Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Can you remember when you first heard these beginning lines from this famous poem by Dylan Thomas? Perhaps in high school? Or perhaps in college? It was published in the early 1950s and has remained one of his best-known poems for decades.
It had such ferocity, such passion. It swept many of us up in its simple words. No, of course, we will rage against the dying of the light. We wouldn’t imagine doing otherwise.
I don’t know about you, but I was young and romantic when I first heard this poem. It sounded so brave and so right.
If you hear Dylan Thomas reciting it, with his very musical Welsh voice, it is even more so.
But, in the light of our years of experience, is it so right after all?
Something made me think about this poem recently, and for the first time, I began to wonder whether I agreed with it anymore.
Those of you in your 60s may not think about dying all that much. It feels a long way away – unless you have some life-threatening disease or are closely involved with someone who does.
It’s the kind of thought we easily put away for another time, further down the line. Nothing to worry about now.
But as we grow older, into our 70s and beyond, we begin to think about a lot of things, including dying.
We are aware of friends dying, not to mention many others around us. We notice that the obituary pages are full of people younger than us.
It makes us begin to ponder how we will cope with this last challenge.
I have spent some time over my life thinking about dying for two reasons.
First, 30 years ago, I wrote a book based on interviews with young people with HIV/AIDS, back when the diagnosis was essentially a death sentence.
The men and women interviewed were incredibly inspiring. They were not generally raging at their situation, as Dylan Thomas urges them to, but were doing their best to live as well as they could for the limited time they had left.
And they were remarkably concerned for others. Many were involved in support groups for other people with the disease. Not surprisingly, those with children were particularly concerned to ensure that they would be well looked after.
I found them all very moving and, indeed, wise. I called the book Wise Before their Time.
Secondly, roughly 15 years ago, I wrote another book based on interviews with nurses, doctors and many others looking after the dying in two hospices.
They, too, were inspiring but for another reason. They were very thoughtful of the needs of the dying people in their care – and did their very best to respond to them.
For instance, they helped hospice patients to write important letters to family members or encouraged them to make their peace with key people in their lives.
They also went the extra mile to respond to patient requests. One man, for instance, said he wanted to die under a tree and when the time came, he was taken outside to a tree.
The atmosphere in the hospices I have visited is always very tranquil. Peaceful – certainly not full of rage.
Which brings me back to whether I would really want to rage against the dying of the light.
The simple answer is no.
Yes, I want to live life to the fullest for as long as I can, but when the time comes, I hope I will meet my end in a spirit of tranquillity.
I hope I will have said all the important things that need to be said and feel at peace with myself.
This will make my dying so much easier for family and friends, not to mention my husband if he is still here.
But it will also make it easier for me.
Have you thought about how you would like to spend your last days or months? Would you want to rage against death or peacefully accept the inevitable?