James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Death should hold no fear, says dying doctor

Families less conditioned to visible mortality these days, cancer patient believes

Terminally ill Dr Stephen Wealthall believes we should see the simple, everyday pleasures in life. Photo / Dean Purcell
Terminally ill Dr Stephen Wealthall believes we should see the simple, everyday pleasures in life. Photo / Dean Purcell

When his time comes, Stephen Wealthall would like to be at his Greenhithe home feeding the ducks and chickens or simply watching the stands of trees on his property swaying in the breeze.

The paediatrician and educationist visited a radiographer about 10 weeks ago and learned he had cancer.

His illness can be palliated but it is terminal. Yet Dr Wealthall has no fear of dying.

In a column he wrote in the Herald this week, he said there was no point in his raging against the inevitable.

"Naturally my wife Faye and I were sad, but we were sad we wouldn't be spending more time together rather than the sadness of me dying," said the 69-year-old originally from Yorkshire.

Dr Wealthall is neither courting death nor seeking nor wanting it to happen, but can't see how being angry about it would help him.

He credits much of his no-fear approach to death to his upbringing in Yorkshire and around his paternal grandparents, who spoke openly about dying.

Anne Morgan, a palliative care nurse for more than 30 years and a practice adviser for Hospice New Zealand, said adults were conditioned to be afraid of dying, which was really a fear of the unknown.

"It's an internal fear we have created. There is that fear of the unknown, but we have that in everyday life, like when you go off for a job interview.

"People ask, 'Will my death be comfortable? Will there be somebody there with me? How will I say goodbye?' But those are things we can alleviate."

She said frank discussions about death were needed with family and friends so those dying were able to get the best out of the time they had left.

Almost all people she has dealt with who are facing death, including children, eventually find peace with the inevitable.

Ms Morgan said there was "absolutely nothing to be afraid of".

"We could learn a lot from children because they don't have the same hang-ups," she said.

"They know they are leaving mum and dad, they know they are not going to get better but almost without fail they describe a lovely place, you know, with rainbows and flowers and things."

Dr Wealthall said a cultural change where families had become smaller and grandparents were carted off to rest homes rather than living with their whanau meant people had become less conditioned to visible mortality. He estimated that until recently, about 70 to 80 per cent of the elderly died in hospitals rather than at home surrounded by family.

"That meant for a couple of generations, our younger generation didn't directly know about death - they didn't have the wisdom of their grandparents living in the house and eventually dying in the house," he said.

"If you didn't have personal experience of it and have only seen the celluloid constructions from Hollywood, you have no reality to base your own approach on."

He now takes pleasure in the simple things and tries to find the good in everyday life, like watching a tui swimming in his dog's drinking bowl or admiring the efforts he and Faye have put into rejuvenating their block of land, which was once covered in gorse and blackberry.

"Faye and I have decided we are on holiday for as long as it lasts. And we will enjoy every day of the holiday until the time is up," he said.

Few regrets and none that matter

If Stephen Wealthall has a life regret it certainly isn't a bad one, but he reckons it's a bit silly.

He was in his 20s doing a student cadetship with the Royal Navy, and helped to research how astronauts could survive splashdown in their capsules.

"I took part in some of those cold-water experiments and one of the things they hung in front of us was, 'There's a chance you might get into the space programme.'

"I said perhaps if I had gone into the navy when I had the chance I might have ended up as the first British astronaut. I think again it's the acceptance of reality rather than the wishing for things that are not obtainable."

Dr Wealthall said there were things in personal relationships he could have done differently but there was nothing that he would say, "I would get rid of it all."

"Out of the bad times some good things have come."

Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware's book Top Five Regrets of the Dying found the most common regret for men was working too hard.

5 most common regrets of the dying

1. Working too hard
2. Not living life true to yourself
3. Failing to have the courage to express feelings
4. Not staying in touch with friends
5. Not being happy

- NZ Herald

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