Hospice care is one of the UK's outstanding success stories. The birth of the modern hospice movement grew from the vision and commitment of Dame Cicely Saunders who founded and opened the first modern hospice, St Christopher's, in 1967. Since then modern palliative care has grown into a worldwide movement that has radically changed the way we approach death and dying.
Motivated by her own faith in Christ, Dame Cicely built a movement that cares for people of all faiths and none. Hospices care for the whole person, aiming to meet all needs — spiritual, physical, emotional and social. For the army of volunteers, the doctors, the nurses and for all those who share the benefit of their expertise to help alleviate pain and suffering of patients and their families – I give thanks.
My mother, Ruth, dying of throat cancer, had her quality of life greatly assisted by the palliative care she received at Holy Trinity Hospice in South London. Our two children, aged 15 and 10 at the time, said: “Grandma is so peaceful. We haven’t lost her: she has simply departed from us. We will see her.” The look on their faces was awe-inspiring.
And on my pilgrimage of prayer, witness and blessing, I had the privilege of praying with Susan who was in an end of life bed in a hospice and not expected to survive the evening. Having not spoken much for several days, I started saying the Lord’s Prayer and she joined me with a very clear voice and then thanked me for coming. Her whole face became radiant and joyful and there was peace and serenity all around her. Susan, a beloved lover of Jesus died 13 days later and her family have said how much my prayers meant to Susan and her whole family.
Hospice and palliative care is the specialist field where there are people who will do this and such care is given free of charge. Yet most hospices are charities that struggle for funds and many people still reach the end of their lives without the care that could so easily have helped them.
The existing barriers are many. Increased and more consistent funding is needed. A greater co-ordination of services is required to make sure that the best possible use is made of the expertise that already exists, so that more people can benefit. There also needs to be an education programme so that those who are most at risk can get all the help they need.
There are those who may avoid seeking help out of fear or hopelessness. Some may think that their cultural or religious needs will not be met. In fact, taking its rightful place alongside medical and social care in the hospice and palliative care movement is spiritual care. When the great events of life come to meet us — birth, illness, tragedy, death — the spiritual element is extremely important. Hospices in the UK, rooted in the communities they serve, have chaplains who provide (or ensure appropriate provision is made) to support patients and families, whatever their faith, or none.
But many people are asking about the ultimate "choice". Is it to choose to end your life, because of extreme suffering and pain due to an incurable illness ? To die with dignity has become inextricably associated with a campaign for “assisted dying”, but for me dignity is actually about valuing life, life, as Jesus demonstrated, ‘in all its fullness.’ In a society where people are living longer and medical science is enabling us to add more years to our span of life, we should not have to live in fear – we should celebrate and live life to the full.
We all have to die, but we can go some way towards dying with dignity if we first articulate our choices, such as the place where we want to die, the kind of spiritual support we may want, how we want to be cared for and what our funeral plans may be. The Book of Common Prayer includes the exhortation to make a will – we should take this seriously. This may include whether to be an organ donor. Even choosing hymns for the funeral, songs or readings can help family members already trying to come to terms with their loss. These small, practical actions can make the world of difference.
Dylan Thomas would say:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Do not go gentle into that good night.”
“Though they go mad shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.”
The Church of England believes that the current law on assisted suicide and the Director of Public Prosecutions guidelines for its administration provide a fair, balanced and compassionate approach to a difficult issue which has defied consensus.
The General Synod, the governing body for the Church of England, underscored this approach as recently as February 2012.