Life, But Not As We Knew It

Contemplating end of life is beyond difficult, even though it’s one of life’s main certainties - that and taxes. Funnily enough, I remember my Mum talking to my Dad about their impending council tax bill (she was reminding him that it needed paying!) before she was admitted to St. Michael’s Hospice. How ironic, I thought to myself.

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Our darling Virginia, devoted wife to my father, Michael and beloved mother to my dearest younger sister, Katie, and I, was an energetic and vivacious 60 year old the year she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. After suffering with a constant, nagging back pain, which we all initially put down to her love of gardening, a stint in hospital, followed by various tests confirmed our worse fears. Incurable cancer. We didn’t see it coming. Who does?

Throughout her sixteen-month fight, the highs and lows, we all kept the ‘end’ as far out of our thoughts as possible. Even when we knew that things weren’t great, we tried to remain positive. You can’t lose hope. It’s the one thing we can all cling onto. It’s inherent, part of our human spirit, to look for the good in all things.

Sadly, three weeks after my sister’s wedding, Mum took a turn for the worse. This time it was different. We all knew this wasn’t a blip. It was the dreaded time: the beginning of the end.

After many discussions, both amongst ourselves and the Hospice at Home team, Mum thought the best place for her was at home. My father lovingly handcrafted a wonderful new bedroom for her and she was fortunate enough to love every aspect of their home; so it seemed like a fitting place to be when the time came.

However, as her disease progressed, none of us knew the full extent to which ‘the end’ would trial us all, both physically and emotionally, especially Virginia. On Friday 17th January, Mum decided, with the help of our fantastic community nurse, to be admitted into St. Michael’s Hospice. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t initially concerned about Mum being out of our care. Throughout Mum’s illness, my father, sister and I were 100% committed, honoured and privileged to care for Virginia. She was, is and will forever remain the centre of our family and universe so it was very difficult to hand over someone so precious.

However, we soon realised that St. Michael’s Hospice was an exceptional place, full of exceptional people. It was a safe haven for Mum… and us. A place she could receive instant medical assistance and be surrounded by experts, all in a truly private, comfortable and homely manner. It also gave us the special opportunity to revert to our lifelong roles of husband and daughters, knowing that professionals were fully committed to the day-to-day, all-encompassing, caring aspect. It gave us the precious gift of time; being able to hold hands, just sit and reminisce with our wonderous Virginia.

The reality of death is a stark and desolate place, yet somehow St. Michael’s transforms this reality into a safe, surprisingly warm environment. Our family could remain by her bedside 24/7 and take turns to sleep in a bed beside Mum that was covered in a lovingly handmade quilt; we could nourish our weary selves with a non-stop supply of delicious cakes, tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

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Virginia found peace on Sunday 26th January 2014 with Dad, Katie and me by her side. Shortly after her passing, a very special nurse dressed Mum and laid a rose, her favourite flower, on her pillow. Albeit we had our own initial reservations about Mum leaving our family home, we all now wholeheartedly agree that Mum could not have spent her last days anywhere more safe, peaceful and reassuring. Admittedly, when staring death in the face, it’s hard to look elsewhere, however a word that Mum kept repeating, over and over throughout her stay at St. Michael’s still lingers with us today. “Lovely”. And that it truly is. Its people. Its staff. Its values. Its mere existence.

Natalie Claveria