A new book urges us to rediscover the art of dying well

No-one can doubt that euthanasia or “the right to die” will gradually start to have overwhelming support – at least in the West – as the average life-span increases every year, care facilities for the very elderly and sick remain hugely inadequate and the Christian faith continues to wane. For these reasons, Sister Nuala Kenny’s recent book, Rediscovering the Art of Dying (Novalis) should be read by all who want to defend a Christian approach to death and dying and to revive the “ars moriandi”.

Dying is only an “art” if life is considered to be one also; as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, “We are God’s work of art”. The profound implications of this statement are a direct rebuke to the view that we are merely autonomous individuals who have the right to control the time and manner of our death just as we have made autonomous decisions all our lives.

Sister Kenny, a member of the Sisters of Charity on Halifax, who graduated in medicine in 1972, has many years’ experience in paediatrics and palliative care. Her book, sub-titled “How Jesus’ Experience and Our Stories Reveal a New Vision of Compassionate Care” combines Gospel passages from Jesus’ last days alongside personal stories of dying patients, to show how closely in some respects the human condition of dying resembles the Passion, in particular the weakness, fear and vulnerability of people who are facing death. In this light, calls for euthanasia can be seen as a last-ditch desperate attempt to hang on to control, as well as to avoid the suffering – often emotional and spiritual rather than physical – that is an inevitable part of life.

Kenny felt called to write her book in her need for “consolation, wisdom and courage” after medically assisted death was legalised in Canada. Passionate in her conviction that medicine should be a moral practice, not one driven by market forces, Kenny hopes it will promote “prophetic resistance to the inappropriate use of technology in response to suffering” as well as to “foster prophetic witness.” Christians, she believes, are called to be “witnesses to Jesus’ triumph over suffering and death” and to “alleviate the suffering of others by word and deed.”

Much of Kenny’s book concerns the appropriate medical response to the anguish of patients dying from cancer and other diseases, as well as dementia. Alzheimer’s, she comments, is often more dreaded than cancer “because it forces us to consider what it means to be human.” Relatives’ responses to their loved ones who are dying also need to be handled with sensitivity; they have to be “gently reminded that attempts to cling to biological life at all costs are a contradiction of their fundamental belief in the power of the resurrection.”

The author shows how medical skill, combined with care and compassion, can transform a potentially fearful scenario into one of peace and acceptance, where the last messages – “Please forgive me” “Thank you” and “I love you” – are shared with resignation and mutual forgiveness.

My caveat is that the many references cited did not need to be included in brackets in the text itself; notes at the end of chapters would have been better. Also, questions at the end of every chapter are a useful tool – as long as they don’t become essential exercises to be undertaken.

As it stands, the book is rich enough in material and wisdom for any amount of private pondering.