Friday, 29 July 2016

How to die

‘There is a beauty in caring for someone who is dying,’ Debbie Binner told the Telegraph newspaper last week. Within the last few years Mrs Binner has lost an 18-year-old daughter, Chloe to cancer and watched her husband Simon, debilitated by Motor Neurone Disease (MND)  take his own life at a Swiss assisted suicide clinic.

The story of his final months was told in last week’s powerful BBC documentary How to die: Simon’s choice. It was a balanced piece – we saw Simon, an ‘alpha male’, a quick-thinking business director living a high-octane life, losing his speech and mobility. Facing what he sees as the humiliation of complete dependence upon others, he decides not to accept the palliative care he’s offered, instead choosing the time of his own passing.

But we also saw Debbie, and Simon’s friends, and others with strong convictions arguing that this was not the best option: yet he did not in the end change his mind.

Debbie Binner discussed her husband’s decision both in the film, and in the Telegraph article. She and the family needed Simon – weren’t their lives intertwined with his, and wasn’t it therefore their choice too? ‘He had rights, but how much of his life was mine?’ she ponders. ‘I would have loved to nurse and cherish him to the end.’
Debbie and Simon Binner
Though there was reference to Simon’s continuing existence at his funeral service, it’s not clear in what sense this was meant. The film gave no insights into Debbie and Simon Binner’s spiritual beliefs. It would have been helpful to have known whether, for example, Simon believed that death is the end.

Many of us as Christians may have an instinctive reaction to this subject. ‘Assisted suicide is so wrong.’ And yet as Debbie said referencing the debate both inside and outside Parliament on the Assisted Suicide Bill which was before the House in the final weeks of Simon’s life ‘The campaign is polarised between good and evil. The reality is much more complex.’

Assisting in the suicide of someone with a terminal condition remains illegal both in Scotland and England. I can’t begin to enter into the pain of those involved, and I will not judge or condemn anyone who, like Simon, chooses this route. But for me, choosing life is the best option.

It strikes me that to choose assisted suicide is to assume that my life is mine to dispose of as I wish, and I’m uncomfortable with this. As Debbie says, should friends and loved ones not have a say? And as Christians we believe each breath we take is a further gift from God. While God still gives breath, should we not baulk at saying ‘No!’ to life?

To which someone, gravely ill, might retort ‘What kind of God would give me a life like this?’ And yet, there can be a strange blessing in dying when the time is right. Talking about Chloe’s death, Debbie Binner says ‘We soon learned that grief can go hand in hand with joy; we could laugh and find happiness in every shared meal and cuddle.’ Eventually Chloe entered a hospice where ‘deeply compassionate nurses helped her pass away with immense dignity.’ We need to hear such stories of those who say ‘Yes!’ to life.

It seems to me that being prepared to end your life is not the same as being ready to die. The crumbling of our external life is often a call to discover a deeper foundation. A friend who frequently works with those in their last days tells me that invariably, whatever their spiritual beliefs, people are ready to die when the time comes. It is, I suspect, a mistake to go too soon.

I can’t pretend to know what enduring MND is like. But to me, God wells up like a river within us, flowing from the heart. A God who, though our body is shutting down can touch and sustain us while our brain cells are still firing – and beyond. A God whose Spirit accompanies our spirit through the darkness and into the light beyond.

Debbie Binner tells the Telegraph that she is uneasy about ‘a system that doesn’t allow open discussion of the despair people feel in the face of illnesses like this.’ Her words challenge us as Christians: to be open to folk who don’t share our views on assisted suicide; open to Christians who are ill and want to die and don’t feel free to talk about it; open to grieving friends and relatives; holding all in love, and not in judgement.

For it’s when we’re faced with death that we ask the deepest questions. Says Debbie Binner ‘Simon’s decision made us grapple with the whole point of human existence and consider the sanctity of life itself.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 18th February 2016)

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