Choosing Death

Doug at GROPING THE ELEPHANT has written a worthwhile and personal account of the question of assisted suicide ( Its prompted me to get on a write a post that has been boiling away at the back of my mind for what feels like ages.

Doug’s post is worth reading so go ahead and read that now.

Like Doug, I have a personal story that has shaped my view on this subject. Reading Doug’s final paragraph I wonder if we’ve arrived at slightly different places on this subject, but our journey has parallels.

My Story

Prior to my mum falling ill with Pancreatic Cancer (, the worst day of my life was when I received a phone call while I was preparing to bury my grandmother to say my grandfather had died ( The shock of the loss was so great I can still close my eyes and revisit that moment almost 20 years later and still feel the deep hurt and sadness in my chest.

When Mum was diagnosed with her cancer, she would have three more years and almost every day of those three years the impending loss and dread in my heart was even heavier than that described above. It is impossible for me to overstate how hard it was watching Mum waste away, to talk to her and notice how her mind wasn’t quite so sharp, to hear her say she was feeling okay and to know she was lying to try to make it easier for me.

I would dearly love to scrub those memories from my mind and never to have to feel like again. I would dearly love to rewind time and not have Mum suffer like that.

She eventually decided to abandon treatment because there was no longer any benefit in feeling grotty from treatment for a cancer that was killing her anyway. It was then that the dread got even worse. It is one thing to rationalise treatment for the terminally ill, it is something different entirely to see your parent there needing that treatment.

To be blunt, Mum was never going to have long once the cancer was diagnosed and those last three years of hers were awful to watch. She was only just into her 60s and until that point I expected I still had at least 20 more years of her and to have that ripped away from me so cruelly hurts deeply, it always will.

Dying With Dignity

What makes me stop and think about end of life care, especially for the chronically ill, is this; where is the dignity in this death? I do not believe that extending Mum’s last years and months increased her dignity. Quite the opposite in fact, there is much that was undignified, far better to die suddenly and not see it coming. If only we could all chose that way. It’s how her parents went and it spared us all much suffering.

Would I have rather she died at the start of those three years of suffering? That’s the obvious looming question, but it misses the point somewhat. Of course that’s not what I’d rather. What I’d rather is that she was alive and well today. Faced with not having that as a choice, at what point would I, her loving son, have pressed the button? I don’t know, it is not a choice I’d like to have to make if I’m honest.

I think this sort of decision is best made and agreed while all parties are in good health. That way the stress of the situation does not taint the decision being made.

Her last week was spent unconscious and breathing labouredly. When asked, the nurses were very reluctant to give an indication of when to expect death. That is cruel. That waiting was terrible but at least she was no longer feeling pain. The weeks leading up to that were even worse. There are simply no words I can use to articulate the torture I felt. Between the terrible pain and deep discomfort she felt, there were moments of lucidness, but that wasn’t my mother. That was a tired and sick old looking woman who resembled her.

The whole process of watching a deeply loved relation dying like that is something that I would love to erase from my experience entirely. It is an experience filled with sorrow and pain and there is very little love and joy there at all. The best times I’ve had with my mum are times that predate her illness. Those are the memories I cherish. There is no experience or memory of her during those years that I desire to hold on to.

What does make me sad is when I hear stories about loved ones who are so unable to let go of a sick relative, that they will prolong treatment for as long as is possible just to have them alive for a little longer. Where is the dignity in that? I say there isn’t any. It is not dignified to prolong a life at any and all costs. There is nothing dignified about existing in pain and semi consciousness, death kept temporally at bay by drugs. It is one thing to treat a cancer and give someone another few decades of life, delaying the inevitable by only a few months only increases the torment for all involved.

Yet despite all that, I would not choose to press the button at the start of those three years. She is my mother damn it, she’s not a pet so treat her with respect!

Won’t somebody think of the Pets!

As Doug mentions, pets and working animals get put down in cases like this and no one thinks it is cruel or wrong. It would be cruel AND wrong to make an animal suffer like that. Yet humans are special and because of that we force them to suffer greatly in death like this. In my Mums case, you could argue that the medication and treatment caused its own suffering. In effect, her life was extended so that more suffering could be administered in the form of a delayed death and more medication.

Why be so cruel and inhuman to one so loved?

On to the money.

Was it worth those thousands of taxpayer’s pounds sterling to extend Mum’s life for a brief period of pain? Not really if I’m honest. Yet I would still not have pressed the button. What I would have needed then was the knowledge beforehand that Mum and I had agreed what would happen. The problem was that it came unexpectedly and no was thinking about end of life until it was forced onto us.

Doug’s post brings up the very important issue of making the old and infirm feel that they are a burden and we’d all be better off without them. I would have been devastated if Mum had felt that way. The issue here is not that about offing Mum early to save the state money, its about not delaying what’s coming anyway to save her and her family from an artificially protracted and lingering painful farewell. It is very important not to get the two confused.

However, the question of ‘encouraging’ the well and not dying into an early death by suicide is still valid and no one should be doing that. It is a despicable suggestion. Sadly, the quality of modern medicine now means the line between life saved and lingered death is more blurred than ever before and it is going to get worse. The discussion needs to be had now and old people should be encouraged to enjoy their life and there should absolutely not be any pressure to end it.

What I think complicates the issue is for cases like my Mum, modern medicine gave her extra years where not all that long ago she would have been dead within a few months of her diagnosis. It’s the quality of modern medicine that gave her those extra tormented years and no one questioned the wisdom of giving it to her. Yet, towards the end of those extra years the question of when to let her die and whether it is right to help it along becomes relevant.

There is an insane paradox here; extend her life and then struggle with the question of when to let (or encourage) her to die. Why not just skip the whole process by letting nature take its ugly course and save myself a whole heap of pain. The state gets to not spend money too as a helpful side effect. It’s the advance of modern medicine that has created this situation and I don’t blame people for looking at the costs and asking if it is worth it. Often it isn’t. My concern is about not forcing suffering onto people by extending a life of pain and torture. Saving money is just a by-product of that, no one should ever put the money saving bit first.

Who makes the decision?

This is one of the key questions. If not me, who? I’m too emotionally connected to make a rational decision. Take the decision out of my hands and allow the state to choose for me? Are you serious? Can you not predict the response to THAT proposal?

End of life suffering is terrible and rational decisions do not come easy for those who are close to the affected.

I don’t have the answers to any of the questions and I don’t envy those who are working through the process. It is important to not let emotional connections dictate decisions and it is important to see the wider context of these important issues. I support assisted suicide but to suggest to anyone that they’d be doing us a favour by removing themselves from the population is a step in the wrong direction and I will be very critical of that action.

What I would be cautiously supportive of is a situation where medical care of a severe terminal illness is not given because it does not actually provide a benefit. This was the case with my mother and looking back I think we would have all been served better if we had not rushed into assuming the operation and medical treatment was the right thing to do. I cannot explain how hard that last sentence was to write, it’s the truth, but that doesn’t make it an easy truth.

Death of a Much Loved Mother

There is so much I want to write and say about Mum, but little of it is relevant to the scope of this blog, which is the story of my Christianity and deconversion from it. However, Mum was a major influence on my life and the story of her life is a genuinely interesting one which I think could be told on its own. I often entertain the idea of attempting to write her story myself. She certainly deserves it.

Mum’s death from Pancreatic Cancer a little over three years ago had a huge impact on me and I am definitely not over it. Writing this blog entry will likely be the hardest one I do. Mum’s death also came at the time when my Christian faith died. The two are not related, one definitely did not cause the other, at least not for me.

“I can’t believe in a God who would let this happen to Mum”

Those are not my words, rather they are the words of my youngest brother. He said it to me while she was still alive. My brother lived with Mum (and our step-father) for the last three years of Mum’s life and saw the cancer slowly kill her. He cared for her daily, cooked for her and confided with her. During that time I watched my brother change into the man that he now is and it makes me immensely proud to be his brother.

Mum’s death affected him deeply too. We are both witness much of what Mum went through in Zambia, one small snippet is referred to here ( and we are witnesses to her unending dignity, love and patience. In fact at her funeral, several people made references to this event where she was kidnapped from the farm we lived on and commented on how she responded to it.

My brother was far more damning about God in Mum’s final years than I was. He was blunt, if there was a God, then that would mean he watched Mum through her life serve Him and suffer greatly physically and mentally and still serve Him, and serve Him well. Then in her early 60s let her suffer and die with what is arguably the worst cancer you could get today. Surely such a woman deserved better from God and God should reward such service.

I could see my brother’s point, but I didn’t agree; despite my faltering faith I wasn’t going to buy into the argument that bad things happening to good people means there is no God. My brothers story is very different from mine and I wasn’t at all surprised by his reasoning. He’d long ago stopped living like a Christian and I figured his faith was long past rescuing. I think this experience for him was just a final nail in the coffin.

I couldn’t tell Mum about my loss of faith. I was still processing it myself and the acceptance of what was to come and the grief that followed complicated that somewhat. Would I tell her now if she was alive and well still? I don’t know. I did ponder on telling her but decided against it, given the circumstances I didn’t want to put the spiritual worries of another son onto her.

It wouldn’t be until some months after Mum’s funeral that I would tell my brother about my loss of faith.



Suddenly I realised that Atheism was the Only Choice

The side effect of my increased understanding of the scientific method and the impossibility of a literal creation was that more and more of what I had accepted in The Bible was rejected as false.

I can’t remember exactly when it was but over a short period of time I realised that rejection of formerly held Biblical truths could only result on one thing, total rejection of The Bible. I did consider for a while if I could hold my acceptance of Evolution along with the belief in a personal God. The problem that caused me was that it didn’t fix the fact that key events in the Old Testament didn’t happen and if certain key events in the Old Testament didn’t happen, then the New Testament was equally in doubt and therefore Christianity as a whole had little to defend it.

It didn’t take much for me to realise that the end result of the road I was on was the abandonment of my Christian faith. I could not embrace my new scientific understanding and my enthusiasm for more and keep a Christian faith. It simply wasn’t going to happen for me, there were too many questions that resulted in The Bible being wrong or questionable.

So rather than spend years battling with my faith, I decided to shortcut the torment and make a conscious decision that Christianity was bunk and go from there.

While it was an easy logical conclusion to make, there were many things that I needed to consider. How do I tell those I love? Especially my Wife! How will this affect my morals? What do I do about going to Church? How will this affect my views on death? This last one was key as at this time my mother was very ill with Pancreatic Cancer (more on this in another post that will come).

Those first weeks Post Atheism were a bit weird.

It was a few years ago now so I don’t recall those weeks especially clearly, but there are a few things that still stand out for me.

The first one is that I questioned my morals and their source. I hadn’t realised it until then, but my mind-set wad been very heavily engrained with the idea that morals and goodness come from the Holy Spirit and I was good because I was a Christian. Abandoning that must then surely mean the abandonment of my morals. I found myself asking questions about what was now acceptable, could I lie more readily? Steal from work? Cheat on my wife? You know, the sort of things those horrid godless people do all the time!

Well, it turns out that I was still just as unhappy with the idea of any of those things as I was before. So there would be no sin binge, as it were.

Tell No One

At this time I resolved that my state of faith would be a secret until I could work out what to do with the news. My biggest fear was how my wife would react, I knew that if it had been the other way round I’d have likely been devastated and I didn’t want to do that to her. This meant that I also would not tall anyone else because I didn’t feel it would be right to tell anyone else when she didn’t know.

Later I would seriously consider confiding in a close friend first and there were a couple of occasions when that very nearly happened. It just never seemed to be the right place or the right time.

What I did start to do was expand my reading of blogs. I looked for and found several blogs of people who had also come out of Christianity. This gave me a form of release as I could read now read (and participate if required) about similar experiences and not feel alone and unable to express my concerns and frustrations.