All kinds of dangerous things that give our life meaning

1. Your Aunt Jane has died. For 20 years before her death, she worked tirelessly on a book about the butterflies of East Sussex, but the manuscript is not quite finished. You were not close to your aunt, but you are her only living relative so it has fallen to you to decide whether to leave the book, or to work with the publisher to make it ready for publication. The book is not particularly innovative, it doesn’t add much to our knowledge of the butterflies of East Sussex, and no one would miss it if it were not to be published. The only issue at stake is whether Aunt Jane would be harmed if you decided to bin her manuscript. What will you do?

2. A woman in her 80s has been admitted to the hospital where you are a junior doctor. She has severe problems with her bowel and it is clear that she is dying. On rounds, you and your colleagues don’t bother going in to her room any more, instead just asking the nursing staff if there has been any change overnight, or if she is in any distress. The patient dies peacefully with her family around her. Did you do the right thing?

3. I am in a pub in Cambridge having just finished my finals. I meet a man who says he is ready to die. Not actively seeking death, but he is content with what he has achieved in his life and has no unfinished business. Twenty years later, I worry that the morning after our encounter he might have started work on a book about the butterflies of East Sussex. Would he still be ready?

4. A 33-year-old single mother has breast cancer, which was diagnosed while she was pregnant with her fifth child. She decided to wait until after the child was born to start chemotherapy. The cancer has now spread – she shows you a new lump on her abdomen and realises she is going to die. You ask what her priorities are. She says she doesn’t want to be in pain when she dies. You ask what her fears are. She says she is afraid of dying alone. You ask what her hopes are. She talks about her children. She declines treatment for the cancer, moves to a hospice and dies three weeks later. Did she do the right thing?

Note: These texts were inspired, spoken or unspoken during Death: clinical, historical and philosophical perspectives on dying, an event that formed part of King’s College London’s 2014 Festival of the Humanities.