My father passed away last year from cancer and it was my first real experience of death. Every situation is different. In our case, dad went very quickly: diagnosed as terminal in the summer, gone by Christmas. He spent his last few weeks in and out of the hospice.
The sheer speed of a death makes it hard to come to terms with what’s happening. At first, your obsession is with medical information – as if by knowing more, you can negotiate for longer. Some doctors are not straightforward. They were trying to spare our feelings but the result was that when my father became very incapacitated we thought we might be dealing with it for months and that we would be left on our own. Being signed over to the hospice staff was, at first, a shock. That really brought things home. But shock soon turned to relief. We discovered that these people know what’s going on, know what they’re doing. Chaos turned to control.
In the last few days the hospice invited me to move in to one of the guest rooms and be on hand. What was great about this experience – and about the Learn to Care programme – is that it integrated me into the caregiving, which is another way of saying that I stopped being useless and became helpful. Given longer I’d have welcomed the opportunity to learn skills like keeping the mouth dry and understanding breathing. As it was, I spent most of my time checking that dad was comfortable and making myself tea.
The nurses who care for the terminally ill are brilliant at what they do. But they’re still strangers. If a family member can stay close, and get involved, they can tell better when a patient is thirsty or afraid – what’s normal in their behaviour and what’s not. My father, for instance, dealt with his physical decline badly and became hard to reason with. At times, this could be frightening. But a combination of the staff’s clinical knowledge and our understanding of what might worry or uplift him got us through it.
Everyone reacts to the death of a family member in different ways. I chose to become as involved as possible. I decided it was important to be there, to witness it. It was horrible, distressing. But also, believe it or not, a privilege and, I’m convinced, a comfort to both of us.
Odd memories remain. The last movie we all watched together was one with Clint Eastwood playing a mountain climber, and it wasn’t very good. A friend – a very kind man – visited my father and stayed in his room for hours, just reading a book. It was very calm when my father passed on. He was in the right place.