Last week brought my son’s third birthday. As I knelt down to hold his favourite chocolate cake before him, watching the glee play on his face as the candles danced before his eyes, the rise and fall of voices singing the song of life, I think of the phone call.
You know, “the phone call”. The late night phone call that turns your face a whiter shade of pale and leaves your shaking hands reaching for the kettle. My darling friend, at the tender age of 24, had been stolen from us without warning. For her, for us, there could be no preparation, she was killed.
This stark contrast between life and death has both haunted and mesmerised me over the last few days. No parent should have to bury a child; but with the advances in science giving way to an ageing population, it feels like no adult should have to bury their parent either.
Talking to fellow parents with younger children I’m surprised by how few have a will in order in case the worst should happen, it’s simply something they don’t want to think about. But the worry that your children could be shipped from pillar to post, with no certain security, is seemingly preferable on the basis that it will never happen. I have been guilty of such thoughts myself. What does this say about our attitude towards the (hopefully delayed) inevitable?
When my mother was studying health care with the Open University some years ago, a close friend died from terminal illness and she decided to take an extension course entitled ‘death and dying’ to gain insight and understanding. When finished I asked her how it was, the reply was simply, “I don’t know, it was just so, morbid…”. At the time one couldn’t help but wonder given the course title, what exactly was it she expected? But for anyone that has faced death head on there seems to be, at one stage or another, a sense of peace, however hollow.
I read a piece by Professor Mayur Lakhani online recently that he wrote in 2012, asking fellow medical professionals to up their game when it comes to end of life care. He writes: “Imagine a situation where most people with a common condition are undiagnosed and where opportunities are repeatedly missed to identify the problem and to offer good care. What is this condition? It’s dying.”
We are the nation of the stiff upper lip. We keep calm and carry on. We turn to the teapot when disaster strikes and we look up when tears threaten to brim over. This may keep us going, but does it help us cope?
I have grieved for too many loved ones, and regardless of circumstance, death has yet to treat me like an old friend. I ponder on why, even through old age or long term illness I still feel so harrowed by the loss. Is it simply down to our instinctive need for survival and the reminder of our own humanity, or is it conditioning? Medical professionals rarely use the ‘d’ words. They say “seriously” or “gravely” ill, or even “terminal”, but the phrase “you are going to die” never seems to enter the consultation room.
After my grandmother died last year, I had to come home and explain it to our then five-year-old daughter. Me and her father decided we would tell her that grandmother had been feeling tired and poorly and that she was ready to rest in heaven now. I thought it had gone well until we were asked how long it would take to get from heaven to visit, as if it were dependent upon traffic.
It only began to sink in when I told her that grandma had died, and in that single sentence she understood. It seemed so visceral to bring up the topic of dying with children who are anything but. Afterwards her father told me I had done the right thing, using the word died. The bluntness was the only way to gain comprehension, which in turn led to healing.
That conversation with an innocent creature that had no experience of what happens when our days on this planet are numbered, made me think that it’s time we were more open about death.
We can but live to the fullest and appreciate every day, and support those who are grieving and those that are dying with honesty and dignity. In the words of a man named Peter Green, every day I wake up is a bonus.