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Deathbed discussions

Greg Wise has been shot, drowned, hanged and stabbed in the course of his acting career.  But he has learned that his deaths on stage and screen are nothing like the real thing. Dying is usually gentle, quiet, and pretty dull according to palliative care consultant Kathryn Mannix who has seen upwards of 10,000 patients die in the course of her work. So began a conversation between Greg and Kathryn who, with their respective books, are helping to bring the subject of death and dying out of the shadows.

Greg Wise is a successful actor who put his career on hold to become full time carer for his sister, Clare, when her breast cancer spread to her bones. Their book, Not That Kind of Love (Quercus Books), consists of blogs written by Clare and then taken up by her brother in the last three months of her life.

Kathryn Mannix took early retirement to devote her life to easing people’s’ fears about death. Her book, With the End in Mind (HarperCollins), is filled with deathbed stories that are positive and reassuring. It is no accident that the paperback edition features a cup of tea on the cover.

The pair were in conversation with LBC Radio presenter, Shelagh Fogarty, in the first public event organised by The Art of Dying Well (artofdyingwell.org), an initiative based at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, west London. The discussion took place on 18 January at the university’s theatre, The Exchange.

All three speakers agreed that our uneasiness with talking about death is manifest when we avoid the “D” world and say someone has been “lost” or has “passed away”. Shelagh reflected that the Irish are much more comfortable talking about death, with small children attending wakes and funerals. Greg thought part of the problem is that most of us no longer live in strong communities. He said he was fortunate to have friends and family living close by who rallied round when his sister was ill. “It takes a village to help someone to die. People today die in industrial complexes called hospitals,” he says.

Shelagh described calls on her phone-in show from people traumatised because they had witnessed terrible deaths. Kathryn said this was because they had not been told what normal death looks like: “If someone has talked you through what happens when someone is dying and can say ‘do you remember that breathing I told you about? That’s what’s happening now.’ It sounds like the person is choking but, in reality, that person is deeply comatose and not suffering at all.”

She added it can help relatives to stay calm if the dying person has planned ahead and told them where they would like to die and also to have a plan B in case their chosen scenario is not possible. Later, she advised anyone facing terminal illness to think about how they organise Christmas to find their coping strategy.

But Greg’s sister, Clare, refused to make any plans, something he found frustrating: “People die as they have lived. Dying is not a separate thing. It is living still. So as people are dying they entrench. My sister lived her life in denial and she died in denial.” He said that Clare died a minute after he told her he loved her, that things had become too difficult and that she did not have to stay any more.

Dying after loved ones have given permission is quite common, said Kathryn Mannix. She had seen patients who should have died weeks earlier stay alive in order to hear important news, such as exam results or a baby’s birth, or who those die in the 30 seconds that loved ones are absent from their bedside.

The “permission to die” is not always taken. Kathryn related that when her maternal grandmother was dying, her mother told her she could “go now”. The dying woman replied: “Go where?”

During questions from the audience, a woman told of how a “soul midwife” was supporting her dying mother. Soul midwives and end of life doulas (a Greek word used to denote a companion or accompanier) are specially trained lay people who accompany individuals who are terminally ill. Kathryn Mannix said they perform a valuable role.

Afterwards, I asked Greg about his sister’s funeral given that she had left no instructions. He said: “I thought it essential to include those who were inside the first circle around her – that is her four closest female friends and my family. We realised that the funeral would either be seven of us or a few hundred, so decided on the former. I looked at various coffins at the funeral directors’, but none seemed appropriate for Clare, so I found in a catalogue a crazy ‘Disco Ball’ coffin. Everyone thought it fitting for my Disco Diva sis. She loved 80s disco!”


This feature first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Funeral Service Times

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