what he is, and we are together.

For a few precious seconds, and with my arm resting on John’s shoulder, we windsurfed on silence together. Regardless of faith, or lack of, and as our bodies touched even so briefly and lightly, we were sharing Wilcock’s ‘grace without the weariness of negotiation or the fear of compromise.’ Human being touched human being. Words had been very few, but there was a togetherness that words could easily have destroyed, if they had been used unwisely.

I treasure the brief times that I had with John. I treasure the privilege of being human with him, and making no demands of him; I was simply being a human being with another human being. Through the average human being that I am was another human being touched. What God was doing I do not specifically know; neither do I know the seed he planted in John. But I am certain that John would remember our brief times together, and I am equally certain that words could never describe the togetherness of human being to human being. Thank you, John.


Whenever and wherever I am, I pray that God will reach out and touch other human beings through me, and that I may not be obsessed with ‘getting results’. May I be ever focused to see and know his touch to me from people who are not obsessed with ‘getting results’, but who just love people. I pray that God will use others to touch me, and may they be near to me when it is my turn to ask the hard questions of life on my own behalf. For ask them I will. If not today, then tomorrow.

The writers of the Psalms frequently asked God many hard questions and often they did not receive their answers, but they often received the one who was and is the answer. May I, too, receive him who is the answer. Jesus is the way, the truth and life. In whatever circumstances I find myself in the future, may all those who have known me also have known something of Jesus, may all those who received me have received something of Jesus. In him I live and move and have my being. My human being.

May those who know me ever help me to guard against my relying on answers and formulae; may those who know me ever help me not to rely on my own wisdom. Meeting John did not shake my confidence in a God of love, but rather it increased my love for the God who is love. I pray that I will never shirk from being with people who are struggling in life’s most difficult circumstances, and may these people remember my love, not my answers.

Oh, Lord, don’t let me be indifferent to the pain of others. Don’t let me turn my face away. Don’t let me hide. Don’t let me run away. Let me look into the eyes of the broken, the dying, the bereaved; and, looking, let me care. Do not let me give false hope to the dying, but real hope that springs from eternity. Don’t let my heart grow cold to others. May my love always be more evident than my theology. God forbid that you, Lord, should ever be reduced to being the embodiment of my theology.

Keep me ever looking into your eyes, O Lord; then I can look into the eyes of others. Keep me vulnerable, even as you are vulnerable.  Let me, like Cassidy, ‘reveal to people that they are lovable.’ Lovable to me, lovable to God. The lovable are valuable. Valuable to me, valuable to God. As I meet human beings in their suffering, let me bring to them the love of the suffering God.

Before I come to face my own death, before I make that awesome, holy journey for myself; and in order to care wisely for those who make it now, I need a less narrow image of God. I will both live and die better if I understand the sacred necessity of abandonment to the gospel of grace.

Doctors see patients and they treat diseases; I want to care for people. Each person is loved by God. God is love. Lord, let me be love. Nothing more, nothing less. Let me, like Clark, ‘represent a quality of care and love which brought the universe into being and which even now surrounds each needy soul.’ By this may people know that I am your disciple. By this may John have known that I was your disciple.


Cassidy, S, Light From The Dark Valley, (London, Darton, Longman + Todd, 1994)

Clark, G L, ‘Ministering To The Dying’, The Expository Times, Vol 92 No. 6, March 1981, pages 164 – 166

General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, The Report of the Special Commission anent Review and Reform, ‘A Church without Walls’, available in November 2002 on the Internet from: www.churchwithoutwalls.org.uk

Lyall, D, Integrity of Pastoral Care, (London, SPCK,2001)

Nuland, S B, How We Die, (London, Vintage, 1997)

Oden, T C, Pastoral Theology, (San Francisco, Harper, San Francisco, 1983)

Switzer, D, Pastoral Care Emergencies, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000)

Wilcock, P, Spiritual Care of Dying and Bereaved People, (London, SPCK, 1996)