My work is about standing-under to hold grieving families

Since I interviewed Angela Ward, we have been in the grip of the Coronavirus outbreak. Therefore, what Angela has to say about her work with Go Simply Funerals is even more poignant for all of us.

Angela Ward and her husband run the award-winning Go Simply Funerals, based in Melksham. Angela also puts on Pushing up the Daisies Festivals in the area. She has worked as a homeopath,  psychotherapist and lecturer, and is passionate about music and singing. She has been a Celebrant and Inter Faith Minister for over 12 years and leads beautiful ceremonies, conducting over 2,000 funerals all over the country. Angela writes articles for magazines including ‘More To Death’ and has presented papers at the CDAS conferences on Death and Dying.

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Gloucester pop-up death café: Fear of dying, how you live is how you die, and the need for clear language by doctors

Gloucester Docks
Gloucester Docks

The tenth pop-up death café on Mystic Moon took place in sight of two magnificent tall ships currently being refurbished in Gloucester docks.

Similar to all the previous pop-up death cafes, we spoke about a  variety of topics. So this is an overview of what we talked about.

Our café started with one of the group confessing, in spite of being an ex-nurse and having been present at several friends and relatives’ deaths, how fearful she was of her own death. ‘I was conscious that I was making myself think of anything else but my death as I drove here. I feel very frightened even admitting to myself that it’s going to happen to me one day.’

‘I feel the same,’ said another participant. ‘I can’t imagine not being here. But even more scary is the thought that no-one might want to come to my funeral.’

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Leamington Spa pop-up: Saying goodbye, saying I love you, and are death cafes a western indulgence?

On the way to Leamington Spa
On the way to Leamington Spa

Even a drab industrial mooring at Leamington Spa, on an equally drab wet afternoon, couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm and passion of the eight of us who gathered together on Mystic Moon to talk about life, death, and what really matters.

The first theme to emerge was how difficult it can be to open up conversations when the dying person doesn’t want to talk.

‘You can’t force this kind of conversation onto someone who doesn’t want to talk about it. It is they who are dying, and it’s their dying experience,’ said one participant. ‘But you can still be there in all sorts of ways that show you care. I think that’s the most important thing.’

‘I come from a family who has never been the touchy-feely kind and we never talked about anything that really mattered,“ said another participant. ‘So it was difficult to know what to do when my father started to die. My sister-in-law suggested I just sit with him and stroke his arm. I thought he would draw away from me, but when I did stroke him arm, it felt really lovely to do, and I felt he liked it too. That was a great comfort to me.’

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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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