Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The trouble with referendums

As a nation we're only just absorbing the full importance of the recent referendum on EU membership. In a previous blog post before the vote, I suggested what a win for brexit would mean for the ensuing negotiations:

"Our future will be in the hands of a yet unknown Prime Minister and Chancellor, working with an unknown budget, under unknown market conditions, taking an unknown proposal for a trade deal, with unknown conditions about fees and movement of people."

That looks about right, so what went so wrong for David Cameron & Co, such that it came to this? I've been musing about the whole idea of holding a referendum at all, and I've come to a few conclusions. I'm not suggesting a re-run of what we have just had, as you can't re-write history, and the way the vote was framed would contain the same flaws. However, I think there were lessons from previous votes, as well as this one.

A referendum is not an election

In a general election, each party has a manifesto, with pledges and commitments as to what they would do, should they win the vote. We know politicians lie, exaggerate and wriggle out of commitments, but they can be held accountable at the next election. If you don't think that works, remember that the Lib Dems suffered badly at the last election for a) being in the coalition at all, and b) promising to abolish tuition fees and failing - even though other pledges were acted upon.

A referendum has no such accountability. It's a single vote, and if promises are made around that vote, that is not the same. In the recent vote, they were being made by people who didn't have the power to put them into action, and who appear to have had no intention to do so. For example, Iain Duncan Smith is now denying he ever promised to spend £350 million on the NHS, despite riding on the bus that said precisely that.

Keep the question as closed as possible. Avoid open questions.

Connected to that is how open-ended the option to leave the EU actually was. If you voted to leave, that new status of "not in the EU" was completely undefined. To some extent that accounts for the diversity of people who supported it, ranging from extreme right groups through to traditional socialists. The problem was that when people voted leave, they couldn't know what they were voting for, only what they were against. The turmoil we are now seeing is the inevitable fall-out from such an open-ended change.

Contrast that with the referendum on the alternative vote system. It was a simple choice: stay as we are, or use this new system. There was a debate, and no doubt some politicians saying things with varying amounts of credibility, but the choice was pretty straightforward. It couldn't acquire a whole set of other agendas and promises.

Constitutional matters are more complex, but it can be done. The 1979 Scottish devolution vote had a set of legislation in place that needed ratifying by referendum before it became law. I don't suppose for a minute that everyone read the full plan, but it was available, had they wished to do so, and so there was a document campaigners could quote to verify their claims. Likewise in the recent Scottish independence referendum, the White Paper was available, although the issues were even more far-reaching and complex.

Consider what level of support will legitimise the result

There has been a referendum in Britain where the option that got the most votes didn't happen. It was the 1979 Scottish devolution vote I mentioned earlier. 51.6% of the vote supported the legislation, but before the poll took place, a threshold was set, stating that a 'yes' vote would only be valid if 40% of the eligible voters supported it. On a 64% turnout, it meant only 32.9% of the Scottish electorate had actually voted 'yes', and it was not taken forward. It ended SNP support for the Labour government and led to an election. For comparison, the equivalent figure for the recent EU poll was that 37.47% of the electorate supported 'Leave'. But then, as I noted a while ago, 24.3% of the electorate gave the Conservatives an overall majority at the last election.

The reason for thresholds is to be sure that there is a critical mass of people supporting change from the status quo. In the Church of England, major decisions, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood vote in 1992 required 2/3 of each of the houses of General Synod to approve. Even then, there was major division and discord for years to come. Likewise, many clubs and societies set a threshold for change in rules and constitution. Looking back, David Cameron may wish he had done the same with this vote, given how relatively close it was.



Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Post-Referendum hymn

Strictly speaking, not a full hymn - just a verse.

Whatever the result is tomorrow, there are going to be a lot of upset people around. At Church we recently sang the hymn "For the healing of the nations" and it struck me that an extra verse would be helpful.

Here's my attempt:

For the healing of our nation,
Lord, we pray with heart and mind.
Following such deep division,
May we peace and friendship find.
Help us banish bitter feuding,
Discovering the deeper ties that bind.

In the unlikely event of anyone wanting to use this, please feel free. Anyone else got a new song for Sunday?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Brexit: who would take the decisions, and what would they want to do next?

After Brexit, we will...

Sound familiar? There do seem to be a lot of promises flying around, and also a lot of unsubstantiated suggestions. Had another leaflet this morning saying the mythical £350 million per week paid to the EU could (notice the word carefully) be spent on the NHS. Of course, by putting that figure on his bus, Boris Johnson forgot his beloved Mrs Thatcher's rebate, let alone the money that flows back to farms, Universities, deprived areas of the UK, research and development, etc. If all went well, there would be less than half of that in practise. And it's worth noting that Johnson, Gove, Duncan-Smith and Farage have all made proposals in the past that undermine the core principles of the NHS.

Ok you've heard all that a hundred times, so I'll stop there. But before you switch off, note that it isn't a promise to spend more on the NHS, and that much money wouldn't be available anyway, even if everything went really well. A lot of commitments have been made by the brexit team, but they haven't come from anyone who currently hold the relevant office to put them into practise, so are they worth anything?

That prompted a few questions, so here they are:

1) After a Brexit, who will be in charge?

I've seen a lot of promises from politicians on both sides of the argument. The difference is that if brexit won, it is assumed David Cameron would stand down soon after. Everything would then be in limbo while the Conservative Party has a leadership election. The smart money is on Boris Johnson winning in such an instance, but that's not guaranteed. If he did, he would then have to manage a divided party and a generally 'remain' parliament in order to proceed with leaving the EU.

2) Who would be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer? They and the new PM would have to navigate the complex process of exit, and handle the budgetary consequences.

If Article 50 is activated, Britain has 2 years to negotiate its exit. At the end of that, the aforementioned EU payments to farms, fishing, etc would need to end. We wouldn't necessarily need a crisis budget, but we'd need a Budget to reallocate money to those areas, which will gobble up a large part of the EU subs we gain by no longer being a member. There are also payments to the private sector in research grants, so a decision would be needed about honouring them or not.

That money would then need to be distributed, so that means setting up a UK process for claims, assessment, grant-making, appeals, etc. In other words we would need a bureaucracy of our own, which costs additional money to set up and run. Would the new Prime Minister and Chancellor have sufficient political will to ensure that is done, and done quickly? The alternative is hardship in rural and fishing communities, and a shrinking of research in universities and companies.

Meanwhile, market conditions may mean the tax take is down, spending is rising and the room to make the grants is more restricted.

3) What would the negotiating position of the UK be for future trade relationships?

A lot has been written about the deals that Norway and Switzerland have with the EU. It's well documented elsewhere that a similar deal for the UK would require a fee (using up more of the money reallocated from EU subs) and freedom of movement. The 'Leave' campaign has put a lot of emphasis on the cost of the EU and the problems of free movement, so it would be weird if they suddenly embraced a deal that addressed neither of their key concerns, and left us with no say as to how the single market worked. So what would the UK be pitching for? The answers have tended to be a selection of suggestions, rather than a specific plan. That doesn't inspire confidence.

Remaining in the EU has its uncertainties, but we have a reasonable idea what they are. Furthermore, we could always revisit the question of our continuing membership at a future date if significant questions couldn't be resolved through the usual negotiating processes.

Leaving has a finality about it. And it also carries more profound uncertainties. Our future will be in the hands of a yet unknown Prime Minister and Chancellor, working with an unknown budget, under unknown market conditions, taking an unknown proposal for a trade deal, with unknown conditions about fees and movement of people.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The problem of selling 'Remain'

Someone asked a question on Facebook the other day: what would we gain by voting remain? It had a nice rhyming vibe to it, and it highlighted a key problem for people (like me) who want to persuade the floating voter to choose to vote for the United Kingdom to Remain in the European Union.

In fact it highlighted several problems. Let me explain.

It's hard to make the choice to continue as we are sound very exciting. Although Brexit campaigners are trying to scare us about what staying might do, Remain is, by its nature, the 'stay as you are' option. Choosing to leave sounds like action, remain can sound complacent. Flouncing out of a room is much more memorable and eye-catching than staying put. Remaining, for me, is the right option, but it just doesn't sound very, well, active.

It also doesn't sound like we gain anything; we simply retain what we have. It's a problem with the way the question has been formulated. "Recommit to active participation in Europe" sounds much more exciting, but it won't be on the ballot paper.

Try this as an analogy. Shall I choose to remain a member of the AA, or shall I choose to exit? If I remain, I don't gain anything. I continue to pay my subs and I carry on getting roadside assistance, a few discount offers, and some marketing email just like I did before. In the brave new world of AAexit, I am a membership fee better off each year, and I have the added excitement of whether I will actually get home (which could prove more expensive, but I don't know for sure). Remaining won't gain me anything in an obvious way, but it would get me started or home, and protects me from worse fates and bigger bills.

I'm not suggesting the EU membership is simply an insurance scheme for the UK. It's simply the problem of selling 'remain' that I'm trying to illustrate.

There's a second problem, and that's the word "we". Who are "we"? Does it actually mean "I", or does it mean close family, friends, locality, community, town, region or nation? In the context I came across the question, it seemed to mean either just the person or them and their household. I'm not especially interested in the impact on me - I am concerned about a choice that might slow down the economy, which always hits the poor most. Fear of brexit made the pound and stock market lose ground. The real thing is very likely to see a bigger reaction. That will mean even more austerity for longer to deal with the widening deficit. I am certainly seeing plenty of the effects of current austerity here in Morecambe, and I fear what further cuts could do.

What do we gain from remain? Wrong question. It's better to reflect on the benefits the EU has already given us, from cleaner beaches and concerted action on the environment, to better workers rights and an open and collaborative relationship with nations we had been in conflict with for centuries previously. You might not gain much by voting to keep that, but it's a lot to lose for our communities and our nation if you vote the other way.

Friday, May 27, 2016

EU Referendum: Are we asking the right questions?

The public discussion around the forthcoming referendum has been pretty disappointing, noisy, full of hyperbole and, as Ian Hislop noted on a recent episode of Have I Got News For You, at times has degenerated into someone from each side saying the other is a bit like Hitler.

This referendum (and recent elections) have vented a lot of steam on which choice would mean we are 'better off'. That got me thinking about what a Christian analysis of that question might look like.

First of all, what do we mean by 'better off'? Do we mean that voting this way or that will result in personal financial gain? For me that is a very inadequate assessment of the value of a choice. At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I think most people would acknowledge there are are things in life worth more than money. What if a choice that left me with the same, or even less money, led to a fairer or more just society? What about human rights, freedom, the environment, personal well-being etc? From a faith-based point of view, focussing purely on material (and especially financial) satisfaction is a wholly inadequate account of human flourishing.

Even if we restrict the debate to finance, the question we are left with is who is going to be financially better off? Economists and politicians are on the air a lot debating the effects on economic growth in the short and long term of staying in vs. leaving the EU. History would suggest that if our economy suffers significant decline, it's likely to hit the poorest and most vulnerable. However, when the economy has grown, concern has grown about the widening gap between the least and most affluent, and that the economic benefits of growth have disproportionately gone to the wealthy. How does our discussion about 'better off' relate to a Christian understanding of concern for the poor.

Even if we can identify which voting choice will bring the most growth, will it enrich the lives of those who most need it? That will depend on our own government's domestic policies and priorities, and the people at the helm of the Conservative Party, and hence the government until 2020 may well be decided by the outcome of this vote (unless 2/3 of MPs vote to dissolve Parliament early).

And I am also concerned that the economic discussion seems to have been limited to the impact of choices and policy simply for the UK (or even England). What impact might the decision we are taking have on the wider world, especially the poorest in the developing world? Will remain or leave be the choice that opens up the best opportunities for the peoples of our world who most need them? Where do our global neighbours feature in the debate?

In Luke's gospel, at the start of his public ministry, Jesus is recorded as reading this in the synagogue:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Would it be too much to ask to have some thoughtful engagement with some of those issues? I fear I already know the answer.


Monday, May 23, 2016

The EU Referendum: Should I [vote] stay or should I go?

Dave, George, Nigel, Boris, Beaky, Mick and Titch. Ok I made up the last 3 for the sake of the joke. I wonder who you believe and which way you will vote? I'm going to vote to stay in the EU and play a positive part in shaping it into a fairer and more effective community of nations. However, it's not an easy question to settle, despite the simplistic slogans that abound on both sides.

We're being bombarded with exaggerated statistics and threats about migrants, threats to jobs, the cost of staying in, the cost of leaving. There's plenty of rhetoric about wanting our country back, some xenophobia and sadly not a little racism. Little short of civil war seems to be raging in the Conservative Party, and the referendum result will define the careers of a lot of Conservative politicians (and possibly others).

You can get some sanity. The BBC and Channel 4 news both have useful fact-checker sections that analyse the claims, and give a rather more balanced take on what might really happen. For example, the £18.8 billion we are supposed to be paying the EU turns out to be nearer £6bn when you take into account rebate, support for farming etc., and support for non-governmental organisations. You can see the Channel 4 analysis here.

The level of emotion the issue raises, particularly from those who advocate Brexit, is fascinating. I'm intrigued as to why it evokes such passion and even anger. It seems to touch a raw nationalist nerve. Of course, if the UK does remain, it could always consider leaving in the future; if we leave, it's almost certainly a final decision. That makes this vote one of the most important ones for decades.

The polls are rather inconclusive. There seems to be a narrow majority in favour of staying in the EU, but a lot of people are still saying they don't know. To muddy the waters further, younger voters are much more likely to vote to remain in the EU, but are less likely to vote at all.  Many younger people may not even be registered to vote, since changes were made in the way registration takes place. If you don't get a poll card soon, go to https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote You could change history!

Woven through the whole debate so far, is the internal conflict in the Conservative Party. There are, of course, Eurosceptics in other parties, but this issue has plagued the Tories for years. From my uninformed viewpoint, the vote looks like an attempt by the Prime Minister to deal with his party's Brexit advocates once and for all, and to secure the leadership succession for someone from his own perspective. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is clearly using his new-found zeal for the Brexit case to make his pitch to be a future leader, should the vote go his way.

Independence
The hippy in me rather likes the idea of everyone working together, and removing the things that separate us. That will already distance me from those who wave the flag more passionately than I do (unless it's football, when I share the despair of England fans everywhere). 'Britain needs to be free to make its own decisions', say the Brexit team. For them it would free from our shackles, and we would regain control of our national life and not be "ruled by Brussels".

It sounds rousing, but is it true? It invokes an idea of sovereignty that doesn't actually tally with reality. The UK is signed up to many international treaties, including the EU ones. Membership of the UN and NATO are obvious and large commitments, but there are many more. Treaties can either be honoured or ignored - that is our sovereign right as a nation. However, decisions on complying with a treaty or not can change the course of history. Who, in 1839, when signing the Treaty of London could have foreseen it would be the reason Britain would declare war on Germany in 1914? Treaties hold a nation accountable to other nations for their actions, and can have enormous consequences. So we are never completely independent, and in or out of the EU, the UK will still have to take into account all kinds of treaties and trade agreements and abide by their conditions.

Before the UK was in the EU, the Suez crisis showed that Britain was far from fully independent, even though it still had considerable military capability. The United States forced British and French withdrawal by using its economic power. Was the UK really that independent before it entered the EEC, and how realistic are the hopes of those who want us to leave now? Would we end up depending more heavily on other large economies, having to comply with their policies and wishes? Membership of the EU means the UK has a say in decisions and votes in its committees, councils and parliament. Leaving could leave us powerless to influence larger nations, economies or even corporations.

And why shouldn't our government participate in a community where we are mutually accountable? European nations which were once been dictatorships, are now stable democracies within the union. The notion of international law is often perceived in Britain as a way of civilising parts of the world that have suffered under dictatorships, and a way of bringing tyrants to account. But it works two ways, and there may come a time when that accountability protects our freedoms too.

Economics
The Brexit campaign makes a lot of the UK's contribution to the EU, which I referred to earlier. Whatever figure you go with, the debate really starts when you try and assess whether staying in is actually worth that contribution. The EU is a key trade partner for the UK, and vice versa. EU countries won't want to lose the UK as a market, but surely we have to assume there will be some loss of privileges for leaving the club. Some point to Norway as an example of a thriving non-EU country. Norway contributes in order to have EU market access, and has to abide by EU regulations to sell products. The UK would have to negotiate a deal, and if successful, pay the fee and follow the rules, with no say as to how they are formulated.

I doubt there would be immediate economic meltdown, and some of the George Osborne's predictions about Brexit need careful scrutiny. Many think the pound is likely to sink in value, at least initially, but other effects may take time. We do know that investment in the UK by large manufacturers, like Nissan, were encouraged by the fact that the UK was within the EU single market. Cars could be exported from the UK to mainland Europe, without facing the same barriers as vehicles from Japan. Nissan, Toyota, Honda, etc. won't shut the shop immediately, but decisions about future investments would have to take into account whether or not the UK was still in the EU, or at least in a trade agreement with good access to EU markets.

Of course, not all benefits of EU membership have been about trade figures. The EU took on Microsoft about anti-competitive practices, following complaints from competitors. It resulted in huge fines and a change of practice by Microsoft. When dealing with corporations that have turnovers larger than small countries, it sometimes needs an agency the size of the EU to be effective. Mobile roaming charges are another example of where the EU is changing the market.

In the end, if you really want 'out', you'll take the economic hit, and if you really want 'in', the membership fee will seem reasonable for the benefits received.

Democracy
People supporting Brexit are a diverse bunch. They range from some on the extreme right, such as Britain First and the EDL through to those on the left who follow in the footsteps of Tony Benn, who advocated leaving at the last referendum. The right play up patriotism and fear of the foreigner; the left tend to highlight the way that the EU can favour business interests over the democratic will of the people. For example, the Greek government weren't allowed to implement the policies that got them elected, due to the financial restraints imposed by the EU.

So what is the democratic accountability of the EU? Of course the answer is that it is complex. We elect MEPs, we appoint a share of officials, and our elected leaders participate in councils, conferences and negotiations. There is accountability, but it's not straightforward, and it's also not as clear as it would be in a genuine united states of Europe.

Having said that, our own elected government still passes the vast majority of legislation that affects us, and has a vote or veto on many issues. And, as I covered earlier under Independence, our nation is accountable to other nations (who we didn't elect) for all kinds of issues, from human rights to using CFCs in aerosols. And if the Greek situation concerns us, remember that the IMF would impose all kinds of economic restrictions on the UK, if crisis hit, as it did in 1976, forcing chancellor Healey to change the UK government's economic policy. Many would argue that staying in the EU makes such a crisis less likely, and as the UK is not part of the Eurozone, the European Central bank doesn't have the same power over the UK as it had over Greece.

Conclusion - stay in and play an active part.
We have to be honest and say that we can't know what the consequences of leaving will be. We can be a little more confident about what staying might involve, but even there it's uncertain. Attitudes are changing in Europe to migration, nationalism and more. However, the EU holds 28 nations with a history of conflict together in a unique community.

It is far from perfect, and many issues need to be addressed and resolved. We know that's possible - even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall can get policy changed (which is more than Nigel Farage managed in 14 years on the Fisheries Committee). I want my country to be in there, challenging and shaping it to be fair, just, and a community that not only benefits its members, but also the poorest parts of our world. Withdrawal would mean retreating into a more isolated way of understanding ourselves as a nation, take away our place at the table, and has the potential to threaten the livelihoods of us all.

Oh, and by the way, there aren't 26,911 words of EU regulations on the sale of cabbages. In fact, there aren't any.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Bereavement 4: The Mirror of Erised

If you are familiar with Harry Potter, you will know about the Mirror of Erised. Harry stumbles across this remarkable object, tucked away in a disused classroom, during his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical mirror doesn't show a person their reflection, but instead it gives a depiction of their heart's desire. There is an inscription across the top which states this - backwards, of course. "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi."

When Harry looks into the mirror, to his surprise he sees himself with his parents, who had actually died when he was just a baby. Captivated by this image, he tries to show it to his friend, Ron, but Ron doesn't see the same thing at all. As Professor Dumbledore puts it when he finds Harry there: "It [the mirror] shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts". Harry spends a lot of time in front of the mirror, looking at alternative reality that can never be, and using it as the next best thing to having his parents actually back with him.

I was reminded of this the other day, as I was sorting through some stuff on the computer and looking at some old photographs. There were a couple of pictures of Debbie from before she was ill - one from a several years ago - which triggered all sorts of memories. After a while, I realised that I had been daydreaming for a little while in front of one of the pictures on my computer screen.  My imagination had taken me back to the scene where the photo was taken, and just for a moment I was enjoying the happy moment the photo captured, as if I was there.

Reality returned with a jolt, with the realisation that I was sitting in my study on my own, and whilst it was a happy memory, I couldn't actually go back there. So I understand the draw for Harry to the mirror. In his case, it was to dwell in a scene which could never be - sharing time with his parents as an older child. For me, it would be to travel back into the past to be with Debbie, fit and well.

But tempting though this is, it is also potentially destructive. You can't stay there in front of the mirror for ever, as it disconnects you from reality. Dumbledore says to Harry that "men have wasted away before it [the Mirror], entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible." Looking through old pictures with friends and family is fine from time to time, to tell stories and remember, but as Dumbledore concludes "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. Remember that."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bereavement 3: The Parable of the Swiss Army Knife

What does bereavement feel like to go through? Not a question you can usually ask someone in the thick of it, so I've been asking myself that question. Blogging about loss is actually proving quite therpeutic for me, and it seems to have made some connections for other people, so I've decided to continue.

If you want some theory, you could read about K├╝bler-Ross's 5 stages of grief, which can be a helpful insight from a psychiatric viewpoint. It can help to explain  lot of confusing and sometimes disturbing feelings that people go through. But not everyone fits the pattern. Humans are all different, and we don't tend to comply with tightly drawn up models in all circumstances.

Instead, I'm going to give you a little story that resonates with what I have been feeling. I've drawn on my own recent experience of bereavement and also what I have observed in others for the longer term effects. I've decided to call it the Parable of the Swiss Army Knife.



I still have my original Swiss Army knife. It's a Huntsman, which is mid-range - two blades, a screwdriver, a can opener, a saw, a bottle opener, a cork screw and that pointy thing which is a mystery, but I used to create starting holes for wood screws. After a long career in camping / DIY and serving drinks, it's lost its shine, but all the sections are still functional. When I first got it, the main blade was fabulously sharp, and sure enough I was so taken by surprise by its edge that soon I slit my thumb being careless cutting something with it.

If you've ever cut yourself on anything really sharp, you'll know the experience. You know it's sharp, but you have no real sense of what such a blade can do to you. Initially you feel nothing - no pain and if the blade is sharp enough, you don't even feel the cut occur. I remember looking at my bleeding thumb with initial disbelief. How did that happen?  Then you realise  you need to do something about it, and perhaps even get some assistance. As you start to clean the cut and get the slit held together with a dressing, that's when it starts to sting. Sometimes the sting is quite acute, especially if antiseptic has been used to prevent infection.

Once everything is contained, there's a dull ache, and sometimes a throbbing sensation. You have to be careful what pressure you put the wound under, as it can make it sting quite badly again, or even re-open the cut. You have to protect it from acquiring an infection and turning into something nastier. Eventually, it's safe to be exposed again, albeit with a slightly ragged edge, where some skin has died at the edge of the original cut. I seem to remember those edges peeling and flaking for a while afterwards. Once it had all healed up, I didn't have a visible scar from that particular cut, but it was certainly more sensitive for a while as things knit back together under the surface. However, I can still remember where it happened over 40 years later.




Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bereavement 2: No Unfinished Business

When Debbie went into Saint John's Hospice, she was visited by some friends, but we inevitably had to limit the number and frequency of visits. Her energy was limited, and talking and communication took quite a lot of effort. That being the case, I wanted to ensure that if there was anyone Debs specifically wanted to see, we got it arranged asap. So I asked her if there was anyone she wanted me to get in contact with. "No-one", she said, "No unfinished business. Tell them I love them all." It was such a great line that I quoted it in the address I gave at her funeral.

During the days afterwards, I've begun to realise what a blessing she gave us being able to say that. At an earlier stage,  I recall her saying to me that she didn't think that there was anything significant she felt we needed to talk about, as we had already spent a lot of time discussing the bigger issues - illness, hopes, fears, changes in expectations, and the prospect of her dying. It mean that if the end came suddenly, we wouldn't feel cut off with so much left unsaid or undone.

Likewise, I know Debs got in touch with a lot of people - sometimes people she hadn't had a lot of contact with for a while. She was doing a lot of email and Facebook messaging in that period. Although I haven't read those conversations, I know she derived a lot of pleasure from being in touch with people, and in some cases renewing relationships. By being so pro-active, she actually reduced the likelihood of any of us having any significant sense of regret.

However, over the years in the ministry, I have seen a lot of bereaved people with regrets. Guilt is a common feeling at a time of loss. When I take funerals, I try and find a way of acknowledging that unfinished business, as regret and guilt are normal and familiar parts of the experience of bereavement. So often people say "if only we'd had a bit more time to..." It's very important to reassure people - after all in many cases the person who has died probably wouldn't have been worried. This is especially so when someone dies suddenly. Not everyone has the opportunity to do what Debbie did, and people can be left with no opportunity to tie up loose ends, clear the air, write the letter or pay the visit.

The way things worked out for us was actually quite remarkable. After her diagnosis, we got through a whole set of significant family milestones in 2015 - a wedding, family birthdays (18th 21st and 80th), a holiday, Fleetwood Mac - a concert we had been looking forward to for months, Christmas etc. We even managed a few extras in 2016, ending with a fantastic living room gig by the lovely Yvonne Lyon. When Debbie was first ill, we weren't sure we'd get very far down that list, so we took it a step at a time, trying to make the most of the undefined amount of time we had.

Obviously if we could have extended that period of reasonable health for Debbie longer, we would have done. It's not difficult to write a list of things we had hoped for together, which we had to let go of - ideas about a nice holiday for our silver wedding and early dreams about retirement had to go. But having had such bad news at the start of 2015, it felt like we had had enough time together to feel some sense of completion. We at least finished a chapter, even if the story ended prematurely.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Bereavement 1: Marking the Journey

As I said a while ago in a previous post, I've had mixed feelings over blogging about being alongside someone with cancer and now the experience of bereavement. Debbie's blog was very much about her story, and I didn't feel I had a lot to add in those weeks. However, since Debbie died I've been wanting to get a few ideas and feelings logged somewhere, so I'm going to post a few reflections. I have dealt with hundreds of bereaved people, but inevitably you are always at a distance. Writing about it first-hand is a very different project.

I'm very conscious that posts like this could become quite self-indulgent, and it's true that it will help me to clarify my own mind and get things out of my system. However, I'm also aware that my familiarity with funerals and other people's bereavements gives me a perspective that could be helpful to others. So, I hope these next posts help some people; if they don't, that's absolutely fine. I'll blog about football or something before too long!

A couple of days ago on the the BBC Today programme, there was a discussion about how many people die in hospital, when this was probably not the outcome that they or their relatives would have wanted. In a new book, Dr Seamus O'Mahony argued that many of those who die in hospital do so over-medicalised and without having made any kind of advance care plan. Obviously there will always be people who die in hospital, due to acute or sudden injury or illness, but many of us don't realise there are choices we can make. The key issue is getting people talking about it, because doing so brings out so many of our fears.

At a very early stage in the diagnosis of Debbie's cancer, we knew, at the very least, that her life was in grave danger and the possibility of curative treatment was, as she put it, a fragile hope. Not only did Debs blog about those issues, but she also did a lot to help us to anticipate what her dying would mean for us, and how we might all best prepare for it. Initially she wrote poems and letters for people, wrote an initial draft of her funeral (more about this in a future post) and talked very openly about letting go of some of her hopes for the future. Paradoxically as she did that, it seemed clear to me that she became more and more content and appreciative of what she had experienced in the past and the life she was enjoying in the present.

Having had some involvement at our local hospice as a minister, Debbie knew a little about it. It always struck us as a place which was peaceful, caring, and concerned with the whole person and their family. So we asked questions about what resources the hospice could offer, and how people came to be referred there. If, as seemed likely, her illness was terminal, then we both wanted to avoid the latter part of Debbie's life to be dominated by an endless round of interventions, and Debs was also clear she had no desire to die at home, especially if that meant our home would be a constant flow of nurses and visitors and our bedroom would look like a hospital ward. If possible, we agreed the hospice would be the best place for that final care of both her and us - and so it proved to be. Further down the line, Debbie completed a document where she explained her choices.

The critical issue is to get the conversation started. This coming week is the 2016 Awareness Week for the Dying Matters coalition, titled The Big Conversation. It's to encourage us all to start talking, whether there is a pressing reason to or not.


There are also other resources to get the conversation going, such as the Church of England resource Gravetalk, and a local initiative called My Last Orders.

Of course, you don't need any of those to talk about death and dying, but they can help to break the ice and get the conversation started. Whatever route you take, I can vouch for the fact that talking things through in advance is hugely worthwhile. Some people die suddenly, leaving relatives wondering what their loved one wanted; others reach a point in their illness where they can no longer communicate their wishes to those they will leave behind. Our experience was that talking it all through at an early stage meant there were no major questions left unresolved for us. We knew what Debbie wanted and felt, so we could work with her to achieve that, insofar as it was possible. What's more, we could get on with getting the most out of the time we had left. In the event, everything worked out according to her wishes, and that makes a big difference to how we are all feeling now.

So start the conversation. As the poster says, talking about dying won't make it happen.