Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Let the mourners come

Spring has surely sprung because as I drive each morning down the Avenue of Remembrance I am flanked by a host, a crowd of golden daffodils. A yellow daffodil is the symbol of Marie Curie Cancer Care. They are getting a lot of media coverage at the moment, which may - or may not - be down to actor Hugh Grant fronting this year's appeal.

As well as raising money Marie Curie are raising awareness about where we choose to die. Two thirds of us, apparently, would like to die at home.

At one time no one spoke of sex, with disastrous consequences for some. Now everyone's happy to talk about how often, how many, who with. The new taboo is death. We don't have funerals where we wear black and mourn the dead - instead we turn up in brightly coloured clothes to "celebrate the life". Even in South Wales, now, the body is no longer laid out in the front room (although recent experience shows that a goodly turn out at the chapel of rest to view the body is still expected). We talk about someone "passing way", "passing on", "falling peacefully asleep."

Death is difficult for both parties - the dying person and those they will leave behind. When we speak to the dying or the bereaved we feel we don't know what to say, or are afraid of saying the wrong things. How much easier to say nothing. Organisations like Cruse exist to support the bereaved. Everyone from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Bupa to the BBC have information to help with bereavement. But what about help while our loved one is dying?

Palliative care is about more than just mopping the brows of little old ladies, propped up on goose feather pillows, surrounded by their loving families and passing peacefully away. It is about helping the terminally ill come to terms with the fact that their life is ending, helping to ease their physical pains and discomforts, and supporting those who will be left behind. It is about listening to the choices that people make about how and where they want to die. Sadly dying isn't like it is in those 1940s films of Victorian subjects - pale faces, freshly laundered bed linen, the final whispered words. Dying can take a while and can be painful; it can distort and degrade those we love, it can put an enormous strain on relationships. Death also involves an awful lot of paperwork.
Much of the information on death and dying is aimed at cancer sufferers or the elderly. You don't have to be old or have cancer to die. It's easier to find information on coping with bereavement for children than coping with dying. Even Great Ormond Street focuses on the paperwork, with nothing at all on how to face death as a child.
The library has a collection of books on palliative care, including books on communicating with the dying and their families, and plenty of books on coping with bereavement and loss. Some of the books deal with how people of different faiths approach death. There are books on coping with death at the very beginning of life through miscarriage and still birth.
Hospices are at the core of modern care for the terminally ill and the dying. Our nearest hospice is St Helena.

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