Hazel McHaffie

A time to die

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.

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