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[OPINION] The sanctity of death

If you are reading this, you have no experience with your own death. Many of us, however, may have experiences with dying, such as near-death experiences of others or supporting someone through illness to death.

Many years after being diagnosed, treated and in remission from breast cancer, our mum was diagnosed with lung cancer and we were warned she had less than three months to live. We never discussed the time put on her life by doctors with her. Nobody knows exactly how long you will live.

An aunt of ours suffered the same fate in almost the same order as our mother and she died a painful, complicated death. This became my mom's biggest fear and obsession. "I don't mind dying; I care about how I am going to die. I don't want to suffer. I am so scared."

As the eldest daughter and a fixer, it was a difficult not being able to assure her I had it handled. I made many promises to her that I could keep. I also used to lie in bed and try not to breath; I'd cover my mouth until I had to gasp for air. I wondered what that experience would be like for her when she had no choice. It was magnificently frightening.

My mum never smoked and was a vocal anti-smoker, so the irony of her having lung cancer was sad. Like many things, there was no logical or acceptable explanation. A few times she asked me if I would get her a tablet or something to put her out and let her die in her sleep. I laughed it off (nervously) and so did she, with a sombre, enquiring gaze. It was during this time I thought a lot about Dr Sean Davison assisting his mom out of her life. I stared at a photograph of him and his mother. They clearly loved each other deeply and purely. I truly in those moments, understood why he did it.

Three months came, went and turned into eight years. Our mother deteriorated very slowly with various amounts of pain. Other than the cancer, she was healthy so it appeared to us that the rest of her system maintained her wellbeing.

On the advice of friends we contacted the hospice very early on as they said it was not just for people on their deathbeds. This gave us comfort because we felt helpless and concerned. They offered our mother some clarity that we were not saying she was dying, we were just getting some support for her and us.

Every week a volunteer would visit and spend time with her. Her depression during these years was frightening and she scared off a number of volunteers with her dark mood and unwillingness to co-operate with any advice about listening to music, walking about the garden, reading magazines or talking about how she felt.

We used to tease her about this on the good days because we knew how strong-willed she was. She just grinned cynically and we knew what she was thinking. She was an independent thinker (read very, very stubborn) and wasn't easily swayed into a new way of doing anything. This we knew and accepted about her.

One of the nursing sisters who used to visit was quite firm with our mum. She was not allowed to stay in bed or in her pyjamas all day, she had to get up, shower, put on regular clothes and she was allowed to lie on top of the made-up bed. This was a lifesaver some days. She also eventually told us that our mum was getting very ill, so she should be allowed to do whatever she felt she wanted to and not be forced to do anything she didn't want to do. We fully agreed as we had taken that position some weeks earlier because it felt like the right thing to do.

Eventually, it was necessary to have our mom admitted to a nursing home for the frail and ill. She spent many, many months there. One of us visited her at least three times a week. The value our relationship developed from having her taken care of by trained professionals gave us a chance to go back to being her daughters. We spent real time lying on her bed, talking, bringing her favourite things, watching her knitting for hours or sometimes just sitting in silence with only the sound of the loyal oxygen machine doing its work.

In those eight years we got to know so much more about each other. We were granted, through this illness, a chance to talk and be with one another. Nobody knew when she would pass. Nobody. As much as she felt ready to die, we never told her that we were given a time, we never told her she was in the nursing home indefinitely.

Through these years, never once, but a hundred times, did I think about Dr Sean Davison and what a service of love her had done for his mom by helping her out of her suffering.

On night, they called me because it was that time. I spent the last hours of my mom's life sitting with her, talking to her, telling her stories, giving her permission to go, asking my God to relieve her of her earthly duty and give her peace. The sounds from her chest bubbled as I imagine her lungs filled with liquid; I watched her body log off bit by bit by bit. At the time, I had no idea that this was what was happening. I was there, she was there and we were both safe and protected. There were no gasps for air, there was no pain, and there was peace. It was completely the opposite of what we had prepared for.

At some point, I held her, thanked her, assured her we were all going to be fine and joked with her about all the stress she put herself through about how this was going to be. By the time I realised that I was talking to my mom for the last time, she opened her eyes, shut them and breathed one very slow long last breath. I now know there is such a thing as a beautiful way to die. I feel assured that if you have blind faith that the plan of your life is what it is, you can fearlessly go with that plan.

We all have to exit, we all have to die. It used to be a scary thought for me. Being with my mother when she passed over has taken the fear out of death and dying for me.

I was saddened to hear that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has requested to be "assisted in death if that time comes." I definitely don't think Jesus died with dignity. As a man of the cloth, who has served South Africa fearlessly for decades, I feel it is now our turn to support the Arch. Hundreds of thousands of people have died before him and the assistance from their loved ones, blind faith and palliative care have been all they needed. It must be a fearful time staring at an unknown future. The truth is that none of our futures are predictable, except that we will all die. I believe in the sanctity of life and I believe in the sanctity of death. I didn't know that until being with my mom when she passed over. Dying is a part of life; it's just an unknown part. I think it's unnecessary for people to suffer with the amount of available interventions that exclude assisted death.

I would not change anything about the sacred opportunity of watching my mom die peacefully; knowing she didn't want to be alone when it happened and she didn't want to suffer.

I feel free to live my life, the bits I never lived while I cared for her and I am free, knowing I didn't have to help her die. She died naturally and we beat cancer by using the time we were given as grace and as a chance to get any unfinished business sorted out. After she passed I was sad, but there was no suffering, we won.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn