by Richard Darlington
from Signs of the Times No. 60 - Jan 2016
It is now more than a year since my wife, Elizabeth Darlington, died and I would like to share how the experience has been for me.
During May and June in 2014 I was getting more and more exhausted as Elizabeth became less able to do things for herself, such as getting dressed and getting ready for bed, and my having to tend her during the day with repeated bouts of her being sick.
We were also having to go to one hospital or another to get fluid drained or her nephrostomy bag tube unblocked. Elizabeth was also getting worried about how I was, as well as me about how she was - rarely in pain but a lot of awful discomfort and unable to do much because of feeling repeatedly sick.
I have since been to see her consultant about her being advised in January of 2014 to have palliative chemo treatment to reduce the likelihood of fluid building up without it being explained that an alternative was to have a permanent drain fitted to drain off the fluid, a procedure that is not done when having chemo because your immune system is compromised. The build up of fluid was one of the causes of her discomfort.
We had an expectation in the last weeks that McMillan nurses would be helping in addition to the District Nurses, but this did not materialise despite repeated calls and emails by me. So it was a great relief to both of us when Elizabeth was admitted into Dr Kershaw’s Hospice on 30 June. Some people fear hospices but in my view they shouldn’t. My memory of the two weeks we were there was a period of tranquility and peace and not just because responsibility was taken off my shoulders. You often hear people and their families say they want to die in their own home. I am quite sure Elizabeth had a more peaceful and happy end in the Hospice than she would at home, partly because she did not have to worry about me.
This gives me an opportunity to say how grateful I am to the hospice staff and for the stream of visitors who visited Elizabeth in the hospice, mostly from our church. Our daughter realised for the first time how strong a community we live in here.
In the year since, I have spoken to other bereaved partners and many have been shattered by their loss. I haven’t, even though I miss Elizabeth and find it difficult to acknowledge I will not see her again. But I have realised how helpful it was for us to be able to discuss with each other the whole issue of dying and what happens after death, both for her and for me, and to plan the funeral together. Even then, we found it difficult to time the planning of the funeral, thinking that was way into the future when in fact Elizabeth got to a point where her ability to contribute became limited more quickly than we expected. Even so I was ready and prepared for life after her death. We had also prepared the list of contact details that would be needed in the days after her death.
It was because of my experience that I attended a half day course in February on a new Church of England initiative to provide opportunities for people to talk about death through setting up GraveTalk Cafés (see Church Times, 15 May 2015 p.17, also the websites gravetalk.org and dyingmatters.org).
I quote from the Dying Matters website:
It’s not easy to think about your own funeral. Talking about death, dying and funerals raises big questions that we need to face at some point, but it’s hard to talk to family and friends.
The Church of England has been helping people think about these questions for centuries. GraveTalk is a café space, organised by a local church, where people can talk about these big questions. The conversation is helped along by GraveTalk conversation cards – 52 questions covering 5 key areas.
Events have been held in locations across the country, and people of all ages have gathered to talk and share their thoughts about death, dying and funerals. GraveTalk is a café - so there is always tea and cake.
(And I hope some savouries too for people like me who control their diabetes through diet!)
I have proposed we try Death Talk Cafés here and the idea is being picked up by the Saddleworth CoE Team and Churches Together in Saddleworth.
Many friends kindly ask how I am, and I am never quite sure if they are asking how I am in relation to my loss or just health wise. ‘Doing reasonably well’ is the short answer to both questions, though I have had four weeks of radiotherapy for prostate cancer recently. I obviously have my moments of sadness, but mostly I am getting on with life. which includes doing what I want to do without consultation - but there is the loss of companionship, of hugs and not being able to share thoughts and experience. I can choose what food to prepare but miss sharing it, and I miss not being able to show off my paintings at the local art class and to hear Elizabeth’s criticisms! I am aware I am getting older and my physical abilities are lessening, like no longer being able to clean out the house gutters.
One new activity was joining EFM (Exploring Faith Matters) last September which happens at our church on Wednesdays. My motivation was twofold, one was to continue the exploring of faith (or lack of it) that Elizabeth and I used to discuss, and the other was to get to know others at a deeper level than is usual with one’s acquaintances. I recommend it. 4
It is good to have Elizabeth’s concern for Fair Trade continuing through the Traidcraft stall under the care of a younger church family. Elizabeth was also keen on doing right things for the environment, like carrying in buckets of water from the rainwater butts to flush the loo pan, and she often bemoaned the amount of professional cut flowers on graves which she saw as bad for the environment, short lasting and, being aware how we need to help fund needy causes, a misuse of money. We agreed between us that we would have potted plants, if any at all, at our graves. Her grave in consequence has had a sequence of daffodils, tulips, a geranium and winter pansies all nurtured and potted in our garden.