Founder of modern palliative care, Cecily Saunders, was the 1981 Laureate of the Templeton Prize.
In her address, this section, in which she speaks about “achievement in dying”, especially struck me:
The first challenge was for the better understanding and control of pain. The seven years part time volunteer experience in St Luke’s and the later seven years full time developing this in St. Joseph’s laid the foundation for the increasingly sophisticated symptom control that means hospice today. There was much more to learn from St. Joseph’s from the strength and prayerfulness of the community of the Irish Sisters of Charity and, above all, from uncounted hours with the patients. It was they who showed me by their achievements how important the ending of life could be and many that I knew briefly and a few long stay patients, friends over the years, are the real founders of St. Christopher’s. One, another Pole, special among them all, left me other key phrases. When I told him he had not much further to go, he asked me, ‘Was it hard for you to tell me that?’ When I said that it had been, he said, ‘Thank you. It is hard to be told, but it is hard to tell too. Thank you’. We have to care what we say; this work is hard and demanding as well as rewarding. Two other things he said were separated by some three weeks. The first, ‘I do not want to die, I do not want to die’. The second, ‘I only want what is right’. Sometimes people ask me what I mean by achievement in dying. Here was one, Gethsemane made present today.
Later, in the same address she says:
Effective symptom control can give patients and their families freedom from the fact and the fear of pain. This freedom is to be used, as we have seen many times, used for family reconciliations, for deepening relations and for the sorting out of beliefs and memories that can help others say, with Pope John XXIII, ‘My bags are packed — I can go with a tranquil heart at any moment’.
The climate that encourages such achievement comes from a search for truth similar to that of any scientific enquiry.
All throughout our lives, we concern ourselves with achievements of various kinds. Interestingly, the very meaning of the word “achievement” is “the act of completing something”, “a finishing.” And yet, even though we all complete our lives, in a sense, by our deaths, we seldom reflect on dying as achievement.
But if our death is to be our ultimate capstone project, then it is worth reflecting on “the climate that encourages such achievement.”
Dying well can be an ultimate achievement of a life well lived.
Photo: Visiting St. Christopher’s Hospice in the U.K. in May 2016