Death Sentence: Do We Lose a Battle When We Die?

Sunset near Twillingate, Newfoundland, Canada

Sunset near Twillingate, Newfoundland, Canada

The Warlike Vocabulary of Cancer

For many people cancer is a death sentence. Maybe this is why a warlike vocabulary has grown up around the disease. We use phrases such as ‘fighting the battle’. But not everyone feels comfortable with such imagery. My daughter Megan was one who did not. It’s not a war, she wrote shortly before her death from cancer at the age of 32.

Waiting to Die on Death Row

Similar thoughts have been expressed by a man facing death in very different circumstances. Mike Lambrix is a prisoner on Death Row in the USA. ‘I suppose it’s really not that different from the resolve most cancer patients feel when they too are counting down their last days – especially those who have suffered for so long under that threat of death, and when that final countdown does come, there’s almost a sense of relief that the journey may finally come to an end and the suffering will finally pass, ‘ he has written.

Mike Lambrix has been waiting to die for more than 30 years. Such is the tortuous process of the American legal system that a person can been sentenced to death yet serve what amounts to life imprisonment before that sentence is carried out. Mike has been corresponding for 23 years with Jan Arriens, a former diplomat and founder of a British organisation called Lifelines which offers friendship and support to prisoners on America’s Death Row.

‘It is as though Mike was diagnosed in 1984 as having a terminal illness – in his case, unfitness to live in normal society’ says Jan, who is a practising Quaker. ‘His condition has been slow-moving, but at 54 he may have just a few months to live. ‘Mike is currently waiting to learn whether his plea for clemency will be granted by the Florida state government. But the outlook is grim as Florida has not granted clemency for more than 30 years and is currently executing more prisoners than any other state in the USA.’

Petition Against the Death Penalty

Mudflats at Oare Creek, Kent

Mudflats at Oare Creek, Kent

Jan has started an online petition to try to save Mike’s life. This can be found at I have known Jan for many years having met him shortly before I published a book on the subject of the death penalty in the USA. The book focused on the life of the British lawyer and anti-death penalty campaigner Clive Stafford Smith who at that time was representing Death Row prisoners.

The Acceptance of Death

I know how death can be accepted, having watched my daughter Megan die from cancer with peace and dignity. Mike’s words resonated with me. The way we describe and think about death is important. The words we use reflect our understanding of death. Is it an end or a transition? I have also recently been struck by the work of an academic, Elena Semino, who is researching the vocabulary we use around the subject of cancer. How often do we hear or read phrases such as ‘fighting cancer’, ‘losing the battle’. Sometimes this warlike vocabulary can be painful for those with a terminal disease. That was certainly the case for my forceful and determined daughter Megan who gave us orders for her funeral. No-one should speak about her ‘losing her battle with cancer’ or use any similar phraseology. As a veterinary surgeon she understood all too well the scientific significance of the changes taking place within her body.

It’s Not a War

Mike says he realises that on Death Row ‘there is a certain measure of indifference, even complacency, towards the thought of death amongst all of us… In fact, many even welcomed it. And although I’ve read a lot over the years about the process and those speaking of long-term solitary confinement, I cannot recall reading anything about why it is that those sentenced to death really are not that upset when their time comes and this has me somewhat curious.’

At the end of one of her poems, addressing her tumour, Megan wrote these words:

‘No need for enmity or spite. It’s not a war.’


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