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Two very different kinds of death


Elizabeth Mary Sinclair

1927 – 2020

OUR beloved 92-year-old neighbour died recently. Her death was hardly premature, but still a sad occasion for our community who have valued her as a friend. Her passing brought about that familiar mix of emotions: a loss for us mixed with relief that she’s now at peace. 

Her large Catholic family arrived from around the world to be with her during her final days in hospital and stayed until she was laid to rest. They were a constant presence at her bedside, soothing her with their soft voices and rosary prayers. She breathed her last cocooned in love and comforted by the faith that had been central to her life. On the morning of her funeral her many relatives, friends and neighbours emerged on to the street to walk the short distance to the church, which was full to bursting. Her life was celebrated in style, healing our grief with precious memories of her fulfilling life.

Eileen’s peaceful passing brought back in stark contrast the death of my own mother, Elizabeth, at the age of 93 during the traumatic events of March 2020.

Mum had lived with heart failure over many years but it was managed and didn’t stop her enjoying life. She had many friends and was still making tray-bakes and scones for the church drop-in. She had given up being a Sunday school teacher only a few years earlier.

I persuaded her to visit her GP on March 10 as her chronically swollen ankles seemed worse than usual. Her medications were changed and tests arranged. During a return visit on March 18 a GP spent over two hours working out how best to manage her condition, spending much time on the phone to a cardiologist at the local hospital. The problem was that she needed to be in hospital but due to ‘covid risk’ it was deemed unsafe to admit her. So they worked out a treatment plan to take place at home with no medical supervision; a plan I suspected was unsafe and from the look in his eyes, so did the GP. 

Mum was oblivious to the dilemma, delighted to trust this kind man. It was therefore rather a shock when he came to complete the DNAR (Do Not Attempt Resuscitation) form. In short, he firmly told her, ‘If you don’t agree to this, any attempt to resuscitate you is unlikely to work and if it does you will be battered, bruised and left in a vegetative state.’ ‘Well, we don’t want that do we?’ said mum, obediently signing his form.

Treatment plan agreed, mum took the medication as instructed. Two days later she died, most likely of a heart attack as feared. Now, I’m under no illusion that she may have died anyway, even if she had been in hospital. But I was fairly certain that this unsupervised treatment plan was likely to kill her whereas covid may not if she was unlucky enough to catch it in hospital. This weighing of risks wasn’t ours to make and in fairness, it wasn’t the GP’s either.

Dad’s death in his 102nd year some two years earlier had involved many necessary but wonderfully therapeutic processes: visits to and from the undertaker, minister, lawyer, registrar, florist, caterer and so on. Not to mention the endless cups of tea with family members and friends who called to offer their condolences and reminisce about his life.

The aftermath of mum’s death took place in a deathly void of the human contact that is so necessary following bereavement. With the shutting down of everyday contact came the shutting down of the grapevine, meaning that many of her friends didn’t even know she had died. Even condolence letters and cards were minimal. This probably wasn’t helped by the myth that a card through the post was a possible killer.

Mum was a valued member of her church and her minister was very supportive. Her burial beside dad in the peaceful country graveyard close to their home was his first funeral during the lockdown period. With such a large family, it was impossible to prioritise the randomly decreed number of eight permissible mourners, so we settled on five of the closest to avoid a family feud. We were outnumbered threefold by funeral directors and a double squad of grave diggers who were strangely at a loose end with a killer virus at large. The minister, oblivious to the scarcity of numbers, boomed his brief message at a volume more suited to the crowd who should have been there and lifted the crows from their roosts in the trees. Regardless of the wide-open space and without a cough or sniffle between us, we had to stand three feet apart while mum was laid to rest.

Because she didn’t die of covid, Mum wasn’t considered to be a hero. She was one of the thousands of people whose lives were snuffed out when we failed to consider the consequences of shutting down the world. Four years on, the normality and humanity of our neighbour Eileen’s passing has been the catalyst to acknowledge the stark contrast of mum’s journey. We have to accept that forbidding access to necessary rituals and patterns of human behaviour extends the natural process of grieving and recovery from our loss.

I believe mum’s death was premature but I’m glad she missed the last four years which would have been intolerable for a person with vitality that belied her years. I hope the story of her passing will act as a reminder never to forget that what happened was dreadfully wrong and always to remember what it means to be human.

The portrait is by my daughter Catherine Connacher

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Valerie Nelson
Valerie Nelson
Valerie Nelson is an independent mental health social worker.

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