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Dying and the question of dignity

  • 25 May 2021
As a palliative care nurse, I have been privileged to be with many people at the time of their death. People of different ages, nationalities, professions and family histories, in homes, hospitals and aged care facilities. Dying is hard work, perhaps the hardest we will do; although living through the death of a person we love might be the toughest task of all.

And yet on the faces of people close to death and those around them, I have seen not just fear, sorrow and pain, but smiles, winks, joy and flashes of pure love, too. This writing is to share just a few of the many profound moments I have witnessed in my work, which I believe speak to our human dignity in a way that euthanasia and assisted suicide never could.    

One night, I was called to see a man at his home. He lived with his family, was in his fifties and had advanced cancer. His wife asked me to come because his breathing and consciousness had changed, and she was anxious for him. He lay on the bed, she and their three young adult children close by. Sitting on the side of the bed, I carefully looked over him. His breathing was irregular; his eyes were closed. He was no longer speaking, but somehow, his face and body communicated deep peace.

I looked up to his wife and children and spoke about his death being near and how peaceful he looked. That there was no need to do anything except to stay with him and that he could hear them speaking, even if he couldn’t answer. His children were very quiet and I don’t exactly recall what his wife said to me in return, but I do remember profound relief and thankfulness flashing across her face. The man died at home early in the next day. Later, she conveyed back to me how those few words about his peace had sustained them during their last night together, and in the hard days following.

Others stay with me — an unconscious woman, whose face suddenly and unexpectedly radiated bliss as we gently turned her in the hospital bed the day before she died. Two young parents, gathered with other family around a small boy as he lay dying on bed in a room of their house one long summer afternoon and evening, sharing a small family joke that brought