At the hour of our death
The Tablet22 September 2016 | by Jonathan Riley-Smith | Comments: 0 Before he died on 13 September after a long illness, a distinguished historian wrote this advice to others who are dying
Death is not only unavoidable but necessary; and how we die is, at least in part, determined by our choices. If, like me, you are faced by terminal illness, be thankful that you have not died suddenly. You may have been one of those who, in the belief that they would be spared suffering, wanted to pass away quickly and without warning. If so, you have been ignoring the effect that such an event would have had on your family, the chaos you would certainly have left behind and the burdensome and expensive work of tidying up that would have been imposed on others. You have been privileged and it is important that you should make use of this grace to set your affairs in order.
If you are, like me, a Christian, you have been given the opportunity to prepare yourself to meet your creator. Catholics have always prayed to be spared “a sudden and unprovided death”. Bear in mind that God has some purpose for you. Take full advantage of the sacraments. Establish a pattern of regular prayer, but do not give way to over-enthusiasm. It is better to begin modestly and to build further if you find it desirable.
Be glad, too, that the warning you have had will allow you to come to terms with your condition. You must try to be at peace. A good death can provide comfort to your family, but it needs a contribution from yourself as well as the assistance of medicine. This is hard advice. It is easier for old men like me to follow it than for the young, who are bound to feel unfairly treated by providence. Nevertheless, you must be reconciled to your end as far as is possible. Avoid anger or regrets. Do not despair. Enjoy the life left to you and be grateful for it.
This will prove to be easier than you expected. You will have found already that, in the moments after you heard the doctors’ report, any idea of a future was driven from your mind. No other option was left to you than to live day by day. I was astonished to find how quickly I came to terms with this. I should have lived every moment as though it was my last throughout my life, but I had pursued my career on the assumption that I would survive almost for ever. Now, with the evaporation of the future, the present moment became so precious that I wondered why I had let it fly by. My senses were intensified. My curiosity was sharpened. The beauty of natural objects and the vividness of my surroundings were enhanced. You will discover yourself embracing this vision, which is the one we had as children, lost with age and have now recovered. It is exhilarating and rewarding.
The annihilation of your future should not prevent you from setting yourself some short-term goals. These can be related to your work, to your interests, or to the issues that you do not want to leave unresolved on death. Write your memoirs. Take up painting. You must remain active and involved as long as you can.
Do not let the acceptance of death become a surrender to it. We all dread the prospect of pain. Modern medicine cannot entirely relieve us of it, although my experience is that it can be made bearable and that, as so often in life, expectations are worse than reality. Of course there are cases where death is agonising or where a neurological disorder gradually deprives a victim of all senses or where an active man or woman finds the prospect of dependence on others unbearable. One hears regularly of those for whom life has become so atrocious that they want a legitimate means to end it. Their despair and the compassionate support of their carers are understandable and moving, but life is a precious gift from God and as Christians we believe that we have no right to dispose of it as we please. And whether or not we are attached to a religion, it is counter-productive for most of us to believe that we should be able to end our lives at will. There are dangers in manufacturing its closure, however attractive this may seem to be.
A feature of the condition in which we find ourselves is that we are often subjected by well-meaning relations and friends to bizarre advice and quack remedies. Do not allow yourself to be tempted by nostrums that never work and make our reconciliation to our illness harder by presenting us with apparently easy solutions. It is cruel to offer forlorn hope in this way. It is best for us to follow the advice of doctors, whose treatments are at least based on science.
We are all drawn to the extraordinary at the expense of the mundane, because, although some of us abandon faith altogether, many of us at least half believe that there is more to life than material existence and in crises turn beyond ourselves. In the initial stages of my disease it was not my religion that comforted me; it was the recognition of my condition that heightened my attachment to my religion. In other words, that yearning for something beyond myself found expression in the strengthening of my faith. In the end, of course, faith and illness become so intertwined that each becomes part of the other.
Remember that all your life has been a preparation for an event which is as significant as your birth and is far more important than any birthday. You are about to pass on to another plane and into another world. There may still be time to draw some comfort from memories of your earthly past, provided that you do not become consumed by unnecessary guilt. What happened long ago is over and done with, although it is good to make peace with anyone you have offended.
Treat your death as a celebration. Take an interest in it. Plan your funeral as carefully as you would the wedding of one of your children. Take care to leave your closest relations with good memories of your ending. Your fortitude will ensure that they will remember you with pride and affection, and that they will pray for you. Remember that death is no barrier to prayer.
Jonathan Riley-Smith was a historian of the Crusades, and a Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History. He was also a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His Requiem Mass will be at Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Hills Road, Cambridge on Tuesday 27th September at 12.15pm.