Who cannot be moved by the case of Dr Kate Granger? A palliative care doctor herself, at the age of 31 she faces a rare, aggressive and terminal form of cancer. Her own response to her illness is to tweet her experiences – as far as possible to the point of her own death.
Tweeting from her deathbed, it is hoped, will open up that dialogue with society, and enable people to prepare for a better dying themselves.
There is no doubt a need for this. An increasing number of people face a lengthy and drawn out process of dying; where once we dropped of a heart attack at seventy-something while digging in the garden, we now face decades of slow-motion dying in a home. And yet death itself remains a mystery.
Many younger adults have never seen a corpse; even fewer have witnessed a death. No longer the family gathering around the bedside at home! I find it remarkable: I've been in pastoral ministry for over twenty years, I've visited many people in their death beds - yet I have never actually been present when they have died. It takes so long these days; one doughty soul got my final blessing at least three times.
To address the often exaggerated fears about the process of dying is surely a good thing – not least if it helps balance the urge towards assisted suicide. Dr Granger herself resists this, and with her own professional expertise, is better placed than any to do so.
And she herself is charming, winsome and delightful. Professional identity aside, she is clearly a person of compassion and grace, without pretension. She is no terminal drama queen. You can only respect her courage and sincerity. You can but hope that her desire to “die well” and help others follow will be met. She reflects the best of the human spirit, as we see in so many ordinary people when the chips are down.
And yet, at risk of losing all my friends, I must confess to some disquiet. To question such a noble endeavour requires some justification, so I will declare some of my hand. I too have followed Dr Granger a little way down her path. I've written a little, but for the sake of the innocent I don't want to say too much about my own cancer; exactly where that road will takes me I do not know. However, should it arrive at a similar point, and even if it is possible, I do not intend to be tweeting to the end.
So what bothers me? Not necessarily what she might say herself – I am sure she will speak with honesty and with nuance – but with the way it is assimilated and interpreted in the current platitudinous cultural milieu. Will people hear what she actually says, or what they want to hear? I fear it may reinforce some dangerous assumptions.
Firstly, our death is not our own. This is counter-intuitive today. We have assumed for some time our life is our own to dispense with as we choose; inevitably, it follows that our dying is also our business. But what if our life is not our own – it belongs to other people, maybe even God? Then nor is our dying! At the sharp end is the euthanasia debate – but it crops up further back down the line. To what extent is the account of our own dying ours to make public?
Does it really help assist our collective human dignity when public flaunting of every detail, even for the best intentions, become commonplace? A blow by blow account of your wedding night or prostate surgery, or indeed dying moments? I know, of course, nobody is obliged to tweet or to follow. Yet it becomes the done thing in our Jeremy Kyle world, whether or not it is actually desirable or good. Once the genie of autobiographical nudism is out of the lamp, it will never go back.
And your’ dying is not your business only; it is a time that belongs to those who love you and really bear the pain. They are comforted if you depart in peace of course. But do they really want you to be totally sanguine about it? I don't think so. The desolate mother must have time to weep with Rachel for her children who are no more. The grieving partner must be allowed to stop all the clocks and cut off the telephone. The angry son must have the right to rage against the dying of the light. Your dying is their time and experience as well; they have a say in it, you must share in it.
Putting it as simply as I can, if the public exposure of dying experiences becomes the general norm, if fake bravado becomes the fashion, then many who face grief will face greater pain.
Secondly, our death is not under control. Medical advances have done a great deal to ease the process of dying – as has greater understanding of the psychology. But palliative care is not able to reach every illness. And even if it does, billions in our world live beyond its reach for economic reasons. You may face death without physical pain, yet be in utter loneliness and despair. And only a few have the articulacy and the audience to work through their trauma on twitface. All this on top of the most obvious point of all: Doctors may ease our dying, but are a long way off solving the problem itself.
Why say these things? Well of course it is important to emphasise the progress that has been made; we want people to live with quality, not surrender to fear and pain. Yet the fact is it remains a wretched business. We cannot actually control it, only influence the process.
And then what? Here's the elephant in the room: we've been focussing on dying. And the real thing is what happens next – death. Death is not the end. At least, I think not. Dr Granger makes no pretence to help us here – at least I am not familiar with her views. Some are completely confident that when they die they rot. Others are content with the vague and pleasant nation of heaven for (nearly) all. If that's you, then feel free to shuffle off this mortal coil however seems best to you. But do be sure, won't you!
Consider the question asked by Hamlet: “But in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?” What if the truth is this: “man is destined to die once and after that, to face judgement” (Hebrews 9:27). What if such laudable efforts so assuage people's minds about dying, they neglect to consider death itself and assume it “solved”?
The Bible offers relatively little comfort about dying, except perhaps the promise of Christ's presence in all circumstances. In brutal Biblical times, people were familiar with many unpleasant means of dying. They would regard any promise of a “good death” for believers eminently laughable. But the Bible is replete with promises about death. A time where a Father’s hands receive the dying spirit; where his house has many rooms for faithful friends. A time when the Son stands to welcome home the dying martyr to a place that is better by far; where every tear is wiped away and there is no death or mourning or crying or pain.
I wish you well, Dr Granger. I admire you. I pray for you. I expect to learn from you. Maybe, even, you will help me go about dying well.
But when it's time to die, I know where I follow.
You can read Dr Kate Granger’s blog here
and follow her on Twitter at @GrangerKate
You can read Rev Tom Chapman’s personal account of his battle with a brain tumour here.
Rev Tom Chapman is Pastor of Surrey Chapel in Norwich.
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