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Mortality and the blessing of a good death

Dying is the hardest thing many of us will ever do, if it is a lingering affair with extended suffering, loss of autonomy, and decline in bodily function. But even so, it can be a time of blessing to individuals and their loved ones.

This month, as Victoria’s assisted dying laws came into operation, I had the honour of helping launch oncologist and author Ranjana Srivastava’s excellent new book, A Better Death. She mentions euthanasia, but as someone who has been intimately involved with hundreds of dying patients, her concerns are far deeper.

The people who find dying the hardest are those who have never thought about mortality and cannot accept it – sometimes, Ranjana says, even people in their 90s. Many suffer a sort of existential pain – denial, absence of meaning, recrimination, regret – that can be as hard to bear as the physical aspects.

The urgent thing is to reflect before one ages. Ranjana quotes a Hindu scripture in which a prince is asked, what is the most surprising thing in the world? He replies: “Day after day man sees countless people die but still, he acts and thinks as if he will live forever.”

Concepts such as grace, forgiveness and redemption are just as powerfully consoling in dying as faith in an afterlife.

Anyone my age has seen that religion can provide consolation – not just the cheap atheist jibe of “pie in the sky when you die”, but by giving context, narrative and meaning to life and death that allow genuine comfort. This is not to suggest that all believers find comfort, or that non-believers cannot find meaning that provides release. Many, many do. But concepts such as grace, forgiveness and redemption are just as powerfully consoling in dying as faith in an afterlife.

The others who have to cope with death are those left behind, who must also find their own meaning. This is much easier in the case of a long life lived well. One of the gifts the dying can offer the living is freedom from guilt, regret and crippling grief.

When we lost our youngest son at 17 to cancer, we were dismayed at how he vanished from conversation (outside his immediate family). It’s not that our friends denied our grief, or assumed we would “move on” – they simply didn’t know what to say. In fact, it was balm to our spirits to talk about him, remember him, honour him – but it came in minute portions.

C.S. Lewis wrote of the death of his wife, “her absence is like the sky, spread over everything”. Expressing grief is surely part of coming to terms with it. Its intensity cannot last indefinitely, but I never wanted it to lessen, for that would entail a diminished freshness of memory – still, it has.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.

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