Do you know how to die?

A week ago my old friend Thaïs Downman died. She had suffered for several years from an extremely painful cancer of the spine. Although she had bouts of depression during her illness, she had a great love of life. So much so that, until the last few days, she exchanged the pain from which larger doses of morphine would have spared her for the chance to keep her mind bright and fresh.

A fortnight before her death she wrote a remarkable meditation, which I had the privilege of reading today at her funeral. With her family’s permission I am posting it. I hope you will catch the flavour of a remarkable person

Although a deeply spiritual person, she was not a Catholic. But she taught me more about how someone made in the spirit and likeness of God should die than anyone else I have known. If you find inspiration in her “testament”, tell us on the Blog. I think her devoted family would like to know that her thoughts have been valuable to other people.

O     O     O

The watery autumn sun streams through an open window across the belly of the old woman; she is half asleep and half awake, alive but dying. On the floor lies the little toddler asleep in a rug and the baby sucks milkily. The old man sips his tea while his grandson offers cakes and honey. The simple home is calm and busy; an older woman cooks for all, the floor still wet from the toddler playing at washing up the wooden bowl. It could be any time, any century.

The door bell rings – a neighbour’s child – the visit to the old woman made easy by coming in to discuss school.

A hundred miles away a young girl starts university, fearful, excited, missing her parents yet enveloped by cousins who bustle around with trivia and drive out the cold feet of Fresher’s week. In a far off land her parents worry, knowing their precious charge has left home for good. They are cousins of the old woman – family thrown apart by war, but held together by letters and by that family bond that comes of joint suffering and managing to survive. And as she faces the end of her life she draws comfort from the support the young give each other through the bonds of family.

It was not last century; it is now in this last weekend of September. The old woman’s pain has gone because of morphine. She smells sweet, not musty, well tended because carers attend to all intimate care. A week ago she wanted to die, exhausted by her existence that seemed to become hollow and futile, fearful of disrupting lives of those she loves so dearly. And so her wish to die resurfaced; yet her ability to live resurfaced too.

I am that old woman, 88 and at the end of my life. In bed and unable to do, but able to receive – and find an unexpected serenity in receiving. The family are more important than anything – one cannot teach this sort of love in schools, cannot legislate for dying; I am too weary to cope with regulations. It is only being surrounded by those that love each other that can sustain life itself.

Thaïs Downman 28 /09 /2009

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Quentin queries, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Do you know how to die?

  1. Juliana says:

    What a beautiful meditation from Thais Downman. It is most moving. I should have been at her funeral but just before I was due to leave I had a panicky and breathless phone call from my 95 year old neighbour, Doris, who lives alone with no family.

    I am her life-line as her two friends still alive are equally old and cannot help. So I had to forgo Thais’s funeral in order to help an old lady who is scared of dying, who has no family to surround her and who lives on her own. Her husband of 60 years died three years ago and they had no children.

    I heartily wish Doris could be surrounded by that love which Thais received (and gave out herself in spades) and could die in the warmth and love of family but this is not on the cards. Nor indeed is it for the majority of the old today who are living isolated lives.

    So I am immensely happy that Thais could die enclosed in the warmth of her family but I regret that so many cannot. And Thais was so right to say that “the family are more important than anything” and “one cannot legislate for dying”. These points are the exact reversal of government policies which have played down the family, taxing it almost to non-existence while on the other hand it is itching to legislate for dying.

  2. Daisy says:

    Doesn’t this show us clearly what is being lost in the gradual breakdown of family life in our society? I read somewhere the other day a serious commentator sayng that it was all very well to speak about permanent marriage when lifetimes were much shorter than they are now, but that that scarcely applies any longer – it’s not reasonable to expect people to stay together in the several decades after their children have grown up. I think that’s sad, and I imagine that it is abandoned wives who are the victims more often that the husbands.

  3. Durham says:

    I loved what Juliana had to say because it answers the question: who is my neighbour? In this case it was Doris who needed her. This was a case of “let the dead bury the dead”. By Quentin’s description, his friend would have approved.

  4. Iona says:

    What a beautiful meditation. That’s the way one should live, and that’s the way one should die. I echo everything Juliana says.

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