Dying matters – to everyone. Of the two ‘certainties in life – death and taxes’, we may not like taxes, but very few of us are foolish enough to ignore them. Yet a new study, commissioned by the Dying Matters Coalition to coincide with Dying Matters Awareness Week (14-20 May 2012), tells that although more than half of Britons have been bereaved in the last five years and a third think about dying and death weekly, discussing dying and making end of life plans remain a taboo for many people, including doctors.
In 2009, I co-authored the book The Welcome Visitor with the broadcaster John Humphrys. It was a labour of love which had taken us over five years to write. Our motives for wanting our voices heard on the subject were very different. John had watched his father die a terrible death and was desperate to raise public awareness about the issues surrounding assisted dying. I had watched many patients die in my 20 years as a GP, and all too often had seen them die in hospital, distressed, confused and surrounded by strangers. My passion was just to make people talk about death.
80% of people say they want to die at home – in practice, 80% don’t. These days, most people don’t drop dead suddenly, meaning that most have time to prepare for their passing. It is absolutely possible to have a ‘good death’ – my mother, I have no doubt, would have described hers as exemplary. The difference between my mother and the many patients I have watched die badly is that we - her family and doctors - knew exactly what she wanted.
She wanted to die at home, surrounded by her family, and she did exactly that. Because we had been open about her impending death, we were able to plan ahead, putting medical equipment and pain relief in place at home, keeping our nerve when we might have called an ambulance. There was no crisis, no panic, no sudden realisation that we had no idea what she wanted for her funeral when it was too late to ask her.
But planning takes time – there are thousands of dedicated nurses and doctors working in the NHS who have the desire, and the resources, to help people die well. But one person’s good death is another’s nightmare – we all need to think, and talk, about how we want to die.
We Britons are not stupid and we do know it’s good to talk - 78% of the public and 88% of GPs agree that if Britons felt more comfortable discussing dying, death and bereavement it would be easier to have our end of life wishes met.
Burying our heads in the sand is not going to make dying go away – but it might just deprive us of a peaceful end, and our families of those precious final happy memories.
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