Having the best life we can is something many of us desire and work towards. How we, or our loved ones, can die as well as possible is something many think less about.
A month ago we lost a very dear family member to heart failure. It is hard to write about still. In truth I have found it hard to write at all over recent weeks. However there is so much to learn from everything that happens and there are some positives to share from this experience which may help others.
My mother-in-law Chris was an incredible woman. She was one of the kindest people I have ever met. She hadn’t had an easy life, but she faced both life and her impending death with grace, courage and acceptance.
This post is a tribute to how she handled the situation she found herself in, but there are three key elements that allowed her to do so:
The cardiologist communicated very clearly about her prognosis and, to the best of his knowledge, what she could expect at diagnosis and all along. It was a shock for Chris at first, but it was the start of her coming to terms with her shortened life expectancy and to consider and communicate her wishes. As her condition became end-stage, she was not surprised and had most things put in place.
2. Palliative Care.
As a family we had experienced together how much palliative care can help in the past and Chris welcomed a timely referral. Palliative care is not just for cancer. There is much available to assist people with end of life chronic disease. The combination of expert care to help ease unpleasant symptoms, in this case particularly severe breathlessness, and the mobilisation of extra help at home made a huge difference to her quality of life over her final few months. It also allowed us to spend more quality time with her, as she was more comfortable and able to do a little more than she would have without treatment.
3. An Advance Health Directive.
The benefits of making an Advance Health Directive or a “living will” were at least two-fold. Firstly, her wishes were clearly articulated and helped us as her family understand what she wanted. Secondly when she had an unexpected sudden turn and an ambulance was called, the paramedics were given the Directive as soon as they came and were able to act in line with her wishes, as legally obliged to do so. There was no grey area. Without it, she may have been given CPR and carted off to hospital, both of which she explicitly did not want.
Our loss is still painful. We each regret that she had to die and we all miss her terribly. Because she had a sudden deterioration on the background of a slower decline, we didn’t get to say good-bye in the way we might have liked. But we can grieve knowing that she knew and had accepted that her life was ending and that the way she died was as she had expressed she wanted – peacefully at home, dignified with a minimum of fuss and with a quick final departure.
The key lessons to achieving a better death from our experience:
- I encourage everybody to be open to having conversations around death. What may seem uncomfortable for some can bring enormous comfort.
- In addition to this, I ask my colleagues in the health professions to clearly communicate, to offer early referral to palliative care and to provide information about Advance Health Directives (or your equivalent).
Would you like to share anything about your experience of losing a loved one?
What did, or could have, made the journey better?
You also may find inspiration from my posts on Imagine yourself in someone else’s hospital bed (or chair), The best cuppa ever about kindness or an earlier exploration of Where health and creativity intersect.
With best wishes for your creative health and that of our community.
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© 2014 Jacquie Garton-Smith
(updated 4 May 2014)