Death is all around me at the moment. It is in our daily readings in the Offices. It is in the tears of the recently bereaved who read them with me. It is in the watching and waiting as a beloved mother dies. It is in the memories of those who find this time of year difficult because of an anniversary or the first Christmas without them. It is in the oil to anoint a chilled brow. It is in the bleak chill of the cemetary that I can’t reach. Death is all around.
This morning I have been thinking about how to achieve a happy death. We can’t all choose that we will have a happy death. And if we were just to spend some time thinking about how that might be, what would you want? At the end of a good and satisfying life, in peaceful surroundings, with no pain? That is an ideal that not many can achieve. But when it does we can give thanks.
Reading James Woodward’s blog this morning has made me think about my mum’s death. It was not a happy death. It was in a hospice which should have meant that all was done to make it a ‘good death’. That didn’t happen. On her first visit (to get medication sorted) a nurse was impatient with her when she needed the toilet. To mum she seemed brusque and impatient and made her wait for a long time in desperation. She was rude and she shouted at mum. Of course we don’t know what was going on elsewhere in the ward at that time, and why that particular nurse seemed uncaring. Nor would they know that when my mum needed ‘to go’ there was no hanging about. But somehow this episode became a huge issue for mum. It may be that it became the focus for all her fears about dying, but nobody ever took time to listen to her to find out. She couldn’t wait to get home.
She did get home after a few days to stay with my sister. There she was cared for day and night by C with visiting health care workers coming in daily who got to know her well and who listened. She wanted to die there. She was adamant that she didn’t want to go back to that hospice. But then she collapsed and my sister couldn’t get her up off the floor. For that, and other reasons, the decision was made that she should go into the hospice. I was part of that decision and we all felt it was for the best. I went in the ambulance with mum and it was then that she turned her face to the wall. She didn’t want to go and made it clear that she was unhappy. So unhappy, in fact, that she didn’t speak again for a week until she died. We visited daily and tried to chivvy her along but she remained facing the wall (literally, as her bed was against a wall). The doctors said she was suffering from depression and they would give her medication for that but that it would take time to work. Time she didn’t have.
For weeks before she had been asking to die. She begged doctors and health visitors to give her something to speed the process. She wasn’t in pain but she knew that it was only a matter of time and she didn’t want to prolong it, for her sake and ours. She knew that daily visiting and caring was taking its toll on us all. (We didn’t mind, of course, but we knew she did. She never wanted to be a burden.) In the hospice we knew she only had days to live and when she wouldn’t speak to us, we were told that the only thing she said to doctors was that she wanted to die. There was nothing they could do. She has signed a Living Will but in these circumstances it wasn’t much good.
Nearly five years later I can still remember that last week clearly. It was not a happy death. It was a smelly, silent, and prolonged death. The hospice didn’t burden us with the information that her wound was infected and that she probably had MRSA or some other infection. We only knew when the ward was closed after her death and her belongings destroyed.
And we are left with the knowledge that it needn’t have been like that. I believe mum could have had a happy death. She could have had a happy death at home if the correct care was in place to help people care for their relatives there. And this appears to be a postcode lottery as I hear and have seen Macmillan nurses doing all they can to create such an atmosphere, but they are not available everywhere. She could have had a happy death if a nurse had been more sympathetic over something as basic as bringing a commode sooner. She could have had a happy death if a doctor had been willing to give her something which would have allowed her to bring her death forward by a few days.
I’ve heard speakers from the Church resist assisted dying. I don’t understand it. We know and believe they are going to a better place. I visited someone two days ago who was allowed home from hospital to die. It was peaceful, quiet, spiritual, warm and, in the end, a happy death. It is something that I pray for without fail – that we should all have such a happy death.