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.)

Walking with distress

Moving forward under our own steam on two legs is, in itself, an expressive thing. Look around as you move through the city or the country and you will see people doing it – using their bodies and expressing something about their actions, their direction – the stroller ambling along, the I’m late, I’m late followed by, or bumping into, the smart phone addict head down in a separate world, still checking social media on the way from one meeting to the next. But what’s happening with the inner voice? What past directions and journeys are being played in the inner self?

When I take people for a walk-and-talk session they are curious about how it might work. They are often stuck in life, distressed with it or perhaps bereaved. Inner symbols reveal as you walk: things we pass trigger memories, and the pace and openness of not being trapped within four walls help some very difficult thoughts to make their way out of the unconscious into the conscious realm. And, of course, nature and the environment makes itself very much part of the work. This might make sense as to why therapists so often use tree imagery on their websites. Sometimes a rabbit really is a symbol – vitality and rebirth are never far when you take therapy for a walk …

Read on for some of my free verse triggered by the walking therapy I offer.

Pace: on walking with distress

Walking, walking, walking. Pacing things through. We are in the world right now.

Talking, listening, watching. Right at the very edge of life. ‘I remember how my father laughed at me as we drove down the hill. I was about to shit my pants and he was laughing, crying with pleasure … at my distress.’

Concrete, gravel, turf, tarmac, the water at our side. ‘If you add the negative moments up and you add the neutral and the positive, you don’t get what you expect.’

Walking, marching, ambling, pausing, listening, watching. ‘The whole marriage is lost.’ Loving and losing, kissing and hating. Steps pass by as seconds rotate in time. [Again] ‘Were more of them good than bad?’

A courting couple in the back of a car cuts like a knife. Pace, control and then, then, there is just loss. ‘An intense toothache. Everyone knows toothache. Through the whole body, the mind, to quiddity.’

Walking, walking, walking, talking, talking, talking, listening, listening, listening. ‘We finally managed to break down the door but he was already dead, squashed against the back of it.’

If we looked over the bridge once, what would happen? Twice? Would a third time make the pain greater or lessen it? ‘Would you jump?’ How much would I remember of my story?

Moving, moving, now always moving. ‘It helps with the pain; it stops that claustrophobic tightness in my head.’ ‘Are these things in your head or are they in your body?’ The sensation of the cradle rocking, the soft, soft murmuring song before I fell asleep.

Pain, pain, pain, stabbing at the pith. Not needing to let go today, not quite rocked, not stepping away just yet. Step, mirror, step, mirror, step, walking, talking, listening, ‘expressing?’.

What does the body say? ‘A question? What does the body say?’ ‘Feel?’ ‘Say!’ ‘Oh look, a rabbit! Lots of them.’ ‘And the body?’ [Slowly] ‘L-o-o-k, t-h-e-r-e-’s a r-a-b-b-i-t-?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes.’

Walking, walking, walking, talking, talking, talking, listening, hearing, feeling, hearing?
‘Yes.’ Feeling? ‘Oh, look, another rabbit!’

***

I highly recommend taking therapy beyond the four walls of the consulting room out into the real world and seeing what happens for you. NB this idea makes many therapists anxious about controlling the situation and the space – but they can get help with that.

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 in 2019 at part of the Three Men with a Blog project.)