My Dad died on the 17th of May 1996 – a Friday afternoon in a busy hospital, a stones throw from what is now my children’s favorite park. I’d traveled up from Uni that morning, jumping on the first train I could get out of Liverpool Lime Street. Mum said he waited, as the dying often do, until we were all there. He was buried a week later, on my 22nd birthday. For such a long time, I tried to untangle the threads of his life and his death, carrying them around with me like a huge ball of knotted wool. We were with him when he died, in chairs set round the edges of the room he took last, unexpectedly loud breaths in. I had never watched someone die before, and I remember feeling more that I was an observer, a witness to his death than someone who could have made a difference to it. He was alone in his final moments, despite the room holding the muffled tears of his wife and children. I didn’t realize that until today. Or acknowledge that I have carried my grief for him, for all that he was and wasn’t to me, and for the better death we could have afforded him, within that great tangle of threads.
In a sharp contrast, when my mum died, in December 2016, the atmosphere in the room held her. We waited, with the same quiet expectation you have when a baby is being born, for her last breath, honoring it when it came and went. Her hands were held, chairs pulled close to her bedside, her favorite choral music was played, and the last words she heard were that she wasn’t alone, and that she was loved. Death is such a taboo subject but knowing what can comfort a person in their last hours, and being able to be present to make it so can have a profound effect on not just the person who is dying, but all who are there with them. Having that time with her, knowing she wasn’t alone in her last moments of life, really helped me process my grief for her so very differently.
I have been struggling, throughout the current global pandemic, with the stories of people dying alone, separated from loved ones, without the possibility of a “good” death. Filled with sorrow for those left behind who will carry all their days the devastation of not being able to be there for their loved ones at the last. It has brought so many feelings up for me, and a great desire to want to make those feelings better, easier, more bearable for someone else; anyone else. The innate need to help rising up against the grief.
And so this week, I have been making embroidered hearts, and crying for all the hands who will hold them. I answered a call from local hospital trusts to make hearts for patients in palliative care and their families. Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, I am reading about so many ill patients who are dying without family beside them, and so the hearts are meant to offer comfort both to the patients and to the families. One heart stays with the person who is dying, and the other is held by the family. A small connection between the two, at a time when any connection is better than none at all. An opportunity for comfort and light in the darkest hours.
No one should have to die alone, and everyone should feel and hear that they were loved as they leave this life. I know that hospital staff and palliative care teams always do their best to sit with the dying, but it’s not always possible. It’s that idea of being alone at the last that has impacted me most these last few days, more than anything else surrounding the COVID-19 tragedy our world is carrying just now. And what a difficult subject it is. There is a place for important, vital conversation about death, but oh, how hard it is to begin.
So I have embroidered “You are loved” onto every heart I’ve made, so that the people whose hands hold them will know, in those last moments, that they were loved. And I have brought my thoughts to this place here, in the hope that a conversation will begin, and that we might all live and die in these times of Corona a little better for it. It is not enough, but it is all I have to offer right now. And I sit here writing these words, wishing with all my heart that I could do more, feeling humble and grateful for all those who are out there healing, holding hands and sharing the last moments of the dying with grace and peace.
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