A friend of ours gave us a book to read the other day. Nothing unusual about that, we are blessed with friends who know what moves us, and love to share things they have discovered.
However, this friend is from a different generation- she is almost 80 years old, and has lived a life of adventure. Her father was a famous movie producer/director, who fled from the Nazis and lived his life in England. She grew up in a privileged world, against which she rebelled, becoming an author, a book editor, and eventually meeting her husband, who had been a pilot in the war. They then spent much of their married life living aboard boats, making their last voyage out to St Kilda when her husband was almost 80. Sadly he died about 6 years ago. Since then our friend has travelled the world- Australia, China, India to name but a few of her destinations. In her deep grief she has decided to live life to the full.
Strange then that she is a firm advocate of euthanasia- the right to choose when and where she wants to end her life. Our friend is a firm atheist and humanist, and brings a fierce integrity to her understanding of death.
Or perhaps it is not strange at all. Perhaps the strangeness is to be found in our own attitudes towards death.
The book she gave us is this one;
Marie de Hennezel is a gifted psychologist who works as part of a remarkable team of doctors and nurses in a hospital for the terminally ill. In this eloquent book, she shares her unique perspective on what life and death really mean – and explores how talking about death, and facing up to it, can actually help us lead more abundant lives.
The men and women who come to the palliative-care unit do not always know that they are dying. It is de Hennezel’s aim to bring them and their loved ones to this knowledge, and then to encourage them to live each day as fully and serenely as possible. Through insight and humanity, and the unforgettable people she helps, we learn how precious the final days of a person’s life can be and how deeply moving it is to share these moments with someone else.
In an age where people hesitate to talk about dying, Seize the Day lends us the strength to confront the mysteries of death, gives us hope and celebrates the courage of the human spirit.
It is a beautiful book, full of life, grace and deep love of humanity.
Though I walk in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. So says the psalm that we always hear at funerals. It has often occurred to me that when those words were written, the culture that sang them had no concept of an afterlife. By this I mean that the Old Testament makes no mention of life after death- it was not part of their religion, their culture or their understanding. Yet when we hear the words of Psalm 23 at funerals, we are using them precisely to give us hope of life beyond.
I make this point not as criticism- I too hope and believe that we are spirit as well as body.
However, it is worth thinking again about how our culture has sanitised and compartmentalised death almost as if to pretend it will never happen.
We come to believe that death can be defeated- by healthy life style, good eating, expensive health care. There is so much to distract us from the fullness of what life can be- all that entertainment, electronic isolation etc.
What Marie de Hennezel reminds us of is that we can choose whether we LIVE or not, but we can not choose whether or not we will die. And that to understand this makes us live in a way that transcends the temporal.
Our friend, approaching the end of her life, is putting her affairs in order. But she is very much alive.