I didn’t think I’d be spending the first week of my retirement supporting my husband organise his mother’s funeral. The family had been planning her 100th birthday party in 3 week’s time, including the obligatory telegram from the Queen.
Up until three months ago she had been well enough to live on her own in the family house but as she became more frail she moved in with her daughter, my husband’s younger sister, so she could get the extra support she now needed. After an unexpected fall from her bed she was taken into hospital and very quickly her health deteriorated and she passed away only 2 days later.
As my sister-in-law pointed out whilst we were all sitting around her hospital bed, this was not the first time I’d been in this situation. I’ve been quite inept when it comes to hanging on to my family.
My own mother passed away in November 1994 and my father not even two years later. My middle sister, who was five years older than me, died when she was in her late 40’s and my eldest sister, who was ten years my senior, stressed for years about making it past 60 (as that was how old my mother had reached when she died). She did make it past that goalpost but only by 3 years. So I found myself aged 56 with no immediate living family. How remiss of me!
My goodness how things have changed over the years. No, not death itself but how the NHS deals with the passing of a loved one.
My mother was admitted to hospital in 1984 for tests for a hiatus hernia, in those days making a phone call to a patient involved you phoning the ward then you’d be given the number of the ward pay phone, they’d wheel the pay phone to your relative and you’d phone back and hopefully you’d get through to the right person. The chances of you getting through to the right person was a bit of a lottery. However, on this occasion I was lucky, I got to speak to my mother who was feeling positive that at last she’d get some answers and treatment. I was excited as only a few hours earlier my baby daughter had taken her first steps unaided. My mother told me I had to buy her a pair of good shoes quoting her old dad who had advocated that as you spend a third of your life in your shoes, a third in your bed and a third in your chair (I was never brave enough to ask where work came into that equation) therefore you need to have good shoes, bed and chair. I promised I’d go to Clarks and get her a pair of good shoes which wouldn’t pinch her tiny little toes and that I’d come down the following weekend so she could see.
Late that night when we were all asleep the phone rang, it was my father saying the hospital had phoned and that mum had died. I jumped in the car and drove the two and a half hours to my parent’s house arriving in the early hours of the morning. My father was devastated and in shock.
The next morning I went in to the hospital on my own as my dad was too upset. I went to the ward and was told that ‘the body’ had been moved to the morgue however the ward still had my mother’s belongings. I sat in the ward office as the nurse ticked through a list of the contents of my mother’s bag: her watch, lipstick, powder compact, comb, house keys, handkerchief, cigarettes and lighter, purse, pieces of paper, money. It seems my mother had £40 in carefully folded £5 and £10 notes in different sections of her handbag as well as another £40 in her purse. My mum always told me to keep £5 in my purse for a ‘rainy day’ and obviously she thought she’d have a few. How many housewives carried £80 around in cash in 1984?
Clutching the black plastic bag they’d given me for my mother’s possessions; her clothes, underwear, shoes and handbag. I then had to make my way to the morgue to identify my mother’s body. Have you ever seen signs for the morgue when you walk around a hospital? It was not easy to find. I was on my own and at 26 years old had never seen a dead body before. At least she was on a trolley in a side room and not in a huge drawer. I will never forget that day.
The ‘pieces of paper’ in my mother’s handbag were many and varied: The card from the bouquet of flowers I’d sent my mum and dad when I went off to university in 1977 thanking them for being such a good parents. A cartoon about a woman getting fatter the more she breast fed her baby (which was how I felt) which she’d cut out of the newspaper that I’d shown my mum a year before. A well warn picture drawn by my niece which depicted her grandmother as a large red stick person with a big smile and curly black hair. An old cutting from a newspaper which was her own mother’s funeral notice from the early ’70’s, and many more. These were bits of her life which she had kept with her wherever she was. The last thing they made me sign for was the wedding ring they’d taken off her finger before they sent her off to the morgue. They made me sign an agreement that there was no engagement ring and no further belongings.
This last weekend, thirty-three years later, the scenario was so different. Despite it being (allegedly) the worst weekend for the NHS ever, the hospital treated my mother in law with so much dignity, so much care and kindness. Even when we knew she was dying the nurses came to make her comfortable every two hours, they gave us sandwiches, they made us tea. They said that whatever we wanted they would try to accommodate, maybe we’d like to cut a lock of hair, if so they would find something to keep it in for us. Having found out she was Catholic they organised for the priest from her parish to come in and give her last rites. They put a purple bow on the door of her room so everyone, from the nurses to the cleaners knew that in that the occupant was at an ‘end of life’ situation. Everyone who came into the room was very mindful of her wellbeing and our feelings.
It still wasn’t easy watching yet another person I’d cared for take their last laboured breath but it was made easier by the sympathy and care shown by the medical team. There has been a lot of media attention about the crises the NHS is in at the moment but all I can say is that we cannot complain.
I’m not saying that the hospital staff 33 years ago didn’t care but they certainly didn’t show as much sympathy and understanding, for them it was part of their job and probably something which happened frequently, but for me it was my first time.