Monday, 20 May 2019

A Good Death

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Kathryn Mannix said: “There are only two days with fewer than twenty-four hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookmarks astride our lives; one is celebrated every year, yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious.”

In the film of the same name, Shirley Valentine stays on after her holiday in Greece, but as a waitress not a holidaymaker. A holiday needs an end or it is not a holiday, just another day. In the same way a life on Earth must have an end if it is to be worth living. Good people, like a good book, should have a happy ending. It is the job of hospices to ensure as far as possible that those with terminal illnesses have a good death.

What a wonderful thing the hospice movement is. Thanks to the skill and care of the doctors and nurses who work in palliative care, patients nearing the end of their lives can spend their days in comfort and pleasant surroundings, in a friendly environment. So they may arrive at the point where they have taken care of business, settled their outstanding grievances, said goodbye to family and friends, and are ready to make the transition to the next level of reality.

A hospice close to where I live has just launched a joint scheme with a nearby major hospital to provide volunteer visitors for those about to die, and whose family or friends cannot be with them all the time - or not at all; I am privileged to be one of those volunteers. The benefits of this scheme are three-fold: first, it frees up the nursing staff to attend to other patients without having to monitor the dying one; second, it allows family members to leave the bedside for meals or to rest, knowing that they will be called immediately if required; third, and most importantly, the patient feels that they haven’t been left alone to die.

One of the saddest calls I took when I was with with a well-known crisis helpline, was from a woman with no family, dying alone at home. She didn’t like to think of her body lying unattended for weeks before being discovered. I felt strongly that it was morally wrong, in any society at any time, that the old and sick should be allowed to end their days alone and uncared for. I still feel the same way. The Compassionate Companions scheme I have described here will help to address this issue.

Dorothy House Hospice

I started by praising the hospice movement. You may ask, why do we need hospices when we already have good hospitals? In a nutshell, hospices are there for the dying, hospitals are for the living. Hospitals are geared towards keeping people alive and making them better. They don’t always succeed but they will try their hardest. Dr. Christopher Kerr said: “If you have an aversion to dying, medical school is a pretty safe place to be. They never mention dying.”

Having said that, things are changing, in the UK at least. In the last twenty years, palliative care in our hospitals has taken a great leap forward. Specific pain relief and symptomatic treatment often means that a patient can remain conscious and relatively comfortable even as their health declines. I hope that will also help the rest of us who still have lives ahead of us - to know that death is nothing to be afraid of.


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