I have heard this a lot recently. Families see their loved ones in a very frail and unwell state and believe that dying would end their misery, but they aren’t dying. And it doesn’t make sense.
Sometimes death happens suddenly and there is nothing anyone can do about it, like a car accident, in a moment, the person goes from a state of health and wellbeing, living their lives and then it’s over, their life has come to an end. Fortunately these tragic accidents are rare, far more people die of illness and the frailties of old age.
As illness progresses and people lose more of their function, common phrases and sentiments that families use are “you wouldn’t do this to an animal” and “it’s cruel”. It is very difficult to watch a loved one become increasingly unwell, to see them in pain and losing their functionality and the person that they used to be. So it can feel very cruel to the carer to watch this process. That is the time that they question why they are not dying.
Aiding, abetting, counselling and procuring are all illegal in the UK, the legislation does not support assisted dying. Syringe drivers with morphine will make a person die faster, but they were dying anyway and the balance is a faster death or unbearable pain, so the law supports the humane outcome of dying without paid. Beyond that, helping or encouraging someone to die is unlawful.
We just don’t talk much about death, we don’t see it every day, it has become sanitised away from mainstream society. People die in hospital, hospices and are homes, away from day to day life. And yes, some people die at home, but not often and certainly not as often as people say they want to die at home.
This lack of conversation leads people to understand death from the movies and TV shows that exist, as a society we have seen lots of fictional dying, but it is not the same as dying in real life. So a fear comes from how to die, what will it mean, what will it look like and how will it feel?
Often towards the end of life, people get sleepy, they sleep more in the day and a lot at night, as the functioning of their body slows down, so they will eat and drink less, have less energy and become thinner. Then eventually they go to sleep and don’t wake up. The same is true for those in pain, the pain medication will make them sleepier, but it might affect their appetite differently, but the sleepiness is the same, then one day they just go to sleep and don’t wake up. It doesn’t always happen in this peaceful way, but it often does. And it isn’t frightening.
People then want know what happens next, both physically and spiritually. For the spiritual response, I would have told clients that what happens next is consistent with their spiritual beliefs, and also then make sure that they speak to a spiritual leader to get confirmation from someone more qualified! In terms of the body they have left behind, it will be collected by the funeral director. In the UK there may be a coroner’s inquest, so the body might be collected by the hospital for tests and an autopsy. Often the coroner’s inquest will not be too invasive if the death was expected, even if they hadn’t seen a doctor for a couple of weeks, it will depend on the circumstances. However the body will eventually be released and then the funeral options generally are burial or cremation, but there are other options of medical research or natural burial under a tree, these can be discussed with the funeral director. The funeral is a chance for the living to say goodbye and begin the process of moving on.
Having these discussions de-mystifies death and the biological process of dying. It is such a universal and as such, connecting thing, eventually all of us will die. It would be a good thing to make it as easy as possible for the dying person, as well as those left behind, who will grieve.