One of the underlying issues surrounding the End of Life Choice Bill is our relationship to death, and as such the debate offers the opportunity to explore our feelings about, and approach to, the reality of dying and the grief that accompanies it, says St Matthews parish priest Alister Hendery.

He stressed he was not taking a position on behalf of the Anglican Church or Christianity as a whole, rather making observations as an individual who had journeyed with those who were dying, and had studied extensively and written about death and dying and the complex issues it raised in the modern age.

Alister Hendery
Alister Hendery

"Regardless of our stance on euthanasia, this debate is a gift. Our mortality rate stands at precisely 100 per cent, yet we live in a death-denying society - this debate may take death out of the closet, and for that I'm grateful."

He noted how the words death and dying had been overtaken by euphemisms such as "passed", "passed away", "lost" and said this struggle to talk openly about death and look it in the eye had led to people coming to fear it, rather than accepting it as part of the natural journey that followed our birth.


"Why are we death-denying?

"Only a few generations ago, death normally occurred at home, with family members caring for the dying. This century 70 – 80 per cent of deaths happen beyond the home – and the process of dying is usually in the hands of the medical profession – what we call the medicalisation of death."

The problem with this medicalisation, he suggested, was that its primary focus was the avoidance of death.

"It's about either finding a cure or managing illness. Consequently, we sometimes die very slowly, sustained only by technology, and for some the last stage of life involves painful and invasive treatments.

"No wonder, after the death, families will talk of relief and release. No wonder an increasing number, including myself, have living wills, stipulating limits to medical intervention."

He said that with advances in medical technology, our lives had been extended and so death was normally associated with old age.

"When death occurs for other reasons it shocks us. We think we've been cheated. That they are not infrequently described as 'tragedies', suggests that they are somehow outside the natural course of life. And yet, in the midst of life there is death."

Death and bereavement, loss and grief were part of life from the moment we left the womb, he said.


"When I sit with a person who is facing death, I'm not gazing in horror at one who is now in some alien territory. I'm with one with whom I share an experience.

"For that reason, these people have been some of my greatest teachers. As they face their mortality they show me what really matters in life.

"They also teach me that the most precious gift we can give to the dying and the bereaved is the gift of our presence – the willingness to hear their tough questions, without rushing in with neat answers and platitudes – to give them the freedom to openly talk about death."

"Death can be a bitter pill to swallow. But what we can do is to consider these questions long before we reach our deathbed. We need to see death as part of life, and prepare ourselves for our own death.

"Are we willing to learn again to live with the D words?"