Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Matter of Life and Death

A lot of friends and acquaintances will know that Debbie has been blogging since her diagnosis with cancer back in February. If you've read one of her most recent posts you'll know that we are now in a phase where containing the progress of her illness is probably the most we can hope for.

During this time, I was asked whether I was going to blog about it from the point of view of someone close to a person with cancer. I'm not quite sure what has held me back from doing so until now - perhaps not feeling it's 'my' story, not wanting to appear to wallow in things, or simply not knowing what to say. However, as our family has gone on this unexpected and unwelcome journey with cancer, I have been aware of a few recurring themes, so I thought I'd have a try at putting some of them into words in a few posts. This first try isn't a carefully thought out article - it's just what's bubbling in my mind at the moment.

We are in a strange phase now, not having any real idea of how long we may have, but a sense that this indeterminate period of time has an end point. Debbie has been physically constrained by her illness, but is very much here and with us - in and around the house, sharing meals, conversation, laughter, watching TV, writing and blogging and in many ways being her usual self. So we have a kind of double track going on - valuing the present, and also making sensible preparations for what is to come. Debs and I were only talking yesterday about how disconcerting, but necessary, it is for me to think myself into a future without her, even when she's in front of me and talking to me. Yet even as I write that down, it's quite hard to believe it's me typing it.

Since Debbie's current condition was confirmed, I have realised how weird it is to be a clergyperson. For 25 years I've been spending time with people who have been seriously and terminally ill, I've been with them close to and at the time of death, I've been with next of kin when they've heard of diagnoses and bereavements, I've prepared and taken hundreds of funerals and helped people find bereavement support. Does that make any difference? I guess it's a classic 'yes and no' response. Bereavement won't be any easier for me emotionally, than it would be for anyone else, but it will, at least, be familiar territory.

My experience is that for most people, conversation about death or dying is completely alien. I meet adults who have rarely, if ever, gone to a funeral or seen someone who has died. Many were prevented from attending funerals as children, and carry 'baggage' from that with them into their adult experience. It's fairly unusual to meet someone who has a clear and full idea of everything that's involved around the death of someone. And, of course, most people want to stay in denial that someone might die, until the issue is forced upon them by necessity. I have witnessed, and have felt, the great temptation for people to cling on to any hint of an upturn in someone's condition as the sign of a major recovery. Under those circumstances, any discussion of the subject of dying tends to be suppressed, as if talking about it will make it more likely.

If I was going to offer any advice out of my experience, it would be to encourage people to start talking about death and dying - what you hope for and what you fear, how you'd like to be remembered, and even some first thoughts on what sort of ceremony you would hope for. Do this before it's too late, and preferably when you have some time to think, read, research and discuss. I'm glad we have had some time to do this - it means we can go forward into whatever the coming time may hold, with some key decisions made, knowing it will be easier for those of us who are left. Crucially we'll know that one of the most important events in our life with each other was not a taboo that held us in fear, but a daunting challenge that we prepared for together.

In case any of that has helped, here's a couple of useful resources and links that might help to get you started:

Church of England Funerals Site Lots of information about ceremonies and practicalities.

November is Will Aid month, so it's a good time to get one written/updated and support some great charities in the process.


  1. Wow i have read and re read this post and lesley and I have talked about things in detail around what sort of service and what to wear music ect and found it a releaf to be not restricted by guilt or you'll bring it on in some way not easy subject but much needed and if your blogg start that then it may well be worth the struggle that the first couple of talks brings with it. It is worth a go it does get easier to continue with a talk over time than it is in the first placed thank you for your post Mick and hope mine adds to it
    Regards and best wish to all of your from all of us

    Phil B

  2. Mairi6:00 pm

    Reading this resonates with me on a number of levels. I've been the cancer sufferer, though, as you know, my experience has been very different from Debbie's . I have been the daughter of the cancer victim doing everything I can to support my sick mum and bewildered dad. I have also seen both my parents die in the last 18 months. I was with my mum and spent the last afternoon with my dad. I am sure he held on as he died about twenty minutes after my son and I left. I am still unpicking all that I have learnt from these experiences as well as still processing the grief of loss and the fear and relief of my own cancer.

    Reading your blog brings back that period of time between my mum's diagnosis and death. We didn't know if the treatment would work or how long we had. We held on to the hope as much as we could but now I see we should have talked more about losing mum with her as well as with each other. It is interesting that my dad and I were both there when she was given her diagnosis and prognosis. He heard that she had at least three more years. I heard that they hoped they could get her that much time but that they couldn't be sure of anything.

    The day before she died my dad was still clinging to the hope that she would recover. She had contracted pneumonia in the 'good' lung. I was the one who sought out the sister and asked for the truth. She and a wonderful junior doctor then gently put my dad in the picture. I am glad we were with her at the end. It wasn't frightening but actually peaceful and allowed us to accept what had happened. My dad, brother and elder son were with me. Afterwards they brought us tea and we sat with her and cried, told our family stories and laughed. My mum loved to laugh.

    When my dad died it was a heart attack. He was in the high dependency unit for 2 day. He spent his last afternoon telling stories and flirting with the nurse. He was absolutely himself to the end. We had gone home and they called us back immediately. Again we sat with him, drank tea and remembered the laughter and the love. He lay in the midst of us just it should be.

    I've gone on for longer than I intended to but it seems important to share these experiences. I dealt with my dad's death better than my mum's which, I think, is because I knew I would survive it. I was better prepared because I had been there before.

    Losing those we love is a common human experience which we should talk about more and share more so that we can comfort each other show each other that others know how it feels. Bless you Mike. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. That's a remarkable piece of writing my friend. Thank you.

  4. You are a wonderful and insightful friend, Mike. Stay strong and enjoy every minute you and Debbie have together.

  5. Neil Hamilton9:25 pm

    Wow, fantastic post, but not one I ever wanted to read. So I'll simply say we love you all and you are wonderful!

  6. Thank you for this post Mike.The way you and Debbie have faced every reality that has come on your path together with such openness depth and straightforwardness has been very moving and also very helpful. You have made a significant contribution to breaking taboos and modelled a way of living through challenges. We count ourselves incredibly blessed to have you as friends. We love you both very much.