Updated: Jun 19, 2019
My dear friend Nell had been dying for the last 4 years.
Following an initial diagnosis of bowel cancer with liver mets she met the criteria to be considered at "end of life". At any stage during those years if someone had asked me the surprise question, I would not have been surprised if she had declined and died within any 12 month period, yet enjoyed holidays, family parties, the birth of a grandson and numerous other memory making moments during that most precious time. We did not talk death every day and there were days we pretended we were not on this path. However as she lay in her hospice bed gently dying I was shocked by the intensity of my own feelings of devastation at the reality that she was actually leaving us. Nell had been with me throughout my nursing career, she had been the first inspirational woman I had met in nursing the SEN on the care of the elderly ward I worked on for a year before nursing school, My first role model, she was a happy professional and compassionate (but often crazy) northern lass who made such a positive impact on patients and families. Her example was always as a compassionate leader, she led shifts on that ward and managed staff and patient care with competence, confidence in her practice and above all she showed everyone kindness , her example has underpinned my practice throughout my long career, she provided an anchor, a safe place to check out situations and off load, a place where logic and common sense prevailed, or it seemed that way, Nell was never a person to follow the crowd, or to tell you if she believed you were in the wrong, but you knew her integrity was everything and if you were in the right she would stand beside you through anything. She was a tough cookie, Who survived surgery and chemo and decided herself when she no longer wanted to continue with the chemo choosing quality of life over quantity.
I had supported so many people and families through this experience yet in my personal life, death of a loved one had always been a sudden event with no time to plan or imagine the world without that person. The death of Nell, my Nell was a whole different experience, We had time to talk, to laugh and to cry, Nell remained in control even up to those last laboured breaths during which my heart physically ached, I could not cry as I had promised myself I'd be strong and support everyone else, that's what good friends do, ignore their own grief and care for their friends family in their suffering, this seems especially true when your a nurse. as I watched her adult children supporting their mum make her final journey, supporting her every inch of the way, doing it Nell's way. I wanted to run, run and not stop until I could find a bed and a duvet to pull over my head and pretend this wasn't happening. Of course I didn't run I stayed and supported my friend and her family, I washed her hands and face, stroked her hair and held her hand and told her how much I loved her and how knowing her had enriched my life. If they say it takes a village to raise a child, I believe it takes a community, a unit of compassionate people (n0t necessarily family) to support a person towards a good death.
The ability to provide some elements of care for someone you love as they are dying is so understated, yet, for me, that's what gives comfort and is cathartic in helping the healing start. Even as she died my Nell still had lessons to teach me, The importance, the necessity to care for those we love, (note to self to support families to do those things for the person who is dying) those little things that make the big differences, to comfort, to wash, to bathe, to hand hold, but mostly to recognise that we are human and its that human connection, the being alongside that gives comfort at the end of life to both the dying and those of us left behind,