A lesson in death from Dame Deborah James

Dame Deborah James(Photo: Instagram/Deborah James)

This week we heard the sad news that podcast host and campaigner Dame Deborah James has died. Having been diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer in December 2016, at the age of 35, she became an avid campaigner for national cancer charities as well as one of the presenters of the BBC podcast 'You, Me and the Big C'. Then in May this year she announced she was receiving end-of-life care for bowel cancer.

James was outspoken and determined to break taboos. She captured the nation's attention – becoming a dame not long before she died. Her death made national news and I have been reflecting on what her life and death could teach us. Here are a few of my thoughts.

Death is still not talked about enough

Our society has done all it can to sanitise the reality of life and death. In generations past, before families began to be dispersed to different parts of the country – and indeed world – elderly relatives would have been cared for by their family right up until their death, so it would have been a natural part of everyday life.

Indeed, in biblical times, communities got involved with preparing a body for burial and a whole group of mourners were employed to come alongside the family as they grieved.

Today we don't like talking about what it is like to wrestle with disease and/or old age and eventually die, yet the Bible is quite matter-of-fact about it.

In 2020 I spent 10 days beside my mum as her body slowly deteriorated and she went to be with Jesus. While I count it an utter privilege, there were moments I felt embarrassed by the care I needed to give her. And at other times I felt shocked by what I was seeing.

We do not prepare one another well if we do not speak about the realities of death.

Huge adjustments need to be made by those who are dying

In a podcast interview, James spoke about how difficult it was that her body was no longer working: "I can't even walk anymore, that's what's really scary about it. I've gone from someone who used to run 5km a day to someone who needs her husband to pick her up to walk a step."

I remember when my mum's body became so wracked with pain that she had to give up the things she loved doing, such as gardening and cooking, and eventually had to let my dad care for all her physical needs. It was a huge struggle for her – she felt totally useless.

That was, until God spoke to her clearly and told her that she was his prayer warrior. From that day on, she would hobble through to her favourite spot on her sofa, surround herself with her Bible and journal and faithfully pray for all those who God put on her heart.

Too often these struggles and difficult adjustments are made behind closed doors. How well are we supporting those in our churches going through such times of transition? They may just need someone to sit quietly and listen as they pour out their frustration and confusion (something I did regularly with my mum) as they come to terms with things or may need practical help (and not be too good at asking for it – are we close enough to see this?).

Passion outlasts good health

James was a huge advocate for raising awareness of bowel cancer and she raised millions for her Bowelbabe Fund to fund research into personalised medicine for cancer patients and to support campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer.

My mum's passion was her faith and that passion, despite her many health challenges, never dimmed. That passion lives on in me, and I know in many others, as she held on to God's promises. One of those promises was seeing my dad come to faith. It got to a point where I felt she was clinging on to life purely for that purpose, although her suffering had become excruciating.

I ended up speaking to her about letting go and passing the baton of praying for my dad to myself and my sister – that perhaps we would be the ones to see the fruition of that promise. It was just a few short weeks later that I got the call to say she was dying.

One of my mum's favourite passages was 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, and I absolutely saw her live it out: "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

As Christians we do have a hope that goes beyond the grave, but that doesn't mean we should brush the reality of death under the proverbial carpet.

Claire Musters is a writer, speaker and editor who blogs at clairemusters.com. Her most recent books are Every Day Insights: Disappointment and Loss (much of which was written by her mum's bedside during the ten days mentioned) and Grace-Filled Marriage. The latter was written with her husband, and they have provided a series of free videos to accompany the book, which can be accessed on the Big Church Read website. Claire also writes and edits for Premier Woman Alive and Christianity magazines and is the host of the Woman Alive Book Club.