What does it mean to die well?
John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London. He is the author of Matters of Life & Death and Right to Die? Ahead of the release of his new book Dying Well, he discusses how we experience loss.
Beliefs about dying: then and now
If you ask most people how they would like to die, the most common answer is, “I want to die in my bed whilst I am asleep. I don’t want any warning, any awareness. I just want to go out suddenly, like a light…” Yet, the strange thing is that if you were to go back 400 years and ask people the same question, it was generally agreed that sudden unexpected death was the worst possible way to die. To be catapulted into eternity with no chance to prepare yourself, no chance to say goodbye, no chance to ask forgiveness . . . what a terrible way to die.
So why have attitudes to dying changed so radically, and what can we learn from the way that Christian believers of previous generations faced their own deaths?
I’ve written Dying Well for people who want to start to think about how their lives on earth are going to end and what it might involve. You might have received a diagnosis of what doctors call a “life-limiting illness.” Or you might recognise the fact that you are getting older and you want to make sure that you are prepared for whatever might come next.
Perhaps you are a relative, a friend or a carer for someone who is coming to the end of their lives and you are concerned about how to support them and what the future might hold. If so, Dying Well is also for you.
Having an honest conversation
Over the years, as I have had the privilege of having conversations about death and dying with many people, I have found that the most powerful and pervasive fears are about what is unknown and unmentioned. When we face these issues honestly and openly together, we can see that many of our darkest fears are out of touch with reality.
Maybe you have watched a loved one struggle with terminal illness or dementia. You might have wondered whether death would be preferable to prolonged survival. Let’s look honestly at the challenges and trials that may come at the end of life. Let’s consider not only an unwell person, but the effect that their death will have on friends and family.
Dying is not all loss
But I also want to point out the strange and wonderful opportunities that dying well can bring. Internal growth, healing of relationships, gratitude, laughter, finding forgiveness, fulfilling dreams – dying is not all loss, and it need not be all doom and gloom. Above all, I’m trying to discover what it means for us today to die well, and to die faithfully in the light of the Christian good news.
Dying Well is available for pre-order here.