There’s a lot of death about this week. I suppose in one sense there always is, but this weekend I have been moved by two people I follow on Twitter. One is @GrangerKate who has become better known through a piece in The Times this Saturday, as a doctor with cancer who plans to Tweet her own death. The other you almost certainly won’t know, she is @mollybear68 – a gorgeous collie dog just diagnosed with untreatable cancer of the spleen and lungs, whose owner is understandably devastated at contemplating her imminent loss*.
Death is such a mystery. We don’t talk about it much, except in a jokey way, until faced with it in ourselves or in those we love. My earliest experience of death was through animals. I grew up on a smallholding where death was part of everyday life. Calves and sheep going to slaughterhouses; hens being massacred by foxes; guinea-pigs, budgies, cats, and dogs succumbing to accidents or falling as road casualties – a lucky few dying of ‘natural causes’.
My first experience of human death was when a friend’s father (a farmer) died of septicaemia. I was about 18 and utterly lacking in understanding. I had no idea what my friend was going through, and I was unable to offer any useful support, yet surprisingly we remain friends even now. As a physiotherapist I worked in intensive care for 6 years in a general unit. This was in the days predating specialisation, so our patients could be of any age and with any condition – surgical, medical, accident victim, overdose, neurological, orthopaedic – we took them all. One in four of them would die, on average. So I became ‘used’ to death, shored up by colleagues and friends, alcohol and appalling black humour.
Then one day when I was working on the unit my bleep went off – an outside call – it was my mother telling me my brother’s body had been found….the rest was a blur. I discovered I wasn’t ‘used’ to death at all and my world imploded. Since then, I have lived through the deaths of both my father and my mother (about 13 years apart), two cats aged 19 and 18 respectively and a cockerel called Fowler. Every experience of death is different for me, and none of us can understand how it is for someone else.
To return to the start – May 13th-19th has been designated ‘Death Awareness Week’ and people have been talking a lot about ‘a good death’, but good for whom? Good for the person dying, good for the ones left behind, or good for health professionals? I wonder if some of the current flurry of blogs about the desirability of ensuring a good death, are as much to assuage the fears of the living as the dying. I am still uncertain in my own mind as to whether death is kinder when it comes unexpectedly, or when you have time to make plans and say your goodbyes. In my own experience, nothing prevents the all-consuming pain and guilt that ensues in the aftermath of losing someone you love. But for the ones who must stay behind and take the longer road, there is some comfort in feeling you have done all that is possible to ease the transition from life to death. Unfortunately, we are not able to ask the dead if this makes it any better for them.
*Molly the collie died Monday 13th May 2013
My late mother’s favourite quotation comes from John Donne (1839): “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (Meditation 17)
End-Of-Life: A Good Death by Brian Alger here
Dying Matters by Elin Roddy here