Talking about death is hard. We all find it difficult to some degree – no more so than when confronting our own mortality.
My first experience with facing my own mortality came when I was on a fairground ride controlled by a man with a clearly homicidal streak. Accompanying us on this ride was a girl who worked at the resort – a sure sign you’ll get an extended ride with the velocity dial set to 11. And we did. At twelve years old, in the South of France, I suddenly felt afraid for my life. I don’t go on roller coasters now. That’s part of what makes us grow up – realising that, actually, we won’t always be here. We can’t properly comprehend life before we were born so how can we imagine a life without being in it?
|Brixton DJ Junior, father to “a football team” of 11, faces incurable prostate cancer|
Why me? Facing a terminal illness
Terminal illness is a concept the vast majority of us are ill-prepared for and we simply cannot even intellectualise the concept of it happening to us or someone we love – the “why me” syndrome coupled with denial is often a useful coping mechanism.
What is a year when taken in context of a finite ending? What does dying feel like? How can you help someone to die ‘well’?
These are the questions that Channel 4’s new reality show, My Last Summer, has been asking – speaking freely about dying, helping families deal with the reality of not being there any more and ‘making the most’ of the time left with a ever-growing bucket list (“every time I tick one off, I add two”, said one show’s participant).
|(L-R) Andy, Jayne, Ben, Lou & Junior at the retreat where they discuss life & death decisions they can’t change|
Covering aspects of ethics, health, palliative care, emotional and societal woes that most of us would really prefer not to think about, it was always going to be tough viewing.
A bittersweet euphemism for death
In this, the first of a 3 part mini-series, we meet Lou, 38, who is being slowly killed by Motor Neurone disease diagnosed just after the birth of her first grandchild; Andy, diagnosed with Leukaemia at just 41; Ben, with incurable lung cancer, who wears a T-Shirt proclaiming he is a ‘man with a fork in a world full of soup’ and “doesn’t do cancer [because he] doesn’t do serious”; Jayne, whose breast cancer has now spread to her bones and Brixton DJ, Junior, who is a hard-partying father of 11 and an incurable prostate cancer sufferer.
Mixed with the personal views of each terminally ill person’s take on their own illness, prognosis and short-term life outlook, we also hear from each patient’s family, with one memorable exchange dealing with how Lou told her 6 children that she would be leaving this mortal coil sooner than expected. Her daughter, who was in the first year of primary school when Lou was diagnosed, calls dying a odd, euphemistic ‘chocolate-ing’. She admits that she’d rather not have been told that her mother would ‘chocolate’ but wants to know when that chocolate-y end is imminent nonetheless. “When you chocolate’, she said “can I have your phone?”.
“I’m having a tomato sandwich and doing the crossword”
But it’s not just children who struggle with the reality of death – Jayne’s husband wouldn’t come with her to get her final results as he’d just made a tomato sandwich and was busying himself with a crossword. Her best friend couldn’t cope either and bailed on the friendship. As if a dying person hasn’t enough to deal with, the people who should be closest to them simply prioritise their own feelings and bugger off to a life where they don’t have the think about it.
Death is one of those few things that you simply cannot understand, truly empathise with or, usually, even want to discuss unless it’s happening to you. Pet-hates of the dying include the kind of phatic communication – designed for a social purpose rather than to elicit a true response – that involves platitudes like ‘oh, but you look so well’ and the “suffocating sympathy” of “people who just don’t know what to say”.
Living and dying well: still a major taboo
The dilemma of palliative care and assisted suicide is a taboo that no show on dying could leave aside. It draws incredibly polarised views from all corners of society, government and, well, frankly, anyone with any stake in living and dying well.
|Thinking about death is about more than considering the last sunset you’ll see|
My own position on euthanasia has traditionally been broadly in favour until I recently started reading a book by Dr. Bob Bury, a retired radiologist who is now a Humanist Celebrant who conducts non-religious funerals. His view is complex and I recommend reading it rather than judging on this snippet, but I felt his view was not adequately represented in tonight’s show and worthy of adding to the already contentious issue:
“I do get irritated by the failure of the pro-euthanasia lobby to confront the reality of assisted suicide. Having decided that liberalisation […] is a good thing, they want to unload the unpleasant consequences on to the medical profession, hoping that we will deal with it [behind closed doors].
“Where the alleviation of insupportable suffering requires measures that may hasten death, we are already able to justify that within the present legislative framework. It is also the case that advances in palliative care techniques make this situation increasingly rare.”
Read his full views in his book, “What seems to be the problem?” for his incredibly nuanced views that have influenced mine significantly, moving me firmly to the fence from a previously held, strong pro-euthanasia position. I still err on the pro-euthanasia side, but with reservations that aren’t influenced by religious-bound concerns, for I am not religious, but ones of practicalities and ethics that now trouble me. It’s hard changing your mind.
“What a waste of my life – that I’m going to die”
Whatever your views on euthanasia, whether from a religious position or a purely practical one, this show will confront you right in the face with what it means to be a human. And we should learn from those who go before us – “there’s no right time to die for God’s sake, is there? What a waste of my life – that I’m going to die. Wasted…”, said Jayne.
|Does death really mean a life is wasted?|
But that’s all we are. Bits of carbon. Meat and tendons controlled by a mass of neurons we don’t understand. Soul or not, we can’t know the true effect we have on the world around us. But death isn’t a waste. This comes from a position of privilege, I admit – I am not staring the grim reaper in the face – but it isn’t a waste. It is part of life. And that’s what this show is for.
My take on the reality of life and death is on a par with Carl Sagan’s – “it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
Others’ last mileage may vary.
My Last Summer Continues Wednesdays at 10.00pm on Channel 4
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