Death in the time of coronavirus

My beloved mum died at the end of August and I’ve been wondering how to write about it for a while now.

I’m not sure it has much to do with the subject of my blog but I want to write about it and it’s my blog, so here goes.

Mum took ill at the care home she lived in in Glasgow one day in late August. She was taken to hospital, and things deteriorated very quickly. Two days later, my five brothers and I found ourselves on a call together where we had to decide whether to authorise a specific medical procedure, which would be distressing for mum and had no guarantee of success, or to stop treatment, have the staff make her comfortable and let nature take its course. It took us seconds to come to the unanimous decision that we didn’t want her to suffer if it could be avoided. Less than two days later, she was gone.

I took a train up to Glasgow from London as soon as I could after that call. Mum died less than 36 hours after I arrived – and less than eight hours after my older brother, the oldest of my siblings, arrived, having flown back urgently from abroad. My other four brothers were already there.

Mum, who was 83 and had dementia, never really regained consciousness after entering hospital. Nonetheless, perhaps she sensed the constant stream of love that flowed towards her in her final couple of days as her children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren came to sit and spend time at her bedside. Others – grandchildren who couldn’t be there for whatever reason (Covid-related restrictions largely), sisters-in-law, son-in-law, children’s partners, nieces and nephews, and friends – video-phoned to say goodbye, or passed on their goodbyes via those of us who were there.

We are all beyond thankful that she was moved to hospital from the care home she was in. After months of enforced non-contact because of Covid, we were finally able to kiss her, touch her and hold her hand.

Towards the end, all six of her children were with her, gathered round her bed. The usual talk and banter that happens when we’re all together was mixed in with the sadness and sense of occasion.

It was a very special time. We all felt very strongly the bonds that linked us all. It was a privilege to be there.

Mum had been such a focus for myself and my brothers since our dad died almost five years ago. Her death is huge loss. However, as the pandemic rages on and we face another lockdown, I think we also feel a certain sense of relief.

While this gracious and giving elderly lady didn’t die of coronavirus, she was most definitely a victim of it. She thrived in company. The restrictions introduced under the pandemic deprived her among other things of almost all contact with the family she loved and her resulting decline was sad to witness.

The pain the pandemic has caused and is continuing to cause is immeasurable. The way in which it is affecting people in care homes seems inhumane. It beggars belief that in seven months we haven’t found a way of enabling relatives to spend time with their loved ones in care homes, many of whom – no matter how high the level of care they are receiving – are suffering huge mental anguish and physical decline as a result of their enforced isolation. We’re protecting lives at the expense of quality of life or living and I can’t genuinely say I think that’s the right thing to be doing.

When it became clear that the virus was here for the duration and that visits to care homes would be severely curtailed, my brothers and I would chat about what the best outcome might be for mum. We used to say – in all seriousness – that the best thing would be for us to take her from her care home, have her spend a week with each of us during which time we’d have her singing, dancing and enjoying being in the moment – at the end of which she would somehow simply pass away. We knew it wasn’t practical but it was a nice idea.

My mum wasn’t aware I’d been diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. When I found out myself some 20 months ago, I decided there was no point in telling her. My brothers were quick to agree. Her dementia meant she would either forget we’d told her or she’d be terribly distressed by the news – or indeed both, at different times. I’m glad in a way that she didn’t know; that’s not the kind of news a parent needs to hear.

The photo below is from a year-and-a-half or so ago; it’s one of my favourites.

I take comfort from the fact that I saw my mum in good health and in good spirits – relatively speaking – just a few weeks before she died. It had been nine months since I’d last seen her. I don’t believe in fate, but on this occasion I feel a huge urge to thank my lucky stars that I made the decision to take that trip up to Glasgow when I did.

We’re lucky in comparison with the many, many people who weren’t allowed to be with their loved ones towards or at the end. There was lots we weren’t able to do because of the restrictions, but this was as good an ending as we could have hoped for – even in non-Covid times, I think it would count as a good death. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that we’d all be able to be there with her, together.

Not only that, we were able to deliver a eulogy as part of the funeral service in my mum’s local church. It was the first time this had been allowed since the start of the restrictions. Most of the immediate family was in the church, including all 13 grandchildren. The allowed maximum number of funeral attendees in Scotland at that point was 20; we managed to make it 21 by having one daughter-in-law as the cantor! The service was streamed so people could watch it online. While we weren’t allowed to carry the coffin out of the church, my brothers and I were able to carry it from the door of the church to the hearse that was waiting just a few yards away. This was symbolic as much as anything but the six of us had carried my dad and it just felt right that we would carry on this last part of her journey this woman who’d carried us – both physically and metaphorically.

Relatives and friends who hadn’t been able to attend the service gathered at the cemetery – in foul weather.

Afterwards we even managed to have a socially distanced buffet for the immediate family.

A day or two after my mum died, my brothers and I gathered together to reminisce and play cards. The following day, restrictions were put in place that banned indoor gatherings in that part of the city.

It seems the gods were on our side in many ways.

I’ve been wondering what all this has to do with my condition.

It’s relevant because the way I look at death has changed as a result of my diagnosis. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I will die “before my time” and for me at least, it helps to talk about it, to acknowledge it, and to plan for it. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we should all talk more about dying.

As part of that process I came across Dr Kathryn Mannix, a palliative care doctor in the UK who advocates for more openness around the topic of death. I’d highly recommend her book, With The End In Mind (how to live and die well).

Coincidentally, Dr Mannix shared a thread on Twitter just as it became clear to us that my mum would not be with us for much longer. I in turn shared the thread with my brothers. We all took comfort and strength from her words.

“When we take our turns at the bedside, or the virtual bedside, of our beloved dying person, it’s a memorable and profound experience. It is life-changing. It is our privilege to be there for each other as we learn the lessons of the deathbed.

As we sit with our beloved dying person, we are exchanging our final gifts. We are giving them the gift of our companionship and attention, and they are giving us the gift of showing us how to die. It’s an act of love.”

That’s exactly how it felt. We felt blessed.

When I wrote my last post, I’d just had my first scan since starting on oral chemotherapy at the end of May. I’m happy to report that the results showed my cancer is stable, with no signs of progression. Overjoyed wouldn’t be an appropriate emotion given that things can change from one month to the next, but that’s as good news as I could hope to get. Also, the tumour marker level that went up last month went down slightly this month – not by much at all but at least it didn’t go up. Again, the word thankful springs to mind.

13 thoughts on “Death in the time of coronavirus

  1. First comment left on your blog big sis. Perfect piece. That’s so lovely. You are very special x and write with great courage, honesty, insight and are always thought provoking. You make me very proud to be your brother. Love the photos. Take care and stay safe x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very moving post, Maureen. Three words – gratitude, privileged, and delighted. It reminded me of my dad’s passing just over three years ago – he made us realise what a privilege it was to be able to spend his last days at home, in the place he loved and with those who loved him. For that, we’re eternally grateful. I’m so glad you got that time with your mum, despite covid. And I’m delighted to know that things are stable for you right now. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a beautiful meditation, Maureen, and I feel deeply honoured that my writing (in my ‘Doctor name’) has been a help to you.
    I appreciate how even in the darkest time you are brimming with love and gratitude. You seem to have discovered an attitude to life that enables the most important thing to be at its centre. That’s love of course.
    Sending love to you and your beloved brothers as you mourn your dear Mum.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a beautiful life affirming and life giving blog post Maureen. Thank you for sharing. I love the photos too and am pleased your latest scan showed no progression xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve just read your article in the Metro today (8/11/2020 Remembrance Sunday) and want to thank you for your openness and positivity towards life. So true that none of us can assume we have tomorrow and should live, love and focus on the moment.
    I have saved your article so I can return to it from time to time to keep me on the same positive track as yourself. Thank you for sharing. You are impacting on others and I hope you continue to write your honest, open blog for as long as it gives you pleasure. ❤️

    Like

  6. I’ve just read your article.e in the Metro (8/11/2020 Remembrance Sunday) and want to thank you for your openness and positivity towards life. So true that no one can assume tomorrow so we should live, love and focus on the moment.
    I have saved your article and started following your blog ……the first I have ever engaged with!
    I wanted you to know the positive impact you are having on others and hope you continue to write your open, honest blog for as long as it gives your pleasure.❤️

    Like

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