The Kathy Gyngell Interview: The dying need a chance to talk, says Dr Elaine Sugden

(Last Wednesday Wilberforce Publications and Christian Concern published their latest book - Talking about Dying which can be purchased here. Kathy asked cancer doctor Elaine Sugden, one of its four authors, what prompted her to contribute to it.)

Elaine Sugden: Philip Giddings, a political scientist, instigated this joint effort. He had not known what to say when a friend was dying. He was challenged to write and asked my help. As a cancer doctor I was involved with the 'Life Threatening Diagnosis', the 'Difficult Decisions' and the question about 'How and When' death would occur. It was never easy to speak of death.
Almost no one wants to die. A doctor's responsibility is to heal and prolong life where possible and when a reasonable quality of life can be maintained. In general doctors do not talk about death.

When the country was debating physician-assisted suicide, Martin Down, a retired clergyman,  and I both wrote articles for the Church of England newspaper expressing dismay that patients without quality of life, often unable to communicate and needing artificial means to keep them alive, were denied a natural death. We wanted to help all people with these and other issues as well as stating our Christian beliefs. Martin himself was put off preaching about death when after once doing so early in his ministry, a parishioner asked him not to do so again ‘because death is morbid’.

In general, Christians, like doctors, do not talk about death. In general, the dying take their cue from those around them and do not talk about death. Given permission though, they can find it helpful.

 

Kathy Gyngell: Does writing a book like this run the risk of being seen as another modern 'touchy feely’ exercise?

ES: I hope not. The authors wanted this book to be very practical. The sudden death of Philip Giddings' wife during the writing meant that the rest of us had to learn on the job about the devastation of the death of a spouse. I would describe this as a 'how to try to do it' book taking into account the emotional roller coaster that death and dying brings to sufferer, relatives and close friends. The 'try' is important here. It is never easy; no one is ever a complete expert. But a common thread throughout all chapters and scenarios is that people need to be given the opportunity to talk which means that we must listen.

KG: Is our inability to talk about and come to terms with death a modern problem? One that has resulted from the rise of secularism and the decline of faith?

ES: On Radio 4’s Thought for the Day (9.2.17) Michael Banner reminded listeners that the extended mourning and condolences of the Victorian era were discouraged during World War One since “such behaviour was bad for national morale in the face of unprecedented loss of life.” National espousal of the Christian faith has also depleted since that time. Whatever the reason, this society has tended to push death out of the equation and the bereaved just have to ‘get on with it’.

Current statistics suggest that 1/3 UK adults believes in God and 2/3 do not, although 1/5 believe in a higher spiritual power (but not God). Our majority society can be described as secular. People of faith are aware of being thought to be at best naive and at worst deluded. When, towards the end of life, people are asked about their needs, ‘meeting spiritual needs’ is mentioned in the protocols but rarely tackled and is rather subsumed into the agreed essential need for control of pain and other symptoms. I suspect that when the taboo on talking about death has been deleted, a taboo of talking about God / 'spiritual things' takes its place.  Rather than ignoring non-medical needs, it can be important for all people drawing near to death to remember their achievements, make peace with family and friends and feel that life is completed. Some will also want to make peace with God and value conversation about this.

 

KG: Or is it the outcome of medical 'progress' and life extension that has fed a sense of entitlement to life and immortality that ill prepares us for death?

ES: Medical progress has been and continues to be phenomenal and the general population follows the doctors in their wish for an extension to life. People vow they are going to live to 90, 100 or even longer as life expectancy continues to increase with the unspoken hope that one day there will be no need to die. In the specific case of cancer, the outcome for some is excellent, for others still compatible with years of good life but sadly for some remains dismal in spite of advances in treatment. However long we live, death is a certainty for everyone and we have to come to terms with this. Some of my cancer patients found it hard to believe that medical science could no longer help them.

 

KG: Do we need better marked 'rites of passage' after death - designated periods of mourning for example and does the C of E need to exercise leadership in this matter?

ES: This challenge is worth a discussion with the bereaved. In our village church an annual memorial service is well attended and appreciated. Many come year after year and find comfort in being encouraged or given permission to grieve and remember. I think we should consider your suggestion.

Death in Christian belief is part of life and the Christian Hope enables us to look beyond death rather than recoil from it. Those of no faith believe that death is the absolute end of existence. The strength of our beliefs, whatever they are, can never mean that we are correct in those beliefs. Christians believe in an afterlife but can differ in how they view it. Because an atheist is sure there isn't a God doesn't mean that there definitely isn't one. 

Life is good; it is natural to love life and fear death. So it seems contrary to want to encourage conversation about death. Whatever our beliefs it can be helpful to talk and for that reason this book was written for everyone.  

Kathy Gyngell

  • Groan

    One think appears to be simply that death has become a much rarer occurrence. Of course we all die, but in our daily lives we are so much less likely to experience the death of someone close to us as a regular thing. In a strange way this appears to have made us more afraid of considering it. I suspect this is part of the reason that soldiers often find themselves completely isolated if trying to deal with lots of death. Probably others too in jobs constantly seeing people dying.
    I have no notion of a solution but it is quite a new thing in human history for so little mortality to be experienced by most of us.

    • Good point. Dying used to be a part of life. Most died at home, most viewings indeed were at home, many were the death portraits of children, made as a keepsake of the lost one, and given the infant mortality statistics, most people not only lost their parents but lost at least some of their children.

      Today, it is all sanitized, die in the hospital, moved to the funeral home. It’s not really part of our existance.

      • First it is sanitised, then commodified until it is ready to be commercialised.

        • Busy Mum

          As is happening already if you look at the increasingly commercialised undertaker’s businesses.

  • One driver for peoples misconceptions of a dying relative is television. On television characters die quickly, usually muttering some profound dialogue or revealing a family secret, then slip away in seconds with their eyes closed.

    This idea then stays with people until they witness a loved one die and realise they have been sold a lie. The resulting reality then comes as a ‘slap in the face’ wake up call whilst they sit by the beside of the relative for days and days – without a clue as to behave or do.

    Well if the lobbying continue and succeeds in bringing about euthanasia then at least no one can then argue against bringing back the death penalty. If a society can kill its innocents then it should have no trouble in killing the guilty.

    • Phil R

      They have no problem killing innocents already. They are the unborn. Up to birth if one suspects they have something “wrong” with them.

      The Nazis developed Action T4 on the basis of cost and to “improve the herd”.

  • Under-the-weather

    Buddhism- the relief of suffering, and in particular The Tibetan book of the dead, is all ..about dealing with death.
    It is also founded on reincarnation.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nOs8s5zTGnA

    Below are very controversial video documentaries which question the reality behind the resurrection, which Orthodox Christians might prefer to ignore..i.e. Jesus in Kashmir
    Which in any event, in my opinion, doesn’t detract from Christ Consciousness, or the fundamental ethics of Christianty. but the` bodily Ascension` piece seems to have been added a few hundred years after the original verses ..and is being questioned for a number of reasons
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QAaW6BYhfNM
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=D9w-xJfSOyc

    • Phil R

      The Bible is Apostolic.

      Hence we can rely on its authenticity

      • Bik Byro
        • Phil R

          I know what a circular argument is do you know what Apostolic is?

          If you refute it say why..

          • Bik Byro

            Yes thank you.
            This is your argument boiled down :
            1. God exists because it says so in the bible
            2. The bible is true because it was written by God

          • Phil R

            There exists a huge amounts of non Biblical evidence…..

          • Bik Byro

            Well where is it then?

          • Phil R

            Lots out there. The British Museums for one are full of evidence.

          • Bik Byro

            Nope. I see lots of artefacts but not one bit of evidence.

          • Phil R

            And written on many of the artifacts are descriptions by non Jews of persons and events that are written in the Bible, especially in the OT

          • Bik Byro

            Which events in particular? Give an example.

          • Phil R
          • Busy Mum

            Exactly – people do not want to believe.

          • Bik Byro

            And some are desperate to believe.

          • Busy Mum

            Very true. See John 9 v 36 and Mark 9 v 24 for a couple of examples.

          • Bik Byro

            The link gives evidence that Nebo-Sarsekim existed.
            That’s not what I asked for.

          • Phil R
          • Bik Byro

            That link gives evidence that a book exists.
            You’re not doing very well at this.

          • Phil R

            I don’t know why I bother….

          • Bik Byro

            Well, try actually answering what was asked instead of the question you would like to be asked.
            You’re like the English student who gets asked in his exam about Jane Eyre, only he hasn’t read Jane Eyre, so he writes an answer about the Mayor of Casterbridge instead.

          • Phil R

            You say there are no boat trips on the Thames. I show you you a load of adverts for boat tips on the Thames and you reply that this is not evidence of boat trips actually existing. …….

            Do you actually check that there is a life jacket under you seat. ….?

          • Bik Byro

            I have asked for evidence of God and you have supplied none.
            To spell it out for a simple mind, all you have done is provide evidence for an event that happened in the bible.
            It’s like asking for evidence of Father Christmas and you say “here’s a link to prove the north pole exists”

          • Busy Mum

            ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’
            Psalm 53 v 1

          • Bik Byro

            Irony is lost on you, isn’t it ?

          • Busy Mum

            Who’s the fool – you, or King David for thinking you are one?

          • Bik Byro

            “Believe in God” – says a book that wants you to believe in God
            Fools swallow biblical quotes unquestioningly.
            Tell me, not very busy mum, have you actually ever tried applying your own critical reasoning to the issue, or have you just parroted other people and bits of the bible?

          • Busy Mum

            How do you explain the (continued, against all odds) existence of the Jews and of the Bible?
            Throughout history, a belief in a god or gods has been universal.
            Am a slightly less busy mum than I used to be as all children at school – but busy mums are very good at fitting an awful lot in to the day:)

          • Bik Byro

            So since belief in Odin and Apollo existed in history, that means Odin and Apollo exist.

          • Busy Mum

            What I am saying is that a belief in no god at all is abnormal.
            And the Jews and the Bible? Why are they here?

          • Bik Byro

            That’s like asking “Why is the Temple of Zeus here”
            Zeus must exist otherwise why is his temple here?

          • Busy Mum

            Yet more evidence that a belief in a god is normal….

          • Bik Byro

            But not evidence that such a god actually exists.

          • Busy Mum

            But can you prove that God doesn’t exist?

          • Bik Byro

            Can you prove that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist?
            If you can’t, then you should dedicate your life to worshiping the tooth fairy.

          • Busy Mum

            False equivalence again – caught you out with that the other day.

          • Bik Byro

            Not false equivalence at all. In fact why not worship everything you can’t prove doesn’t exist. You can’t prove the flying spaghetti monster does not exist, so start worshiping that one right away.

          • Busy Mum

            Tooth fairy, flying spaghetti monster, Odin, Apollo, Zeus…any more to add to the list of gods that people persist in believing in?

          • Bik Byro

            How about the one that you believe in?

          • Busy Mum

            The same as the One you don’t believe in.

          • Ah, but God’s existence has been proved, Christoph Benzmüller of Berlin’s Free University ran Mathematician and Logician Kurt Goedel’s formula that proved St. Anselm’s Thesis. The formula is this:

            “Ax. 1. {P(φ)∧◻∀x[φ(x)→ψ(x)]} →P(ψ)Ax. 2.P(¬φ)↔¬P(φ)Th. 1.P(φ)→◊∃x[φ(x)]Df. 1.G(x)⟺∀φ[P(φ)→φ(x)]Ax. 3.P(G)Th. 2.◊∃xG(x)Df. 2.φ ess x⟺φ(x)∧∀ψ{ψ(x)→◻∀y[φ(y)→ψ(y)]}Ax. 4.P(φ)→◻P(φ)Th. 3.G(x)→G ess xDf. 3.E(x)⟺∀φ[φ ess x→◻∃yφ(y)]Ax. 5.P(E)Th. 4.◻∃xG(x)”.

            So, go ahead now, disprove it.

          • Bik Byro

            Hehehe, I’m familiar with this one. There’s also Euler’s (a+b^n)/n = x

      • Under-the-weather

        The bible is an interpretation from the Greek, so is reliant on the interpretation of scholars from three different languages, the original Aramaic, Greek, Latin, into English. That excludes the issue of validity.
        For instance, there are several interpretations of Jesus crying out from the cross and not saying ” my God why hast thou forsaken me” but “my God what do you have planned for me, or why have you saved me”, both latter interpretations direct from the Aramaic, gospels held by the Church of the East, which didn’t go through the Reformation.
        Direct from the Aramaic, for example, the holy ghost is feminine, and acknowledged by Jesus as such..

        According to this study (which can be checked word for word on line)
        Luke: 51 states :And it happened that while He blessed them, He was separated from them and ascended unto the Shmaya {the Heavens}.
        http://www.thearamaicscriptures.com/lukes-gospel.html
        Which doesn’t have to be assumed as a literal physical interpretation at all. For a master Yogi, an increased higher level of consciousness can be achieved which is on a par with God, and without near death implications. Our understanding of a modern near death comes with all kinds of bright
        light, and floating experiences.

        • Phil R

          Must have been a clever yogi to have fooled experienced Roman soldiers well used to making quite sure someone was dead.

          Do you really think that with Jesus’ prior claims that they would not have made absolutely sure…..?

          • Under-the-weather

            Never heard of a coma then obviously.

          • Busy Mum

            The centurion acknowledged Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God AFTER Jesus had cried out and ‘given up the ghost’.

          • Under-the-weather

            Which meant he would have been sympathetic towards him being dead.

          • Busy Mum

            More likely he would have wanted to make sure He was still alive.

          • Under-the-weather

            What I meant…by being sympathetic

          • Busy Mum

            So we can safely believe that Jesus was well and truly dead.

          • Under-the-weather

            I don’t think any such thing. In fact all the `evidence` points otherwise

          • Busy Mum

            Why don’t you want to believe that Jesus died?

          • Under-the-weather

            Listen to the video links I posted.

          • Busy Mum

            Why don’t YOU want to believe that Jesus died?

          • Phil R

            Make no mistake. The centurion knew what his fate would be if Jesus wad still alive

          • Under-the-weather

            All speculation, but there’s a tomb out in Tibet.

          • Phil R

            Right…..

  • Labour_is_bunk

    I quote from something I noted down some time ago (author unknown):

    “Alcohol may harm my health, but if the alternative is to spend 10 extra years on this earth confined to a care home, incontinent, demented and being fed mush, I’ll take the drink and go out
    feet first having had a good life. We may be living longer, but the quality of that extra old age is pretty rubbish for all but a fortunate few”.

    Of course, the writer is trying to justify his excesses. We may or may not agree in general, but that last sentence always sticks in my mind somehow.

    • Under-the-weather

      Scientists are saying that most animals have a life span which is about five times that of a young adult, so a human life span according to that yard stick, should be about 100 years. People are generally not achieving that, or achieving it in poor health, which might be a lot more to do with society, and what society now accepts is OK for the majority, than ‘rubbish’ per ce.