Posted 17 Jan 2018
Article titled ‘I dreaded burying my mother but it taught me about Loss’ by Christina Patterson which was published on 13th January, 2018.
On Monday, I buried my mother. Or perhaps I should say that I watched as my brother put the casket of her ashes in the grave. At first, he told me later, the hole for her casket wasn’t big enough. It had cost £575 to dig, but it still wasn’t big enough.
Luckily, he’s a gardener and had his tools in the car. He whipped out a spade before I arrived, and cut off an extra strip of earth. And then my mother’s vicar said some words, and my brother said some words, and we all sang “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended”; and then my brother put the casket in the hole and I said a last goodbye to the human being I have always loved most.
Actually, I had said goodbye before. I had said goodbye at the funeral, a year ago, when I stood in front of about 100 people who loved my mother, and talked about her gift for joy. I had said goodbye on the day I arrived at the hospital, after three hours in traffic, and bent to kiss her now-cold cheek. And I had said goodbye three weeks before that, when a patient in a nearby bed yelled, “She’s gone!”, and my brother called and I arrived to find her looking listless, and with eyes half-closed. When I clutched my mother’s hand and told her I loved her, she opened her eyes and smiled.
I cried by the grave. Of course I cried by the grave. But then I went to the pub, with my brother and a few of my mother’s oldest friends, and we had a lovely time. All my life my mother’s death has been one of the things I have feared most. But actually, it has been fine.
In her new book, With the End in Mind, palliative care consultant Kathryn Mannix describes a conversation that changed her life. It was between a patient, Sabine, and her consultant. Sabine was nearly 80 and was wearing full makeup and a kaftan. On that kaftan, she wore the medal she was given for her role in the French resistance during the war, to remind herself, as she waited for cancer to eat away at what was left of her liver, that she “too can be brave”. Her biggest fear, she confessed one day, was that she would die in agony.
What followed, says Mannix, “has lived with me, as if on a cinema reel, for the rest of my career”. What followed was a conversation in which the consultant told Sabine, in calm, clear detail, exactly what she could expect. And at the end of it, Sabine picked up the consultant’s hand and drew it “to her lips”.
Mannix’s wonderful book is full of stories of people at the end of their lives. Some are young. Some are old. Most are scared of dying. But in the end, for most of them, death is not the painful end they fear. It is desperately hard, of course, for those who are left behind. But it often isn’t quite as hard as they fear.
There’s a famous study, now 40 years old, of lottery winners and people who had been in life-changing accidents. You’d expect the lottery winners to be ecstatic. You’d expect the people who lost the use of their limbs to be desperately depressed. The shock in the study is this: a year after their life-changing incidents, the accident victims reported slightly higher levels of happiness in their everyday activities than the lottery winners. The high of becoming a lottery winner didn’t last, but nor did the despair of becoming a paraplegic. It’s what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “the adaptation principle”. We humans, in other words, are an awful lot stronger than we think.
I’ve had cancer twice. It was horrible, but I’m alive. I’m strong. My neighbour is going through chemotherapy at the moment. She is, she told me over a cup of tea last week, enjoying the time off work. Every time I see her, she’s sporting a different, magnificent hat.
Brexit? Oh my God, Brexit. Trump? Oh my God, Trump. Who’s in, who’s out, who just resigned because of nasty tweets; who should have resigned because of crazy tweets; who just got shunted to a lesser, boring job? Does it matter? Sure, it matters, but sometimes it’s good just to take a step back and raise a glass to the damn fine humans we know, while they – and we – are still here.
• Christina Patterson is a writer, broadcaster and columnist