Dying Twice

This year, and for the first time, the anniversary of my father’s death some years ago passed by without me remembering …

It had been a short drive to the nursing home my father had moved to eight days previously. My wife and I had been his primary carers for close to a decade but when, fourteen weeks earlier, he had fallen and broken his hip, his move away from his home and into the healthcare system sparked in him a serious decline. There was also a touch of guilt at the freedoms his move was affording to us.

As we neared the care home, an ambulance on an emergency call passed us. A minute later we drew up behind it and a paramedic vehicle already parked at the home. My wife said to me, ‘It’s for your father.’ I winced; I felt her to be right.

As we strode down the corridor of the second floor suite in which my father had taken residency, a member of staff addressed us: ‘Are you here to see Brian?’

‘Yes,’ we both smiled.

There was already a temporal shift occurring – odd, I thought, no one has addressed us in such a way before. A nurse blocked our path to my father’s room: ‘You’re Brian’s relatives?’ Somehow, in a moment, we were all in her office. My wife looked pale: ‘You’d better sit down Mrs Stafford.’ But there was a dreadful tension and confusion in the space. With my psychotherapist’s hat on I honed in on the emotion – there was huge anxiety being broadcast from this experienced nurse. After a few words she left us saying, ‘I’ll just check on your father’s condition.’ It hit my wife and me at the same moment and we rushed along the corridor.

Bundling into my father’s room we saw a paramedic ‘shouting’ at the prone and half naked figure: ‘Come on Brian … stay with us.’ My father’s chest heaved in physical distress as a bag covered his mouth and another medic prepared to shock him. His skin had the waxy hue and paleness I’d seen on my mother as she passed away.

In the small living space that had become my father’s whole world the paraphernalia of modern emergency support was strewn all around. My wife was first to enunciate her horror: ‘What are you doing this for?!’

For several weeks in three separate medical establishments my father, despite his communication difficulties caused by a stroke some years earlier, had made himself understood – he wanted to die. For the long years before he broke his hip my wife and I had cared for my father, it had been difficult to watch his almost daily decline; he had been a proud, principled and independent man, a teacher and an artist. At eighty, long overdue, he become a published poet. Difficult as it was to watch, we respected that this was a man fading out at his own request. And yet here we were, thrust into the most terrible of moments – a man who wanted to die being forced back into a world he no longer had an interest in. Our protestations that my father be allowed to pass away brought yet more tension into the room. The ‘shouting’ stopped, but our fourteen weeks of frustrations at the NHS care system were too much for me and my wife.

In counterpoint we made our cases aloud to the six medics about respect and civilised treatment. But apparently, my father’s DNR (do not resuscitate) wishes had not been recorded in the requisite manner. Procedure and regulation were in the way of care and welfare, and overrode my father’s desires.

For his entire adult life, my father voted for a system that respected people, treated them well; a welfare state, a national health service, free at the point of need – one of the marks of a civilised and mature society. Those entrusted to administer NHS continuing healthcare had already attempted piracy with his rights and, now, these paramedics were clearly having to apply procedure rather than the human care they so obviously wished to dispense.

My father was being denied his wish to die peacefully and with respect. This was a system seeking to revive him so that it might take him back to a hospital he had already refused to be taken to, in order that he could ‘die’ once more, probably on a trolly in a corridor in A&E.

Before all was lost, the senior paramedic took control and through several different stages and conversations that involved myself and my father’s GP the paramedics were allowed to ‘withdraw’. And then the room was quiet and my father once more calm. His beloved radio could be heard in the corner of his room and death once more began to claim his body. Peacefully and with us as comforters for his passage he was able to complete his life, with respect and dignity.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited. (This article was originally published on Three men with a blog in 2018.)

The Zen of Frank

As a student in the 1980s I had a Critical Analysis teacher who rarely turned up on time for lectures …

In fact, he often didn’t turn up until the very last moments of a session but always managed to hush his students’ chorus of criticism by turning the negative comments back on his accusers. 

In his first term of teaching me, I was as indignant as any other student. But as the months went by I observed his behaviour. With his educational conjuring, this quiet and charismatic man began to gain more and more of my attention. It seemed to me that Frank wasn’t skiving or avoiding teaching; he was watching us individually and as a class – sometimes from a vantage point elsewhere in the college. He enquired of us why it was we wasted the time he was ‘giving us’. Why did we ‘generally loaf around, smoke in doorways or hang out of windows’, especially as there was obviously so much still to learn?

It was the final term of the first year before Frank began to attend as many classes as we, his students, did. Several of us were still some way off working with the set texts our course was supposed to be about. And yet those same classmates were now engaged in infantile battles with Frank over whether he really did know the meaning of every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from memory, he was never foiled). 

Youth and naivety potentially led us to waste a lot of our time along with projecting onto others the blame for our individual lack of performance.

The last time I saw Frank was, appropriately, a few moments before I left college for the final time. It was a hot summer’s day – the sort many small boys enjoy because of the huge numbers of flying ants building up to their nuptial flight. As I walked through the gates and headed for my motorbike, I caught a glimpse of Frank kneeling on the ground observing insects with more of an amused look of a young boy than a 60 year-old man.

I ambled over to him and we began to converse. A few sentences in, I delighted in telling him that I thought I’d probably learned more from his non-lessons than I had from all my other subjects combined. He smiled, and I continued: ‘And I think I understand what you were trying to do for us. It was all about taking responsibility for our own actions, doing our own work, seeing things how we see them and making use of that knowledge.’

I stopped and smiled back at him. He put out his hand, I accepted it, and we shook with vigour. ‘Keep thinking; keep watching; keep looking,’ he said. He turned away and got back down on his knees to continue his insect observation.

Almost 40 years on from the lessons of Frank, I suppose he will certainly have passed on from this mortal coil. However, his facilitating approach hasn’t. The unconventional methods deployed during those Critical Analysis lessons would be impossible to use in a teaching role this century – and yet from a therapeutic chair they still look deeply valuable. Frank’s style was rooted in creating informed, personal growth. For some of us at least, the approach lay good grounds for the development of complex grey thinking in a world of blacks and whites, but there was much more in it than that. 

These days, when Frank crosses my mind during a session I can be pretty certain that the work of growth is deeply in play – the focus in those moments will so often have turned towards becoming truly, richly, deeply the person they were looking to become before everything else got in their way. Frank didn’t appear to care for the ego of attribution of knowledge, only that you learn and find the things you need for your journey. But once in a while I like to mention his name, to tell others of a great teacher who has stayed with me – as relevant in therapy as he was in the arts. 

(This article was originally published on Three Men With a Blog.)

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The transient existence of meaning and belonging

Connection200

The transient existence of meaning and belonging

29 June 2016

The midsummer light has finally faded around the edges of the blinds and I am sat within 3 metres of two of the most beautiful voices imaginable. As the climax of the final piece fades and the last statement of the main theme rolls from the trumpet bell, it is possible to anticipate what is about to happen within the venue. Almost in slow motion an eruption of connectedness pushes forth as cheers, shouts and bellows for an encore assault the very oxygen of St George’s concert hall, Bristol. The Unthank sisters, singers of extraordinary presence and warmth, are clearly moved by the reception, and for a few minutes I know I am truly alive – in the moment with every one of the 500 humans emoting in the space.

It is several hours before I can settle, but as I drift off to sleep I am already beginning to think about The Unthanks experience in terms of the wider psychology of human beings. I realise that the gig, and my weekend visit to my home city of Bristol, was about meaning and belonging. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, put forward the idea that humans are driven to find meaning in life.

While many men and women naturally discover meaning, our perception of how much of it we have and/or need appears rather variable and subjective. From the therapist’s chair I witness that believing one’s life lacks meaning is correlated tightly with a number of negative mental health issues including stress, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. Conversely, through therapy I see that people often find their pathway to meaning, which brings with it positive inner feelings and good mental health.

Research frequently focuses on meaning and belonging in connected ways. Social bonds and attachments are clearly tied to this research and are undoubtedly important for humans – so much so that, at certain points, our very survival is predicated upon it. Men and women commonly associate their social relationships as something that creates meaningfulness in their lives, and this is reported in several pieces of research. However, this view of meaning and belonging invariably leads us too often to understanding these issues in relational terms only.

It seems to me that there are other important ways of finding and internally holding our connections of meaning and belonging as a human being. It might be no surprise that I put forward the idea that the arts are one way in which we might build such a sense of belonging and meaning in life; that said, there is also the need for being part of ‘tribes’ whether they are found in sport through supporting a team or the simple acknowledgement of where one comes from … And here I am back with the Unthanks’ songs, deeply rooted and evocative of a culture and geography.

Fast forward to a wet Monday morning. The weekend has ebbed but the music, art and culture of my home city has filled me with a sense of meaning and belonging. Although I must return to Cambridge, it is my connection with my tribe in the West that helps me fully to understand exactly who I am. Beyond the more normal way of viewing meaning and belonging within relationships, I recognise that I have both these things dynamically alive within an internal map of connections built across time, culture and geography, and however present but transient artistic and cultural experiences of meaning and belonging might be, I realise the richness, depth and importance of its touch on people’s lives.

Why not read: Crying has an upside – for men and women alike

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.