Sunday, 5 July 2020

Death. There's a lot of it about.

A lot of it about
There's a lot of it about.


A young plumber came to mend a leak in the kitchen after my husband Alan died in 2016.  "Death," he said with a shake of his head, as if this was unreasonable, "there's a lot of it about."

I don't think he had experienced many losses, I don't think that dying had happened in his world, and so when he heard of other peoples' experiences, it seemed that death was just getting a bit above itself.  Slow down, he seemed to imply, just one at a time and in an orderly fashion. 

We all know that death is a part of life, that death doesn't follow a protocol, that death will do what it wants when it wants.  We all know that it happens, and though we know theoretically we will have to die one day too, we don't really believe it.  Not really. And yet, people we know die. Even people we love go, and sometimes, family members pass on and so, yes, there is a lot of it about.  I remember when my partner Steve was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, saying we will beat this, and somehow, because I loved him I thought we would.  It was inconceivable that such a thing as love could be bested by such a thing as death.  Light and dark, I thought then.  Light always wins.  But Steve did die, and watching him fade away despite my love and despite it being unfair, changed my world for ever.  In a way, I had to grow up.  I had to experience something beyond my comprehension in order to show me a deeper more profound version of this life.  Steve's death was the single most traumatic event of my life, and probably still is.  I was thrown into a grief and confusion that marked the beginning of the rest of my life, and my decision to work with endings and dyings in the way that I do.  That grief was so mind altering, so hard to bear, that all my understandings of this world had to change.  But it also unlocked my gift, and though I did not want that gift and would have thrown it back if I could have in the beginning, I am grateful for it now.  I often say that Steve came, gave my my job to do, and left.  

So now, deaths.  What good are they?  I absolutely do not know, but the thing is, they happen twenty four hours a day seven days a week.  Making or finding meaning in them, is an ongoing process for most of us.  I have seen many deaths through illness, I have experience of suicide deaths, and I have personally experienced miscarriage.  However, there are many, many ways for us to die. Here is a list to be going on with. 

Illness, suicide, murder, accident, miscarriage, abortion, war, execution, euthanasia, act of God                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
Most of these I have no experience of, and though I accept that death is a given, such things as
Help. Don't make me do it.
execution, war and murder really scare me.  Perhaps it isn't the fact of death so much as the manner of dying.  Murder, war and execution seem to involve cruelty and suffering from the hands of other people that is entirely avoidable, man made and inhumane.  And yet, what I have been trying to do is, where I come across it, to make the manner of dying more calm, more loving and more acceptable.  I have a terrible fear of visiting a death row, an execution, and hope to goodness I never have to do that - it is indescribably unlikely in my little life here in Bognor Regis, but I have learned that the world is utterly unpredictable and just because you fear something does not mean you are safe from it.  Though I imagine I am safe from this.  But you never know. Help. 


Over the years, I have learned to occupy very little space in the room of a dying person.  I remember when I began learning about how people go and what they do, and what I should do, feeling that I should be doing something, I should somehow be indispensable.  It was up to me whether they died well or not. I worried that I could fail at this, and that everyone would see that I was a fraud and did not know what I was doing.  (I did not know what I was doing in those days, absolute fact.) I knew there was a place for people like me, who were drawn to make a small difference to the dying process, but I had no idea how.  For some reason, I felt I ought to know instinctively and that it was all about me making them feel better.  It was about me doing a good job.  It was about me.

Fast forward and this is how I see it now.  Unlearning the above was a valuable part of the process.  It is not about me, and I do not have to get anything right.  I just have to do my best and if it is not what is needed, I can leave.  Mainly, the dying are doing their own thing.  Our job, if we can, is to create a harmonious and loving place for them to do that.  And often we don't have a choice about where that is.  It could be anywhere.  (When I am asked where I would like to die, which I sometimes am, I say I have no intention of dying at all.  But if I have to do it, and as a well person I chose a nice meadow in the sunshine, I may at the time prefer a hospital with all the right equipment.  I may not want to die in a tea shop having afternoon tea because it will be messy, though right now I think it would be a lovely way to go.  My point is we don't know, we can only guess.  And fate may mean we have little choice anyway).  If it isn't about me at all, then I am relieved of the burden of success and failure, and I am relieved of my ego.  It is not all about the dying person either.  It is about all of the people in the room.  If others are there, they bring their energies and beliefs into the mix.  If someone is struggling, they need support.  If the dying person is struggling, they need support. If no one is struggling, then the family or friends there will manage.  They dying person will manage.  Where someone like me comes in, is to support whoever needs it.  When someone is dying whether over a long time or a short, difficult questions will come up.  Unwelcome emotions will arise.  We may have profound conversations and we may have some wonderful, enlightening moments.  We may be unable to resolve old hurts, and we may argue and fight.  We may do a mixture and all other things in between.  And if for example, the illness changes the dying person's personality, then the whole dying process may be unpredictable and difficult.  A man I knew of with a brain tumour became very aggressive and took over the ward.  The police had to be called.  I don't recognise this person, his wife said, this is not him.  A few days later, he died.  And the moment of death, that moment many of us feel we have to witness for our loved ones, may just happen when we are not looking.  The moment of death, that last breath, may well be so silent that no one notices it.  

I held my mother, and my father, and my husband as they died. Steve died just before I got there, and my brother Dominic died when I left the room.  It was really lovely to be there for Mum, Dad and Alan's last breath and a bit sad I wasn't there to witness Steve and Dominic, but because it is not, actually, about me, I can let that go.  People die when they die.  I thought Dominic was actually dying a few days before he did, and I told him to let go and go when he was ready.  I was convinced he was on his way, and after a while, when he didn't go, I felt a bit foolish and went and had a cup of tea.  Sorry, Dom, I said.  When he did go, a few days later, it was on his own terms and in his own time, and it was when he was alone.  

Here is an account of how dying involves loved ones too.  

As a volunteer on the local hospice wards, one of my roles was as a patient companion when there were no family or friends for a dying person.  One afternoon I overheard an exasperated lady talking about how her neighbour's husband was deeply reluctant to come and see his wife, ever, and now she was actually dying.  I jolly well made him get into the car, she said, and forced him.  He's outside her room now, she said angrily, not going in.  I give up. 

 I remember thinking that he must be very frightened and being angry with him won't help.  I was worried and went looking for him.  I found him sitting on his own looking terrified, lost and small on a chair near his wife's room.  I began talking with him, and he talked about everything and anything that he could, but not ever about his wife, dying in the room next to him.  After a while, I said to him that I knew his wife, and that I had had many good conversations with her.  Would you mind, I asked him, if I went and said goodbye to her?  After a pause, he said that he would take me to her.  And he got up and  walked into her room.  Surprised but delighted, I followed. "Hello dear," he said and bent over her. "It's your favourite husband.  I have Antonia here who wants to say goodbye to you."  With that, he walked around her to the chair beside her bed on the other side, and sat down.  I said goodbye to her gently and thanked her, noticing that the husband who had been so afraid, was now sitting and holding his wife's hand.  I left the room, and she died a little while later, her husband with her.  All he had needed was someone to be kind to him. 

Was the angry neighbour right to force the husband into the hospice?  Was the ending a good one?  In the end, she was instrumental in helping the husband to overcome some very deep fears, but what if he had remained panicking, alone, outside her room and missed her death?  We just cannot know.  What I understood from this experience is that the dying wife was fine, all that could be done for her was being done.  It was the husband that needed the helping hand.  It was, for a while, only about him.  It was a happy ending in that all things came together, the wife died with the husband holding her hand, and he no longer isolated and afraid.  


Dad died three weeks ago today.  It feels as if eighty eight years have gone in the blink of an eye, and here we are already three weeks into his eternity.  Every time someone I love dies, I get lost in the not knowing.  Same now with Dad.  Where did he go?  I don't know.  Why didn't he wait to die here like I had planned?  I don't know.  Why did he have to suffer cruel and avoidable isolation and loss from us, and then die on a stretcher?  I don't know.  What does it all mean?  I don't know.

It is up to me to make my own sense of this.  I am not grief stricken.  Dad was dying for a long time with Alzheimer's and Dementia.  I had years to say goodbye, and now that I have said it, I feel alongside the sadness of losing him, a feeling of freedom and expansion.  I miss him, but I feel lighter.  He has done it.  He has gone, shooting off on the tails of a radiant, blazing star, up to Heaven where everyone is cracking open the red wine, waiting for him to join the party.  There is nothing more for him to do here, no dying no death no waiting.  No living.  He has gone to join his friends and family and I have waved him goodbye.   I will plod on down here, living and doing my best but I still have it all to come.  I have no idea when it will be, how it will be or where it will be.   One thing I do know, other people have not paused in their dying because Dad has gone.  Hey ho.  There's a lot of it about.

Still happening. 

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