2012: a time to accept our mortality

Well, here we are at the start of 2012. Normally I wouldn’t hesitate in wishing everyone a Happy New Year.  But somehow I can’t bring myself to use the word ‘happy’.  Not when we are confronted by such global uncertainty.

Yet on a twelve miles walk yesterday across magnificent Cotswold countryside it was easy to forget the seriousness of what humanity is facing.  Thank goodness for that.  I think the human spirit can take so much gloom and despondency before it innately begins to seek out something to soothe and calm the soul.

The walk certainly did that for me.  It always makes me marvel to know – and trust – that the untidy mess of mouldy undergrowth and all those tight brown buds on skeletal branches will turn within not-so-many weeks into verdant hedgerows and flourishing trees.

For me, this cycle of life and death is truly miraculous and hope-filled.  So hope-filled that when I returned home, I updated my living will (also known as Advanced Decision). This clearly states that I do not wish to receive life prolonging treatments or to be resuscitated if and when my quality of life deteriorates beyond what is acceptable to me.  This includes dementia related illnesses.  It was witnessed by a close friend, with a willing and enthusiastic flourish of her pen.  That is what I call a New Year present.

Setting aside the current cross-party political debate about who is  going to pay for end-of-life care for increasing numbers of elderly people, I believe that taking personal responsibility for how I want to end my life is the most significant decision I can make for my family, and, indeed, for society as a whole.

Dying back in the natural world is about clearing away the ‘old’ to make room for the new.  It is also about dead vegetation creating rich compost for fresh life to thrive.

Unfortunately it appears that humanity is hell-bent on trying to cheat this fundamental law of nature. But it won’t work. Nature is already fighting back, in ways that we can’t – or don’t want to – imagine.

So my 2012 New Year wish is for us all to stop chasing the illusive state of happiness.  Rather, I wish for us to learn to embrace and accept our mortality. By doing so, maybe we can experience what it feels like to truly give back to each other.

At last, choice is on the way for those not wanting resuscitation

I was very heartened to read yesterday’s Daily Telegraph’s piece, Emergency staff to be told if you want to live or die.

Backed by health minister Simon Burns, the Government is now keen for electronic records to be shared by paramedics and out-of-hours GPs, which will give seriously ill people the choice of whether they wish to receive life-saving treatment, or be allowed to die without further medical intervention.

According to the article, 8.8 million people currently have electronic records, but all of us registered as NHS patients in England will now be offered the opportunity to sign up for this facility.

This means that we can state our end-of-life wishes, and, as long as everything is in order, we will not be resuscitated if that’s what we want.

Hooray!

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Deathbed visions and the paranormal

Last weekend I spent a delightful twenty-four hours with a group of Christian parapsychologists.  Yes, those belonging to the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies are more than open to the weird and wonderful, and even the downright scary and unexplainable.

Thank goodness for that, because every few years they hold a conference to share their experiences with each other, and to add to the paranormal research that is happening in the UK, and in fact, all over the world.  I was there because I had been invited to give a paper on The D-Word:Talking about Dying – but more about that a little later.

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Talking on Woman’s Hour: Facing the Fear and Doing it Anyway

Taking part in a discussion with eldercare campaigner Marion Shoard on Woman’s Hour yesterday was one of the scarier moments of my life.  Almost as bad as flying in an aeroplane (which for me tips over into miserable experience).  But I had the same heart rate going through the roof. Same wanting to throw up. Same throat muscles closing in on themselves.

Since the subject was talking about dying, I realise that some people might think this reaction a bit extreme.  Surely nothing is more frightening than the thought of dying.

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Terry Pratchett’s courageous odyssey into assisted suicide

It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Terry Pratchett’s BBC 2 documentary (if you can call it that) ‘Choosing to Die’ last night on catch-up. Trepidation, because the deaths I have witnessed as a nurse, and sitting with both my mother and father as they died, are not about the ‘gentle closing of the eyes’ we see in films or read about in books.

People tend to hover between life and death for a long time, often becoming increasingly restless or agitated. It can also be alarming, and sickening, to listen to laboured breathing caused by fluid gathering in the lungs, and get used to the distinctive and unpleasant acetone odour that pervades everything as the dying person’s system closes down.

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Why are we Brits so poor at talking about dying?

A recent survey commissioned by the Dying Matters Coalition (set up by the National Council of Palliative Care to promote betters ways to talk about end of life issues) says that ‘death is still a taboo subject for Brits.’

Shockingly, it found that only 16% of us told relatives or next-of-kin where we would like to die, only 18% of us have talked about the type of care and support we want at the end of our lives, and very few of us have discussed whether we have made a will (let alone a living will) or the type of funeral we want.

So, putting birth aside, why are we Brits so reticent to talk about the one life experience that we are guaranteed to share?

Personally, I blame Henry Vlll  and the Reformation.  Here’s a very simplified potted history to explain why.  (There’s a fuller version in my book The D-Word: Talking about Dying.)

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The Royal Wedding and the death of bin Laden. What’s next?

I loved the royal wedding last Friday. A truly magical occasion, and – rare these days, sadly – I felt proud to be British.

Egged on by my friend Meg, resplendent in a mother-of-the-groom frock she wore to her own son’s nuptials  a few years back, I was very happy to enter into the spirit of the day, and donned the white feathered fascinator I wore  to my wedding eight years ago, before Posh Spice ever heard of them.

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Nan Maitland, ending her life with courage and dignity

Woman Commits Suicide to Avoid Old Age, was a front page Sunday Times headline.  Immediately I imagined some poor, pathetic, lonely old soul, without friends or family, reaching the end of her tether, and killing herself in a horrible, grisly way.

Reading the story I realised how sensationalist and misleading this headline was.

Eighty-four year old Nan Maitland, who suffered from arthritis, planned her death, to my mind, purposefully, courageously and without drama.  In the note that she left behind, she made it clear that she had no wish to enter a prolonged period of painful decline that many elderly experience these days before they die.

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Fighting for change, and a dose of reality

Wandering around an old Cotswold church during a delightful Sunday excursion on our tandem bicycle a Christian Aid poster of a destitute Kenyan woman from a Nairobi slum caught my eye. The wording said, ‘I pray for change. I believe in change. I believe in having the heart of a fighter. I believe fighters expect change.’

It unsettled me.  Of course people living in poverty deserve help. But it did make me wonder about the feasibility of such enormous change considering how unstable our world seems to have become.

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Professor Brian Cox, God, and the Universe

It’s Professor Brian Cox who dunnit for me, in the sitting room, with his BBC series, The Wonders of the Universe.

His extraordinary programmes have fundamentally changed my understanding of God. Although I have never been a practicing Christian, I have always had a profound belief in God as an external force.  By this I mean an omniscient intelligence that guides and nurtures me. My interpretation of this God-like presence is very personal, but it has given me great comfort in times of despair, and has provided a moral cornerstone for how to live my life.

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