When I was 9 years old my father died. My mother, having had two heart attacks, was considered fragile, we lived with the unspoken knowledge that she was likely to die sooner rather than later, my father was the strong, capable parent. One day he went to bed with chest pains, my mother and I propped him up with pillows and I played at being a nurse, fussing about with sheets not really understanding what was going on. Two days later I kissed him goodbye as I went to school and that was the last time I saw him.
The hospital rule was that anyone under 13 wasn’t allowed on the ward and so while my mother visited I would wait outside. He died there and I remember emptying the hospital property bag, his false teeth falling onto the kitchen table, which was shocking proof that he was, in fact dead.
Many of us are going to repeat some of that experience very soon. We know that a four thousand bed hospital is being kitted out in London; a 5,000 bed hospital in Birmingham; a 1000 bed hospital in Manchester, with similar hospitals in Glasgow, Cardiff and possibly Belfast. We know that temporary morgues are being set up across the country.
We know it and we cannot bear to know it. The streets are quiet, the weather has been good and many of us are distracted by a sudden, unexpected and catastrophic collapse of income. But we all know that there is something much more fundamental coming.
Mothers Day was a hint for some families. Therapists tend to focus on the adult children of parents who couldn’t or didn’t care for them properly, but the pain of the many more adult children who didn’t experience neglect or abuse, and their mothers on Mothers Day was equally real. Some people stood at the end of a path and sang songs or held a little party that the grandchildren came along to while their mother stood in the doorway. Some mothers were in care homes and not even that was possible. Fathers day is on June 21st, around a month after the peak of deaths from C19 has been calculated to fall.
Now, when a person gets put in an ambulance to go to hospital they may as well be taken to Mars. Most hospitals will not allow any visitors unless there are truly exceptional circumstances, such as a relative having dementia, and then one designated person may visit at the discretion of whomever is in charge. This is necessary to preserve life and it has a terrible human cost. Wherever C19 has spread people have died alone. They have already died alone in the UK, even in hospices.
Why am I telling you this?
Not to frighten you, although of course you’re frightened. I’m frightened. I’m telling you this in the hope that you will now do and say the things you need to do and say because for too many of us, a point will come when it is too late, and that point is around two weeks away.
Life is not a soap opera. If you spend any time working with people who are dying that becomes crystal clear very quickly. Now, right now, is the time to think about what you want to say to the people you love, even people you like. Make care and love your guide, even though there are things about everyone that are annoying.
You are thinking about what you want to say to them on their deathbed, what you want them to know when you are on yours.
The only reason you might want to spend a long time thinking about what you want to say is if you need to get past anger and resentment. Otherwise, write it down this weekend. If it’s on your computer, print it out. If everyone you know is well, you can come back to it over time and edit it but it doesn’t matter that it’s not Shakespeare. Phone people or Skype them on Sunday evening, let them know you have something important to say, and read it out to them.
It doesn’t matter if you get choked up, say what you need to say. If they can’t bear to hear you say it, it’s OK, at some point they may be ready, and if they’re not ready by next week send them a letter.
Write letters for your children. Decide who you want to be their legal guardians, talk to that person or persons about it and put it in writing. I’m not a lawyer so I can’t advise you on the legal ins and outs of it but there’s lots of information on the net. In the UK on average every 30 minutes a child under 16 loses a parent. This average is going to change next week.
Make a secret collection of things for them that will remind them of you and keep it secret, the very last thing a child needs is to know that their parents are preparing to leave them. But if they want to talk with you about you dying think now about how you might respond. “Oh don’t worry about it, I’m never going to die” is not good enough.
Whether or not you have children it’s important to attend to the legal stuff too, like writing a will if you haven’t already, which will be a demonstration of how love fits in to your life. Too many people use wills to act out, never thinking that they will actually die. Sometimes this behaviour is a kind of fantasy, a dramatic and immature playing out of a dream in which the person writing the will gets the final upper hand. Sometimes this is abuse, continued even after death. If you’re the first kind of person, now is the time to grow up. If you’re the second kind of person, there’s nothing that will change your mind and your death will be as your life was.
C19 is a scourge but in taking us to the edge of the precipice and holding us there it is helping all of us discern what is more or less important. And still there are many people - including a great many therapists, we’re far from immune from this - who are in denial and distorting reality because it’s far too terrifying to endure. The odds are against you dying. If you're hospitalised, even ventilated, you may well come out again. But thousands of people are going to die, many of them will be in the prime of their lives. Even some of the very rich with all the access to private, high tech, constant, highly skilled medical care have already died. Ventilators just give the body a chance to fight back, they don't do the fighting.
Please do not wait until you or someone you love is being put into an ambulance before you try to find the words.
Think now. Talk now. Act now.
But if you find that you’ve waited too long and that moment is reached, “I love you, thank you” will be enough.
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