I struggled to find an appropriate title for this blog post.
I’d like to discuss dying.
If that might upset you, please don’t read on.
Newspapers report statistics in strange ways – such and such reduces mortality, they’ll say. What they actually mean is for a particular age range there’ll be fewer deaths; we all die sometime. Life, as the old saying goes, is a terminal disease. Mortality is 100%. One day – not for many years, I hope – I’ll die.
It’s great that – in Britain, at least – we can expect to live to a ripe old age. In my first year at university I lost a college friend (age 18: car accident), a youth theatre friend (18: house fire) and my mother (59: heart attack) all within a six month period. Such exceptions highlight the comparative rarity of early death in our society. When plague or Spanish flu ravaged the country death would have been an almost commonplace terror.
The world stops yet the world continues.
Not dying from plague, cholera, malaria, consumption and so on means we’re free to die from other things. We all want to live a long and healthy life. If something like cancer, Alzheimer’s or a stroke intervenes it can be devastating.
There are no easy answers to dealing with such problems of old age. It goes without saying that we want the best possible medical and social care; those elderly are the people who have nurtured us, worked, paid taxes, fought on our behalf and so on. On that basis alone we should honour them. We should also remember that one day – all too soon, as I approach fifty – we will be in their place, on the receiving end of whatever care society deems fit.
I hope by the time I get there part of that will be to treat each person as an individual – after all, if I’ve had ninety years to develop my square pegginess I won’t want to be shoved into a one size fits all round hole.
I’ve been close to people who have died. I’ve been witness to deaths. My mother-in-law we nursed at home through the last three months of her cancer, with help from NHS nurses and an agency. She’d had all the treatment that might stop the cancer (it didn’t) and radiation for the pain of bone cancer. At the end she was on a morphine pump and drifted off peacefully. She had a living will that refused CPR or anything like that. She had a stockpile of barbiturates (we found them after her death and sent them to the pharmacy) and had read all the Exit info she could lay her hands on. With that preparation on hand in case she felt her suffering was too great she was as content as anyone could be under those circumstances and did not need suicide. She had prepared and that helped her to cope.
I can’t pretend it was a remotely easy three months (indeed, at the time, with two children under the age of four as well, it was hell – I averaged maximum four hours sleep a night and ended up delirious myself at one point). Her death came as rather a relief at the time. But I would do it again (though with more help!): it was the best thing for her even if it took us several years to recover.
My father had a heart problem. He was whisked into hospital one weekend then collapsed. They shoved an oxygen tube into his lungs to keep him alive. When I arrived he was surrounded by tubes, drips, machines that bleeped and pumped. They’d broken his one remaining front tooth shoving the tube in.
Some of us will want to live every possible moment of life. Others of us will decide that we’ve had enough, are scared of pain and wish to quietly escape.
We can’t make people live for ever, no matter how we pray or eat or seek miracle medical interventions. We can allow them to die with dignity, pain free, where (and perhaps when) they choose.
Here’s a moving article by someone who worked in palliative care: Top five regrets of the dying.
The regrets are not particularly surprising but it’s interesting to consider them now, while we’re (hopefully) relatively healthy. (Though I might take issue with number two – I wish I didn’t work so hard – because my acquaintances who are unemployed or off work for health reasons are significantly more depressed than those in work. I think it all comes down to choice again – to some feeling of control in life.)
In case anyone thinks I am morbid; I am not. I plan on implementing the suggestion from regret number five as best I can: happiness matters – let’s celebrate what life we have joyfully. Tonight the Fox household will be watching Tim Minchin at the Albert Hall on DVD.
Let’s make the most of life.