Just before she went in to the hospice at the beginning of the week I'd had a chat with Mandy, just me and her. There had been some moments of anxiety during her last days in hospital before going to the hospice, but she shared in that conversation her deep faith in God and his love. And she was looking forward to seeing dad again.
I'd just like to share my reflection on the hospice itself. I know that the Douglas Macmillan Hospice - like all cancer care hospices - is trying to get away from the image of being a place you go to in order to die. These days they offer day care, respite care, and many other services which help in the palliative care of cancer sufferers. But the experience of our family has been that of the hospice as a place to help in the last days of life. You might think that a place like the in-patient unit of the hospice would be a sad and mournful place. It is after all a place of death. But this is not the case at all. It actually more resembles a rather nice hotel - or better still, an extension of home. Unlike a hospital with visiting hours and the rather clinical environment, the hospice is a place where families are welcome, everyone is treated with respect and generosity and even love. There is something particularly special about the members of staff who work there - doctors, nurses, and other staff - such that they demonstrate a deep respect for the dignity of the dying person. This is not the false dignity of the culture of death, which seeks to preserve dignity through mercy killing. This is the true culture of life, respecting the person and every dimension of their life, in the midst of their human weakness and suffering. Some people imagine that the drug regimes in hospices are there not only to make the last moments of life pain free, but also to help that last moment come. This is evidently not the case. Indeed we can be assured by palliative medicine specialists that keeping patients pain free is more likely to keep them alive longer than otherwise.
In these days I reflected on what it must have been like to die with the more excrutiating forms of cancer in the days before palliative cancer care. I can't even imagine what that 'last agony' could have been like. I am therefore very thankful to the hospice movement, begun by Douglas Macmillan back just under 100 years ago, which now results in such fine care being given to cancer sufferers in their last days. I am grateful that, in the middle of a society which is so marked by the culture of death, the culture of life is alive and well in these well-respected and valued institutions. Of course pain and suffering united to Christ is redemptive, and the Church recognises that. But the Church also tells us that:
Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person
cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the
sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be
morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end
or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable Palliative care is a
special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged. (CCC 2279)