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Reflections on Terry Pratchett, Death and Dying

Monday 27 June 2011, 17:21
By The Reverend Andrew Ireland

Reverend Andrew Ireland, of Wincanton Baptist ChurchIt was with great interest that I watched Sir Terry Pratchett's programme and the following discussion hosted by Jeremy Paxman. Yet there seemed to be a need to balance the right to die, with the responsibility to live. This is the perspective which would have come out of a more detailed look at the London cabbie featured in the programme and his hospice care. It was an area that was not really covered because of pressure of time and space - neither was the standpoint of the family, or personal assistant.

From my personal point of view, if there had not been a responsibility to maintain life, I would not have ever met two very important influences on my life.

The first was my maternal grandfather, with whom we lived as a family for the first 11 years of my life. He was gassed during the 1st World War and discharged from the army in 1917. He took me on paddle boat trips from Barry to Weston-super-Mare, across the Bristol Channel. Not everything was easy in the latter years, as it was decided to stop sending him to hospital for treatment from an ever-increasing number of strokes and heart attacks. He showed his courage, I had my evening meals with him and my Nan in their room, laid on the bed and enjoyed chatting through the day with him. I wasn't there when he died, which I have regretted through the years - but the adults thought it was best, when he died in 1965. He died peacefully in bed at home with care from doctors and district nurses from the local practice. The carers became friends.

The second was an aunt, Ruthie, who had Down's Syndrome. She was about 60 when she died, having lived life to the full. She began life at a time when the perceived wisdom was to have such children shut away. Her parents (my paternal grandparents) wanted Ruthie to have the best standard of life possible. They looked for special swimming classes, children's and later day centres where she could be encouraged, stimulated and grow in confidence. Where such facilities were not available, they tried to initiate them. Initially they went to Cardiff, but then helped raise money to hire a hall monthly, where they started and ran a local support group for Down's Syndrome children, adults and their families to support each other. This involved parties, dances and many other activities. They also raised support from local government for the work - was this an early form of the 'Big Society'?

The cases for my parents was more difficult, because as an only child all decisions were down to me. But again, it had been possible to discuss final palliative treatment with both my parents. Mum had Altzheimer's and Dad suffered from macular degeneration and a detached retina. They were able to spend the last four years of their lives together in a residential/Alzheimer's home, which was the best thing I could imagine for them. It meant that their grandsons Matt and Luke were able to, and did, visit regularly until Dad ended up in hospital. Mum died in the residential home (July 2009), whereas Dad died in the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where he was trying to get medicines balanced out (September 2009).

Unfortunately, the boys are watching me waste away with cancer, but we walk the journey into the unknown with faith, in a God who has shown Himself to be faithful in every way so far. My prayer is that He will continue to sustain them - Matt, Luke and Cathryn (my wife) - and their faith in the wonderful God whom we worship.

As a minister of religion, I have been challenged on the right to die a number of times. I will always, whilst arguing for the sanctity of life from personal experience and that of other's grief, believe that there is a right time to die. This is known only to God, but when it is right for people to die, they will know, as it will be a time that will bring greater peace than anguish, not only to them but also those by whom they are loved, because it is God's perfect time.

Even in the current story line on Emmerdale we come up with the right to die and the responsibilities that go with it. The family reaction to the character Jackson's death, except father, has been one of not wanting to assist him to die and yet feeling that it's the last thing they can do for him. This has resulted in their assuming that everyone else, including the local vicar, Ashley, must conform with their wishes. Instead, Ashley has challenged their understanding, by refusing to conduct the funeral on faith grounds. This makes it hard for everyone and will undoubtedly lead to further anger and bitterness in the future. Surely, Ashley also has the right to respond according to his conviction that other people aiding the death of another person is wrong; he should not be expected to conform to the request of others. He has offered for the church to be used for the funeral and to arrange for another minister to carry out the service - if in fact, another colleague will.

We cannot play God and judge others, but we can show integrity to our beliefs. These are big issues and involve questions such as what would Jesus/God do in this situation?

In conclusion, our rights to determine death should involve a responsibility to discuss such matters with those whom we love and who love us. These need to be detailed and honest, because if we get it wrong such discussions can leave deep-seated damaged feelings in those who remain.

The Reverend Andrew Ireland
Wincanton Baptist Church


Posts: 1
Re: Reflections on Terry Pratchett, Death and Dying
Reply #1 on : Mon June 27, 2011, 20:07:48
I would like to thank Andrew for taking the time to write this artical when more than most time is such a precious comodity.
Posts: 1
Terry Pratchett and Mortality
Reply #2 on : Tue June 28, 2011, 10:55:31
It is really impressive that Andrew wishes to share his thoughts with us at this very difficult time for him and his family. Clearly his faith means a great deal to him and I know he is as well prepared for what lies ahead as anyone can be, not that that makes things easy.

Death and what it means and how we can best face it is no simple issue. Sir Terry Pratchett’s documentary, since he is known to so many who have been involved in the Discworld celebrations here in Wincanton, and has friends and those who have worked with him here, has had a special local resonance.

The programme deals with the issue of medically assisted dying and the fact that it is illegal in the UK and can only be accessed by people ready to go to Switzerland for the service Dignitas offers. Inevitably it raises many other issues besides.

I hope "Have a Chocolate and Let's Talk About Death" is helpful in this respect for the worst thing is the number of people who find themselves facing death quite unprepared.

I have written quite a long (5,000 words!) paper on the subject and have introduced the topic to a U3A discussion group, a Quaker group and on Thursday the 13th of October at 11 am at the Mulberry pub in Yeovil I will be presenting the paper to South Somerset Humanists. This is a public meeting and anyone who wishes is welcome to come. If you let me know first it would be good for space is not unlimited.

If you would like to read my paper now see – Mortality, A Time to Live and A Time to Die.

John Baxter

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