Planning for the unthinkable

My friend called me from the hospital – they had found the source of the strange flecks in her vision. There was a tumour in her brain which was swiftly removed but there were metastases. She had had a wakeup call. Could I come by and help her write her living will?

Patricia was a supersmart, savvy financial director of a charity, mother of a sixteen-year daughter and married to Paul, her devoted husband. I knew her as a fellow meditator, but more as someone who was always ready to come into action to help organise stuff. She wasn’t the type to spend endless hours on her meditation cushion but her attitude and outlook on life were that of a meditator – someone who sees the flow and humour in life. Everything she did had a light touch and a realism at the same time.

As she lay in that hospital bed, she shared with me that she realised that, whatever was going to happen to her in the coming months, she needed to prepare herself for death. Nothing else was as important as that.

Eventually, she was able to go home and as she recovered from the surgery, we were able to sit down and write down all her medical and spiritual wishes. Who she would like to have around her if she were dying, what kind of atmosphere they should try and create for her, what she would like to be reminded of so that her mind would be calm and relaxed. We talked about what would disturb her and what would bring her peace. About saying goodbye to friends and family, staying at home or in a hospice, how all this fitted with what her daughter and husband needed. It was a relief to know that there was a plan for the unthinkable.

Months later, when it became clear that the unthinkable was going to happen, Patricia’s living will became a guide, an instruction manual for her care. Many things worked out differently than she had planned for but having the plan meant that we knew how to navigate according to her wishes. Her husband was calm, knowing that we had worked out what to do every step of the way. Carrying out her wishes became almost like a meaningful ritual, a precious channel and focus for all the love and care he and the family showered on her.

Patricia eventually passed away at home. As she had wished, we shared her last reminders for the moment of death so that her final thought could be of her spiritual practice. She died utterly peacefully, without need for painkillers or sedation.

Many things about Patricia’s last weeks and days made a deep impression on me – her calm and focus on her spiritual practice and the fact that she needed very little emotional support from us. She was clear about what was happening to her and how she wanted to be when she died. Even the district nurses who visited commented that they weren’t used to seeing someone be so calm and well prepared. What stayed with me most, however, was how much comfort it brought her husband to look back and know that he had carried out her wishes in the best possible way. He had created the loving, peaceful atmosphere around her that she needed in order to let go. Their daughter could be part of that environment and see that her mother’s death, although heartbreakingly sad, was nothing to panic about. Even two years later, despite his grief and sadness, his gratitude for all of this was overflowing.

When we prepare for the unthinkable, the experience of illness, death and loss can utterly transform.

Picture of Annie Birken

Annie Birken

Met het aanbod van CareSpace heb ik één grote wens: dat iedereen de ondersteuning en tools mag hebben om met verlies, ziekte en sterven om te kunnen gaan.

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