If you stop people in the street and ask them how they would wish to die, the commonest answer is, "I want to die in my sleep, with no warning, no premonition, no awareness, and no sensation – just go out like a light. How wonderful would that be!" It's striking that to many previous generations sudden death was regarded as the worst possible way to go. To be catapulted into eternity with no possibility of making preparation to meet your Maker, no chance to say goodbye, to make provision for your dependents, to ask forgiveness from friends and loved-ones you had hurt. Sudden unexpected death was seen as a terrible catastrophe, and to be prayed against.
As a society we seem to have lost the belief that suffering, discomfort or difficulty can have any positive value. Pain in general is seen as an entirely negative, destructive and pointless experience. (The only exception, interestingly, is the sporting arena where "no pain, no gain" is affirmed to all new recruits as unalterable truth).
Faced with the prospect of gradual decline into death, we want oblivion, anaesthesia – "Just put me to sleep doc, I want to be out of it. I don't want to know anything of what is going on". But the truth is that dying need not be a totally negative experience. It need not be all loss. In fact, it can even be a strange kind of adventure. As many who have gone before us have found, the end of our lives on this earth may be transformed by God's grace into an opportunity for growth and internal healing. With skilled medical and nursing care, pain can be relieved and distressing symptoms controlled, so that open and unhindered communication with loved ones is possible.
Many believers have found that dying well can be an opportunity for focusing on the things that really matter. Stuart, a close friend of mine at All Souls Church in London, found that he only had a few months to live because of untreatable cancer. He decided that he would write a personal letter to everyone who had been significant in his life, sharing his heart and experiences, and his faith and hope in Christ. Over his last months Stuart sent literally hundreds of letters. Most people replied, and many came to visit and share their hearts. Those last months turned into a rich and remarkable experience. At his memorial service more than 400 people came, and I found myself thinking I was almost envious of Stuart. No, I didn't want to die before my time, but to go out in that way would be quite an experience. Most people don't have the chance to write the kind of letters that Stuart did, and to get the kind of answers back .
Dying can be an intense and wonderful opportunity for saying sorry and thank you to those who matter to us, and for being reconciled where there are relationships that need healing. These conversations are never easy but dying may offer a once-in-a-lifetime for honest sharing. It's a time for receiving afresh the grace and forgiveness of God, and for learning new lessons that our Father has to teach us. For some people, knowledge that they only have weeks to live allows them to fulfil dreams that would otherwise have been impossible.
Dying also means relinquishing tasks that will not be completed in this life, passing on to my loved-ones the deepest concerns of my heart, and encouraging those who remain to serve faithfully. Above all it is an opportunity for preparing in faith, hope and love to meet face-to-face my Creator, my Redeemer and my Lover.
No, I am not exactly looking forward to the process of dying, and it's important not to romanticise or sentimentalise the valley of the shadow of death. But I have seen repeatedly how in God's grace, dying can be changed from a meaningless terror into an intense and wonderful opportunity for growth and healing; a strange adventure. And I know that I will not walk that valley of the shadow alone.
Professor John Wyatt is a leading expert on end of life issues and a former chair of the medical study group of the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF). He is the author of a new study guide on death and dying called Finishing Line.