A day for thinking about death

Today is Good Friday and the year is 2020. There will never be another Good Friday like this. I hope. Our churches are closed because of the Coronavirus and we are all trying to find ways of keeping the Triduum at home. Some have created prayer spaces with symbols that mean something, some have watched a hundred videos on Facebook and YouTube and some clergy have felt inadequate at the expertise of others. Why didn’t I learn all this IT stuff before the lockdown began? Why didn’t I prepare better? And if someone said that to me I would tell them that doing your best is just fine. But today I’m not hearing it. Today I’m grumpy, and in a bad mood, and I’m missing my Good Friday.

From the first year that I became a Christian Holy Week has been so very special for me. The sights, the sounds, the smells all take me to that place far, far away and long, long ago. Since being ordained I have tried faithfully to share some of that life-changing week with my little flocks. Through Stations of the Cross, art, fasting, meditations, candlelit Compline, preaching the Passion, the Veneration of the Cross, foot-washing, shared meals, prostrating at the Garden of Repose, and the joy of Holy Saturday and cleaning the church and preparing it for Easter Day. I love Holy Week. Yes, it makes me cry. But after the tears come Hot Cross Buns. And you know you have to go through the agony to appreciate the joy of Easter.

Today I’ve been thinking about death. My own death. I am ‘shielding’ at the moment which is the strictest kind of self-isolation for those who have an illness that puts them at high risk of catching the virus. Some people have one illness which puts them at risk. I have a few! I have COPD (lung disease) and Asthma, Diabetes, Liver disease, and I’m on steroids which lower my immune system. So I am being very careful indeed about staying indoors and washing everything over and over again. But there is still a chance I could catch it – when I’m at the doctor’s for blood tests, or at the hospital as I was on Monday. And I know that if I do get Coronavirus I might not survive it. For once I’m not being dramatic, for this is my reality. Usually I am a glass half-full kind of person but today I’m not. Because today, Good Friday, is a day for thinking about death and I can’t help but think of my own.

Many years ago, at the beginning of my ministry, I led an evening on Preparing Your Own Funeral and I’ve repeated them time and time again. It is a subject I am passionate about. I’ve met families who have not even considered that their parent or loved one might die and are totally unprepared for thinking about hymns or burial or cremation or what readings or any of the questions a priest might ask the next of kin. Prepare your own before you go! I’d shout. And people did. And I did. And I told my son where to find it. And I showed him where all my papers are. I could relax. All was in hand.

But things have changed. My hope for a full Requiem with clergy in black vestments and twelve favourite hymns just won’t happen if I should die while restrictions are in place. It may be my boys and a priest at the Crem. It may be short and, I’m sure, sweet but nothing as I’d planned and hoped. And that’s okay. To be honest, I think my boys might prefer it that way.

Speaking to a friend this week who is also ‘shielding’ she told me her GP had phoned to check that she was taking all the instructions seriously to the letter, and did anyone have Power of Attorney, and did she want a DNR put in place. She was shocked and upset. She hadn’t thought about that. And I haven’t either. I know I hope for a good death, a happy death but I also know that not everyone gets that. My mother didn’t. My father didn’t. I don’t want to be resuscitated if there’s no hope. But I haven’t done anything about that yet. I don’t want to die alone or with a stranger holding my hand in their gloved one. I’m not frightened of dying but I am frightened of the physical aspects of it and the emotional ones. Then I listen to the Passion story again and again and wonder why I’m afraid and feel rather silly.

So that’s where I am this Good Friday. I know it will pass. But this is where I am today. Thinking, probably over-thinking, about death. It has been a struggle this Holy Week. I pray that Easter will make it better.

Lent thoughts -Being

I have the most wonderful Podiatrist called Naresh and we have very interesting conversations about life, death and the universe while he tends to my tootsies. One of the questions he nearly always asks is what I’m reading. Last time I was there I was reading All That Remains: A Life in Death which was a fascinating look at our bodies after death and we had a wee chat about that. He knows I have a fascination with helping people achieve a ‘happy death’ and asked if I’d read Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. It is written from a medical point of view by an American doctor but there is much in it of a spiritual nature. Much of it is Case Studies of people he met who were given a terminal diagnosis and how they wanted to end their days. I’ve enjoyed reading it and been saddened by how society and the medical profession often treat patients. (Often, I said, not always. I am aware there are some good stories out there.)

One passage which caught my eye and gave me cause to pause during the Lenten season was this paragraph:

As our time winds down, we all seek comfort in simple pleasures – companionship, everyday routines, the taste of good food, the warmth of sunlight on our faces. We become less interested in the rewards of achieving and accumulating, and more interested in the rewards of simply being. Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy. And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living feel meaningful and worthwhile.

As I get older I can appreciate those sentiments. Recently I had a health scare which really made me think about what was important in my life, and accumulating ‘stuff’ which I don’t need became a real issue for me. I then spent a few weekends selling ‘stuff’ on Ebay and taking things to the charity shops. I thought about what was important to me and it was about spending time with family and reading more and worrying less. I also knew I had to sort out papers and get rid of so many files and magazines and books which I was holding on to unnecessarily. This is a work in progress!

Lent is a good time to let go of what takes us further from God. To let go of temptations which take us down paths we don’t need to travel. To let go of achieving and accumulation and focus on simply being.

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How much do we care for our elderly?

D is 90. She is a Franciscan tertiary who lives alone simply and with a good network of friends. She is very independent and sharp as a tack, with few health problems considering her age, and volunteers regularly at a centre providing care for the elderly. (She didn’t think of herself as elderly!) That is, until a few weeks ago when she came downstairs in the morning and opened her curtains, got a sharp pain above her hip and fell, hitting her coffee table on the way down. Luckily she had her phone in her dressing gown pocket so was able to call a neighbour, who phoned an ambulance and left her lying until the ‘experts’ came. She was taken into hospital and admitted to the Acute Assessment.

Her next of kin phoned a church member so we knew about it straight away and I popped in to see her the next day. (No visitors, she’d said, because she didn’t want to be a nuisance but I told her I didn’t count.) They said she was a bit dehydrated but they sorted that quickly but nobody seemed to know why she’d fallen. Without doing an x-ray they were certain it was not a broken bone so they treated her with painkillers. Physios came and helped her with some exercises and tried to get her walking but she really had quite a lot of pain and had lost her confidence. With the zimmer she could manage but didn’t cope well with a stick. So they kept her in for about a week before discharging her with a zimmer. She still didn’t know what was wrong with her.

A friend came to take her home to a dark and cold house with no food in the fridge. Since then (over two weeks ago) she has seen a nurse every morning who comes to put a patch on her hip for pain. That’s it. Until 2 days ago when a trolley arrived she was unable to feed herself because she had no way of carrying food or drinks from the kitchen to her seat and couldn’t stand for any length of time in the kitchen. D’s neighbours and friends had to come in several times a day to make food for her. The hospital had also arranged for a cushion which came with the trolley. It was covered in plastic and sweaty to sit on. D has had no other help.

When I was visiting yesterday I discovered that D has not had a shower since she got out of hospital because she is unable to climb into her bath. She has had to make do with a wipe down herself. She still has awful pain and is stuck sitting all day on a cushion on a low couch watching TV. She has never been given exercises to do at home, nor does she know what is actually wrong with her. No x-rays, no scans = no diagnosis.

Then this morning I heard on the radio that the NHS is cutting back on unnecessary treatments which cost money. One of those unnecessary treatments is x-rays for lower back pain. And I bet if you’re 90 you’re even less likely to get one.

holding-hands-elderlyD doesn’t appear to have a Social Worker, Occupational Health worker, Care assistant, anyone to whom she can phone and ask for help. The nurses who come in the morning (seldom the same one) only have been told to put her patch on and that’s it.  Her GP comes back from holiday tomorrow so she is going to try her. We’ve helped her write down all the questions she needs to ask. Like: who will help me have a shower? can I get a chair to help the pain? are there other aids which might make life easier for me at the moment? what is wrong with me and how can I help it improve?

D is fortunate in a way. She has a community of friends from church and the Franciscans, as well as some super neighbours who can pop in and do shopping and keep her company. What she really wants is her independence back. And she wants to know what’s wrong with her and will it get better. It’s the not knowing that causes worry and sleepless nights.

But what about the other folk, I’m left wondering? What about those without communities of support? What about the forgotten ones sent home from hospital with no way of feeding or bathing themselves? More cutbacks means less care and more vulnerable people. Its just not good enough. And it makes me very sad and more than a little angry. I love the NHS, I really do. I’ll defend it to the end and I’d pay more taxes if I knew the money was going to the vulnerable and not management. But why are we not getting something as simple as communication right? I know there is help out there but I just don’t know how to access it for D.

I did a funeral on Saturday for a lady who was ill at home for a long time, cared for by her husband. He has about 30 items they have been ‘loaned’ over the last year to help her: a reclining chair, toilet support, cushions, hospital bed, rails, grabbers etc. He wants them taken away now for someone else to use. They can’t say when that will be. I’m tempted to hire a van and just get over there and fill it up for D.

SOS

I have been told that I should be wearing an SOS Talisman bracelet to alert people that I have an allergy to Penicillen and other hideous diseases which medical folk ought to know about in case I am in an accident and can’t speak.

The bracelet arrived today and I have been filling in the tiny bit of paper which concertinas inside it with all my medical history on it. I’ve done the allergy thing, next of kin, blood group, religion, and relevant diseases. But there is still some space for Other Information.

Should I include ‘Attention Seeker’, do you think? Then they would know that I’d appreciate flashing lights and sirens blaring. Or is wearing a bracelet with SOS in huge letters enough?