Friday, 8 November 2013

Talking of dying

Yesterday Jane and I went to Woodley near Reading - No, let me start one or two steps back from there. I'm a great admirer of Dr Kate Granger. She is one brave person, though she wouldn't bless me for saying so! Here's what she wrote about herself:
"I am a 31 year old Elderly Medicine Registrar working in Yorkshire in the UK. Nothing unusual about that really. But I am also a cancer patient, a terminally ill one with a very rare and aggressive form of sarcoma. On my blog I muse about current issues especially relating to end of life care, communication and patient centredness. I also write about my experiences as I approach the end of my life.
"I have written 2 books, The Other Side and The Bright Side. We sell these with all profits being donated to the Yorkshire Cancer Centre Appeal in Leeds. See my website for more details –". 

I challenge you to read her latest blog post without being moved and inspired (apologies again, Kate!): Dear Cancer Part 2. Anyway it was while researching some talks that I came across her comments about the Liverpool Care Pathway, which was rubbished inter al by the Daily Mail (no surprise there!). Her comments last November in contrast to the media hysteria were unsurprisingly extremely well informed and balanced. For example, "When my time comes I really hope my care will follow the standardised LCP approach. I fully believe it improves care at the very end of life and results in more ‘good deaths’ with comfortable patients not undergoing futile painful interventions and well informed, emotionally supported relatives, making the grieving process that little bit easier." 
Sue Ryder House, Nettlebed

So that was step 1. Then Jane and I went to an MNDA tea put on by the local Sue Ryder Hospice at Nettlebed (once the home of none other than Ian Fleming) where our hostess, Lynn Brooks, mentioned a consultation afternoon being put for the Leadership Alliance for the Care of Dying People by Sue Ryder, in response to Lady Neuberger's More Care Less Pathway report which led in July to the Health Minister's scrapping the Liverpool Care Pathway and looking for an alternative approach. Was anyone interested? We were - and so we applied and got the last two places.  Step 2.

So, yesterday afternoon we drove across the Downs and along the motorway to Reading. Step 3. The Alliance was set up, I think, by a palliative care consultant in Oxford in order to produce a constructive way forward post-Neuberger, and it draws together parties from all over the health sector, from the Royal Colleges and NHS to those involved specifically in terminal care such as hospices. There were about 56 of us there on seven tables. Only a few of us were current "service users" and carers like Jane and me, though in the end all of us will be. It was an unusual experience being in a room where everyone was at ease talking about death and dying, but not a bad or morbid one - rather like the increasingly popular Death Cafés, I imagine. In fact one of the common themes that emerged from every table was the importance of communication, between the professionals and the patients (and if appropriate their families). I tend to agree with Kate Granger's ideal that a palliative care specialist should be present when someone is given a terminal diagnosis, or if not then at the next appointment. 

As a former teacher, I frankly think that the process of dying should find a place on the secondary curriculum. I'm not sure where it would fit in! Perhaps citizenship. Talking about what will happen to everyone seems a better use of time than debating the pros and cons of euthanasia, which only serves to increase fear of dying. Far better to break the taboo we nurture concerning death. Isn't time we were open about this great fact of life, rather than be scared stiff of it?

I imagine almost everyone who receives a diagnosis of a terminal or potentially terminal condition experiences some moments of fear.  I was no exception.  I was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in the same year that Diane Pretty had died in the publicity of her court cases.  I was under no illusion as to what MND meant.  I knew it was life-limiting and life-ending.  In particular I had some fears about the manner of dying I could expect.  These were fuelled by the campaign surrounding such people as Ms Pretty, which portrays those with similar conditions as 'sufferers' and 'victims' and drip-feeds horror stories to the media - with the effect of exacerbating public fear.  

Don't mistake me.  MND, as a newly diagnosed friend recently observed to me, is a 'bugger', as are most neurological and terminal diseases.  I suppose, for that matter, most dying is too - which of course none of us avoid. 

In Yann Martel's remarkable novel, The Life of Pi, which I'm reading at the moment, the turning point for the 16-year old Pi Patel, alone with the terrifying Bengal tiger named in error, Richard Parker, on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean comes with a discovery. 
'I must say a word about fear.  It is life's only true opponent.  Only fear can defeat life.  It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know.  It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy.  It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease.  It begins with your mind, always….
'… Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart.  Only your eyes work well.  They always pay proper attention to fear.
'Quickly you make rash decisions.  You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust.  There, you've defeated yourself.  Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you' (chapter 56).  It's as he accepts the tiger's presence, loses his fear and starts to face it up and almost to befriend it that he discovers his ultimately successful survival strategy. 'And so it came to be: Plan Number Seven: Keep Him Alive.'

(My beef with the campaign for assisted dying/suicide is that it feeds on and fuels people's fear - our natural fear of pain, of dying, of the unknown.  We're told stories to increase our fear of the big beast, death. And that is toxic to society. We lose our trust and our hope. We run scared of dying and lose our humanity.)

The great joy for me yesterday was seeing in the flesh what the media seems to conceal rather than celebrate: the whole range of people from paramedics, nurses and doctors, to managers, befrienders and social carers whose ambition was to ensure that the journey towards death is neither solitary nor fearful. Talking can never remove the beast, but it can tame it. And that's why we should not be afraid to utter the very words, "death" and "dying". There's an excellent organisation called "Dying Matters" - no more concerned with the euthanasia debate than was yesterday's workshop, but working to break our society's unhealthy paralysing terror of death. It's neither sectarian nor political. It can be found at It seeks to promote discussion and public acceptance of dying.

This is a time of year when euphemisms such as "passing" or "becoming another star in the sky" seem particularly inappropriate. We remember those who faced the raw reality of death in war. Death is no less real in peacetime. Let's face it, not run from it. Ultimately Pi Patel survives and Richard Parker disappears, never to be seen again.

As we drove home, the wispy clouds were starting to catch pink hues from the setting sun, and it was nearly dark as we arrived home. 


  1. I found this a deeply moving blog post for many reasons.
    Some years ago I was a Chaplaincy Volunteer Visitor in a Hospice. I sometimes wonder now if I really grasped what a privilege that was. It was certainly a very happy, peaceful place. For younger children the story of "Waterbugs and Dragonflies" is an introduction to moving from one life to another.
    I used to read it to our Grand Daughter. Now, that would not suffice as she is a young adult. She has though, a truly wonderful Mother, who explains things to her with such wisdom. A really God given gift.
    I cried today when I read the account of the marine who shot a Taliban soldier.
    Inexcusable I know, but that man had been surrounded by violence, death and horrors during many tours of duty and it's heart-breaking to think that these young men only ever witness the violent side of death yet give their lives so generously.
    I'm glad that his CO refused to condemn him.

    'I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins with your mind, always….
    '… Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.
    'Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you've defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you'
    This is an inspirational quote from your book Michael. Much food for thought there.
    I will look for the book in the library.
    Thanks again for this lovely blog post with so much thought provoking material.

  2. This is from the 'Word for the Week' in our Parish Newsletter. It seems to tie in with what is being said about death and dying,
    We hear in today's Gospel a discussion that Jesus had with a few Sadducees who did not believe in the afterlife. Perhaps one maybe permitted to say that somebody with no belief in the afterlife is a 'sad-you-see'. (sorry that's terrible really - but you get the point!)
    Christian belief does not settle for anything so little as reincarnation or becoming one with the universe!
    Our hopes are for the fullness of divine glory, nothing less!
    As the psalmist says ' I shall be filled when I awake with the sight of your glory O Lord'.
    Yes we wear our poppy with pride - for we not only remember those who have sacrificed their lives through war - we also remember the love and promise of Jesus Christ that there are many rooms in heaven that have been prepared for us.
    In baptism we begin the journey to the Father - so let us be people of faith and not 'sad-you- see'.
    Canon David Hopgood
    It really has links for me to your quotations from "The Life of Pi"
    Thanks again Michael for a very thought provoking blog post.