Random Musings: Death in the Time of Covid

young parents

Two years ago today I received the news that my father had died. Although a shock at the time it was not entirely unexpected. My parents were in their nineties and suffered many health issues including dementia. Despite their noticeable and ongoing deterioration, they were still lucid enough to understand what was happening to them and had made their wishes clear. They did not desire interventions to prolong suffering they knew was only likely to get worse.

My father’s death happened quickly. He developed severe difficulty breathing and was rushed to hospital. He passed away before tests could be conducted but his symptoms were clearly Covid-19. The paramedics who attended him also voiced concern about my mother. She too was taken to hospital where she tested positive for the virus and was admitted.

Several years previously my parents had taken out prepaid funeral plans. They could not have foreseen that memorial gatherings would be outlawed. Lockdown rules meant neither my brother nor I could travel to Belfast to join our sister in mourning. My father’s body was driven direct to the crematorium in a single vehicle with only the funeral director in attendance. There was no church service, no music, no wake. At home in Wiltshire I and my family raised a glass of Dad’s favourite tipple, Black Bush whiskey, to his memory. That morning I learned my mother had died.

whiskey memorial

I left the family home, which my parents bought off plan and lived for six decades until their deaths, in my early twenties. From then, I returned to visit irregularly. My relationship with both my parents was somewhat distant, emotionally as well as physically. Growing up I was always supported by them in my various endeavours, and knew I was loved, but railed against their criticisms. I was not the daughter they brought me up to be.

My mother was of her time. It mattered to her how I was regarded, particularly by the wider family. It was made clear to me that certain aspects of our lives should never be revealed to them. It mattered to her that I be slim and dress modestly. Of all my achievements throughout my life it was any loss of weight that she most admired.

My father was a quiet and somewhat distant parent. He adored my mother, putting her needs first. Towards the end of their lives my mother told me it had been a good life, that they had been happy together, the overseas package holidays they took once their children were old enough to be left behind offered as particular highlights. That neither had to live on without the other is a strange sort of comfort now.

Grief is a complex beast. Although I was happier once I left Belfast, and my parents appeared to enjoy their times as a couple more than when with other family members, their deaths have still left a void that cannot be filled. Their quality of life was already compromised when they contracted Covid-19 so in some ways such a quick death could be regarded as a blessing. For those of us left, it still requires processing.

I have not felt the overwhelming sorrow I know some feel when a parent dies. My grief has been more a quiet, shadowed reflection on how our relationship developed over the years. I was told that I spent the first few months of my life in hospital, my mother visiting daily to cry over my crib. She blamed this for my later distance even though I cannot remember the time. It seems I caused her, and therefore my father, trouble from the very start.

None of this can diminish that they were always there for me. And now that they are not I can focus on the positives they provided. They both came from inner city, working class backgrounds, taking jobs and saving money – the pennies that eventually grew to pounds – to give themselves and their children a more stable life. They were proud that the three of us, and then their six grandchildren, all attended university. My father missed out on his chance to train as a teacher due to the war prioritising returning soldiers. He gave up his deferred place to enable him to marry.

They were the best parents they could be given the people they were, and for that I remain grateful. I am glad I got to tell them this before they died.

mum and dad olderWinnie and Norman at home, RIP

Growing up

“When I grow up I want to be…”

Do you feel grown up? Despite having clocked up many achievements over the course of my life thus far (acquired a degree, moved away from the parental home, built a career, bought a house, married, given birth to three kids) I still feel much the same inside as I did before I donned this cloak of adulthood. Perhaps I am more confident in myself, a tad cynical at times, mentally battered especially by my teenage offspring; but I still have the same questioning, insecure mind that I struggled with as a teenager.

As the years have passed I have developed as a person, learned more about our constantly evolving world, recognised that I will never know it all or be entirely right. Whilst I rail against injustices and in my own small way campaign for more awareness of issues that matter to me, I can accept the shades of grey and need for compromise. When I suffer the despondency that dogged my younger self I remember that moods pass. I have reached a point of self acceptance where the world may take me or leave me, no hard feelings either way.

But have I grown up? What exactly does that mean?

This last week I have looked in the face of a new challenge, the prospect of an event that was always going to come but which I have not yet had to face – the death of a parent.

Lest you feel the need to reach out and express condolences let me assure you that my own elderly parents remain upon this earth. The scare came from my husband’s side, involving ambulances, an emergency operation and a vigil through the night as we waited for news. Thankfully it was good.

Events such as this pull sharply into focus what is to come, if not today then in time. At an unknown point in the future the ties that bind me to my wider family will be weakened, the imperative to sustain links will be gone.

My parents have been an anchor throughout my life. At times I have found the chain that connects us frustrating and fought to lengthen it but I have benefited from the security that their love and support has provided. We now live in different countries so they are not a part of my everyday but they are undoubtedly the secure foundation on which my life has been built.

When my younger self was longing for independence, for the freedom to be myself and not the daughter my parents desired, I did not foresee that our connection, their demands and my guilt at not being as they wished would remain despite increasing age and geographical distance.

When others try to mould me I feel treated like a child. Is it possible to feel grown up without autonomy? I may rail against my parents’ expectations but wonder if, when the time comes and I am cast adrift, I will choose any change of direction.

Death is not a dirty word

This week I was saddened to read that Stephen Sutton had passed away. He was a young man who appreciated and made the most of the precious gift of life that was taken from him way too soon. He was inspirational not just because of the phenomenal amount of money that he managed to raise for the Teenage Cancer Trust, but because he did not fear death nor allow his illness to become the focus of his final years. Instead he embraced the life that he had left, an attitude that we could all learn from. None of us know how long our lives will be.

Health is big business. Books and newspapers sell when they carry stories about the latest discovery of a wonder food or exercise fad that promises to help proponents live longer. Why this focus on longevity? It is always desperately sad when a young person dies, but what is so appealing about living to be 120 years old when, with a few exceptions, the human body appears to start it’s terminal decline before we are 80, however healthy our lifestyle has been? As far as I am concerned, quality of life trumps quantity.

I will put my cards on the table here and admit that I am in favour of voluntary euthanasia. I have no wish to spend my final years in a nursing home no matter how well run such an establishment may be. If I ever start to lose my marbles then I hope that there will be a humane way out.

I do not understand why some people fear death. Those who believe there is a hereafter generally expect it to be an improvement on the here and now, unless they have lived really wicked lives in which case they should be sorting that out pronto. Those who believe that this life is all there is expect nothingness when they die; why would that be a concern?

What I fear more than death is the bit that comes just before, hence my support of voluntary euthanasia. Voluntary is the key word here. None of this equates to others making judgements on who should live and who should die. There are plenty of people with serious physical or mental health issues who can find good and valid reasons for wanting to prolong their lives. For those who have made a concious and reasoned decision to go though, I would like there to be more options.

One of the problems with having this sort of discussion is that talk of wanting to die is equated with depression, which requires a different sort of treatment altogether. I am no expert in this area so do not feel that I can offer informed insight into how best to deal with these often misunderstood illnesses. I think that we could all benefit from a better understanding of mental health issues.

What I would like to see considered more openly and seriously is autonomy at life’s end, particularly for the elderly who are often patronised and whose wishes are swept aside or ignored. It would appear that death is no longer seen as natural but as something that we should be doing absolutely everything within our power to avoid. I do not wish to rush my demise and would like to think that I have many more years left on this earth, but I do not see prolonging my life as the ultimate goal.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” (Hunter S. Thompson)

I do realise that this attitude is a gamble that could end up being somewhat selfish. If my choices result in my early death then it is my family who will suffer. Those who are left behind can have their lives altered irrevocably by the loss of a loved one. Voluntary euthanasia though offers the option to discuss beforehand why it is desired. Understanding can go a long way towards facilitating acceptance and closure.

I know that there are many people who, for religious or other deep seated reasons, do not consider that we have any right to shorten a life, even our own. I would not wish to trample on their right to hold such beliefs and live accordingly, but object to having their choices foisted on me.

When I die, whenever that may be, I do not wish my loved ones to wail and gnash their teeth. I want them to look back at the years I had and realise that they were good, that I made the most of my time here. I may not have achieved anything great (although I think that my kids are pretty awesome) but I took hold of each day and I lived it.

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. [..] I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.” (John Green)

What I do not want is to have my last days coloured by boredom and suffering, by a long and expensive wait for the inevitable in conditions of indignity. If I do not go suddenly and unexpectedly then I would appreciate having the ability to choose the time of my own demise.

Can we talk about death without those who are still alive, who have perhaps suffered the loss of a loved one, getting upset? I enjoy my life and I want to continue doing so. I do not, however, wish it to be prolonged just because this is possible. I choose to live. When the time comes, I would also appreciate being allowed to choose to die.