I recently went to an event at the people’s cinema in Palma, Cine Ciutat, organised by Dona Sana Feminista. Various clips of films showing different dying scenes were shown. The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro), based on the true story of a man who spent 28 years fighting for the right to end his life was shown as well as The English Patient, One True Thing and Whose Life is it Anyway.
The event, “La muerte forma parte de la vida” (death forms part of life), also heard the views on death and dying from two eminent and respected doctors. Dr Carlos Barra, member of the Spanish association Derecho a Morir Dignamente (the right to die with dignity), and Dr Enric Benito, senior consultant in palliative care and in charge of the Balearic palliative care units.
What struck me about the clips and the debate afterwards was firstly that the topic of death is everywhere. From Death Cafés taking place all over the world in which the subject discussed is death – my own participation in this has monthly meetings well attended here on the island – to end of life care, soul midwifery, green burials – it’s become a 21st century concern and a one that is changing perceptions everywhere.
Dr Barra talked about freedom of choice, democracy and dignity whilst Dr Benito talked about spirituality and transcendence almost promoting healthy dying. They agreed on dignity and that things need to change in terms of care and support as well as choices. I felt that whilst it is important that dignity and choice are paramount for people in moments of pain, what wasn’t discussed is how we live life. Dr Benito did touch upon this by suggesting that people die like they have lived. The room seemed to take an in breath at such a suggestion but I liked what he said.
What does that mean, to me? Choose a life of happiness is a start. Choosing relationships that allow me to grow, choosing to learn from challenging moments in my life, choosing good health over medication – the list goes on. I chose home births for my two boys. Why? Because I could. I had healthy pregnancies and I wanted them to be born to people they knew, in a setting that was calm, quiet and above all, stress free. I could have chosen a hospital birth with strangers, maybe the same doctor who would have seen me throughout my pregnancy might have been there. Along with bright lights, forms to fill out, questions to answer – but that wasn’t for me. My list of choices affects the education of my children preferring small and alternative to big and standard; my working habits at this age of my life have also been chosen with me in mind. In fact I have never been poorer financially as I am now, having chosen to give up a well paid job some years ago to forge ahead in a new direction – one that is satisfying, one that is helping others and one that fulfils me. When I die, I shall chose to die in a healthy way, whether I am ill or not.
I remember my good friend Rufus who died of cancer some years ago. He was well supported by his partner, my good friend Jo, and lots of friends besides. The weekend before his death, we friends gathered at his home to support him and Jo. We knew that Rufus wanted to die there and we wanted to respect his wishes as much as possible, but at the same time, this was a decision that affected Jo too. It was decided that he would go to Hospital Joan March, up near Bunyola, where they have a specialised, palliative care unit. He was admitted on the Saturday. The care there was excellent. It was attentive, it was peaceful, it was accommodating and it was filled with love and light. Over the next days, Rufus received many visits and Jo was supported at all times. Between the friends and the hospital staff, the end soon came. When I arrived there in the middle of the night a few minutes after Rufus had left his body, I entered a room with Jo at his side and a nurse in the background. I shall always remember her name – Consuelo (comfort) – and I shall always remember her, not for anything she said but for all that she did by being there, close to Jo to support her in that moment and allowing Rufus to go to sleep, forever.
I want to die like Rufus should ever I become ill. He was dignified whilst ill, conscious to the last whilst ill, medicated for the pain whilst ill and above all, alive and happy whilst ill. He never complained and I think his acceptance of what was going on in his life helped him. He died like he lived – as himself and with a greater wisdom and a dignity which was all his.