I recall reading in a biography of Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement, that she had been struck by how many women were pioneering and influential in the care of the dying throughout the centuries.
This is something that I contemplate whenever I look at religious art depicting the women at the scene of the Crucifixion.
In his letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II wrote:
Indeed, the Gospels not only describe what that woman did at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper; they also highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission. John was the only Apostle who remained faithful, but there were many faithful women. Not only the Mother of Christ and “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” (Jn 19:25) were present, but “there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Mt 27: 55). As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles. In this moment of danger, those who love much succeed in overcoming their fear. Before this there were the women on the Via Dolorosa, “who bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Earlier still, there was Pilate’s wife, who had warned her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Mt 27:19).
It is interesting to consider the impact that art can have on the imagination and also on forming a person’s sensitivity to his or her role to play within a society.
Most of these daily posts contain my own musings. However, my intention with this blog is always to point to whatever is most beautiful and good in the culture and today that means pointing you to a wonderful short reflection by Dr. Alyssa Boyd. She is one of the co-founders of The Living Wish Foundation about which I wrote here.
Dr. Boyd is the medical director at a hospice and she recently wrote about what makes a good death:
I find myself constantly ruminating over this question and am regularly fascinated and surprised by the variations in responses that I see.
It is easy for me to say what a “good death” looks like from the comfort of the nurse’s station. The patient is peaceful and comfortable with family and loved ones by their side. Their final wishes have been honoured. They die quick enough that their loved ones don’t have to sit vigil for more than 48 hours but slowly enough that everyone has had a chance to say their goodbyes. Perhaps the only way my ideal scenario has evolved over time is the additional clause that “there are no COVID restrictions.”
But, that is my own bias. When you are sitting on the other side of the bed, all the above may seem like irrelevant platitudes, only visible as an outsider, as the family grieves through the worst days of their life. If I have learned anything in my musings around “a good death,” it is that I must constantly be open-minded to each family’s unique expectation and not point out anyone else’s silver linings.
Despite my attempts to shelve my own beliefs around this, I will confidently profess that yesterday I was given the gift of bearing witness to a TRULY good death.
Continue reading in Georgian Life Magazine, here.
I was interested to come across several news stories about a new documentary created by filmmaker Lorraine Price. The film tells the story of an 83-year-old woman named Kathleen Mahony who, as Price tells us, “volunteered to do hair and makeup for the terminally ill at the palliative care unit at Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal [for the past 31 years].”
Price was inspired to make the documentary in honour of her grandmother who had been a very classy and elegant woman. In this interview, Price reflects:
Her style was loud and unapologetic. But when my grandmother passed away in hospice care, on top of having dementia, she was barely recognizable to me—her hair was short and white, her nails nude, and her lips pale. It felt as though she was gone long before she left us. I was so absorbed by my grief and the desire to mitigate her suffering that I neglected to consider the importance of that outward-facing identity that she had cultivated her whole life.
I would love to see this documentary because we desperately need good examples of how to treat those who are approaching the end of life.
There is a universal, inherent dignity that is innate, yes. But there is also the matter of dignifying – we can add to a person’s dignity by bestowing honour, appreciation, and affection.
In another interview, Price remarked, “Kathleen doesn’t do their hair because these patients are dying. She does it because they are human and they deserve to feel dignified and like themselves even when they are at their most vulnerable.”
Kathleen’s service is precisely the kind of hidden work that will benefit our culture greatly by being brought into the light.
Never underestimate how much it can delight an author to hear from an appreciative reader.
On this date five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the author of a book I really enjoyed.
It was the day after I had attended the 2016 Templeton Prize Ceremony honouring Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks when I set off to Oxford to meet the author of a biography of another Templeton Prize winner, Cecily Saunders.
Saunders’ biographer Shirley du Boulay was in her early 80s. She had received my handwritten letter of approximately eight pages praising her for her beautiful biography of the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement in the U.K. and eventually sent me an email in reply.
Naturally, I was thrilled when she invited me to her Oxford home for tea should I ever be passing through.
I took a cab from the Oxford bus station to her address and arrived just before 1 o’clock.
I rang the bell and, a moment later, she answered.
As I followed her inside, she hurriedly began to prepare a light lunch even though I’d insisted on only coming for tea.
The table was set in a lovely manner and there was a bottle of rosé, meats, potato salad, green salad, bread, and butter.
The other day I was having a call with my aunt and godmother who is a hospice nurse in the U.S.
She had texted me to ask, “Have you talked about dying and food? How our bodies need less and less but families want to keep feeding the dying person? Food = Life = Love. It’s quite a psychological issue.”
I was interested to hear more from her about this, so I gave her a call.
She told me, “I have some patients who, if left on their own, wouldn’t eat. They would just stop eating and it’s not that they would be starving. It’s simply that their body doesn’t need the food anymore because they are approaching death. However, their loved ones worry they’ll starve and so they think that they must feed them.”
Sometimes hospice caregivers will spend an hour trying to feed someone a bowl of oatmeal or three hours trying to feed someone a shake, she told me.
My aunt expressed some frustration over this saying that is makes her wonder: “Why are you doing this? You’re forcing it.”
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “clinical” may denote “expressing no emotion or feelings” or “showing no character and warmth.” The sentence that is given to illustrate its meaning is this: “We were going to paint our kitchen white, but we decided that would look too clinical.”
Do you ever wonder why hospitals and doctor’s offices are so drab? Why does there seem to be so little attention paid to aesthetics? What impact does this have on doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors?
One day, Cecily Saunders, the British pioneer of modern-day hospice care, was “magnetically drawn” to an oil painting in a gallery window. She was so taken by it that she parked her car and entered the gallery moments before they were closing on the last day of the exhibition. Cecily Saunders moved eagerly from painting to painting. The blue Crucifixion had been the piece to catch her eye from the window, but the piece she impulsively chose to purchase was of ‘Christ Calming the Waters.’
The following day, she wrote the following to the artist, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko:
I didn’t know it at the time, but April 11th, 2015 marked my last visit with my last grandparent.
Joseph Achtman (Zaida) died two weeks later, and I am so grateful not only for my final visit with him, but also that I took the time to journal about our visit right after the fact.
Here is an excerpt from exactly what I wrote in April 2015.
One of this blog’s readers, Lisa Wright, reached out to me to share about the organization she co-founded called the Living Wish Foundation.
Lisa, who is an Registered Nurse specializing in palliative care, and her co-founders established the Foundation with the mission “to provide medically supervised and supported end of life wishes to patients in the region who are facing a terminal diagnosis.” They do this by granting wishes that enable patients to reframe hope so to enhance their quality of life until their death.
I was fascinated by this initiative, and delighted to interview Lisa by phone to learn more.
In particular, I wanted to hear from her about how granting wishes serves to “reframe hope.”
My aunt Danielle Hall (on the right) is a dual citizen who was born in Calgary and now lives and works as a hospice nurse in Chicago.
She traces her interest in working with the dying to when she was just five years old.
“I think how it started, when I reflect back, is that since my mother would often get headaches, she taught me how to rub her head to relieve them,” Danielle reminisced. “My mom would lay on the couch and I would stand behind her, rubbing her head with my fingers in circles around her forehead, and that’s when I first realized that I had a healing touch.”
Years ago, one cold December night, I approached St. Christopher’s Hospice in South London. Through the window, I could see several people getting seated around a table. I went to the main entrance and informed the receptionist that I was here for the Death Chat, and she pointed me toward the room that I had seen through the window.
Those who were there greeted me warmly. A man named Anthony was speaking and it was the opposite of small talk. After a few others had arrived, Kostas, a principal social worker in Social Work, Bereavement, and Welfare, facilitated the introductions.