I wonder how many of you watched BBC’s airing of a natural death last week.
Some people, I know, were put off by the tabloid press coverage. What a scandal. Shouldn’t be allowed. Death isn’t a spectator sport. That kind of reaction.
My take on this occasion is quite different. But then, I have been present at a considerable number of deaths.
Michael Mosley’s series Inside the Human Body has been positively awe-inspiring. In my teens and early twenties I poured over Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook not the TV series!) for hours together, and could recite lists of facts about the organs and tissues we all possess. Mesmerising – to me! Sad, eh? Sadder by far though, the sieve that has replaced my brain has allowed most of these facts to escape. However, I haven’t lost the amazement I felt then at how complex and wonderful each system is.
Mosley conveyed that sense of awe too. With his hugely magnified depictions of what goes in inside blood vessels and tissues, ovaries and brains, he revealed the mysteries and magic of a well-functioning body. Truly amazing stuff. And what a godsend for students today studying human biology, I thought enviously.
In the programme on 12 May he took us inside the respiratory system to see what happens as a baby takes it’s first breath, as it grows and the heart and lungs work tirelessly to sustain life every second of every day. I confess I held my own breath waiting for the baby we saw being born under water to emerge unscathed. (I was a midwife in a former life and there’s something nerve-wracking about merely observing and being powerless to intervene, but knowing things could go wrong.)
Anyway, in a discussion of respiration, what more natural event to include than the body taking its last breath? An altogether less anxious thing to observe, I found.
84-year-old Gerald had consented to his death being filmed. Why not? It was dignified and calm, he was at home in bed surrounded by his family. And it was perfectly natural – not assisted in any way. His end was only a few minutes of an hour-long programme and in the context of an entire process. What’s more, the presenter provided quietly tasteful commentary, afterwards remembering his own father’s death, whom he thought of with great affection every single day.
Given that I have sat alongside three dear people during their dying weeks, days and hours in the past nine months, I wondered how I would feel. The answer? Relief that death was portrayed so sensitively. And renewed gratitude for the legacy of wonderfully rich memories left to me by so many special people. Death is definitely not a spectator sport; it’s an intimate and private experience. But neither is it something to be feared or demonised. Well done, Mr Mosley, for getting it just right, say I.
Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. This week at least.
But one day they won’t be, and I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought to my forthcoming demise of late. Two people I know well are terminally ill right now and that does tend to concentrate the mind somewhat, I find. So forgive a rather more sober than usual reflection this week.
You don’t get to my age without knowing loss. My father died suddenly and dramatically – a heart attack on a bus. My sister-in-law died slowly from cancer. My mother died in steps and stages – a series of strokes and vascular dementia. All were sad experiences and all left the family diminished.
But when I think of how I’d personally like to go, then there’s a clear winner. I’d choose my father’s death (without the bus!) – retaining dignity, independence and enjoyment of life right up to the end, then a nice quick clean end. OK, I know it’s a shock for the family, but it’s a great way to go for the ’victim’. And I’m talking about the victim – me.
Why this navel gazing? This week’s newspaper headlines. I spend time every week with people with dementia, and my recent experience with my mother is still very vivid in my mind, so of course, I pricked up my ears at the big print a few days ago: Britain faces dementia catastrophe …
People now fear dementia more than cancer or even death.
Were you surprised by this? I wasn’t. There’s something particularly harrowing about watching someone you love lose their connection with the world and you. Seeing them behaving in ways they’d be horrified by if they knew. Fearing they have a glimmer of insight. Knowing it’s all downhill. Of course, I know there are wonderful people out there doing amazing things to capitalise on the positive, minimise the negative. And I salute them. But dementia is still a distressing disease. And the statistics are scary.
‘One in three pensioners will die with it.’
‘A million people will suffer from it within two decades.’
‘Twelve times as much is spent on cancer research as on research into dementia.’
‘There are six times as many scientists working on the treatment of cancer.’
‘As many as a third of people who develop dementia are never formally diagnosed, and without a diagnosis they aren’t receiving the services to which they are entitled.’
The facts were spread all over the papers.
It’s a massive and increasing problem. And it’s scaring people rather like the threat of HIV/Aids did back in the 80s and 90s. Only none of us can hide from this particular threat. It isn’t affecting specific groups; it’s lying in wait for any one of us regardless of class or wealth or lifestyle. You can’t buy yourself out of this one. You can’t insure against it. You can’t put yourself outside of its reach by any means except perhaps dying very young. Or committing suicide.
Funding cuts are threatening to reduce spending in the neurosciences (that includes research into dementia and mental illness) by £4 million. But Alzheimer’s Research UK has launched a special appeal for public response to increase investment in this cause. Because the world still isn’t taking enough notice of this massive problem. Is it because so much of the tragedy is played out behind closed doors, I wonder? Sir Terry Pratchett thinks so. And he’s got a vested interest in this.
How sad is that? Sigh.
Me? I’m off to chop things very, very small!