The gift of a good death

I suppose it is inevitable that the older one gets the more one thinks about death.

Every time we see our parents they seem slightly more frail, more fragile.

The famous people whose obituaries end news bulletins are no longer mysterious film stars from the 1940s but pop stars whose songs we sang in the shower. It’s as if the people who make up the rich tapestry of ones life are slowly but relentlessly being unpicked and removed…leaving it just a little thinner and more threadbare with each passing.

For me it’s the idea of actually dying that is scary rather then being dead itself. I wonder what it must be like realising that death is finally approaching…the last moments of life when one can feel the end is near…that’s what carries the sense of dread.

Most of the stories we hear when someone famous dies are about their heyday; the great things they did or said, often many years ago.

But just every now and then comes a story about those final moments of life and they can be incredibly comforting.

Marianne Ihlen was one of singer Leonard Cohen‘s lovers and she she inspired many of his most well known songs including So Long Marianne, Famous Blue Raincoat and Bird on the Wire. They remained friends long after they ceased to be a couple.

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In July 2016 Jan Christian Mollestad, a documentary filmmaker and friend of Ihlen, learnt that she was dying of leukemia. He visited her in hospital in Oslo, where she asked him to tell Cohen, also 81, what was happening.

Mollestad sent Cohen a letter telling him that sadly, Marianne had only a few days to live.

Just two hours later he received a letter from ­Leonard to Marianne.

“I took it to her the next day and she was fully conscious and so happy. The letter said:

‘Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are ­really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close ­behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road’.

Mollestad says that when he read her the line ‘stretch out your hand’, she stretched out her hand.

Ihlen died two days later on July 29.

Of course Cohen was right; he died just 4 months later on 7th November.

My book club – The Rotters – has just finished reading the wonderful ‘Stoner‘ by John Williams. It had a big impact on all of us. At our meeting there was a more reflective, thoughtful tone to the conversation than usual. We enjoyed the whole book (about a quiet academic in a back water US university, written in 1965) but all agreed that the ending had had a real effect on us. It was the description of William Stoner’s death.

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This passage conveyed an incredible sense of reflection and peace:

He was breathing again, but there was a difference within him that he could not name. He felt that he was waiting for something, for some knowledge; but it seemed to him that he had all the time in the world.

Then this passage about that moment between life and death:

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been. 

We talk so little about death and dying that it was a rare and rather special hour or so of conversation that a short chapter in a book managed to open up.

The recent BBC Radio 4 series We Need To Talk About Death was outstanding. Hosted by Joan Bakewell the three 45 minute programmes explored many of the things we fear most about death and dying including what happens in the days and hours that surround death itself. The series podcasts are still available on the BBC website (and it says they’ll be available indefinitely). Here’s a link do give them a listen.

We’ve been lucky enough at Bromford to get very close to St. Giles Hospice. I’ll never forget my first visit to St. Giles a few years back. It challenged all my preconceptions about what a hospice would be like. It was a really bright, welcoming place with a pervasive sense of peace and love. Everyone I met was warm and friendly and difficult situations were handled with great dignity.

Some of our Comms team have been working with colleagues at St. Giles to help them find a new way to tell their story. How can they help people who might benefit from what St. Giles has to offer, but who can’t quite overcome their fears, to reach out and make contact? It’s a great privilege to be able to help try. Can there be a more precious gift than a good death?

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5 responses to “The gift of a good death

  1. I think this nails what I am trying to achieve… it’s about the story. About the impact and residue of that person. Life is about death: Helen Dunmore nailed this for me yesterday in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/helen-dunmore particularly the paragraph that reads “Most of us die in silence and leave silence behind us. There is no visible mark, no written record and very often no grave to visit. Ancestors have shifted about in search of work, or been unable to write, or have never had the cash to pay a stonemason. They leave behind a story, perhaps, or an anecdote that is handed down from child to grandchildren, and then is heard no more.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. St Giles Hospice is an amazing place, providing a priceless service by invaluable people. They not only helped my father live with dignity and love during his final days, they also helped his family and friends come to terms with his dying. We feel so privileged, but saddened that this is experienced by so few.
    How can we develop our society and care infrastructure to create a loving, peaceful and grateful end to all our lives? Certainly not by tendering contacts to the lowest bidder, or imposing remorseless bureaucracy from afar.
    If you get a chance, support St Giles, and other Hospices like them, with your time, your money or in any way you can…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kate. It’s lovely to hear what a positive impact St Giles had on your family. The hospice is an incredible place. It was completely not what I expected. It was full of life. I know it’s hard work for them but I hope hospices retain their independence and can continue to very human places.

      Like

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