Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Baby, it's cold outside

It's snowing heavily outside and everywhere is quiet. No sounds of traffic or footsteps, as the big white blanket places everything on 'mute'. I'm taking a minute to appreciate how lovely that is, as I try to drown out the worrying voice inside my head that is saying "You've got to drive 160 miles to conduct a funeral tomorrow" and "Will all my family be able to make it Christmas Day?" And I'm still missing two parcels...
I'm doing my best to evoke positivity, and that's something I need to put at the top of my list of New Year's Resolutions. I saw a great example of extremely positive thinking this week – Frank Sinatra's epitaph on his memorial stone reads 'The best is yet to come'. That really is being optimistic in the face of adversity! Obviously its meaning is more subtle than that. But it's a rosy belief I'm taking with me into 2011.
Wherever you are this Christmas, I hope you all (that's my four lovely followers and anyone else who has stumbled upon me the last couple of months!) have a wonderful time and that 2011 is everything you hope for. In the meantime, I'll leave you with my favourite festive joke...
Two snowmen in a field. One says to the other "Can you smell carrots?"
Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Razzle frazzle

We're having family come to us this Christmas. It will be lovely, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing everyone. But in an attempt to 'put on a show' and create a memorable day (à la Phil and Kirsty), I've gone into organisational overdrive to prevent anything going wrong (à la Laurel and Hardy). And coming from someone who is affectionately known as The Queen of Lists, that's really saying something. And the result of me whittling on about food ordering, cooking pan sizes, delayed parcels, and the potential for travel disruption, has left me feeling stressed and, as my other half will testify, a tad grumpy.
However, what's stopping me from throwing open the front door every morning, grabbing the postman and screaming "What have you done with them?!!!!", is a phrase used by many people in times of crisis, when looking to keep things in perspective – 'no-one's died'. And as I prepare for all my December funerals, including one for a 14 year old, never has that been more appropriate.
I don't want to sound all worthy, high-minded and righteous "Oh, I work with grieving people and that's soooo much more important than worrying about how many sprouts to cook". I will always worry about how many sprouts to cook. And whether we should offer cream AND custard with christmas pudding? And does anyone actually like bread sauce? But, like Ebenezer Scrooge, I am privileged to have an insight into how my Christmas might look if one of my loved-ones were missing from my immaculately set table. And suddenly, worrying about veg portions comes down the list of priorities...

Monday, 13 December 2010

To be or not to be...

I went to see a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet last night. It was broadcast to my local Art Centre from the National Theatre, with Rory Kinnear playing the tragic Prince of Denmark. It was fantastic, even though there were times when I felt I was watching a foreign language film without the subtitles. Hamlet isn't a play I've studied, and, while it's not difficult to get the gerneal gist of what's going on, it would have added to my enjoyment if I'd understood everything that was being said! So I've added a Hamlet study guide to my (ever-expanding) Amazon wish list, in the hope that all will become clear.
Shakespeare wasn't kidding when he called this a 'tragedy'. By the end of the play I think there were at least nine deaths (not including poor Yorick), involving stabbings, suicide, poison, and duels. There are plenty of moving references to death - Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy is stirring stuff, as is Ophelia's descent into madness and Gertrude's beautiful description of her death by drowning 'There is a willow grows aslant a brook...'.
For a prime literary example of the effects of grief, look no further. If only Elsinore had a branch of Cruse...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

First, last, everything...

I've just got home from leading a funeral ceremony, where I read out a last letter from the deceased. This was a 'first' for me. And, I have to say, it took all my powers of concentration to keep my voice steady. I did have a slight tremor by the end, but I think the family and friends gathered there were moved to see me moved, as it were.
The lovely lady in question had written the letter when she was first diagnosed with cancer, and her children found it among her things. The letter was incredibly poignant, not just because it contained the thoughts and emotions of someone who knew they were going to die, but because the feelings expressed were so uplifting and inspirational. She expressed gratitude for the years she had lived, the joy of sharing those years with her family and friends, and asked everyone to be positive, celebrate her life, and remember what a lucky girl she had been.
So many people say to me "I couldn't do your job - how depressing!" But it's not. I drove all the way home today thinking what I lucky girl I had been – to be given the honour of reading those words on behalf of a lady I wasn't privileged to meet, to a roomful of people who had lovingly accompanied her through life and to whom it meant everything.
On days like today, I've got the best job in the world.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Comfort and joy

I put the Christmas decorations up this weekend. A mixture of shop-bought favourites and some home-made additions, including a bowl of pine cones picked during a holiday in the Scottish Highlands earlier this year, and some green felt Christmas trees for the fireplace. Now, I am under no illusions that I have any great talent for crafts (for that you need to visit one of my lovely followers Ric-Rac, but I love the peace of mind and sense of satisfaction that comes with making things. Whether it's sewing, knitting, baking, or some other 'home-made' activity, I find myself entering a calm, creative, blissful state. My mind is occupied, my hands are engaged, and, as I immerse myself in the pattern or recipe, I feel (dare I say it) quite serene!
So as I sank into the sofa yesterday evening, surveying my handiwork, the warm glow of the Christmas tree lights matched the warm (slightly self-satisfied) glow I felt inside. Oh tidings of comfort and joy, indeed...

Monday, 29 November 2010

Easy as one, two, tree...

After two weeks of being super-busy, and sniffling my way through a cold, I've not had enough fresh air and exercise. By lunch time today, I could stand it no longer. We'd just had a fresh flurry of snow, the sun was shining, so I set off for a walk. It was so fantastic to be outdoors I could have skipped along the pavement (unfortunately, they were so icy I could barely even walk). I'm lucky to have the grounds of a big country house to walk around, just ten minutes stroll (slide) away from my own, slightly smaller abode.  So I spent a much-needed hour tramping through the fields and trees.
There is definitely something about trees that make me feel intoxicated. Not horribly drunk, but that lovely warm, happy glow you get after a wee dram, that makes you want to hug everyone. Luckily for everyone else, the park was almost empty, but I did find myself grinning wildly and sharing cheery 'helloooo's' with one or two dog walkers.
I read in the paper this weekend that 'a million trees are to be planted in Britain's most deprived urban areas in a government plan to add a little greenery to the lives of the poor'. While I don't doubt some people will read that and think "that's very nice but I'd rather have the money", I do think trees lift the spirits and give you an enormous sense of wellbeing. According to the Woodland Trust there are 3 billion trees in the UK, but they only cover 4% of the land. They are hoping to double that. Trees for Cities are doing good work too
Good on them, I say.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Dignity and Compassion

I've just come across these two fantastic charities, both supporting people at the end of life. Dignity In Dying campaigns to reduce suffering by giving people greater choice and control, while Compassion In Dying offers support, advice and information for people at the end of life. Their work is really important. If you get a moment, have a look at and

I discovered Dignity In Dying because they were advertising in the Employment section of The Sunday Times for Board Directors to help drive forward their campaign. I'd love to apply but they are looking for people with experience of political campaigning or palliative nursing. While I've studied aspects palliative care, I'm not really experienced in it and I certainly have no political experience! However, I will sign up to become a member and try to campaign at a more local level.

I feel quite overwhelmed at times by the amount of information and organisations out there who are dealing with dying/death/bereavement. I want to know and understand and be involved with everything, right this instant! I'm doing my best. My bed-time reading gives you an idea of the variety of information I like to immerse myself in, this past week included a conference report from The National Council for Palliative Care on spiritual needs of the dying, I finished a fantastic book called Necropolis by Catharine Arnold about the history of London and it's dead, as well as the latest Bereavement Care journal.

Luckily my other half (who has a wonderfully sunny disposition and a reading list to match) is enjoying Bill Bryson at the moment, so he regularly bursts out laughing and shares the joke with me.
Gawd bless 'im...

Friday, 26 November 2010

Creature Comforts

I haven't got a cat because my partner is allergic to them. And we don't have a dog because our courtyard garden is too small. So there are no four-legged friends to welcome me home, no furry fluff balls to snuggle up to on the sofa... There is also no smelly pet food, hairs on the sofa, chewed shoes and other assorted unmentionables that go with being a pet owner.
As you can see I have mixed feelings about pets, but I do understand that they give a lot of people a lot of love and comfort. Which is why I got excited this week when I read about Cat Cafes in Japan, where you pay by the hour to sip tea and play with cats. Genius! You can read more about it here Maybe we'll have cat cafes in the UK soon? Purr-fect...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Home or away?

There has been quite a bit of media coverage about death/dying the last week or so. I know this because, not only do I scour the News and Culture sections of the Sunday Times every weekend for relevant 'death-related' stories and programmes (I know how that sounds), and get death/dying/bereavement google alerts every day (yes, that sounds even worse), but I also have my lovely friends and family, in particular my fantastic sister-in-law, who will ring me up and say "Quick! Switch on Radio 4 - they're talking about death!" Bless them...

Well, this last week, the topic of conversation has been about 'dying at home' versus 'dying in hospital', thanks to a report from Demos (Independent think tank and research institute). Each year 500,000 people die in the UK. Demos found that 18% die at home, although 60% of those surveyed wanted to. You can read more about it here

I'm passionate about trying to find ways of allowing people a 'good death' - not just because of the experience it would give to those facing the end of their life, but it will also give great comfort to their loved-ones, both at the time of death, and in the following days, months and years. I love the suggestions put forward so far, of setting up new places for people to die close to home, training volunteers to support the terminally ill, a 24-hour nursing support service and telephone help line. It will be interesting to see what happens.

However, as you will see from the comments at the end of the article, dying at home isn't always the experience people hope it will be. And that's the issue really - in the same way that every one of us leads a life that is unique, we also all experience a unique death. No two people will experience death in the same way, even if they are exactly the same age, the same sex, suffering from the same illness for the same length of time. There are a zillion variables - physical, emotional, social, geographical, financial...

I've met families who can't give enough praise for the hospital their loved-one died in, and other families who are so traumatised from the experience they are completely and utterly consumed with anger. I've met families whose loved-ones have died at home, in their own bed, their spouse and children holding them close. And I've met families who wanted to keep their loved-ones at home but just couldn't cope  with the level of care required, the physical deterioration, the dependence, the loss of dignity, the double incontinence... Then the guilt when they have asked the hospital to take over.

None of us know what we will have to experience, both ourselves and within our own families and circle of friends. But we can at least try to talk to each other about what we think a 'good death' is, and what we would hope to experience. And lend support and comfort to anyone we know who is facing these issues right now.

Sorry - that was rather long and a bit gloomy. But I had to get that off my chest, especially as it is so topical right now. I do hope to brighten up my blog with some pics and tales of a cheery nature. So don't go away!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The comfort scales

This week has been really busy - I've led two funerals, met families to arrange new funerals, and written funeral services for the coming weeks. I've also held some one-to-one bereavement support sessions. In-between all of these I've either been behind the steering wheel or in front of the computer.

As the week went on I was beginning to feel the scales were tipping in the direction of me trying to give comfort to people, and not having the time (or the energy) to do anything for myself. However, after all the listening and absorbing on behalf of other people, I was in the joyous position of being listened to, when I met a group of Macmillan Nurses. We got together to chat about working with the terminally ill and their bereaved families. I was only there for about an hour and a half but it felt GREAT to chat about my work without fear of depressing, or scaring people! Sometimes I think it's hard enough being self-employed and, for the most part, working alone. But when your line of work is dying/death/bereavement, you do find yourself feeling a little isolated at times. I do anyway...

And that's not all. Before the week was out, I also found time for a bit of comfort telly. Nothing transports or engrosses me more than watching a film. I looked on the Sky + planner and saw that I'd recorded The Mission - a brilliant film made in 1986 with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, about Spanish Jesuits trying to protect a remote South American Indian Tribe from slavery. I'd seen it years ago and remembered it was good. But I'd forgotten (or perhaps didn't appreciate at the time), just how brilliant it actually was. And then, right at the end, are the words "The spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living". That's the one sentiment I share with the bereaved more than any other. It didn't hold the same meaning for me when I saw the film originally, but this time it really struck me. You know sometimes when you watch a film and it, sort of, stays with you for a long time afterwards? I felt really uplifted by it, almost (dare I say it) spiritual. Crikey, I'd better stop there. Next thing you know I'll be bulk buying The Mission on DVD and dropping it through people's letterboxes...

Suffice to say I've ended the week feeling I've got as much out of it as I put in. And that has to be a good thing...

Friday, 19 November 2010

Blankety Blank

Just one post in to my first blog and I faced a dilemma this week - is this 'Comfort Blanket' idea actually nonsense? How can I talk about funerals one minute, then favourite foods or films the next? Isn't that a bit, well, odd? But I think that's actually the point I'm trying to make. We need to start putting life and death in the same room together.

We don't talk about dying or death. We're all about the business of living, which is understandable I guess. Living longer, happier, richer, thinner... But I don't think you can ever really appreciate life, and all it's little comforts and joys, unless you appreciate just how precious they are. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born psychiatrist who worked extensively with the dying, said:

It's only when we truly know and understand that we have limited time on earth - and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up - that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it were the only one we had.

I don't want to sound like I'm preaching, or being a bit hippy-dippy-hug-a-tree about this. I know the phrases "you only live once" (or twice if you're James Bond) and "life's too short" are often used. But I just think that being more aware of our mortality, and actually talking about it, can only makes our lives, and relationships within it, more cherished.

I'm a member of the Dying Matters Coalition, a fantastic organisation working to 'support changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards death, dying and bereavement, and through this to make living and dying well' the norm.' Have a look at their website

I've gone from having nothing to say to too much, it would seem! I'll stop and let poet Emily Dickinson have the last word:

"That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet"

That, and second helpings of pudding...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Mascagni and Mash

I led a funeral today for a lady who was in her early 90’s. Her life story fitted on to one side of A4 paper. A small salute for someone who had lived so long, but the tributes to her love, loyalty, spirit and courage, were straight from the heart. She sounded like a plucky old gal.

I’d been asked by the family to choose one or two pieces of classical music. I chose Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana to play during the moment of reflection, which is when the family are asked to sit and call to mind their own personal memories of their loved one before saying goodbye to them for the last time. It’s a really emotional part of the ceremony. I thought Intermezzo would be appropriate, even though I hadn’t heard it at a funeral before. I knew it was a stirring piece of music (I’d heard it in both The Godfather III and Raging Bull – most of my classical references come via Hollywood) but I hadn’t expected it to be quite so powerful. As the music swelled, the emotion in the chapel was palpable. I felt like I was being lifted out of my chair. I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it now. Amazing.

It's really cold tonight - second helpings of mustard mash I think...